Artist Mary Nagel Klein paints still lives and landscapes in the most ancient of mediums—casein. She came to casein after working in both watercolor and oil and has immersed herself into understanding the characteristics that make it unique. Her paintings allow us a window into moments of her daily life—a tabletop bouquet, a walk down the path. But, look a little more deeply into each painting to see a vibrant complexity of color strokes hidden in the unassuming subjects and perhaps a bit of whimsy sharing the composition. It becomes apparent that the medium is the perfect choice for the expression.
Klein’s paintings are included in many public collections and have been exhibited in solo and juried exhibitions across the country. Her work has received awards from the Minnesota Watercolor Society, International Artist Magazine, the Minnesota State Arts Board, the Mayo Clinic and Northstar Watermedia. Klein was chosen as Artist-in-Residence at the Robert Henri Museum in Cozad, Nebraska in 2019.
She wrote to us about her inspirations and her exploration of casein as a medium and included a step-by-step demonstration showing her painting process. Thanks to Mary Nagel Klein for her thoughtful responses to our questions.
Did you grow up in an environment supportive of creativity and art-making?
I was very blessed to grow up in a home that allowed for a lot of freedom of expression. My parents, who were each raised in strict Calvinist families, made a deliberate decision to move to Madison, Wisconsin in order to start a family in a more liberal environment. As a result, our home had a Bohemian feel—full of music, visual arts and dance. One of my older sisters went on to become a professional musician while my father was active in the Arts Co-op in Madison. My mother was an accomplished painter—both in watercolor and acrylic. I am grateful to this day for her example.
My art is a necessity. Being a painter is who I am. I feel very lucky that it is also my career and that it allows me to connect with collectors from around the world. Building relationships with collectors is one of the things I love most about being a painter. Finding homes for my work completes the circle of creation.
What teachers or mentors have been influential in the development of your art?
Patricia Jerde, the former director of the Minnesota River School of Fine Art, stands out as my most influential teacher. Her amazing eye and patient critiques helped me at a very critical time in my artistic development. She very graciously did me the honor of writing the forward of my book, Casein Fine Art Painting – 7 steps to express your vision.
You’ve worked in both watercolor and oil, but casein isn’t a very well-known medium to work in. How did you first get interested in it?
Casein came into my studio life during a period of transition. I had just completed a two-year grant project of very large and intense oil paintings. To find a new direction, I allowed myself to explore various media, sizes, substrates and tools. When I stumbled upon casein while searching online, a lot of things naturally fell into place. The ease of handling and storage of finished paintings, the vivid colors and unique matte finish of casein drew me in at first. When I researched its history and the work of its most well-known practitioners, I fell more and more in love with the idea of painting with it.
Three Fish 10 x 8" Casein on Panel
Anticipation 16 x 24" Casein on Panel
What painting characteristics does casein offer you that you don’t find in other media? Casein is unique for its beautiful matte finish. It also stands out for its excellent reproducibility. Commercial artists especially are drawn to casein for this reason. Finally, casein’s ability to lift pigment from a lower layer into a freshly applied one is unlike any other media. When used to advantage, this lifting can produce stunning results of broken color—such that the Impressionists would envy.
Some people find casein difficult to control because it dries so quickly and can appear differently dry than when wet. How do you manage that?
These two qualities—fast drying and value shifting—are indeed challenges. A couple of strategies help when trying to deal with them. The first is to set aside all preconceived notions and to treat casein as the very different painting medium that it is. With that said, thinking of casein as a variation of pastel painting may help. The second would be to allow yourself the time to embrace these qualities. Setting up a challenge of painting exclusively in casein, every day for 100 days, would be one example of how you might immerse yourself into a study of casein. In my opinion, developing for yourself a self-study immersion plan is the best way to manage what may seem as difficulties with the medium. Only with constant study and experimentation will you learn the required pigment adjustments needed to counteract value shifting. Varying the amount of water you use in your paint mixtures and on your brush will give you a bit of control with casein’s fast drying. Creating color and value charts may work for some, but it is my belief that a steady painting practice is the key to bring about an easy familiarity with the medium.
Panicle 10 x 10" Casein on Panel
We see a combination of transparent watercolor-like layerings along with heavier oil painting techniques in your work. Are you consciously combining the two into your own hybrid impressionist painting style? My transparent watercolor-like layerings and thicker impasto comes more from studio habits than any conscious effort on my part. I love having my own style and for years I fretted over how to develop it. As it turns out, I came to realize that you cannot NOT have your own style. In other words, your style is and always has been within you—you can neither hide it nor change it. You can, however, take actions to bring it forth. These actions, as it turns out, are simply the habits you develop over time and repeat day in and day out in the studio. By honoring your practice and what you love about making art, you will heighten the recognizability of your work. For example, your habits may be the types of brushes that are your favorites (for me these are flat Taklons), whether you stand or sit at your easel (I love to stand and move around a lot) and the rituals you go through when setting up a still life (I have a more-or-less set routine for this). By making a habit of seeing, and responding, to color in an exaggerated and intuitive way I’m able to effect an impressionistic painting style—especially when I follow up this habit with others that involve the layering of color upon color to achieve a level of finish and freshness that sings.
Pieces in Pink 10 x 8" Casein on Panel
Can you lead us through your process, from initial inspiration to final studio work?
In the book I wrote on casein painting, I explain, with step-by-step photographs, how I create a painting. I’ll try to condense the ideas in that book here. Once I have my still life set-up arranged or have found my spot outside, I place a prepared panel on my easel. My panels (Ampersand Claybord) are toned with 6 coats of Venetian Red casein which has cured for at least 2 weeks. With my panel in place, I work on a very rough “drawing” of the scene. Drawing is in quotes here because I use thinned Yellow Ochre casein and a ½” flat brush for this step. This is a time when I’m focusing on where important color and value masses fall on the picture plane. The next steps are the color notes— beginning with exaggerated and often non-local color—moving closer with each layer to a more realistic expression. The influences of Lois Griffel and Henry Hensche are strong during this color note step. The advice that “any thing can be any color” and “paint what you see not what you know” guides me. The last step is for the details. I have a few small rounds for these but I also may continue to use my larger flats to add finer points. When closing in on my paintings, I strive for a beautiful balance of freshness vs. finish. I want some of my initial color impressions to show through while at the same time revealing a lovely representation. While working on the details, my process slows down considerably. It’s when I often will step back from the easel to take a break, look at the painting in reverse with a mirror and/or take careful notes. I’ll often write down, near the end, the 5 or so tweaks that I’d like to make. Doing so is a tremendous help to keep from overworking a piece. After checking each task off, I’ll step back again—over and over until that magic moment when I feel in my gut that it’s ready for my signature (always in Venetian Red.)
Step One - Drawing
Step Two - First Color Notes
Step Three - Second Color Notes
Step Four - Later Color Notes
The Little White Jug 10 x 8" Casein on Panel
Your still life paintings achieve an especially high mark in execution, perhaps pushing casein beyond what has been done before. What are your favorites, and briefly, why?
My favorite painting is always the one I’m currently working on—or the one that I just finished. As I write, my easel is at the ready to capture a scene with either sunflowers or pink carnations. The flowers were purchased yesterday and are sitting together in a vase in the kitchen. My next step will be to gather up my collection of homemade view finders. I’ve made them in the ratios of 5:8, 3:5, 1:2, 4:5, 2:3, 1:1 and in the ratio of the golden section (1:1.618). While holding this stack of seven view finders and the vase of flowers, I’ll wander around my studio and home. I’ll no doubt make numerous trips to my still life cabinet where I keep various vases, glass marbles, silver Christmas tree ornaments, backdrop cloths, teapots, plastic animals, etc. Back and forth I’ll go for as long as it takes—sometimes an hour or two —until an arrangement sings. Admittedly, it’s very hard to explain just what ‘sings’ means—it’s more of a feeling than anything else. Edgar Payne wrote a favorite book of mine called Composition of Outdoor Painting. It’s full of these delightful little thumbnails which are a joy to see and examine. He tries his best to explain how composition works— and it’s widely accepted that his book is one of the best ones out there on the subject. However, it’s also agreed that composition is one of the hardest aspects of art to codify. Which brings me back to my next painting. I could explain to you how I’ve gone about creating compositional harmony within paintings I’ve completed. But that explanation would soon be moot because my aim with future paintings is to disregard those "rules" and to see with a fresh eye. With each new painting I’m trying to do exactly that—create a new painting.
Can you also tell us about the pigments you typically use—what colors you keep in your palette? I use a warm and cool of each primary, plus white and black: Titanium White, Naples Yellow, Yellow Ochre, Venetian Red, Rose Red, Cerulean Blue, Ultramarine Blue Deep and Ivory Black. I buy 37 ml. tubes of Richeson’s Shiva Series casein. I’ve learned that you need to be very careful with casein to buy fresh tubes of paint. On occasion a tube will go bad—that is, the paint will thicken and curdle in the tube. For this reason, I try to order only what I’ll use up in a month or two.
How has living in the upper Midwest informed your work?
Minnesota, not unlike casein, comes with its own unique challenges! The long winters are an opportunity to take stock and to look inward while the short and busy summers energize the spirit. From May to October I can bike into painting sites with my easel and supplies packed neatly on my back. The rest of the year is too cold to paint outside with casein. That’s when I enjoy all of the conveniences of a well-equipped studio. It’s also when I spend more time reading, organizing and researching. Working in the upper Midwest comes with a built-in framework of seasonal activity that seeps into everything I do—and into everything I paint.
Sumac Along the Path 8 x 10" Casein on Board
Have you had the opportunity to travel to new landscapes and countries?
I don’t need to travel far to be inspired. A teacher once told me that you could paint an infinite number of successful landscapes from any one spot by simply rotating your easel, looking up and down and changing your canvas’s aspect ratio. Add to that the changing seasons, different weather conditions and times of day—you would never tire of new ideas. Think of Monet’s studies of the same haystack and Andrew Wyeth’s work all done within a short distance from his home, and you can see that not all artists are travelers. I do love to spend time with art books of artists who have traveled the world. I love to visit their art in museums too. Robert Henri, John Singer Sargent and Gauguin come to mind. But I’m most comfortable in the company of the home-body artists. All this said, I’ve been encouraged and invited to paint in Venice, so stay tuned—I may have a completely new perspective from that!
Summer Memories 24 x 18" Woodland Brook 10 x 8" Casein on Panels
Do you have any favorite books and/or artists whose work you turn to for inspiration?
Is teaching an important part of your artistic life?
Although I rarely teach these days, it is still very important to me to continue the traditions I’ve been taught. Instead of teaching students in a traditional setting, I’m now posting in-progress images on social media as I create a painting — sharing my thoughts as I go. Oftentimes I will get questions regarding those process images and the resultant exchanges give me a chance to share what I’ve been taught. Outside the studio, there are times when passersby will engage me when I’m painting in the field. These encounters give even more opportunities to share my vision. I’ve been blessed to be an artist—and equally so to touch the lives of others with my art.
Fetching Labs 8 x 10" Casein on Board
What do you feel makes your work or style unique?
Robert Henri once said, "Don't worry about your originality. You couldn't get rid of it even if you wanted to. It will stick with you and show up for better or worse in spite of all you or anyone else can do." So for me, and for any other artist, the uniqueness of one’s art comes from one’s own individualism—both genetic and experiential. Others have commented on my use of broken color, the simplicity and strength of my compositions, and the subtleties and sensitivities of my values, but I go back to my habits—the myriad of steps I take each time I set out to paint. Those habits undergird and bring about what others see as my style.
What words of encouragement or piece of advice would you give to a beginning artist?
A beginning artist must learn to nurture and protect her artistic dreams. She needs to take care to cultivate positive self-talk that allows her to take full responsibility for her role as an artist. It all starts in your mind. Guard your thoughts well. And squint—don’t forget to squint!
Artist Mary Nagel Klein paints still lives and landscapes in the most ancient of mediums—casein. She came to casein after working in both watercolor and oil and has immersed herself into understanding the characteristics that make it unique. Her paintings allow us a window into moments of her daily life, a tabletop bouquet, a walk down the path. But, look a little more deeply into each painting to see a vibrant complexity of color strokes hidden in the unassuming subjects and perhaps a bit of whimsy sharing the composition. It becomes apparent that the medium is the perfect choice for the expression.
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