Stillness and Light
Lea Colie Wight conveys a contemplative mood with a palette whose blues and turquoises evoke her home by the sea.
By Rosemary Barrett Seidner
With a color sensibility that warms the traditionally cool colors that constitute her palette, Lea Colie Wight sets out to capture the simplicity and intimacy of the everyday, whether as a still life, an interior scene or a figure study. The varied turquoise shades of ocean waves are frequently visible in the objects she chooses to paint, as well as in her interpretation of light and shadow. “I respond strongly to color and, consequently, color relationships are a big element in my work,” she explains. “I use turquoise frequently because the color is such a pleasure to paint. The way that turquoise changes, depending on the color of the light hitting it, is lovely. I live near the ocean and that color shows up a lot in the waves as well as in the cottage furniture in the homes around me.”
Though not able to recall a time when she was not passionate about becoming an artist, she acknowledges that the path was not always smooth. “During my time in college,” she says, “I began to work in pastel because I was so frustrated at the lack of technical instruction in oil. The prevailing view at the time seemed to be that ‘no instruction is good instruction.’ A good comparison would be teaching music by opening the door to a room full of instruments and letting students have at it! I was lucky that I had a wonderful drawing teacher, Paul Olson, and pastel seemed a natural step from drawing into color.”
From Pastel to Oil and Back Again
Accordingly, Wight threw herself into the study of pastel on her own until she found at Studio Incamminati, in Philadelphia, the level of study for which she’d been searching. Under the tutelage of Nelson Shanks and others, she made the switch to oil and has been working primarily in that medium ever since. She didn’t, however, abandon pastel. In fact, she likes alternating between the media: “I feel as if I’m painting with the pastels and drawing with the oils. It’s curious!”
Wight continues to study and learn from the artists at Studio Incamminati, where she now teaches. “I admire artists who challenge themselves,” she says, “instead of painting the same painting again and again. Periodically, at the workshops we teach at Studio Incamminati, a top-level painter with global gallery representation will attend—as a student. This to me is the sign of a true artist—someone who wants all the information that’s out there; someone who’s confident in the knowledge and ability he or she already has and wants to expand upon it.”
Rather than seek out and then set up the objects in a still life, Wight comes upon arrangements in her home or in the homes of friends. “What I’m after is capturing the sanctuary and comfort of home,” she says. “I think of the moment when you finally get there—when you can be still and relax. It’s probably because my life is so hectic and cluttered! The stillness, solitude and peace of a setting are what I find compelling, and the play of light creates that stillness.”
This process is random and intuitive: “I sometimes begin by roaming around my house, responding to the way light plays on surfaces and objects, moving things around to optimize the effect,” she says. She will notice random still lifes that have just happened on their own; sometimes she’ll find one interesting object and create a still life around it. The goal is to make the setup seem accidental. “When I set something up in my studio, I want it to feel like a real setting—that lives are taking place around the still life.” She admits that she personifies objects. “I feel as if things carry something about the person attached to them,” she explains. “There’s a human quality to the things I choose. I’m really painting a portrait of the person they belong to or represent.”
Importance of a Color Study
Wight starts with small value sketches to determine the composition. Then she makes a color study “to get a grip on the main values and color relationships,” she says. “I’m interested in the main color and principal value of each big mass.” When she starts working on canvas or paper, her first marks are gestural; then she blocks in the masses to check the proportions. “Taking time to block in correctly means not having to make big adjustments later on,” she says. In this block-in stage, she tries to stand and paint far away from the surface so she can see more objectively.
The first color notes are also big statements, but she just uses the residue from cleaning her brush and wiping it. This thin layer may be the only layer of color on the surface in some places. Dry by the next day, “the colors won’t be fully realized because of the thin body of the paint, which is another reason it’s helpful to have worked on a color study first.” On the second day, Wight finds one or two color planes within the large shapes over the entire surface to work on. “I paint standing back from the canvas as far as I can, constantly scanning the whole canvas.”
In determining her approach, time of day is important. “I’m challenged,” she says, “by the relationship between natural light and artificial light—and the way, as the light dims outside, the interior, artificial light asserts itself.”
Beneath all her pictures is an implicit narrative. The objects she comes upon or arranges, the rooms she looks into, the models she places in a scene—all suggest past occasions and inner lives. Her pictures meditate on the way we observe, interpret and retell. As an indication of what inspires her, she cites this example: “I was painting an interior scene through a hallway door into a room that was originally a child’s room and is now a guest room. The room is filled with furniture from my grandmother’s home, and the pieces hold memories for me. I loved the way the light spilled in through two windows, crisscrossing, weaving around the furniture and floor. As I was setting up one day, I saw the bed reflected in the bureau mirror, and the view completely captivated me. There was a beautiful quietness: the light pouring in, creating a soft, warm pool of shadow.” She then started another painting, working on two at the same time.
The artist paints what’s there and evokes what’s not there. She often paints passageways that invite the viewer to look through an open door. “I’m drawn to views that take you from room to room. I want there to be a sense of looking inside without seeing the whole room. I want the viewer to feel that she is within the setting. As with my still lifes, these interiors are about the people who live there—or those who are absent. In a poem I love by Edna St. Vincent Millay, “Interim,” the speaker describes coming inside after a funeral and finding a desk as the person had left it. The first line is “The room is full of you!”
Wight’s rooms, too, are full of presences; her paintings provoke the viewer to reflect on the present and the past—a state of mind that mirrors what the artist feels in front of the easel. “I’m focused and alert. I send the chattering side of my head off to occupy itself in silence—as I think about people and experiences the objects suggest—what I can remember or imagine.
Born in Philadelphia, Lea Colie Wight earned a bachelor of fine arts degree from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in 1974. She studied at Studio Incamminati, an intensive atelier founded by Nelson Shanks, and now teaches there. She was named one of the top 15 artists at both the 2009 and the 2010 Portrait Society of America International competitions and exhibitions. To learn more, visit her website at www.leawight.com.
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