Harness the Energy

Capturing the energy of a scene can be one of the most difficult challenges an artist faces. It requires more than a realistic rendering?it?s about giving life to the piece. The solution for Santa Barbara, California, artist Kate Yarbrough is a fast approach to her subject. “I like to paint quickly. I almost never sketch with a pencil,” she says. “I like to draw with my brush.”


Ellwood Bluffs (oil, 24×36) was a finalist in The Artist?s Magazine?s 2001 Art Competition.

Starting with a dark color and then painting in the shapes, Yarbrough hammers out the design in color. From there she washes on the lighter shapes, always working wet-into-wet. “I don?t like a lot of detail,” she says. “It’s satisfying when you’re painting part-time like I have to–you want to see results quickly–so I use big brushes and paint alla prima.” Maintaining visible brushstrokes throughout the process is also important to Yarbrough, who prefers a painterly approach to photorealism.

Living in a town with so many inspiring scenes and so many artists is both a blessing and a struggle for Yarbrough. “So many people in Santa Barbara paint that it?s a challenge to do something well and do something unique,” she says. “We keep each other on our toes.” As with many Santa Barbara painters, plein air painting helps keep Yarbrough?s work fresh. She was struck by the scene in Ellwood Bluffs (above, left), while hiking with a friend. “Late afternoon on the bluffs is just arresting,” she says. “The bluffs are usually tan or white, but they just go golden at the end of the day.” Yarbrough returned to paint the scene on location and then went to a larger format in the studio. As with practically all her paintings, she relied on a limited palette to re-create the scene. Alizarin crimson, viridian green, cadmium red, cadmium yellow, ultramarine blue and white are her staples, but she sometimes buys a new color if the painting demands something she can?t mix from these.

Although she developed a love of art at an early age, it wasn?t until recently that she began working as a part-time graphic designer and part-time fine artist. After studying at the Academy of Art in Memphis, Tennessee, Yarbrough began working in commercial art in the late ?60s. When she moved to the West Coast, she took more art classes at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Santa Barbara City College. But working full-time, left her little time or energy for her fine art. Now that she?s devoting more time her own work, she says she?s much more fulfilled. “I had to decide which I?d rather do, have a comfortable salary or struggle a little bit but get to paint,” she says. “Commercial art is governed by your vendors and clients, whereas your personal art is your own. It?s been very liberating and exciting.”

A native of Nashville, Tennessee, Michael Shane Neal began his career as a portrait artist in college and has been an instructor for nearly 10 years. His work includes private, corporate and institutional portraits for collections all across the country. He’s a member of many organizations, including the National Arts Club of New York City, the Allied Artists of America and the Portrait Society of America, at whose 2001 exhibition he won the Grand Prize.

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