A few months ago I came upon Lisa Hebden at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria’s “Paint in the Square” event in Centennial Square. A large painting of a swimmer, dappled with reflected light on water, caught my eye. On a warm summer day, it conjured the refreshing coolness of being in water. Lisa is currently producing more in her series of swimmers, in addition to various commissioned work.
Lisa is a figurative painter with degrees in both Fine Arts and Graphic Design. In 2003 she was awarded the Federation of Canadian Artists Painting on the Edge Award. Her work has been featured in Canadian and international publications, and is in private collections in Canada, the United States, Germany and Australia.
I met with Lisa again recently at her light-filled studio, where we talked about her series of swimmer paintings, how writing helps her paint, why being an artist requires bravery, and more.
How long have you been a full time artist?
I graduated from Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in 2002, so ten years.
How long have you had this studio?
Almost one year. Before this I worked at home, and I had a studio downtown with a bunch of improv dudes who used the front part, and I had the back. It was a lovely studio but it was really, really cold. The coldest day it was -7, which is really cold for here, and it was -3 in my studio. I was painting with mittens on, with just the fingertips cut out, and a down vest with a hot water bottle shoved down the front of it! Funny enough, some of the paintings I made at that time kind of look chilly!
I don’t know what I was thinking, but it was kind of a fun entrée into having an outside studio. Having a studio outside the home, there are fewer distractions. There’s something psychological about leaving for work and coming home, they’re separate. Having the studio in my house… when I wasn’t working I felt like I should be.
What’s your schedule like?
Monday to Friday, and often by Friday I’m really into it so you’ll see me here on Saturday afternoons, I can’t help myself. I do like to make sure I have some kind of a weekend, otherwise I burn out and that can have a high cost on my productivity. I have to be really careful about that – if I push too hard then I won’t produce for two months.
When you arrive in the studio in the morning to you have any kind of routine that you do to get in the right space?
I do. I have a cup of tea, and I do my morning pages – the Julia Cameron exercise of writing three full pages of just longhand…whatever. I often find that it helps me get my thoughts sorted. By the end of the three pages I have an idea of where I want to start my day. Otherwise I could sit and stare for an hour at the piece I’m working on. Staring time happens anyway, and it’s part of the process, but I find that those three longhand pages of writing really help.
It is a tricky balance… you’re alone in your studio; it’s such a solitary venture. And on the other hand, you really have to go out into the world and put on a pretty frock and talk to people.”
Do you do any other type of writing?
I used to. I actually did part of a degree in Creative Writing. I’ve had a couple pieces published, but I got so fired up about so many things at that time. I’ve got part of a degree in Art History, part of a degree in Jewelry Making, a degree in Graphic Design as well as in Fine Art, and I had to say “Lisa – focus!” As soon as I’d accomplish one thing in one arena, I would feel like I was lacking in another one. So I had to just paint.
When do you do your best creative thinking?
When I’m walking. I’m not always good at working it into my routine, the three pages of writing almost always happens but the walk I’m less reliable on. It’s funny, because the walk is just as good – I didn’t realize it until a year ago. I had to start walking with a tiny notepad so they wouldn’t just become fleeting ideas. Also when I’m driving though, which is really inconvenient!
How do you feel about the promotional side of being an artist?
I don’t think it’s my strength yet. It’s something I’m really learning how to do. It’s much easier to promote other people’s work than my own. Because it’s … “Hey, look how awesome I am!” It feels like there’s something unseemly in that. But at the same time it’s part of what we have to learn to do as artists. “Hey, you might think I’m awesome, check it out.”
I think many artists are challenged by that.
It is a tricky balance, because it’s two very different things. You’re alone in your studio; it’s such a solitary venture. And on the other hand, you really have to go out into the world and put on a pretty frock and talk to people. It’s a really interesting balance. I’m a pretty social person so I’m ok with it, but I also tend to be shy so it can go either way.
Any tips on achieving that balance?
I listened to an interview with a writer who is an art consultant. The interviewer asked her what her advice would be to artists starting out. She said “well, my question to you would be am I a well-adjusted person?” The interviewer thankfully asked what she meant by that, and she said you need to get over certain hang-ups and just kind of walk out into the world. Because 99% of the time you know that you love what you do, and that there’s strength in that. So all the rest doesn’t matter. If I love it, someone else is going to love it. It’s a good thing to remember, that not everyone is going to [love it], but it’s nothing to do with you.
Do you paint in oil, primarily?
Yes, oil. I do some messing about with acrylics and I do like them, but I love oil. It’s the butteryness and how long you can work it for. It was [Dutch/American painter, Willem] de Kooning who said “flesh is the reason oil paint was invented.” And he was so right.
What inspired your swimmers?
There was a period of time at the beginning of this year when I was really quite stuck and didn’t know what to do next. It was kind of a scary, unpleasant feeling but there was also an undercurrent of excitement that I could do whatever I want… paint whatever I want. Sometimes I forget that for some reason. I thought, ‘what do I love the most, what is something I really respond to?’ I love swimming, and that feeling of the first swim of the year. So I started drawing swimmers, and being drawn to images of swimmers, and the cool colour, and the way light bounces around in water and onto bodies and people moving through water. I had all of these archived images and photographs that I’d taken for a decade – I just love images of people in water. There’s something really playful about it.
Do you work from photographs or from life?
Both. I do a lot of drawing, and I do work from photographs quite a bit, especially for the underwater ones… I have yet to perfect drawing underwater! Sometimes I find images that I’ve done, drawings that I’ve done, and create compositions of things that weren’t necessarily happening at the time but they become an invented moment. I kind of like it when there’s a bit of tension, something looks a bit off.
How would you describe your style in general?
I do large scale portraits… a lot of portraits and figurative pieces that are somewhat realistic but kind of other-worldly. The actual application of the paint I would say is painterly, slightly impressionistic I suppose. The paint itself is really thin.
Do you usually work quite large?
Yes, I prefer to, although it’s funny… it’s either really large or quite small. I love doing small 6”x6” or 8”x8” ones, there’s an intimacy to them, and then I jump to life-size or bigger than life-size figures. There’s something about seeing somebody painted life size, it does something to us when we look at it. So I jump between the two extremes.
Probably a difficult question to answer, but how long does it take to do something that size?
It really varies. Because I pick up about three paintings in a day, I’m really bad at recording how long each one takes. I’ve just started to do that, but even today I forgot to do it. I’ve noticed that some paintings I can go from zero to 60 in an hour, the range of accomplishment in an hour can be really huge, then refining it can take another five to ten hours. It really does depend on my mood at the time, the subject, and also how many likenesses are within the canvas that I need to achieve. If I’m doing a triple portrait it takes three times as long, even though it’s the same size. It’s really important to me to get the likeness, if I’m doing a portrait on commission.
I find sometimes that I get to a certain point with a painting and then it’s like I’m afraid of taking it too far, there’s a fear of knowing when to stop. Is that something you’ve ever felt?
Oh, absolutely, there’s no undo button on a painting! Working wet-on-wet, if I do something and I hate it, often I can’t bring it back to what it was because I can’t scrape it off – I’d scrape off everything. So yeah, that’s actually a really good thing to bring up because I often find that it can be what stalls a painting – that fear. I remember one woman that I had a class with said “you’re in control, not the painting.” I still remember that and sometimes I just plough ahead and be brave. This fear of wrecking things is so stagnating.
It does take some bravery, doesn’t it!
It does! It’s a different classification of bravery… ooh, should I paint there? Oh no….
Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones is amazing, I just gobbled it up. There’s a chapter called “Don’t Marry the Fly.” Say you’re writing about the breakdown of a marriage and there’s a conversation, and you focus on the fly that lands on the coffee cup between the two people having the conversation. She says “don’t marry that fly.” The fly doesn’t actually matter that much, you can cut that. And it will be ok, life will go on. I know you were really into that passage but it doesn’t add to the overall, then write it out. Paint over it. It’s ok.
That’s very good advice.
I do get attached to little passages in the painting, where the paint did something groovy and I’m kind of preciously painting around it. If it works – great. If not – don’t marry the fly. Let it go.
Thank you, Lisa, for such an interesting discussion!
Be sure to visit Lisa’s web site to see more of her work.
All images courtesy of Lisa Hebden.