Ask an Artist, Part 2

Here is the second part with Tiffany and Claire’s questions for me and my answers on what it is like to be an artist and the creative process.  If you missed it, here is part one.

Again, I cannot speak for all artists, but I hope you find my answers on what being an artist is like interesting and insightful.


Q:  What inspires you?

A:  The small details around me.  I constantly observe my surroundings, and I always find something interesting, whether it is something like a small flower poking out of the ground, interestingly shaped clouds, or cracks in the pavement.  Even though I usually think “Oh, I want to paint that” when I see something that intrigues me visually, most of my observations do not end up becoming paintings.  It’s the ones that stick with me or stay on the edge of the mind that end up transformed in some way into artwork.

I also get inspired by seeing other artists’ work.  I don’t usually pull ideas from other artists, but seeing other art, particularly experiencing it in person, usually gives me motivation to make my own.  It reminds me that other people are going for it with their art, so why can’t that be me too?


Q:  What is the creative process like?

A:  I gather a lot of reference imagery.  So, I take a lot of photos.  Whenever I have my camera with me, I photograph all the small things I see that intrigue me.  Because of this I have so many photos on my computer it’s not even funny.  Most of them I have taken with the intention of potentially using them as a reference.

I also physically pick up objects and take them with me back to my studio.  I don’t do this nearly as often as taking photographs, but when I take an object with me, it is more likely to become the subject of or get tucked into a painting.  For example, one day when I was walking around campus at Wellesley I picked up a small rock that caught my eye.  After I made it the subject of a pair of paintings, I thought it would be funny to see if I could keep putting it in subsequent paintings, so it became a signature of sorts for the work I produced in the following few months.  The same kind of thing happened with my thesis too.  I was walking around campus photographing cracks for reference and I picked up a split acorn because I liked the form of it.  That acorn lived in my studio space for months and became the subject I painted every time I was stuck on my thesis.

DSCN9703 edited copyright
Untitled (acorn), Catherine Harlow, oil on primed paper, 2014-2015.

Actually, the more I think about it, the more examples like this I come up with.  The 3D printed fragment support material that became such a big part of my work was another thing I picked up on a whim at first, because it caught my eye.  In that case, the more I thought about it, the more possibilities I saw and associations and questions it could draw.

So in short, I end up gathering a lot of references, and my creative process ends up as sifting through the reference material.  I try to trust my instincts and see what strikes me at the time.  The material ends up living with me in my studio space for a long time, and often it can take a while before I realize what I can do with a particular thing I’ve gathered or I see it with fresh eyes again.  You could say I do a lot of thinking about it in the back of my mind, subconsciously and not.  But a lot of my best work has come from just jumping in with an idea and trying it, experimenting and finding out what works and what doesn’t, and building on what I’ve learned from experimenting.


Q:  Is there a set creative process that you follow each time?

A:  In terms of how I come to a subject or how I decide what I’m going to paint that day, not really.  There are definite themes and things I gravitate towards.  But there isn’t a formula where I say, “I’m going to go walk around and find something interesting to make art about.”  It’s a lot more coincidental than that.

In terms of my work routine, yes there are certain things I always do.  I always have my computer or iPod and listen to music.  Usually it’s something upbeat that keeps me energized.  I always get so focused on my work that I sit too still for too long, especially if I am working from a model instead of a photo.  When you’re working from an object in front of you, you can’t change your angle of view.  So after a few hours of painting, my back ends up getting stiff and sore.  That’s how I know a lot of time has passed, since I almost never look at the clock when I’m painting.


Q:  Most people are inspired to be artistic early in childhood but then art is not mandatory for high school students so they stop taking art classes in school.  What was this process like for you?  Did you have to take extra art classes outside of school to compensate?

A:  I was lucky to have some good art teachers in high school.  However, there were not enough class options and I quickly took all of the drawing and painting classes.  I did almost take a supplemental class outside of school.  I decided against that, though, because I felt that the instructor would have pushed my art in a direction I did not want to go—it would have been an artificial push to gear my work towards what art schools were looking for in applications.  I did not want to be inauthentic to myself, so I didn’t take those lessons.

What I did end up doing was to gain permission from my high school administration to take an independent study with my art teacher.  While I was fortunate my high school allowed that, most schools do not have the capability for that.  I think it is a shame that young students are not able to get the instruction they need to foster their creative talent, whether it be from standard course offerings or specially set up independent classes.


Q:  What role does art play in your life?  Is it on the spectrum of “just a job”?  Is it your driving passion for living?  Is it somewhere in between?

A:  I am happiest when I am painting and feel most accomplished when I challenge myself with my artwork.  During my last year at Wellesley, my thesis was fairly all-consuming and I have never been more challenged artistically or personally.  I constantly doubted myself and what I was doing, but I did my best to keep producing work and trying new things and tried to let go of my fear of failure.  As difficult as the thesis process was for me, I miss it so much and wish I had the same kind of time as I had then to dedicate to my art.

Since I am not currently in an art job, art is not “just a job” for me.  Of course there have been times when I had to get a piece done and didn’t want to work on it right then, so I just had to buckle down and do it.  Even then, once I got to working on it, I felt much better leaving the studio than when I got there.  That being said, I wouldn’t necessarily go so far to say it is my driving passion for living.  Which actually makes me feel guilty to admit, since I have been told before if I want to be a serious artist I need to be doing some kind of artwork all the time and feel like I need to be constantly making art.  I’ve never been much of a casual doodler—when I draw or paint or work in other media, I get too into it to do it casually.  So now that I have graduated and have a full time job, the hardest thing for me has been finding several hours at a time I can dedicate to painting.  When I start painting, I can easily find that half the day has passed before I realize it.  Unfortunately, this means I have not produced as much work as I would have wanted.  However, the longer the span of time becomes between the present and the last time I painted, the more unhappy I become.  I have a mini identity crisis every time that gap gets too big.


Q:  Where do you see yourself with painting in 10 years?

A:  Honestly, I do not know what will really happen, but I would love to be a full-time painter.  It may not be realistic to plan on supporting myself as a traditional artist, but that is the dream.  I am very open to other careers that will use my artistic skills and want to try my hand in those fields, but I do dream of having my own studio and producing art all the time.  At the least I think I need my long-term career to be in an artistic field and to be making my own work in my spare time.

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