Acrylic: Emily Cameron Pressly: Recalling a Total Experience With Acrylic Paints

0704pres3_448x600_1In her acrylic paintings, Emily Cameron Pressly creates comprehensive records of her experiences, emotions, and observations by working from her impression of a subject rather than from direct observation.

by M. Stephen Doherty

When I paint our garden, I want to express the fact that my husband and I dug the soil, planted and fed the flowers, nurtured them for months, and watched their daily development,” explains Louisiana artist Emily Cameron Pressly. “I can’t express all that by painting the plants as they appeared at one moment in time. I have to go into my studio and start developing an image that expresses everything I know and feel about the garden. The same is true if I’m going to paint a portrait, a historic building, or an arrangement of flowers.”


Spring Street Historical Museum
2006, acrylic, 24 x 20.
All artwork this article
collection the artist.
The Alee: Pathway
to the Garden

2005, acrylic, 48 x 36.

Trying to pack so much information into one painting is not a simple matter, and Pressly explains that her work evolves over days and weeks as she expands on her initial idea for a picture. “I never completely abandon my first statement on the canvas, but the paintings go through a lot of changes before I’m finished with them,” she explains. “Acrylic is great for that kind of process because it can be applied as transparently as watercolor or as opaquely as oil, so I can make radical changes in the shapes and values or subtle shifts in the colors. I also prefer the matte finish of the dry acrylic paint over the glossy surface of oil.”

The water-based medium also allows Pressly to work on a brightly colored canvas that will influence the color and value relationships as a picture develops. “I find the stark white of the canvas to be frightening, so I immediately cover it with a color suited to the subject matter,” she explains. “I’ll use a light pink, blue, or gray depending on whether I want a warm, cool, or neutral tone; and then I just start painting the focal point of the composition, usually in the middle of the canvas. I know a lot of artists avoid symmetrical compositions, but I really prefer to have the main object in the center. I then use textures, patterns, and shapes to lead the viewer’s eyes around the composition. Ultimately everything in the picture has to work in harmony—the colors, shapes, values, and textures.”

Still Life With
View From the Window

2005, acrylic, 48 x 36.

Pressly’s compositions often become elaborate tapestries of colors and forms that remind viewers of the early 20th-century Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, and Fauvist painters. “I’ve always loved Bonnard, Van Gogh, and Matisse,” she explains. “Their imaginative responses to the people and places that surrounded them are an inspiration to me. They could think about a favorite garden, person, street scene, or room and paint pictures that expressed everything they felt about those subjects.”

Pressly’s paintings are not completely based on imagination or recollection. She sometimes positions her canvas so she can respond to the scene out a window or door, or she uses a sketch or photograph of a building to establish an accurate record of structure. “The actual location is just a starting point, and I never worry about rendering a precise likeness of a building, floral arrangement, or landscape,” she says. “The point is to make it my own by adding and subtracting elements, changing the colors, developing the textures, and doing whatever feels right at the moment. I never know what the final painting will look like when I get started, but I know what I feel about the subject, and that’s the most important guide through the creative process.”

Zinnias: View
From the Window

2006, acrylic, 40 x 30.

Pressly’s studio is a space she shares with her husband, architect and artist Thomas A. Pressly Jr., that is a wing of the house he designed for the couple in Shreveport, Louisiana. The large windows of the studio face the gardens surrounding the house, as well as the lake at the edge of the property. “It gets much too hot in the summer to be out painting, so Tom designed the studio so we could enjoy the view while working in an air-conditioned space,” Pressly explains. “We don’t have any trouble sharing the studio because we paint so differently and observe a hard-and-fast rule that we never comment on each other’s paintings unless asked to do so.”

Most of Pressly’s paintings are done on large canvases, but she has occasionally worked on watercolor paper. “There was a time when I exhibited in shows organized by watercolor societies, and those had to be created on paper instead of canvas,” she says. “In recent years I’ve been working on relatively large canvases and exhibiting the pictures with galleries and museums.”

Because of her preference for working without preparatory studies, photographs, or compositional sketches, Pressly is reluctant to accept commissions for her paintings. “The only portraits I’ve done are of family members, and I was free to paint my sense of the person,” she explains. “I did accept a commission to paint the Spring Street Historical Museum, in Shreveport, as a favor to the Shreveport Committee of the National Society of Colonial Dames of America, which operates the museum. I painted the building because it is the oldest unaltered structure downtown, and it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. However, I offered my interpretation of the structure, as any artist would.”

Flowers in a Copper Pot
2006, acrylic, 40 x 30.

About the Artist
Emily Cameron Pressly was reared in San Antonio by architect Ralph Haywood Cameron, and she married architect/artist Thomas A. Pressly Jr. She has always been surrounded by fine art and has exhibited her work in solo exhibitions in Texas and Ireland. She has also participated in group shows with her husband and other notable artists. Pressly is a signature member of the Texas Watercolor Society and the San Antonio Watercolor Group. She studied art history at Saint Mary’s Hall, in San Antonio, and Hollins University, in Roanoke, Virginia, and she holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Texas at Austin and a Master of Arts degree from the University of the Incarnate Word, also in San Antonio. The artist studied painting at the San Antonio Art Institute and at Trinity University, both in San Antonio, and her work is in public and private collections throughout Texas, Louisiana, Ireland, and England.   

M. Stephen Doherty is the editor-in-chief of American Artist.

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One thought on “Acrylic: Emily Cameron Pressly: Recalling a Total Experience With Acrylic Paints

  1. Emily,
    The picture of Flowers in a Copper Pot in my American Artist e-mail intrigued me. I’ve painted on and off for about 25 years in acrylic and love the medium, but yours was the first article that I’ve read that matched what I’ve considered to be my style. I have to feel it to paint it. Yes, I can work from photos or a still life, but the feeling and the colors come from inside. Thanks for the inspiration!