Technique: Lana Grow: Going With the Flow and Exploring Abstraction

Grow Simply Flora watermediaAs an experimental artist, Minnesotan Lana Grow has no rules. She begins her paintings in different ways and lets them evolve.


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by Linda S. Price

Grow Simply Flora watermedia
Simply Flora
2006, watermedia, 22 x 22.
Collection the artist.

This is a direct painting
without much layering,
representing the artist’s desire
to move in a different
direction with color.

Lana Grow’s career as an artist did not begin in the traditional way. “I wanted to have some original art on my walls,” she explains, “and I didn’t have the extra money for that.” So she took a class in watercolor, did a few paintings, and hung them. Soon she was hooked, and every year she enrolled in another class. When the last of her children went off to college she finally set up a studio and established a successful career painting traditional paintings. This led to creating a line of handmade greeting cards, which later led to painting on ornaments. But she longed to do something different—to capture an emotional response rather than duplicate what she saw. So she veered in the direction of abstraction and kept going.

“Abstract is fun,” she exclaims. “It gives an avenue for the viewer to participate in the creative venture with you. I like to provide an element of mystery or intrigue so people will look at the painting more than once and ask, ‘What’s that?’ I want them to revisit and become involved.”

SingleTitle Small

Not one for rules, Grow likes to go with the flow and experiment. To this end she starts every painting in a unique way. Sometimes her inspiration comes from nature, such as the spectacular sunset in Sun to Earth Revealed. Sometimes it springs from the desire to explore a new technique. In Simply Flora her goal was to move in a different direction in terms of color—away from her usual blue hues into reds and yellows. Other times she begins with an element from a previous successful painting and explores it further, perhaps keeping the same basic format and design but altering the color scheme. As she tells her students, “Expand on your own work, on what you do well. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time you start a painting.” She also sets challenges for herself—such as creating a painting without using a brush. “When I’m stumped for an idea,” she says, “or when I want a structure to learn on, I leaf through magazine ads looking for good design, strong contrast, and big and little shapes.” Then, using a viewfinder to focus on small sections, the artist looks for those that might provide the basis of an abstract painting. Sometimes, instead of magazines, she uses her own photos or paintings. She also looks to a book on the great painters of the 20th century for inspiration—-ways to begin a painting or solve problems.

Grow Sun to Earth Revealed watermedia Grow Centered Energy Escape watermedia
Sun to Earth Revealed
1998, watermedia, 30 x 22. Private collection.

The artist was inspired to create this painting after witnessing a spectacular sunset near her cabin retreat. She used a gold-leaf pen to bring out the shapes of the leaves.

Centered Energy Escape
2007, watermedia, 30 x 22. Private collection.

Grow began this without a specific subject in mind, allowing the surface to evolve as she worked.
She created the white lines spontaneously with a squirt bottle filled with gesso.

Grow’s paintings evolve in many ways. “It’s hard to pin down the process of an experimental painter,” she explains. “It’s my painting. I do what I want to do. But I try to do new things and experiment to keep fresh. My process varies from painting to painting. Each painting eventually takes on a new life.”

If she has a plan in mind, she draws the design on her paper before beginning the layering process, which is the basis of most of her paintings, although sometimes she creates texture on her surface before layering. She coats her surface with acrylic paint or gesso, usually a light color, then when it’s still wet she removes selected areas. Because this method requires speed—-which she finds makes her more spontaneous—-Grow uses a spray bottle to keep the paint wet. She advises her less experienced students to add a few drops of glazing liquid to their paints to keep them workable longer. To remove paint, the artist calls upon many methods and tools: dabbing with a Kleenex or rolling over a paper towel; using alcohol, which reacts with the water and paint to create blooms; working with erasers, sponges, shapers, or a squeegee; and scraping away with chopsticks or metal pot-scrubbers. Then she adds another layer of paint, usually darker, and follows the same process. She paints and selectively scrapes anywhere from three to five layers, letting some of the previous layers peek through and trying to make every area interesting and different. “I’m always looking for things that can create new textures,” she says, noting that she has a large collection of what other people might think of as trash, including old chopsticks, rubber nonslip grips, as well as corrugated paper, Saran Wrap, bubble wrap, and wax paper.  “At some point,” she notes, “I leave any plan I might have and let the painting start talking to me. Then all my years of painting experience, plus my knowledge of the elements and principles of design and my natural color sense, kick in, and my inner computer takes over.”

Grow SW Raw Sienna Pedernal watermedia Grow Willing to Accept the Risk watermedia
SW Raw Sienna Pedernal
2006, watermedia and collage, 30 x 20. Private collection.

A classroom demonstration using gesso, gel, and collage, this painting was influenced by Grow’s travels in the Southwest and depicts a mountain often painted by Georgia O’Keeffe.

Willing to Accept the Risk
2006, watermedia, 30 x 22. Private collection.

Beginning with an initial layer of black gesso, the artist worked primarily with opaque paint. The painting took her in a different direction and made her stretch, hence the title.

She has some favorite formats, including cruciform, shape within a shape, bridging, strata (or landscape), grid, T-format, and opposing forces, and she may begin a painting with one in mind, or as the painting develops one might emerge. Nor is she adamant about establishing a focal point or center of interest. If she feels a painting needs one, she usually employs the Golden Mean.

Sometimes she turns to collage to create this interest, using either handmade or found paper. In particular, she likes crystalline paper, which she makes by placing high-quality white tissue paper underneath a plastic garbage bag and covering the tissue paper with gesso. When it’s dry she turns it over and gessoes the other side. While that’s still wet she pours on three colors she’s mixed with water and polymer medium. It dries with beautiful crackly lines. She adheres the torn and cut pieces of paper to her surface—-painted side down—-with soft gel medium. Contrast is essential in collage, so she’s careful to vary edges, sizes, and shapes, making sure the pieces lead the eye around the painting and being alert to arrow shapes that might lead the eye out of the frame. If the piece still isn’t working, she can paint on the paper (saving the opaque paint until the end) or use stamps, colored pencils, oil pastels, metallic pens, or other tools. Ever mindful of the need for variety, she advises, “Every time you touch the paper, think of doing it in a different way.” Because unity is equally important, she often covers the whole painting with a wash of transparent color. Using a common overall surface manipulation can also achieve the same result. The last step, if a painting has both shiny and dull areas, is to unify them with a coat of either polymer gloss medium or matte medium or a combination of both to create a satin finish.

Grow Catch the Rhythm/Join the Party I watermedia
Catch the Rhythm/Join the Party I
2007, watermedia, 30 x 22.
Collection the artist.

The first piece in the series,
this painting was inspired by a
small abstract section the
artist discovered in a magazine ad.

These are the techniques Grow teaches her students in her workshops, but she emphasizes that “they teach themselves to paint with the tools I give them. I give them the chance to learn and explore. I teach a technique, but students must be willing to take a risk and to make it their own. I also inspire them to have confidence in themselves. I tap into their creative spirits and motivate their own authentic voices. I want them to leave excited about painting and knowing they can do it—-if they work hard enough.”

About the Artist
Lana Grow, of Arden Hills, Minnesota, studied at the University of Minnesota, the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, and the College of St. Catharine, all in Minneapolis, as well as in workshops with well-known teachers. She conducts workshops around the United States and has sold her paintings on the internet, at art fairs, and at one-person and group shows. She is represented in Minnesota by Vine & Branches Gallery, in St. Paul; Three Havens Artworks, in Alexandria; and Art Holdings Gallery, in Minneapolis. Her work is featured in Searching for the Artist Within, by Karlyn Holman (Bayfield Street Publishing, Bayfield, Wisconsin); Creative Composition & Design, by Pat Dews (North Light Books, Cincinnati, Ohio); Splash 8 (North Light Books, Cincinnati, Ohio), and The Art of Layering: Making Connections (published by the Society of Layerists in Multi-Media). She is a signature member of the American Watercolor Society, the Red River Watercolor Society, the International Society of Experimental Artists, and the Society of Layerists in Multi-Media. Learn more about the artist on her website at

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