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The Story of One Artist’s Return to Painting

It took Linda Mutti three decades to return to painting, but her impressionistic landscapes were worth the wait.

By Amy Leibrock

Field of Dreams (pastel, 12×16) by Linda Mutti

Linda Mutti has achieved a number of honors for her luminous, impressionistic pastels in recent years, and the Santa Barbara, Calif.-based artist lights up when she talks about painting. “It’s my passion,” she says. “It gives structure to my life. I’ve met people from all over the world I never would’ve known. I’ve traveled to places I never would’ve gone.” With all she’s accomplished and the enthusiasm she exudes, it’s hard to believe Mutti almost didn’t become an artist. This is the story of Mutti’s return to painting after a three-decade sabbatical.

Early Discouragement

As a child, Mutti says she couldn’t resist drawing or painting; it was just a part of who she was. She’d answer the inevitable “What do you want to be when you grow up?” question with a definitive answer: “an artist.” And she was on track to become one when she decided to be an art major in college in the 1960s. But, a discouraging experience caused Mutti to put her dream on hold for 30 years. “When I got to the university system, one of my professors came in with his latest art project,” she explains. “It was two sails stapled together, stuffed and spray-painted, and I thought, I don’t understand this. I’m not an artist. I can’t make a living at this.”

Mutti changed majors and turned to creative outlets such as stained glass and ceramics while raising her children. “But being a fine artist was always there, always an urge,” she says. “It was just a part of me.” When her children were older, Mutti discovered a series of adult education classes taught by prominent teachers. “It opened my eyes to the possibilities of what was going on in my town and nationally. And I started painting again,” she says.

Every Cloud Has a Silver Lining (pastel, 12×16) by Linda Mutti

Discovering Pastel

The artist began by exploring oil painting, but found the results “boring,” because she didn’t yet understand color. When she bought some pastels to use for a sidewalk-painting festival in 2000, however, she says it was a life- changing experience. “With pastels, you can pick up a crazy color and use it immediately,” she says. “My work took a 180-degree change in direction. It became brighter, more vibrant. The immediacy and spontaneity are what did it for me.”

Self-Esteem Boost

After all those years away from art, Mutti had some self-esteem building to do. She’d take workshops, but she’d hide her work. “I didn’t want anyone seeing what I was doing,” she says. “I thought I was terrible.” But as she logged more “miles on paper,” as she puts it, the self-doubt started to fade.

Mutti credits a lot of her psychological growth in the arts to Richard McKinley, whom she’s been studying with on and off for the past eight years. “One of the biggest lessons he has taught me is to let go of the painting you’re doing. Don’t let it become precious. That will just choke you. You’re not going to paint a winner every time — nobody does — so let go of that idea. Knowing that you learn from the failed paintings? That’s really freeing.”

Light Show (pastel, 16×20) by Linda Mutti

Foundational Techniques

Part of Mutti’s confidence boost came from incorporating some of the techniques she learned from McKinley and other teachers, such as Kim Lordier, Glenna Hartmann, and Albert Handell, into her repertoire, along with developing her own approaches. Her go-to method for underpainting, for instance, is watercolor, which works well for painting en plein air.

A Go-To Method for Underpainting

“All I have to do is take water outside with me,” Mutti says. “It will run and drip and give me permission to do something very, very loose. It’s really freeing, because my nature is that of an illustrator.” She describes an example of how a violet drip running out of the shadow of a tree into the grasses can help marry that shadow area into the grass when coming back in with pastel. “It can do a lot of the work for you,” she says.

Mutti also will use a pastel block-in as an underpainting, putting in the major shapes in a simplified value format and then using turpentine to paint with it to create a notan. Other times, she’ll use a very thin oil paint wash to create interesting effects. “It causes blooms in the pastel where it pulls pigment in organic, beautiful ways,” she says. “Sometimes I’ll do something crazy, like an underpainting in complementary colors. Little flecks of orange peeking through a blue sky, for example, can be exciting, as can flecks of red underneath a tree. The underpainting treatment helps me let the painting direct the way it wants to go; it has a mind of its own.”

Regardless of how Mutti approaches the underpainting, experience has taught her the importance of working out values and composition early in the process. “This is something I fought for a very long time because I was so excited to jump into the painting,” the artist says. “Now I use the notan and value sketch to work out the composition, try different formats, determine what I want to do, and scale it up on my paper. And all the while, in my head, I’m telling myself to slow down.”

Sand Harbor (pastel, 12×16) by Linda Mutti

The Dream of the Painting

When Mutti started painting after a three-decade sabbatical, animal portraits were her first choice of subject. She painted on velour paper using very soft Sennelier pastels. “It was like spreading butter,” she says, “yummy and wonderful.” Then she began to get interested in landscapes, but didn’t know where to start.

A workshop with Handell inspired her to switch to sanded paper — first Wallis and now UART — and drier pastels. She has just about every brand of pastel, but especially loves Terry Ludwig and Mount Vision. The tactile experience is different, but just as satisfying. “I really love dragging the pastel across really course paper. It will just hit the tops of the bits of sand on the paper to create a speckly effect —and it makes a great ‘screnchy’ sound,” she says.

Shapely Scenes

Living in Santa Barbara, Mutti is a half-hour or less drive from a variety of beautiful vistas — mountains, oceans, bluffs — that inspire her paintings. “I like scenes that have big shapes,” she says. “A view has to speak to me on an inner level. Mornings and afternoons are my favorite times to paint, because the color is more saturated. When I find the scene that moves me, I can feel that excitement. I call it ‘the dream of my painting.’ All the excitement and the hope is still there, alive and well.”

The Feel of the Day

Sometimes that dream involves trees reflected in the water or craggy ocean cliffs, but it’s usually the feel of the day that moves Mutti to paint. “For a while I wanted to paint gray days,” she says. “I wanted to explore the idea that there’s so much color even when it’s not a sunny day. A foggy day has moisture in the air, and the water droplets refract the light just like a rainbow.” So far, she’s done five “gray” paintings, including Every Cloud Has a Silver Lining, which received honorable mention in the 17th Annual Pastel 100 competition (April 2016 issue of Pastel Journal).

When painting en plein air, Mutti uses a Heilman backpack-sized box mounted on a tripod with paper towels bungee-corded to it. If she doesn’t finish painting on site, she’ll go back another day to complete her work. Otherwise, she may finish the painting in the studio by using reference photos, but she doesn’t like to rely on them too much. “You can’t really paint from reference photos unless you understand what the scene really looked like and where the camera is going to lie to you,” she says. “The camera will take away some of the beautiful rich colors that are in your shadows and squish down the mountains.”

After the Storm (pastel, 18×24) by Linda Mutti

There’s Glory in the Grays

Mutti arranges her pastels by value and color in her studio and in her plein air box. She keeps grays on the right-hand side, where, as a right- hander, she’s more likely to grab them. “Grays are important to me. They can be rich and beautiful and calm down very saturated color,” she says. “I don’t mix them with the saturated colors in my box because they’d look muddy in comparison, and then I’d probably never use them.”

While Mutti may be exacting with her pastel organization, she’s playful when using them. “I’ll tip the pastel up on its end, and I’ll use that sharp edge and roll the pastel around that edge. It produces a nice marking line that’s great to use in foliage. If I vary the pressure, then I’ll get beautifully organic lines that might even skip a little bit. I’ll also use the pastel on its full-length side in an up-and-down motion to draw in lines for grasses.”

Check the Values

As she works, Mutti checks the values by taking a black-and-white photo of her painting using her iPhone. “I love color so much that sometimes I can’t see when I’m off in the value,” she says. A color snapshot will help her notice areas that need more work. “It’s funny how the mind works,” she says. “If I look at a painting in a photo or in a mirror, I’ll see things leaning in a direction that I need to correct.”

Meanwhile, Mutti’s work continues to evolve. She wants to work on larger pieces that combine watercolor and pastel, and she also may try her hand at still life. “I keep having this vision of cut cantaloupe with light coming through the thinner part,” she says.

But no matter what she’s painting, Mutti happily and confidently calls herself an artist now. “When I started taking the adult education classes, we’d go outside and paint, and I’d still say I ‘want’ to be an artist,” she says. “One day a few years later, I said, you know what, I am an artist. It was just a change in mindset. It’s like a dream really came true.”

Learn more about Linda Mutti and see more of her work at and on her Instagram page, @lindamutti.

A version of this article was originally found in Pastel Journal.

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