Julia Powell is a Cambridge-based painter who left her job at a top law firm to pursue her creative passion for painting. You may have seen her work on her popular Instagram page, which features her adorable dog Ella, or on the set of various television episodes. You can explore more of her watercolor and oil paintings on her website.
Interview Conducted by: Kathryn Cooperman & Katie Constantine
Edited by: Katie Constantine
Cover Image Provided by: Julia Powell
You were a lawyer before branching into painting! How did you find your way to painting professionally?
About five or six years ago for Christmas/ my bday, they’re about 5 days apart, one of my older brothers gave me an easel and oil paint and I was a little taken aback because I was, at that point, a successful lawyer and he was like ‘I think you’re really talented in watercolor but I think you should spread out into oil and see if you can actually sell your work.’ So that was kind of the transition into oils and I guess I’ve always watercolored my entire life since I was five. There’s not a lot of visual artists in my family. My aunt is, but basically it’s not the thing people in my nuclear family did or my grandparents did, and I just was into it as a kid, and maybe when I was in my early 20’s some friends started reaching out asking me to paint engagement party invitations or even a couple wedding invitations or a baby shower, stuff like that, and I was obviously doing it for free, but I was like, ‘oh this is interesting, there’s sort of a market for what I do,’ and it was kind of, you know, flowers or trees or little things like that that you’d want on a wedding invitation. So that had kind of progressed, and again I had never been paid for it, but there was definitely some desire for it and so that had kind of been the watercoloring, but to be honest I really didn’t think that art was a desirable profession and I knew whatever I did I wanted to financially support myself. I lived just outside of Boston and it was an expensive place to live so it seemed like the prudent thing to do was to go to law school and not pursue art, but I started oil painting and then when I started to get some success there, then I was certainly able to do that full time.
Did you start painting professionally right after law school or was there a gap of time?
No, no so I was a lawyer in New York for roughly 3 years and then I moved to Cambridge and I practiced for 5 years, the last couple of which I was also painting. So there’s a couple of years where I’m doing two full-time jobs, which is pretty intense, and a bunch of my friends were starting to have kids and I sort of felt like okay this is like having a kid, having two jobs.
Oh yeah of course. And as you were finding your footing in the industry, what were your biggest challenges?
So I found gender to be a real kind of mind fuck. I was pretty blown away because when I was an attorney in New York, you know, look, the majority of partners were white men, and that’s what you came to accept, but it really seemed like there were just as many opportunities for women as there were for men and [there was] almost at that point a culture for trying to get, you know, trying to get women promoted, and get them into positions of power, and I just never felt like being a woman was a negative thing or kind of detrimental at all, and when I started painting, I was really surprised. I got a fair amount of feedback of just like, ‘you should change your name to J.S. Powell because you can charge more if people thought you were a man,’ and ‘you should either remove your photograph, or if you post your photograph, post it where you’re wearing just some makeup and less clothing.’ Like, ‘oh you’re young, you’re blonde, why don’t you use that to your advantage.’ And I was just kind of blown away because I thought of all things where it doesn’t matter if I’m a man or a woman or if I’m trans or black, it’s just the work obviously should speak for itself, but it felt like it didn’t.
Now I think honestly in 2019 there’s types of push back and people are really recognizing that female artists and artists of color are underrepresented in a lot of places and they’re trying to kind of call that back a bit, which is great, and I have a lot of dedicated female collectors, which I love, who are into collecting art by female artists, but that really, that threw me.
I think the second thing that threw me might be push back on art that is pretty to look at, that you’d want to hang on your wall. In terms of that kind of art succeeding with curators, succeeding in curated shows, I always felt like because my work wasn’t seen as edgy, even though I think it is, I think it’s contemporary and modern and I try to use texture and abstraction [to] create a little more contemporary look for impressionism, I just felt like sometimes there was just a little bit of a dismissiveness about like, ‘ah those are pretty colors. How feminine and pretty and simple are they.’ And I’m very political, it’s just that my work often is sort of like a refuge from the chaos in our world and like many people I’m really upset about what’s happening with our country politically and so I know a lot of artists put that into their work, but it’s not like that’s not in my work. I feel like turning on the television, opening a newspaper, which I do all the time, is just so chaotic and there’s so much negativity and anger and discord that you know, the more upset I get about that, the kind of calmer, sort of safer in a way my work becomes.
Who are some of your biggest inspirations?
I always struggle with this question because the two people historically who did a lot for my work are men and they’re just your classic impressionist guys. So Van Gogh and Monet. I’m always trying to look at their work and what was sort of the modern female take on what they do. What would that look like? What would that be? So they’re huge influences. There are a lot of artists on Instagram who are amazing that I follow. Female and male and they’re not known, and they’re just incredible.
I can definitely see them in your work. Especially in your birch tree series.
Thank you. Yeah it’s like finding that blend of ‘you know what it is, but it’s a little bit abstract,’ it’s not completely a realist landscape.
Do you find Instagram helpful for promoting your work and your profile as an artist?
Yeah, I mean it was the reason I was able to quit my job as a lawyer. 100%. The vast majority of my sales come from Instagram. the vast majority of my clients are not based in New England, they’re based in New York, my biggest market. After that, probably San Francisco and LA, after that, maybe Boston, maybe kind of D.C. and around D.C. and North Carolina, Miami. So Instagram is huge. When I sell a piece through Instagram, I also take 100% of the sale. People don’t know artists only get 50% at galleries. So it’s been completely epic and game-changing and it has been for all of these other artists I know. There’s this guy I follow who used to be a mailman. Instagram allowed him to completely quit his job. Two out of the three galleries I work with found me on Instagram. So that’s another thing. Having a high profile on Instagram kind of makes galleries interested in you. [Instagram] is probably responsible for 95% of my business.
What made you want to paint landscapes?
I literally thought, ‘What would I want to put on my wall?’ I didn’t think, like what would seem cool or what a museum would like. Now I sometimes think about those things, but I just thought, like, what would I want? What would I actually want to spend money on to hang in my own house? So landscapes were the most appealing. I’ve always been very environmental, very into nature. Every time I sell a painting, proceeds go to other environmental causes or basically causes that have to do with women. So I don’t know, all those things seem linked into each other.
Now I have to say, there are times where, now it’s just practice practice practice where I’m really curious about painting faces in particular, portraits, and I just need to kind of hone those skills because I’m just not as confident with those yet. Since I’m completely self-taught, I mean I didn’t even take a painting class in high school or middle school, I think sometimes it’s just having the confidence to start to do it, and even if the portraits aren’t great to begin with, my landscapes were pretty rubbish to begin with to be honest for oil painting, but then they got better and better as I worked at it. I would like to paint portraits, but I just right now don’t have the confidence and honestly sometimes I don’t have the time because I have a lot of commissions and I’m running a business so any time that I’m spending a full week trying to teach myself a new skill, I’m also missing out on making paintings that I know will be able to sell.
You’ve been branching into animals with your recent owl painting and the human form with the outline of a woman, what brought this change in direction?
The woman is me, it’s a self-portrait with watercolor, again because it’s a craft that I’ve been using and playing with since I was 5 or 6. I felt like I had sort of the ability to experiment. Animals are just so fun. It’s a lot quicker to do a small watercolor of a somewhat realistic rendition of a dog or an elephant than it is to do a large-scale oil painting, even if it’s an abstract oil painting.
I would say the equivalent of going for a run verses suiting up to play tennis or soccer where you have to put on all this equipment and do all this stuff, and sometimes you just want to go for a run. It’s a little bit easier and smoother. So that’s the advantage of watercolor over oil. Watercolor feels like the place to experiment with different subject matter, more so than oil sometimes. And it feels relaxing to mix it up between the two mediums.
Yeah, there are some limitations to one versus the other, and vice versa.
I get more Instagram likes and engagements with my watercolor postings generally, and particularly my time lapses, people go crazy for. So watercolors on Instagram help because they’re bringing people [in], but my sales, what I’m making money on, are my oil paintings. I like doing both, but as a business matter, watercolor is good for bringing new people to my Instagram account, but the oils are actually kind of generally paying the bills.
I love your use of birch trees in a lot of your winter-based paintings. Do you have a favorite season or location you like to paint?
No. No I don’t. I love it all. I love the coolness of winter. I love the hot summer. My favorite place to paint is either my studio in Maine or my studio in Cambridge. I don’t even have a preference between them because sometimes I paint in Maine because I can easily paint outside on the deck, but sometimes it’s a pain in the ass to paint outside and I miss painting inside so no real preference there.
Is there a certain emotion you try to invoke or do you think it’s a different experience for everyone?
I think it’s a different experience for everyone. When I post a painting it’s amazing how people are like, “Oh my God I know where that is.” They think it’s in France. They think it’s in the southwest of the United States. They think it’s in Italy. For my oil paintings, all of that’s done from a memory of a place. Because of that, I think you know what it is, but it’s not like totally specific. People have been to places that really matter to them. People vacation places or they have family homes and those are sometimes the best times of their lives and I think some of these paintings evoke all that.
How do you decide the color palette of a piece? You always seem to bring together colors and they never clash. They’re always in really great harmony.
Oh, thanks! That’s nice! The one way I use photographs is when I’m in the middle of a painting, I will take a photograph. I will look at the photograph and sort of mull it over to see if the colors are working. Color is incredibly important to me. Color and texture may be the most important elements to a painting to me. I think a combination of my natural sense of colors that look good together and sometimes trial and error.
Do you have a preferred color palette you like to use or is it more true to the nature and the natural form?
I go through probably ten tubes a week so that’s a ton of paint. I like blues, greens, purples. I like those colors a lot. I don’t use red that much. I use it pretty sparingly. I don’t use orange that much. I think my favorite combination is probably purple and green. I love those together and that’s fairly Monet-like I think. When I think of his work, I think of those colors.
What’s your favorite way to create texture in a painting?
My favorite way to do it just involves patience and time and it’s just layering with a palette knife over and over and over and waiting for the canvas to dry. That’s generally my favorite way to do it, but I think probably my second favorite way to do it is using a printing roller when the paint is really wet and you kind of brush the paint in a certain way using a foam brush and then use a printing roller, but you can only do that, I think, basically you paint the painting fairly realistically and then you muddy it up. So that when it’s done, it looks abstract yet real. And that’s a really fun way to also create texture. The main way is patience patience patience. Most people don’t have the patience to do it. So I do these large scale water reflections series, which are one of my favorite things to do and they’re a very popular series and it takes a lot of time to just do it and then you have to wait two weeks and then you do it, and sometimes it’s wet on wet and sometimes it’s wet on dry and I kind of like the sort of patience and commitment that that takes.
Your art has been featured in The Mindy Project as well as Mindy Kaling’s home. For artists who are trying to gain recognition from high-end clients, what do you suggest they do to get their attention?
Instagram. Instagram. Instagram. The way that you can get big named people, brands, anyone to kind of pay attention to you right now is Instagram. I would encourage artists to just reach out to a bunch of people on Instagram. I do all the time. Some never respond to me. Just talk about collaborating with brands. I really think right now Instagram is a smart use of one’s time and you can market on Instagram, you can use their promo if you want. When I started out, I was on Instagram for 3 hours for like a year. And people don’t really want to do that, but if you find out that actually really ends up working for your business, then it’s worth it to do it because you can paint all day long, but if you never sell a painting then, unless you’re independently wealthy, you’re not going to be able to sustain that.
Proceeds of your work go to two fantastic organizations, Agora Partnerships’ Accelerate Women Now and the National Resources Defense Fund. What led you to partner with these two organizations?
Well Agora is pretty simple. My brother founded it and I really believe in it. I mean, they’ve won tons of awards and stuff. It’s not just kind of an, ‘oh it’s my brother’s little pet project,’ it’s a serious organization. And I just love that they identify female entrepreneurs and they give them seed money to help their businesses and they give them mentorship, entrepreneurship training to kind of help those businesses succeed. I love that they focus on women. The National Resource Defense Fund, they’re just fighting the good fight. As the EPA has been completely gutted and we’ve got high-level people in our government who don’t even acknowledge climate change, we’ve gotta do what we can. To be honest, there’s a ton of organizations I also give to. For instance, I give to Planned Parenthood, I think it’s really important, but that’s a little politically fraught because the right has successfully demonized them even though the vast majority of what they do is just like helping women with women’s health. So there are other things I do too, but these are two organizations that I think most people can get behind and aren’t as polarizing. These are two organizations I think most people can get behind and aren’t as polarizing.
What does your creative process look like? What do you do if you’re stuck on a piece?
First of all, I don’t believe that you have to be creatively motivated to work. I believe you have to get into the studio every day and there will be days when things just flow and there will be days that totally suck, but you just have to do it every day. If I waited for inspiration to strike me, I would not paint for a lot of the time. Second of all, if I’m stuck in a rut, I sometimes, to get in the groove and feel it again, I will go back to the old tool shed so to speak and maybe it’s sunset series or a birch series or my water reflection series, or these kind of open big skies that I like to do, I’ll do one of those for my mind to get back into the creative glue and then I’ll return to the painting that is frustrating me and that’s not working. The other thing is I paint over paintings constantly and my best work is 6 paintings. So my favorite painting, which I will not sell, is two boats. It’s in my kitchen and it’s like this sort of blue background and if you see it in person, it is crazy textured because it was six paintings. I think it started out as something completely different and then it ended up as these two boats and it’s not something I’m not sure I could ever fully replicated because it was just so many paintings. So that’s the other thing I do. If I’m struggling with a piece, I just put it away and then I return to it about a month later and enhance what’s going on there or paint over it.
What advice would you give to people starting out in the field who might be thinking about taking that leap of faith to becoming a professional artist, but aren’t sure they’re talented enough or just need general advice.
First of all, talent is B.S. I’m not sure I was talented enough. I still don’t know if I’m talented enough. I just think you have to work really hard and you have to surround yourself with people who really believe in you because there will be so many rejections and times you don’t believe in yourself and at that point it’s really nice to have people around you. So my friends and my family were just so complementary and convinced that I had talent even when I wasn’t convinced. That was really instrumental, particularly in the beginning. The third thing I would say is you probably should dedicate as much time to trying to sell your work as trying to do your work. At least in the beginning because otherwise you’re not gonna be able to do it as your job. You’re gonna always be kind of painting as a hobby and then your regular job is your regular job. And then I mean the fourth thing I would say, it’s really really hard to make a living as an artist and I feel extraordinarily lucky and sometimes I think what’s going to replace [Instagram]? How do I stay on top of that? Am I just in this lucky run of a couple of years or will this be sustainable? And so you know, I still have my law license. I never know what’s going to happen.
I think really try to do it, but until you’re established established, and I don’t feel that I am, it’s always a little nerve-wracking. You’re kind of on your own out there. So just don’t do it fully unless you have some kind of a fallback plan, either with your own skills or maybe your partner has a job, because I have been really lucky, but I know this is not the path that many people I know have had as artists and there’s no distinguishing between our talents. It’s not like I’m more talented. It’s just I think I am savvier than many other artists about marketing because I have that analytical side to me, being an attorney, and I think I got lucky with certain things and you know people hopefully dig my work and that’s great too.
Check out other interviews from our Profiles in Art series here.