Growing up along the shores of Lake Michigan, Shar Coulson incorporates the richness found within the intricate ecosystem of this area into her elaborate and layered paintings. Abstraction is a genre of art that can encompass so many elements, and so, too, does Shar’s work, as she employs a diverse variety of color, texture, line, shape, and opacities in each single painting she creates. Upon meeting Shar, I realized that the complex warmth that I felt while viewing her work came undoubtedly straight from the artist herself, pouring her love of nature and unique sensibility into each piece she creates.
In the interview, Shar offers tips on how to approach and work with galleries, and how you must open you mind and heart to the freedom of creating!
Embracing the essence of Organic Abstraction, Shar Coulson's work reflects her love of nature and the human figure. Working intuitively, Shar explores the idea of perception vs. reality within the allusive figuration, gestural line work and organic forms found in her paintings. Nature is by far her greatest inspiration because of its randomness and complex beauty. Her heightened ability to see recognizable objects in otherwise unrelated patterns guides her process… animals, plant-like forms or figures often appear. She was formally trained in classical figurative realism, yet finds her passion runs deepest in the world of abstraction. Her sensibility is also deeply informed by a successful career as a designer and executive creative director. Shar exhibits both nationally and internationally. She lives and works in the Near West Side Market District of Chicago, Illinois, USA.
How did you develop your distinct painting style? What motivated you to create work that is largely non-representational?
My approach to painting is a direct result of letting go of what I know and opening my mind and heart to the freedom of creating something from nothing. It’s certainly inevitable that my classical figurative realism training is a part of my artistic DNA. However, it’s the blank canvas that sparks my passion and starts me on an unknown journey. As much as I think of myself as an abstract painter, I find it nearly impossible to keep my work completely away from connections to the physical world. Throughout the paint application, figuration appears and disappears. Often, I will define an organic shape, pushing it forward to a place of familiarity. One viewer may see plant-like forms, animals, figures, or landscape, but another may only see abstract shapes and patterns. For me, the essence of my work is based in each viewer’s unique perception, allowing unlimited viewpoints within a single composition.
I fell in love with your paintings as soon as I saw them. They are so full of different layers and texture. Can you talk a bit about your painting process? How do you create this affect?
Early in my career I loved working with watercolors. I was drawn to the fluidity, transparency, and directness of the medium. As it happens with many artists, I fell into the intoxicating grip of oils. After years of painting without a true connection to the paint, I started experimenting again. My desire to use nature as my inspiration brought me back to water-based mediums. The quick drying time of acrylics, casein, Fashe, and latex give me the speed and rhythm I’m searching for. To get the desired linear quality, I combine the mediums with drawing tools including vine charcoal and acrylic pens. Paint pouring, paper relief techniques, and scraping tools also play a big part of my practice. Together they help me create translucent layers, abraded textures, and delicate, gestural organic forms that are a signature of my work.
For me, each of your paintings have such a clear, thought-out color palette. How important is color to your work?
Color is one of the most personal aspects of my work. It’s a powerful way to express emotion and is a true extension of my visual language. My early color theory studies using the Munsell system, combined with years of painting, give me the confidence to trust my instincts when combining pigments. Mixing an unexpected color that sits perfectly next to its complement or combining warms and cools to get just the right gray has become second nature.
As each painting’s palette is unique, I do take time to think through my color choices before getting started. On occasion, I’ll use a color isolating app with one of my favorite photos as a starting point for color inspiration. There are a number of apps available, I happen to use one called Color Viewfinder. This process is a quick and easy way to create a palette that harmonizes perfectly.
Many of your paintings are titled FloraFaunaFigure. Can you tell us about your connection to nature and how this influences your artwork?
I paint outdoors so I can paint indoors. Plein air painting brings my love of nature and my passion for painting together seamlessly. During the summer I participate in national plein air painting events. My objective is not to capture the realism of what I see, but to “gather truths” from nature’s beauty. To build an inventory of textures, colors, and sensations that I will draw upon once I’m back in my studio. Painting “in” nature lets me see, smell, and feel the elements with such intensity they’ve become an innate part of my visual language.
There is an undeniable organic quality to your paintings. Is there much planning involved in your process, or do you mostly experiment with these natural forms directly on the canvas?
The organic qualities of my work stem from my love and respect for nature with its mysterious repetition of line and form. With my direct painting approach there isn’t much forethought that happens. One mark leads to the next as I trust my intuition to guide my choices. I rarely hesitate to cover a precious moment in a painting if I think it needs to be taken further.
When you experience a creative block, what do you do to find inspiration and/or motivation?
If it’s a minor distraction, I’ll take a break from making work and head over to the Garfield Park Conservatory for an emersion in its stunning botanical gardens or spend an afternoon at one of Chicago’s fabulous museums. A quick diversion usually does the trick.
However, if I’m having a substantial block, as we all do, I go for experimentation. Trying new mediums, painting surfaces, and/or adding new techniques to my process. My Serendipitous Series: Finding the beauty in the space between the known and unknown, is a great example. These works came at one of those times. I used familiar mediums but tried painting on acetate and layering several sheets to create translucency and depth. It was an exciting diversion that got my creative juices flowing and put me back on track.
I understand several galleries currently represent you, including Gallery 1871, where I was first introduced to your work. What tips can you offer artists that are looking to gain gallery representation? How did you create solid relationships with galleries and how did you approach them?
Over the past several years, Instagram has been my go-to way of finding galleries and artists I admire. Once I’ve found the galleries that I think are a good fit, I spend time doing research before contacting the director. I usually feel that if they handle similar artists and represent others that are complimentary to my work, that’s a good thing. If they are good promoters and feature their artists in cross media platforms, I know I’ll get the promotion I need to be successful. On the other hand, if the median range of work is priced much higher or lower than mine, I know the fit is questionable.
In regards to keeping a strong working relationship with your galleries, for me it boils down to treating your creative and business sides of your practice with the same amount of professionalism. If you’ve had other jobs/careers it helps to use skills you may have already developed. Being organized, following through, meeting deadlines, and making sure the work you submit is your absolute best shows that you are serious and respectful of the relationship.
Although 2020 was a challenging year to say the least, what would you say was a highlight from this past year? Name an accomplishment from 2020 (no matter how big or small!) that you are proud of.
There’s a feeling of excitement I get when I know a painting works on many levels. In 2020, I finished FaunaFloraFigure147 and knew it was one of those paintings. It placed second in International Artist’s Abstract Art Challenge, was awarded Brush and Palette Award in the Viewpoint 52 National Juried Art Competition, sold to a new collector, and brought me two new commissions. It’s amazing how one painting was responsible for so many smiles in such a troubling year.
Do you have anything coming up that you would like to share?
I do. I have a one person show at Foster/White Gallery, Seattle WA, a two person show with artist Brian Sindler at Peterson Contemporary, Bend OR, and a group show at the Evanston Art Center, Chicago coming up in 2022. I’m also working on a show for Nuart Gallery, Santa Fe, NM for my new series of works on paper called Night Sight: Mind’s eye illumination through an unforeseen darkness. This body of work is incredibly special to me. It was inspired by a compelling series of visions I encountered as an after-effect of an abrupt, game-changing health event I experienced earlier this year. For months the inspiration from those visions flowed effortlessly from mind to paper, leaving me with a beautiful gift from a disorienting time.