A Practical Approach to Creating & Marketing Oils and Pastels

16 Sep 2008

0809air3_600x483When J.C. Airoldi left a successful career as a designer, she applied the same level of determination, practicality, hard work, and marketing skills that she used in her previous profession to creating and selling paintings.   


Gloucester Solitude
2008, oil, 12 x 16. Private collection.

by M. Stephen Doherty

It may be challenging to give up a business career to become a full-time fine artist, but people who retire, quit, or get laid off from their 9-to-5 jobs have advantages over others just launching their art careers. They are likely to be more disciplined, organized, resilient, and focused than people who have never held a full-time job. That is certainly the case with J.C. Airoldi, an artist from Hampstead, New Hampshire, who gave up a lucrative job as a designer of websites, print magazines, corporate identities, and computer games to pursue her dream of being a full-time, self-supporting artist.

“After deciding I had worked long and hard enough in order to fulfill the creative dreams of others in the commercial art world, I took the plunge, quit my job, and immediately started spending every available moment painting, viewing exhibitions, and reading art books and magazines,” Airoldi explains. “Because I was enthralled by the light and atmosphere of New England, I joined a plein air group associated with the Newburyport [Massachusetts] Art Association called The Newburyport 10 and painted passionately once a week with the group and every other day on my own.”


Morning Mist
2008, pastel, 16 x 20. Courtesy The Walsingham Gallery, Newburyport, Massachusetts.

Within a year of launching her art career, Airoldi was teaching in her studio and exhibiting her paintings in galleries and outdoor shows. “I started exhibiting with The Newburyport 10 and joined nearly every other art association within 25 miles of my home,” she explains. “I was determined to exhibit my work locally and regionally whenever possible. I grossed more than $10,000 in the first plein air exhibition and galleries began to notice my work, including two Massachusetts galleries: Tree’s Place, in Orleans, and the Walsingham Gallery, in Newburyport,” the artist says. “I also started exhibiting in about 10 to 12 East Coast outdoor shows from May through October. I started out just showing my small plein air paintings (from 5" x 7" up to 16" x 20") and also exhibited the studio paintings I created in the fall and winter when the weather made it difficult to work outdoors.”

Gradually Airoldi was able to build up a clientele of people who visited her booth at the outdoor fairs, viewed her gallery exhibitions, or responded to the mailings she sent out three times a year. “Outdoor shows are a lot of work, and sales are dependent on the weather, the promotions sent by the organizers, and the overall quality of the work in the show,” she explains. “The aim of most people who participate is to build a following among people who discover them at an outdoor fair and then make additional purchases in other shows or directly from the artist. Some of the shows attract as many as 300,000 people, and the exhibitors try to get people to sign a guest book, take a business card, and/or purchase framed pictures.”


Spring Birches
2007, oil, 24 x 18. Courtesy The Walsingham Gallery, Newburyport, Massachusetts.

Airoldi has been able to increase the prices of her oil and pastel paintings, with the oils now selling for $800 to $7,000 and the pastels for $300 to $3,000. “In the current economy, it has become harder to sell the oils because of the increased prices, so I rely more on the galleries to sell those, and I promote the smaller plein air oils and pastel paintings at the outdoor shows,” the artist says.

Whether in the studio or on location, Airoldi first takes a lot of photographs and makes several thumbnail compositional sketches of her intended subject to resolve the shapes and values, and to establish a clear focal point. “When I was learning to paint, I discovered how much stronger a painting was when it had a well-defined center of interest that clearly expressed the concept I had in mind,” she explains. “Now I pass that information along to my students when I show them how to make a quick thumbnail compositional sketch. I also encourage them to avoid copying exactly what they see because an artist has to edit and emphasize what he or she sees in order to personalize the painting.”

After developing a sketch that satisfies her, Airoldi tones panels made with Claessens No. 15 or No. 13 double oil-primed linen canvas that is adhered to Gatorbord with Mighty Muk adhesive, and she immediately begins to draw the outlines of the major shapes in the landscape with a warm, dark color made from a combination of burnt umber and ultramarine blue. Quickly moving away from lines to masses, she roughs in the large shapes in three to five values. Then, using a subtractive method, she wipes the paint off the canvas with a paper towel to loosely indicate the light-value shapes.


Evening Walk
2006, oil, 24 x 30. Private collection.

As Airoldi continues to refine the image, she lays out a fairly complete palette of premixed colors. “Once I’m on location and can judge the range of colors and values, I premix the combinations needed to indicate the shapes and the various temperature shifts within those large shapes,” she explains. “Some artists think premixing is too methodical and formulaic, but in my experience it makes it easier to be more spontaneous because I don’t have to break my concentration and the flow of paint. I can make slight adjustments as I focus on smaller and smaller shapes, but I’m still working out of a pool of color that is close to what I need.” Airoldi says she frequently adds Liquin or Galkyd alkyd medium to the oil colors to speed up the drying time, and she occasionally paints the thick highlights by mixing the appropriate colors with a combination of titanium and alkyd white. The palette of colors she uses on location includes Gamblin and Utrecht brands of cadmium lemon, cadmium yellow medium, cadmium red light, permanent alizarin, ultramarine blue, cobalt blue, burnt umber, titanium white, and occasionally a “fun” color, such as cobalt teal, perylene red, or dioxazine purple. 


Evening Tide
2008, oil, 11 x 14. Private collection.

Airoldi’s preferred materials and techniques are different when she is working in her studio. The biggest changes are that she uses photographs displayed on her computer screen, her plein air sketches, and her memory as the source of images, and she strives to build up layers of transparent colors diluted with a medium made from 2 parts distilled turpentine, 1 part cold-pressed linseed oil, and 1 part damar varnish. “Through most of the painting stages in the studio, I keep the paint thin because I really like the look I achieve with veils of transparent color built up in stages,” the artist says. “Those really help convey the sense of atmosphere in a landscape. It’s hard to use the same techniques on location because I only have two hours to record the maximum amount of information and that’s not enough time to deal with glazes that have to dry in between applications. For both plein air and studio work I will usually apply thick paint around the center of interest and in the areas of the brightest highlights.”

Several years ago Airoldi began painting with pastels as a way of being more direct and of pushing her color palette. “I love the fact that I can work more quickly with pastel and use much stronger colors than I do with oil,” she explains. “Sometimes I use an oil painting as the source material for pastel paintings, and in other cases I use the finished pastel paintings as the motivation for creating an oil painting. It’s interesting to compare the different results. The only problem I have with pastels is that they are more cumbersome to work with on location because I want to use a lot of colors and that means dragging hundreds of pastels on-site.”


Eastham Sunset
2008, pastel, 12 x 16.  Collection the artist.

Airoldi once followed the standard method of starting with hard pastels and moving to softer ones, but now she uses soft pastels exclusively. Among the brands of pastel she uses are Schmincke, Sennelier, Terry Ludwig, and Great American, and her preferred surfaces are Sennelier’s Le Carte and Kitty Wallis sanded papers. “I’ve been experimenting with different techniques and color combinations, and I keep learning more about the possibilities of the medium from books and DVD programs. I’ve read and re-read Albert Handell’s books, for example, because I love his work and the sense of energy and atmosphere he achieves, as well as the compositions of his paintings.”

Having benefitted from the instruction offered by artists such as Handell, Paul Ingbretson, and Richard Schmid, Airoldi takes time out from her busy schedule to teach aspiring artists in her studio and during workshops, and she frequently demonstrates her painting techniques to art groups in her region. “My career takes up so much of my time that I no longer get around to entering many juried shows or becoming active in local art associations, but I feel it is important to help serious students in the same way that others have helped me,” she says. “As a lifelong student of art, I have no doubt I will continue to share my enthusiasm for painting and the discoveries I make along the way.”

About the Artist
J.C. Airoldi studied at Massachusetts College of Art, in Boston, and The Otis Institute of Art & Design, in Los Angeles, before becoming a successful computer-game artist and graphic designer. She is now a full-time professional artist and teacher, exhibiting her pastel and oil paintings in outdoor festivals and two Massachusetts galleries: Tree’s Place, in Orleans, and The Walsingham Gallery, in Newburyport. For more information on Airoldi, visit her website at www.jcairoldi.com.

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

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Mary wrote
on 18 Sep 2008 4:41 PM
Gary wrote
on 28 Jan 2009 8:06 PM
How did I miss this last September? Mary must be proud of Julie! For Christmas, my Wife and Son's pledged $$ for me to go to a plein air workshop by JC in Lubec, Maine. I'm 54 and fearful. Don't like rejection. After reading JC's story, maybe she's the right person for me to start with? Regardless, more folks should have praised her work on this blog!!!!