I Want to Steal Her Ideas

8 Jun 2014

Julie Heffernan, Self-Portrait as Big World, oil on canvas, 2008, 65 x 68

Circles and ellipses influenced the compositional arrangement in
Heffernan's Self-Portrait as Big World, oil on canvas, 2008, 65 x 68.

If I could jump into any painting and live in that world for a time, I’d throw myself at a Julie Heffernan canvas without a doubt. In her hands, oil painting has never looked so sumptuous and rich. Although she infuses her work with fantastical, out-of-this-world concepts, Heffernan’s style typifies realism at its best because the painting methods she uses are traditional. Here’s how she merges the two:

Color—Lush color was everywhere of the High Renaissance and Mannerist periods—just think of Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling or Bronzino’s portraiture. But more than color, these artists knew how to create complex color harmonies. Heffernan is the same. Looking at her paintings, I’m first struck by how each one is unified as a whole, and only when I start to consciously count the number of her colors do I realize how deftly she uses both tonal nuance and bold color contrasts to enliven her works.

Composition—Analyzing Heffernan’s compositions has given me so much insight on how to dynamically place objects in a painting or drawing. Diagonals and diagonal crosses, cone shapes, obtuse and acute angles, and serpentine lines—Heffernan incorporates them all as she positions her “big shapes” on canvas. I’ve also been especially struck by how ingeniously she uses ellipses, curves, and circular arrangements.  

Repetition—Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself. Heffernan is a master of taking the most innocuous and banal objects—telephone poles, playing cards, tree limb stumps—and turning them into linchpins that hold her works together, sending the viewer’s eye dancing back and forth, in and out. The one thing about repetition is that being subtle does you no favors. I’ve found that if I’m going to repeat something, I have to be bold or the end result is jumbled.

Julie Heffernan, Self-Portrait as Big House, oil on canvas.
The repetition of the red telephone poles in
Self-Portrait as Big House
catches the eye.
One of the most impressive aspects of Heffernan’s work is that it supports the idea that oil painting is not just about unique paint application. It is also about utilizing a set of painting practices that have been refined for centuries by thousands of artists. Accomplished artists all start by learning everything there is to know about these methods. To put myself on that road, I know I need to develop a strong foundation in technical practice and conceptual development. That's where a subscription to The Artist's Magazine or Watercolor Artist can be an asset. Studying the artists and the methods featured in the magazines show how to turn painting into an art with technical and compositional approaches. Empowered, expressive artists like Heffernan are what we all strive to be—and these resources of instruction can be your art school-in-one.

P.S. I couldn’t get enough of how Heffernan works with paint, so I wrote a special bonus blog about three more methods Heffernan uses to create standout paintings. Enjoy!

Julie Heffernan self-portrait, oil on canvas
Tonal variety is key in Heffernan's oil paintings.

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outlawpoet13 wrote
on 10 Jun 2014 1:55 AM

As important as the artist's compositional techniques is where the compositional ideas come from.  I'm seeing Brueghel, Escher, and Dali.  These allusions are part of the technique, and contribute to an understanding of the artist's intention.