10 Questions for Elizabeth Mowry

In the June 2009 issue of The Pastel Journal, renowned pastelist Elizabeth Mowry traces the path her career has taken since she first appeared in the magazine 10 years ago. As part of our 10th Anniversary celebration, the artist answers 10 questions pertaining to a single painting, Poppy Fields (7×19), below.

Q: Why did you choose this particular subject?

A: I had just returned from a hiking trip in France, where fields were sometimes solid orange with poppies. I wanted to portray a believable abundance of flowers in a field here at home, using restraint.

Q: Was it painted with a destination in mind, or done just to please you?
A: I was simply still obsessed with the idea of how flowers arrange themselves so beautifully in nature. I had also learned the French word for poppy, coquelicot (co-QEH-lee-co). It was a fun word to say, and it made me smile. Sometimes it doesn’t take very much!

Q: How much planning went into this painting?     
A: Planning was minimal. The horizontal format gives the poppies ample space to spread in a natural way over the field. The higher horizon line gives the larger dominant space to the poppies, and the trees give support but don’t draw attention away from the wildflowers.

Q: Did you do any preliminary sketching or studies?
A: No. The subject here is minimal. The only real decision involved placement of the horizon with one pencil line and lightly indicating the tree placement and spacing. A light pencil line indicated the direction of light through the field, reminding me of the general area where the flowers would be a higher value.

Q: Would you briefly explain the process?
A: I started with the sky color, making it slightly darker on the left side, and over-toned with purple on the right side, leaving the paper clean where the foliage would be thickest. Next I applied low-chroma greens to the grassy areas, darkening the portions of the field outside the light pattern. I then worked on the trees along the horizon, creating interesting shapes using a grayish-green and a very delicate layer of purple. I thoughtfully worked the edges of the trees into the sky color, moving back and forth. The poppies and daisies made a pleasing natural pattern. Then I added a mere suggestion of fencing. When I heard the painting whisper “enough” I knew it was done. The total time involved, including breaks for assessing progress, was about three hours.

Q: Why did you choose this palette, and what about the colors expresses the place?
A: The soft variations of red-green complements suit the quiet elegance of the simple subject. I selected a low-chroma green and soft orange-red, paired with a sky color in the same color group as the flowers, rather than a more predictable blue, so the palette was uncompromised by the addition of another color. This was important, especially because the painting is small.

Q: What kinds of pastels and strokes did you use?
A: I applied soft pastels to the sky and grass using a light side stroke, assuring that the paper would remain relatively clean when I pulled the edges of the trees into the sky, and that the flower colors would stay fresh. A total of about ten to twelve pastels were used for this painting.

Q: Did you make any significant changes in the course of this painting?
A: The idea of adding daisies was a late thought, but they bloom at the same time as poppies, and the two are often found together in this country. The little creamy white strokes add a fresh color note.

Q: What particular aspect pleases you most?
A: I particularly like the space just right of center where the horizon line loses definition and leads to the path of soft light through the field.

Q: How did you frame this painting?
A: I framed it with a ½-inch deep mat covered in natural linen, a very plain one-inch warm, gold frame, and regular glass.

To read the full interview with Elizabeth Mowry, order your copy of The Pastel Journal’s June 2009 issue.

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