Jen Toplak is our June 2012 Artist of the Month. Her oil painting, Gaia (mother nature), is a finalist in the landscape/interior category of The Artist’s Magazine’s 28th Annual Art Competition. “I love oil because the medium is so permissive, the colors are so vibrant and oil allows me to work the piece by adding layers, molding shapes and building volumes until I achieve the exact result I have preconceived,” says Toplak. “My quest for perfection takes me into the realm of realism, representing a subject as I see it in my mind.”
I am inspired by nature and its beauty, and the human figure and its perfection. I will never forget William Bouguereau’s statement to which I completely relate: “The instinct for art is innate. First, one has to love nature with all one’s heart and soul, and be able to study and admire it for hours on end. Everything is in nature. A plant, a leaf, a blade of grass should be the subjects of infinite and fruitful meditations; for the artist, a cloud floating in the sky has a form and the form affords him joy, helps him think.” –– William A. Bouguereau.
Inspiration for Gaia (mother nature)
I adore nature, and I am very concerned about the environment and the effects of global warming. Many people are either indifferent or skeptical about global warming and environmental deterioration. I use my talent to promote awareness of the scope and severity of these issues and to educate, inspire, motivate and to hopefully create a positive change in the behaviors of those who see my pieces. Portraying the human figure in relation with elements of nature and recycling symbols speaks about the ideal, harmonious relation between humans and nature and the profound need for action.
Gaia (mother nature) is an answer to the question I have long pondered in my mind: “How can I, as an artist, represent the strong relation we (humans) have with nature?” We come from nature, we evolved from it and we definitely need nature for our survival. As a mother, nature nurtures, protects and sustains us. Portraying a delicate baby inside a majestic tree in the fetal position (as in a mother’s womb) is a clear message of the exquisite, unique and essential bonding we need to promote for the preservation of life.
In order to create this magical painting, I had to find a tree that would be majestic and attractive, so I went for long hikes in the woods of North Carolina, taking pictures of whatever interested me. I tried working with some of the images but the results were not pleasing. Weeks later while working on other paintings, I had the opportunity to go zip lining; I was so excited to be so deep into the forest and high on the tree and in close contact with nature, feeling like a bird flying from branch to branch on top of the canopy trees. I soon came across this fantastic tree with twisted branches and a thick trunk; it was vibrant and filled with life. I took as many pictures as I could before I got back into the zip line and descended to the next station. Later at home, while reviewing pictures to post on the web to document my experience for my friends and family, I was surprised to find this almost perfect scene with the perfect tree for my long desired Gaia painting.
My favorite part of Gaia’s creation process came in the middle of the long, standing-up painting session. Feeling a bit tired and thirsty, I decided to go and get a glass of water, and when I came back into the studio walking towards the canvas, I heard crickets and birds singing; I found myself living a “4D” experience, as I call it. I realized that my iTunes had shuffled to play a relaxing meditation song with forest sounds. I immediately decided to make the arrangements to exhibit the painting using that music.
Toplak’s Paining Process
My process starts with the birth of the idea. Sometimes the idea comes in a dream, during my morning meditation or as an answer to a question that will fulfill my purpose, which at the moment is to create environmental awareness.
Next, I do a quick, loose pencil sketch to analyze the relation of elements and composition. I determine the size of the canvas, build it and tone it with middle-tone gray. If the idea is easy to bring to reality, I look for the model, the objects and whatever is needed based on the sketch. I set it all together, adjust the lighting and proceed to work on the drawing.
Preferably I work from life but if having the model for long poses is not possible, I organize a photo shoot and take hundreds of reference pictures. I use Photoshop to create the final study where I have achieved the best composition through work on color harmonies, light and color balance and the proper setting of my focal point. Using this final sketch as reference, I start drawing using the grid in combination with measuring tools like a proportional divider to create an accurate, scaled, detailed, life size silhouette which I fix to the linen with India ink.
When the drawing is ready, I apply the first coat of paint going from dark to light, using fast, large, loose brushstrokes across the whole canvas. Then I make sure I have delicately blended all edges to the desired softness, and I smooth out brushstrokes before the painting dries. I work fat-over-lean as I build my layers up; cold press linseed oil is the choice for the fatter layers. The second and third layers are worked wet into wet until images are brought into full focus, the forms refined, the modeling developed to finish, the accents and refinements of colors attended to, details rendered, facial expressions adjusted and subtleties added until the desired effect is achieved or when painting becomes slightly tacky. A minimum of three layers are applied, with more as needed in critical areas like faces and hands. I like keeping my darks transparent and thin and my lights very opaque and thick; I mix colors right on the palette as I need them, which allows me to play with many different shades of the same color. The highlights are placed last, applied wet-into-wet with a fully loaded brush.
How Toplak Came to Art
When I was growing up in Venezuela, I showed talent for the arts, fascination for science and love for people. I came to the United States 11 years ago with the intention of becoming a plastic surgeon, and after renewing my medical license, I married a very successful man who travels a lot. In order to be more mobile and flexible, I decided not to go for the surgical specialty but instead to dedicate my time to family and find something enjoyable to do to keep me busy.
I took an art class at a local arts and crafts store; my technical skills improved fairly quickly, and I was highly motivated to pursue more serious study and instruction. I found a wonderful Israeli artist named Eva Roffe who teaches from her studio. She taught the Old Masters techniques, focusing specially on Leonardo da Vinci’s grisaille and glazing. She also taught me to review and analyze the techniques of the Old Masters and the living masters, which gave me significant direction, tools and techniques to express my creativity. I next studied with a Spanish artist, Alberto Pancorbo. Under his instruction I made many copies from the works of the Old Masters including Rembrandt, Bouguereau, Fragonard, Sully Thomas, Leon Perrault, Herbert Draper, S. Anderson and Guido Reni. Through these exercises I learned and improved the use of color, importance of composition, lighting and control of the brushstroke. The progress I achieved through my study with him gave me the desire to become a professional artist.
I then took classes with a Cuban artist, Violeta Roque de Arana, a graduate of San Alejandro School in Havana, which is considered the best art school in Latin America. Violeta is a hyper-realist, so her commitments to perfection and close attention to detail made me strive for the right perspective, proportions and balance. However, it has been working on my own that has allowed me to figure out the strengths and weaknesses I have, the best ways to achieve a particular effect and ways and tricks to create atmosphere and to portray the depth I desire. Becoming a professional artist has been very demanding and time consuming. Nevertheless, working in what I love has been very rewarding.
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