Respond to What Paintings Need

Mary Sipp-Green bases her oil landscapes on sketches, memories, and imagination, and she makes careful notations about color combinations that capture her feelings about a particular time and place. Nevertheless, there is a point in the creative process at which she has to “get out of the way” and let the painting suggest the best ways for it to be finished successfully.     

by M. Stephen Doherty

Rosy Twilight
2008, oil, 36 x 50. Courtesy
Wally Findlay Galleries,
Palm Beach, Florida.

No matter how much planning goes into the process of starting a painting, there is a point when artists have to put aside their preconceived notions and respond to what is actually happening on the canvas. Sometimes the changes taking place are encouraging, and other times they are not leading to a realization of the artist’s original intentions. When a new direction is called for, artists often say the painting has spoken to them and asserted its own priorities.

After more than 25 years of painting, Massachusetts artist Mary Sipp-Green still finds that each new painting she creates presents a different set of challenges, some of which can only be resolved when she “gets out of the way” and lets the picture speak to her. “I was fortunate to grow up in a family of creative people, and I learned the skills of drawing and painting at an early age,” she explains. “But it wasn’t until I met Bessie Boris (1917–1993) and Leo Garel (1917–1999), two distinguished artists who happened to live nearby, that I really found my own personal, expressive, and individual voice as an artist. One of the many important lessons they taught me was to think of painting as something more than simply reporting on what one observes. Instead, artists have to respond intuitively to the needs of a painting. This means giving up some measure of control and being willing to pursue the unanticipated directions that suggest themselves as the painting’s colors, shapes, spaces, and tensions begin to emerge and acquire a life of their own. This is one way to think of that ‘inner voice’ that an artist must come to trust if he or she wishes to transform, rather than merely record, what he or she witnesses. The end product may well look very different from the artist’s original intention, but the work will have become expressive in an almost organic way. Throughout the years that I have been painting in this manner, this ‘voice’ has become my guiding principle and has led me to develop a style that I feel I can call my own.

Twilight in the Berkshires
2008, oil, 35 x 64. Courtesy
Wally Findlay Galleries, Palm
Beach, Florida.

“I spend a lot of time considering potential subjects, sketching and making notes about what I observe, testing out color combinations, making small oil studies, and evaluating compositional sketches,” Sipp-Green explains. “However, until I experience the process of building layers of oil colors on a large canvas, I don’t know for sure if the composition will work, whether or not the colors and brush marks will create a sense of the mood and atmosphere. My studio is filled with paintings in various stages of development because it helps to put them aside for a while and then go back to them with fresh perspective. That bit of distance is often what allows me to ‘dialogue’ most freely with the painting; the demands of a given composition become clearer, and I am able to proceed with confidence.”

The specific procedure Sipp-Green follows is to start with rough graphite sketches of landscapes she remembers or has observed, most of which are annotated with comments about the name of the town, the date and time, the direction of the light, the topography, the weather conditions, and the color relationships. The drawings are made in spiral sketchbooks of varying sizes, all of which are kept in a wicker basket in her studio. They are identified by the location—Martha’s Vineyard, the Berkshires, Tuscany, and Normandy, for example. Sipp-Green can flip back through the pages and quickly recall where she was and what was most significant about the location. Sometimes a forgotten sketch grabs her attention, and she thinks about using it as the basis of a painting, and other times she goes searching for recorded ideas that might be developed into paintings for a scheduled exhibition.

Hot Summer Day
2008, oil, 35 x 64. Courtesy
Wally Findlay Galleries, Palm
Beach, Florida.

With the sketches laid out on a worktable in her new studio in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, Sipp-Green tests out various color combinations that might help her give form to the image in her mind’s eye. “It’s a little like improvisational music; the ground is the melody—the starting point from which to explore themes, modes, structures, and tones. The instruments are layers of paint, the relationships of color, texture, and form that both arise from and transform the mood set by the ground.”

Sipp-Green evaluates color combinations on scraps of wood provided by the carpenter who makes her painting panels. One panel might be uniformly toned with a warm golden color, and another might be coated with a transparent salmon tone. When those are dry, the artist paints various thin layers of blues, greens, or reds to evaluate the visual interaction between complementary or analogous color combinations. Another swatch of color might later be applied, with each pigment being identified by written notes on the test panel. Most of the color combinations are suggested by the landscapes Sipp-Green has observed, but she is also receptive to appealing color combinations in nature. For example, she was intrigued by the colors inside a seashell and used those in a painting, and she was dazzled by the intense colors in a daylily and worked those into another oil painting. “I’m always observing the patterns, textures, light, colors, and shapes in nature, and I’m just as likely to be inspired by something I pick up on the ground or see out of the corner of my eye as by a vast stretch of land,” she explains.

Once Sipp-Green has decided on the appropriate hues, intensities, and layers of color for a landscape, she tones the surface of a panel coated with several sanded layers of acrylic gesso and blocks in the basic composition with a thin application of paint. “That gives me a quick indication of the composition,” she explains. “Typically, I like to have the color of the sky establish the overall tone of the painting, so I begin at the top of the panel and work my way down. I allow that to dry, and then I go back to further define the buildings, trees, fields, roads, and streams with additional thin layers of color. Sometimes I brush on thick applications of oil color when I need a contrast of densities, but most of the time I allow each of the layers to remain translucent enough to influence the appearance of the others.”

Quiet Dawn at Quitsa
2008, oil, 36 x 50. Courtesy
Wally Findlay Galleries, Palm
Beach, Florida.

Contrast is a word Sipp-Green uses frequently when she talks about painting. “There is a dynamic tension that is, I believe, essential to all art, and this is as true of painting as it is of literature, cinema, or the performing arts,” she explains. “Tension is necessary for the transformation of what might otherwise be a static representation. It’s a way of turning a pleasantly decorative image into a dynamic, vital form of expression. It is also a key element of how visual artists approach composition: Painters balance warm and cool colors, sharp contrasts and subtleties, horizontal and vertical thrusts, near and distant forms, and lost or found edges. Part of the process is determining how to balance those options. If a color is too hot, I make it cool; if an edge is too hard, I make it soft; and if a shape recedes too far into the distance, I bring it forward. Again, that’s part of the dialogue between me and the painting.”

Safety is another issue that concerns Sipp-Green, and she designed her new studio to minimize the potential hazards from solvents, varnish, and mediums. “Like many artists, I became concerned about the potential impact of the materials on my health and the environment,” she explains. “I switched from using turpentine to Gamsol solvent. For my medium I use sun-thickened linseed oil with a small amount of Gamsol. I clean my brushes with baby oil, soap, and water; I built high ceilings in the studio to increase the volume of air, and I designed a separate, ventilated room where I could apply varnish to my finished paintings and leave them there to dry thoroughly without allowing the fumes to enter my workspace.”

Clearly Sipp-Green gains valuable insights about her paintings when she responds to the way they are developing rather than to the way they confirm her original intentions. Her landscapes engage viewers by allowing them to drift into the space, experience the light and atmosphere, become tantalized by the veils of color, and reflect on similar places and times that have punctuated their own lives. Her paintings present what the artist has felt and observed, but they also remind viewers of similar experiences.


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About BrianRiley

Brian Riley is the managing editor for the American Artist family of titles (American Artist, Watercolor, Drawing & Workshop) and has been part of the AA team since 2003. He first became interested in art as a child, specifically drawing, but drifted away from the visual arts as he grew older, gravitating towards writing while in college. His position at AA has offered him the opportunity to reinvigorate his early passion and continue his education.  

5 thoughts on “Respond to What Paintings Need

  1. Muna: I think this is a case of reproductions not adequately conveying the real sense of a painting. I saw Mary’s painting in her new studio in Stockbridge, Massachusetts and I became totally absorbed by the colors and atmosphere. It didn’t surprise me to learn that she sells a lot of her paintings through three galleries. People who see the oil paintings fall in love with them.

  2. I’ll take your word on it Steve, thanks for the response. I love the play of colors and the fact that she draws her inspiration from nature, like the inside of a seashell.

  3. In the May 2009 issue of American Artist , we featured work by
    Mary Sipp-Green, an artist who bases her oil landscapes on sketches,
    memories, and imagination. Here, we present artwork we were unable to
    fit in the print article.