Nancy Tankersley ("Essential Painting Principles" and "Painting Figures from Photographs") began her career as a portraitist but entered the gallery scene with figurative paintings of people at work and at leisure. Currently, as she searches for the unpredictable, Tankersley moves between landscape, figures, and still life. Incorporating non-traditional tools, supports, and technologies for her paintings, she remains faithful to her impressionistic style.
Art Notes: What does oil as a medium give you as an artist?
Oil gives me much flexibility in paint application, allowing me to experiment with various tools, mediums, and the thickness of the paint. Because it dries slowly, it is workable long enough to create interesting edges that can vary from soft to hard. Plus it has the advantage of retaining the same value you see when it is put down wet and then dried. If it becomes flat and seems to change value, it can be brought back to its original look with medium or varnish.
Art Notes: Could you walk us through your process? What are the steps you go through to create a painting?
Once I have my idea and design in place, in the studio I apply a tonal wash to separate my shapes in light from my shapes in the shadows. I use burnt sienna for this stage since it is a nice mixture of blue, red, and yellow that I can create from my limited palette of a warm and cool of each of the primary colors plus white. If I have to go into color while the underpainting is wet, it blends nicely and doesn’t create a color that disrupts the harmony. After I have the values established in broad masses, I begin to add color, paying careful attention to keeping the colors in the right value masses.
I paint very realistically during this time, and when I have brought the painting to a place that could almost be called complete, I start to break down some of the edges to create movement and intangibles such as emotion and mystery. In the past few years I have added squeegees, various palette knives, foam rollers, and potter’s ribs to my collection of brushes to help in the deconstruction. My final analysis of my painting will include such questions as “Do I have enough detail where it needs to be?” or, “Are there areas where I can more closely imply the detail without becoming too abstract?” My goal is to find a balance between reality and abstraction, with perhaps more emphasis on the abstraction.
Art Notes: What planning do you do before you begin a painting? What does that help you do later in the piece? (Basically, why plan at all?)
I think every painting must have an intent and it’s when we stray from that intent we run into problems. My intent could be something simple like “I want to paint the individuality of that particular tree” or “I want to create a painting that is 90 percent yellow.” We have so many choices as artists, and I think limiting those choices will make your painting stronger. After I’ve established my intent or main idea, I do my design in such a way that it supports that intent. Later in the piece, if I’m having problems I can go back to my original intent and ask myself if my choices in shapes, colors, and edges support that intent or I have strayed. Sometimes it will happen that a better idea reveals itself in the painting process and I might change directions, but most of the time I try to stick to my original idea.
Art Notes: You paint across several subjects. How does your thinking and planning change between those subjects? Why? (And if it doesn’t, why not?)
No, it really doesn’t. At some point I transitioned to thinking less about the things I was painting and more abstractly about shape. I think about how they fit together, balance each other, and interact to create visual interest, flow, and sometimes even a narrative. I apply the same rules of design, drawing, and color whether I’m doing a portrait, figure, landscape, or still life. All need an area of focus, a path through the painting, harmony in color, and interesting edges.
Art Notes: With your reference, what do you take more or less directly and what do you translate? Why?
From reference, whether from photo or life, I take the form of the shapes, relative size of one shape to another, and then move them around as needed to come up with the composition I want. A shape can be a thing such as a figure, a cloud, a boat, or it can be a collection of shapes called a mass that merge together. I might manipulate the values so the painting has a good number of lost and found edges. I call this “knitting” the shapes together so that they become one whole and not just an unrelated assortment of shapes.
I almost never take the color from a photo, and even from life I might try to alter color, shifting it to create harmony or visual interest. For instance, a door that is red in reality on a red brick building might become green to create energy and establish a focal point. A blue sky that I remember as a deep, startling blue might appear washed out in the photo, so I alter the color to fit my memory. That’s why I prefer to work from black-and-white photos. I think painting directly from a very good photo is really just a form of copying. It doesn’t matter whether it is your photo or that of someone else. The act of creation occurs when the photo is made, and that’s not what I want as a painter. Now if you take that very good photo and manipulate it by moving shapes, pushing a value lighter or darker, and really altering the photo, then that is different.
Art Notes: How do you make sure you’ve planned for a strong composition? What steps do you walk through (either in your head or on paper) when working on the compositions specifically?
If the eye goes automatically to my center of interest, without too much time spent meandering around the painting, then I have succeeded. Meandering is for after you have hooked the viewer, kind of like a reward for stopping and looking. There are natural ways the eye wants to move, and that is the basis for such design principles as the Golden Mean, the Rule of Thirds, and something I’ve lately learned, the Baroque Diagonal. Design is fascinating, and I feel I have only scratched the surface. How you handle your values and edges also plays into how the eye moves. Sharp edges with high contrast are the first to be seen, so it is natural they will become the focal area.
Art Notes: How do students learn to see the basic shapes and light sources in their subjects? Why is that important?
I think if students attempt to reduce their shapes down to basic shapes of square, rectangle, oval, circle, triangle, etc., that will influence how they draw. For instance, they could ask themselves what shape box would that vase fit into, square or rectangle? You’d be amazed how this second spent analyzing a shape will pay off. As far as values, squinting of course is important. But I think equally important is to ask oneself if a certain shape is getting light from the light source, or if it is in shadow. Knowing that from the start will prevent them from guessing their values too light or too dark. It’s very important because drawing and values are the first, and perhaps most important, skills to learn when learning to paint representationally.Learn more about Nancy Tankersley's work by checking out her two videos, "Essential Painting Principles" and "Painting Figures from Photographs."