Libby Tolley: The Road to Perfection

Most painters are more than happy to finish a painting. In fact, many would admit to being desperate now and then. Elizabeth “Libby” Tolley is similar to other artists in this respect, but finishing a painting probably means something a bit different to her. That’s because when she completes a painting she’s likely to go on to repaint it as many times as necessary to get what she wants out of the scene. It’s part of a process in which her final work is the result of a series of paintings that are progressively larger and more complex, and they benefit from knowledge that can’t be gained any other way.

All Roads Lead North, Hwy. 1, Cambria (oil, 24×36)

It’s a working method that’s been slowly developing throughout Tolley’s career as an artist. “I think what’s happening is that I’m finally believing in the idea of a process vs. just making a painting and being done with it,” she says. “By painting a series I’m making a long-term commitment to painting a site, to stay with it and work through the problems. With a series there are always new problems; things show up about how it could be different. With just a one-shot deal those questions don’t arise. I didn’t start painting series overnight—I just kept asking myself what I needed to do to become a better painter.”

“I’m a pretty representational painter, but I’m not a copyist,” she continues. “When I’m on location I choose a variety of different elements to make a composition. I’m not just taking what I see—I’m adding and deleting and moving things around. We each see through our own eyes, and we’re using our hearts and our brains in designing a painting. I’m not a painter who just puts paint on a canvas and it becomes something.”

“I’ve realized that I’m the kind of painter who just has to go out and do something. I have to go out and understand what I’m painting, hands-on,” she says. “Why does my work do well now? Because I take the time to thoroughly understand it.”

October Morning Reflections (oil, 14×18)

With a large painting this understanding is especially important, Tolley says, and it always requires patience. “Right now there’s an image I’ve been thinking about for a year. For a whole year I’ve been thinking about how I’m going to create this 30×48 painting. But when I finally step up to it, I’ll already know where to go and how I’m going to get there. There has to be a process; there has to be a map for approaching a large painting like that. You have to know where you’re going in order to know when you’ve arrived.”

Dana Brown, of Huntsville, Alabama, studied privately with watercolor artist and instructor Chuck Long and attended classes at Arrowmont Arts and Crafts School in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. She’s exhibited and won awards in shows nationwide. Brown is a signature member of the Watercolor Society of Alabama and a member of several other watercolor and art groups as well.

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