Voices of Experience - Mary Jo Van Dell

Voices of Experience

Mary Jo Van Dell


Across, 46 x 48", Oil, © Mary Jo Van Dell 
Across          48 x 46"          Oil          © Mary Jo Van Dell

   Mary Jo Van Dell carefully distills the raw northern plains landscape into its essence in her powerfully evocative paintings. Her images are created from years of hiking and exploring the land, experiencing the dramatic light and moods of her native Minnesota. We asked Van Dell to tell us about her evolution as an artist, her inspirations and her work processes. Van Dell is largely self-taught with works in the collections of the Minnesota Historical Society, the National Park Service and the U.S. State Department Art in Embassies program and a painting included in the 100 Years of Marine Art exhibition at the Minnesota Marine Museum. We asked her to begin by telling us about her creative background.

   I had a healthy imagination as a child. I loved to color and draw and to dance and I was not afraid to take lead roles in school plays. I believe my parents recognized a talent, but growing up in a large family without a lot of means meant I had to find my own way as there was not an opportunity for any arts-specific education nor was there much conversation or credit given to art. To be honest, we girls were supposed to find a good man and get married.

   Like many artists, I am self taught. I did take painting lessons from an artist in her home when I first started. I was using acrylic paint until she insisted I was an oil painter. She recognized my style and desire to blend and I am thankful for that early advice. I’ve worked by myself for most of my career but I am inspired by other artists, their studios, process and work and would like to take a workshop at some point.

Hinterland, 36 x 48", Oil, © Mary Jo Van Dell
Hinterland          48 x 36"          Oil

   By my early twenties, I had been married for a few years and had three children. That’s when I began to seriously think about a career as an artist. I was able to incorporate art into my life throughout my marriage and three children by working part time and painting dog portraits, which led to wildlife paintings and shows. I changed directions after a divorce and moved to Colorado, opened a gallery and began concentrating more on painting the landscape. Missing my extended family and Minnesota Midwest roots, I moved back and have been painting the landscapes in the north ever since.

   I am intrigued and inspired by the many seasons and moods of the northern Minnesota landscape and truly love capturing the essence of it. Several years ago I was excited to receive a two-month artist residency in Newfoundland. It turned out to be a very challenging time and place. The landscape was quite stunning though, in a brooding and desolate way. They call it the "Rock”. I often felt lonely and sometimes afraid. However my time there gave me resources and reference material to produce a large body of work that I feel represents the raw beauty and austerity of Newfoundland. I still use some of the reference material today.

Evening in Chartreuse, 36 x 48", Oil, © Mary Jo Van Dell
Evening in Chartreuse          36 x 48"          Oil

   Have you had the opportunity to explore and paint other areas of the country and/or world?

    Occasional road trips especially across the west have inspired paintings depicting the plains, barns and scenes of that part of the country. I’ve also spent time in Northern California, another big source of inspiration.  

Broadside, 38 x 48", Oil, © Mary Jo Van Dell
Broadside          38 x 48"           Oil

The Other Side, 26 x 36", Oil, © Mary Jo Van Dell
The Other Side           36 x 26"           Oil

    Please tell us about your process in creating a work of art, from inspiration to final painting.

   The inspiration for all of my work initially comes from my many outdoor personal experiences in the woods and wilds. I compose and complete my work in the studio where I work largely from memory, photos and notes.

   Once I’ve made my decision on what to paint, I work on getting a good composition and design elements drawn lightly and loosely onto my canvas. Occasionally I do small sketches first, but I’m usually too enthusiastic about the piece and prefer to get right to work on the big canvas, keeping it fresh and spontaneous. I block in basic composition details with a very thin layer of paint color that I will include in the piece. I pay close attention to values as they play a significant role in my work. 

   I continue with the piece until I am satisfied. I have learned to quit at this point. It’s easy to overwork a piece. If I’ve worked too long on a piece, chances are it will end up in the trash because it has lost itself. 

   And, your materials?

   I work in oils and stretch my own canvases using oil primed linen. I generally use flat bristle brushes in a variety of sizes. I also utilize a palette knife often in my work for blending and effect. I use several brands of professional grade oil paints. The colors I can’t be without are Ultramarine Blue, Burnt Umber, Alizarin Crimson, Yellow Ochre, Cadmium Orange, Cadmium Yellow Medium and Titanium White. I have several other colors in my box and incorporate them into my mixing. For someone who isn’t known for lots of color, I love mixing color. I spend time mixing my colors and appreciate the nuances I can make in the tone or temperature with just a pinch of a certain color to get just the right effect I’m looking for. 

   Van Dell included three steps in the creation of her painting, Across.

Across - Step One, 46 x 48", Oil, © Mary Jo Van Dell

Across - Step Two, 46 x 48", Oil, © Mary Jo Van Dell

Across, 46 x 48", Oil, © Mary Jo Van Dell
Across        48 x 46"        Oil

   Dramatic light change plays an important role in your work. Have you painted many nocturnes?

   I love nocturnes. I am quite fond of Frederic Remington's nocturnes and how he utilized different color palettes to express mood or to depict a particular time of year, season and place. 

Moonlight Sonata, 50 x 40", Oil, © Mary Jo Van Dell
Moonlight Sonata         50 x 40"         Oil

Nightfall, 19 x 17", Oil, © Mary Jo Van Dell
Nightfall          19 x 17"           Oil

   Are you currently teaching? And, what words of wisdom would you like to give to student artists?

   I am currently offering private coaching sessions, either in person, via email with images, or through Zoom. I may offer workshops and/or classes again sometime in the future, but nothing is on the calendar right now. 

   To students, I would say, "Just start—get some small canvases to work on and tell yourself you’re going to throw them away so you don’t feel pressured to produce something that looks wonderful to prove your talent. Know that like a musical instrument, it takes time to learn to paint. Once you’re ready to show and share your work with others, create and produce studio shows. Personally invite your friends to them and work on building a mailing list. Galleries can offer prestige and show a level of professionalism but don’t rely on galleries alone—you will need to promote yourself as well. Always keep your pricing consistent between your studio and galleries. Pay more attention to your own thought process, your own work and style than you do to other influences, artists, fads and trends. Be true to your self. Don’t take rejections to heart, too seriously or personally. It happens to all of us."

Beneath, 22 x 30", Oil, © Mary Jo Van Dell
Beneath          30 x 22"          Oil

   And, just for fun, if you could sit down to have a long conversation over dinner with an artist from the past, who would you choose and why? 

   I think I would like to have a conversation with Robert Henri, author of The Art Spirit

   After reading his insightful book many years ago and underlining much of it, I find it still relevant if not more meaningful and helpful to me today.

Photograph of Artist Mary Jo Van Dell







To see more of Mary Jo Van Dell's paintings, go to:  https://www.maryjovandell.com.

All artwork copyright Mary Jo Van Dell



Copyright Hulsey Trusty Designs, L.L.C. (except where noted). All rights reserved.
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