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Art et peinture

How to Create Powerful Magical Realism in Acrylic

Learn how Andrea Kowch transports viewers into eerie landscapes laden with stories dense with magic.

By Louise B. Hafesh

The Feast (acrylic on canvas, 60×84) by Andrea Kowch

“Art chose me,” states Andrea Kowch. As a child, enticed by figurative art and creating her own visual narratives, she loved painting above anything else. And so her choice to follow that passion at all costs evolved naturally. “Growing up I would make countless colored drawings of scenes and people. I often detailed illustrations to accompany my school writing assignments.”

The largely self-taught artist began painting in earnest around age 12 after getting her first canvas and set of acrylic paints. “I spent all of my grade school summer breaks painting with the old masters as my guides. I tried to replicate the realism of famous paintings seen in books,” she continues. “It wasn’t until high school, though, after being awarded several top regional and national honors by the Scholastic Art Awards, that I also realized, okay, this is something I love to do and now feel truly destined to do.”

And destiny would continue to be kind to the emerging painter. She went on to garner major industry honors and scholarships; have numerous solo, group and museum exhibitions; illustrate two books, and be ranked in the top 2 percent of young American talent as a 2005 award winner and alumnus of the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts. In addition, in 2014, Kowch was among only eight American artists selected nationally by the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), Jacksonville, Fla. to represent contemporary realist painting in America today.

Light Keepers (acrylic on canvas, 60×72) by Andrea Kowch

Unerring Connections

Accolades aside, the artist, who says she’s driven to paint, admits to also having an obsessive need to exceed her own expectations. “Throwing myself entirely into my paintings, I spend days immersed in the progression of my work. I’ll be reflecting, evaluating, honing, perfecting, evolving, exploring, and thinking. The list is endless. All I know is that I do what I do because I simply must.”

Nurturing a Storyline

Known for creating powerful magical realism, Andrea Kowch casts a spell over her viewers. She is a master of constructing an underlying current of mystery, palpable tension, symbolism, and a compelling foreboding — all carefully crafted before ever even putting paint to canvas. “My process involves the whole gamut of thinking, researching, photographing, and sketching,” she says. “I like getting into my zone by usually putting on favorite music and feeling my way toward a concept. I then jot down various words and make lists, stream-of-consciousness style. Sometimes a drive through the countryside is needed to refresh and spark new ideas. Other times images flash in my mind in their entirety. “

“Once I feel an idea is solid enough to pursue, I begin brainstorming compositions through rough thumbnails and, afterwards, put together outfits and set up a photoshoot with my models.”

The Cape (acrylic on canvas, 60×84) by Andrea Kowch

A Hands-On Approach

Kowch next selects her best shots. To get a sense of whether or not all the elements will work together, she does a quick mock-up of a scene using various pieces of photo references that she has taken. In that way, when it’s time to do a more detailed drawing (usually using graphite pencils), she can finalize the placement of all the details to complete her vision, solving any issues beforehand and limiting the possibility of unwanted surprises popping up later on in the painting process.

“Any changes that occur in between the final drawing and final painting happen due to myriad factors, anywhere from a change in concept to a change in composition — whatever the goal happens to be at the time. Once I move to the canvas and begin blocking in, the actual painting is well underway, heading toward completion. The excitement is sizzling.” At this point, the pace begins to slow as Kowch focuses on the detail work. “Eventually, that will merge into the ‘touch-up’ (and final) stage. That’s when I’m reworking, perfecting, and critiquing results until I’m satisfied that everything is polished and refined.”

Getting to that point, though, can prove unpredictable—taking her anywhere from a few days to even a few extra weeks. “At the same time, I must stay cognizant of the ever- present danger of overworking,” she says, adding that a fresh perspective helps to avoid that trap. Hence, she frequently observes a piece from a distance and in various types of lighting while it’s in progress.

Pecking Order (acrylic on canvas, 20×16) by Andrea Kowch

Everything in Tandem

Explaining her preference for acrylics versus oils, Andrea Kowch admits, “I’ve developed a level of familiarity and comfort with them over the years; I love their versatility (allowing me to layer and create detail), fast drying time, and the fact that they’re nontoxic, which is extremely important to me and the environment.” Unlike many artists, however, she neither mixes mediums into her paints to “keep them wet” longer, nor premixes colors, preferring to concoct combinations as she paints. Discussing other aspects of her process, she says: “When it comes to creating my paintings, everything works in tandem, really. Each painting is an extension of the other in some way. Like snapshots of a larger story, they are all various chapters in the web that is my life and musings.”

Her personal journey is a common thread that carries through her work. Kowch says she spends a lot of quiet time in her studio “making order out of chaos and chaos out of order,” with the goal of exciting viewers’ senses, igniting their imagination and transporting them on a journey into her dreamlike, metaphorical world. “By creating visual narratives, I want people to see all the components of our nature in a universal light. What some may see in my work as intense or disturbing others may see as beautiful and liberating. It’s all a matter of perception. My job is not to dictate; it’s to open minds and invite dialogue.”

Dawning (acrylic on canvas, 14×11) by Andrea Kowch

Old, New, Unexpected

To that end, striving to ensure that the deeper concepts at work remain fluid and open to interpretation, Kowch has developed a refined eye in terms of what appeals to her visually and emotionally, yet translates into captivating allegory. “In particular,” she says, “I enjoy taking inspiration from different parts of history and other eras, as well as the desolate, expansive landscapes of rural America, where I find parallels to the human condition in many profound ways. Combining those elements plays a significant role in my work as I hone ways to merge styles, scenes, and time periods to create a contemporary work that is yet a timeless ensemble of what’s old, what’s new and then what’s unexpected.”

Orchestrating reality is no easy task as Kowch freely admits when summing up her thoughts on making art. “To be an artist is to be tremendously brave. Creation requires immense energy and focus. It’s not always fun. It’s intense, serious work, and baring one’s soul to the world and leaving it up to viewers to decipher, judge, critique, and so on, is not something everyone can do. That’s why having passion is so important. It drives us to do incredible things. It’s what moves and transforms the world, no matter our mission.”

The Watch (acrylic on canvas, 30×30) by Andrea Kowch

Materials

  • Surface: “I have tried all kinds of canvases and have discovered that I do not have a strong preference for cotton over linen or vice versa. I enjoy both. Like always, I prime the canvas with several layers of acrylic gesso. I will continue to do research on finding the best, most archival canvas to work with.
  • Acrylics: Liquitex Professional
  • Palette: titanium white, Mars black, ultramarine blue, cadmium yellow, burnt umber, cadmium red
  • Brushes: “Brand names do not really concern me. I use brushes from many manufacturers. If the brush feels good in hand and performs the way I need it to, that’s all that really matters.”

Demo: Casting a Spell

1. Selecting the props and transferring the drawing

During a studio photo session with models, I choose the clothing and the table settings. On location, I take photos of the landscape that will become the background. Then I make a detailed sketch with graphite pencil on paper. I project this drawing onto primed canvas with the use of an inexpensive projector. This step ensures that the drawiing is transferred both accurately and quickly. Minor details, however, are left out. The purpose of this step is to establish the contours of the main shapes — to make sure they’re accurately proportioned in their newly enlarged state.


2 A and B. Painting the undercolor

Once the rough transfer is complete, I start working with paintbrush and acrylic paint. The canvas is first toned with a wash of either a warm or cool color such as gold or blue, depending on what will be the overall color temperature. Once the underpainting is dry, I then block in the rest of the painting. My palette has approximately (but no more than) six colors. Flesh is first established and formed in a cool, monochromatic palette of white, ultramarine blue, and black. I then slowly paint skin tones in layers.


3 A, B, C, D. Working on props and details of the scene

From individual grasses to fur to chipped teacups to embroidered and intricately patterned clothing and other varied textures — everything — like the flesh, is completed in layers. Layer after layer of acrylic creates a dense realism. In the case of clothing, all the drapery is first established (folds, highlights, shadows, etc.) to a 90 percent state of completion. The textile pat- tern is then painted on top, followed and enhanced by further layering of shadows and highlights.


4. Maintaining a connection

During the gradual formation of realistic flesh tones over the cool, blue ground, the likeness of the models continues to take shape, with warmer hues overlapping the cooler hues. The color red is carefully introduced toward the end of the process, serving as a final accent wash over key areas of the face and hands to infuse an extra feeling of life into the form.

The actual features of my models serve as solid foundations for the characters in my paintings and, though their true likenesses shine forth at least 90 percent of the time, there are times when I alter the faces slightly to better suit my own feelings and vision of who I want my characters to be in a particular setting and story.


Channeling Emotions

An Invitation (acrylic on canvas, 60×48) by Andrea Kowch

While painting the faces and expressions of my characters, I myself, for the duration of the process, must internally maintain the feelings that I want them to evoke in order for the work to achieve and carry the emotional tension I am seeking to express. This need to remain in a particular emotional state while painting, whether by way of channeling memories and feelings or exploring and pondering my current emotions, I focus on myself, trying to engage the wider, human experience in a deeper way.

I live through the characters in my scenes, fully bringing them into being, in much the same way that an actor becomes one with the character he/she is portraying. Like an actor, I strive to create, through the faces and gestures of my characters, the mood of the landscape or interior. In this case, the mood is eerie: Something ominous is about to happen, but not all of the characters are aware of it. Each character, each prop, each aspect of the story, is an extension of me. The elements come together in these series of paintings; each painting, through its myriad characters, becomes a kind of inner self-portrait of the artist as a young woman.

Meet the Artist

A Detroit native, Andrea Kowch attended the College for Creative Studies on scholarship and graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor of fine arts degree in 2009. Her paintings and works on paper reflect a wealth of influences from Northern Renaissance and American art to the rural landscapes and vernacular architecture of her native Michigan.

The artist paints and exhibits full-time in solo and group exhibitions at museums and galleries, including the Muskegon Museum of Art, where her solo retrospective “Dream Fields” debuted in 2013; the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) Jacksonville, Fla.; the Grand Rapids Art Museum (Mich.); ArtPrize; Art Basel (Miami); the Los Angeles Art Show; ArtHamptons; and SCOPE, which in 2012 named Kowch one of the top 100 emerging artists in the world. Find her work in public collections, among them the Muskegon Museum of Art (Mich.) and Grand Rapids Art Museum and in many significant private collections worldwide. Still residing and working in Michigan, Kowch takes pride in giving back to the creative community by serving as an adjunct professor at the College for Creative Studies and juror of various regional art exhibitions. New York-based RJD Gallery represents her exclusively. Learn more at andreakowch.com.

Louise B. Hafesh is an award-winning artist and writer for Artist’s Magazine. You can see examples of her work at louisebhafesh.com.

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