Voices of Experience - Doreen St. John
Voices of Experience
Doreen St. John has managed to nurture her artistic talent throughout a lifetime filled with the responsibilities of being a single mother of two and a full-time educator. It was only in 2010 that she was able to retire from her full-time work in order to concentrate solely on her painting. In that short time she has developed her skills in multiple mediums and received recognition for her work from the American Impressionist Society, the Oil Painters of America and the Pastel Society of America, all of which have awarded her Signature Membership. St. John has been invited to participate in juried exhibitions both nationally and internationally and has received numerous awards for her work. She has been featured in major art publications and has been a faculty member for the Plein Air Conventions of 2017 and 2018.
"I believe I was born an artist. At a very early age, I loved drawing, painting, and creating—not just artwork, but crafts, needlework, anything I could find. My Mom used to say all she needed to do to keep me happy was to give me a pencil and some paper. My Grandmother paid to have my sisters and me take art lessons in the summer with a local artist. One vivid memory is when my art teacher, Miss Taylor, featured one of my paintings in the annual art show she held for her students. I was very young, not yet in school. I remember her telling my parents and grandparents that I had a lot of talent and that they should encourage me.
Did you receive a formal education in fine arts?
I don’t have a formal education in the arts. It’s all been self-directed. I took every art class our high school offered, and also had several general art classes in college in conjunction with my education degrees. I read every art book I could get my hands on and viewed great art in museums. I was continually creating. In addition to taking private lessons, I’ve taken many workshops over the years with nationally and internationally renowned artists. I have a large collection of art books and continue to study. Being a ‘lifelong learner’ and growing as an artist and as a person is very important to me.
After the birth of my first child, I took a watercolor class at the Canton Museum of Art with Bette G. Elliott, a wonderful professionally trained artist and art teacher. After only a few sessions I was hooked! Bette was a master teacher. She encouraged each of her students to follow their own ‘inner artist’. I continued studying with her for about 5 years and painted exclusively in watercolor for a total of about 30 years. Bette taught me so much about composition, color, values, etc. When she saw I was flourishing, she encouraged me to show and sell my work. I am forever grateful to her for her mentoring.
I believe some subjects lend themselves better toward a particular medium, but it’s often simply intuitive and something I can’t put into words. I will sometimes paint a subject first in pastel, and later in oil, making changes and taking a different perspective. I miss the wonderful transparent, diaphanous edges I used to get in watercolor, but have found I can achieve similar effects in pastel and oil. I love to challenge myself and explore the boundaries of a medium, or, perhaps my own personal boundaries. It’s always engaging.
Are you working primarily en plein air or in the studio right now?
I believe inspiration is a fluid thing—I can be inspired by something as simple as light on an onion. There is inspiration all around—I just need to show up and be open. Sometimes my inspiration is sparked by an idea, such as 'I want to focus on my composition', and I will look for a strong composition. Sometimes it’s an object or a scene, the way the light falls on a meadow. My process is to do a simple sketch/value study in pencil or charcoal (sometimes in paint) and then to attempt to transfer that same energy onto a larger surface. If I’m doing a simple still life I don’t usually do a preliminary sketch on a separate paper. Instead, I sketch directly on the canvas using a thinned, transparent neutral color such as Transparent Red Oxide combined with a small amount of Ultramarine Blue. I often will wipe out the whitest areas with a rag and, keeping the mixture thin, add the darkest big shapes. As the painting progresses, I add gradually thicker layers of oil paint, with the final areas—where I want emphasis and/or opacity—having the thickest paint. I’ve included Foggy Morning, a ‘work in progress’ so you can see the steps.
Please tell us about the materials you typically use.
Would you tell us about your pastel process? Do you create an initial wash to block in your composition? Do you finish with fixative?
Although I don’t like to use ‘absolute’ statements when talking about art, I have never used fixative. I want the light to bounce around between the layers of pastel and fixative can cause some of that light to be lost.
Pre-pandemic, did you have the opportunity to travel to paint in other landscapes around the country and/or the world? Where have you painted that was particularly inspirational to you?
I’ve been so fortunate to travel to many different locations, both in the United States and also to Canada, Germany, and England. If I don’t happen to have my paints I will often sketch or take many photo references to use for a studio work. One of the most inspirational places, in addition to right in my own state/community, is the Pacific Northwest. I have visited there many times because I have family there.
Just for fun, if you could sit down and have a long conversation over dinner with an artist from the past, who would you choose, and why?
To see more of Doreen St. John's work, go to:
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