Every year, artists travel through Europe to discover the perfect composition for their next painting. Others seek to copy masterworks from prestigious museums in order to develop their work. But for artist Karen Noles, inspiration was right in her backyard the whole time. Noles lives on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana, an open reservation that also houses non-Native Americans like herself. “One day I had some friends tell me, ?Karen, you need to paint something that reflects the area that you live in.”
Noles attended a local art show featuring a traditional Blackfeet dance performance. “It was there that I photographed a young Blackfeet girl,” she says, “I?d always been interested in portraiture and children, so she became a model for my next painting.” Noles began painting more Native American children and, according to the artist, everything fell into place. “It just started to click,” she explains. “Everything I painted sold, collectors liked it, and there was a demand for it. So it was just a matter of finding my niche, something that I found appealing on a regular basis.”
Her interaction with the Native Americans in her community also inspired Noles to add their traditional dress and decoration to her artwork. “I really hadn?t been exposed to the Native American culture or the way they decorated their clothing, but when I first started painting their portraits I started getting interested,” she says. “I bought thousands of dollars worth of reference books, researched at libraries and photographed museum collections. I?ve also met private collectors of Native American artifacts who?ve let me use some of their pieces in my paintings.” In her painting Little White Feather (above, left), the young model is wearing a traditional Blackfeet dress borrowed from a private collector.
To begin each composition, Noles looks through piles of research material on Native American life. She then photographs her live models. “I find my models by going to powwows, school classrooms, child day cares and even shopping at the grocery store,” the artist says. “It?s a small enough community that I can work with them on a regular basis.” After she has thoroughly studied her subject, Noles uses her photos to construct a drawing that she?ll later transfer to canvas. “Just getting children to dress up, sit still and be natural is a challenge in itself,” she laughs. “So it would be impossible to do the kind of work I do with a live model and capture all the detail.”
Although her style requires many subtle layers of oil paint and careful modeling, the finishing touches of detail are what make painting enjoyable for the artist. “When the portrait begins to come alive—when they can almost speak,” Noles says, “that?s my favorite part. That?s when it?s exciting.”
David Hettinger, of Aurora, Illinois, credits his earliest art education to the Walter Foster art books How to Draw Horses and How to Draw Dogs (Walter Foster Publishing). He later studied at the American Academy of Art in Chicago and with the artists Richard Schmid and David Leffel. He?s won several awards for his work, many of them from the Oil Painters of America.