Shadow Lover

Karin Nelson employs strong lines, shadows, and a tight focus on buildings to create feelings of security, strength, and beauty in her acrylic paintings.

By Jennifer Smith

Acrylic artist Karin Nelson has the ability to portray objects we might think of as cold, harsh, and unattractive, if we thought of them at all, as places of calm and beauty. The buildings, roads, and utilities as well as the city’s shadows that she paints, are vignettes that tell the story of humanity—as represented by what we create. The buildings themselves immortalize the architects and builders; Nelson’s paintings immortalize the buildings. We spoke with Nelson to learn more about what inspires her to paint and how she transitioned from working in corporate America to becoming a full-time artist.

Autumn in the City by Karin Nelson
A red traffic light is beautiful with its line and color, reflecting the same shades as the fall foliage in Autumn in the City (acrylic on canvas, 30×40).

Q: Your new work appears to be a departure from your early paintings—moving from trees to the city. But, I see a similarity, in the lines and the strong, vertical elements.

A: That’s it. I’m drawn to the solidity in the world around me, which I think shows in my preference for strong, vertical lines in the many buildings and trees I’ve painted.

Q: What else from your early painting has carried over to your newer work?

A: Because my original paintings were wrought with a little tension (the challenge of the unknown), I subconsciously still need some of that tension to bring me alive when I paint. It’s almost like I sabotage myself in order to keep it difficult. That’s why I don’t do preliminary sketches or studies, nor do I pencil in any guidelines on the canvas to indicate what goes where. If I mess up in my placement during the first lay-in (especially important for vanishing lines of a building or street), the fast-drying nature of acrylic allows me to go back over it in subsequent layers and make adjustments. The correcting layers serve to add texture. I use slightly varied colors on the second (or third or fourth) layers, making sure not to cover up all of the previous layers. It requires a keen, watchful eye, to stay aware of how the layers and colors are responding to each other.

Look on the Bright Side by Karin Nelson
Strong angles, powerful vertical lines, and the intersection of light and shadow encapsulate the feeling of many of Karin Nelson’s paintings as seen in Look on the Bright Side (opposite; acrylic on canvas, 24×36).

Q: The layers of paint that build on your canvas are much like the textures and rough feel of the city. Is this intentional or a happy accident?

A: It’s really both. The applications of many layers of paint, especially when layered with varying degrees of value and color, provide that feeling of an aged and weathered structure that I’m drawn to.

Q: How do you make the harsh, cold elements of buildings, roads, and utility poles so appealing?

A: When I choose a scene to paint, it’s because I’m intrigued by the mood of the place, usually created by the lighting condition. Even though my subject may be abstracted, my colors and renderings of light in the atmosphere are realistic. When I’m successful at capturing that mood, it’ll likely jar a memory of a similar, hopefully happy, place with the viewer. Before I call any painting finished, I ask, would I hang this in my house? That question challenges me on a number of levels, one of which is that I want to be surrounded by something peaceful and positive.

Q: Why are you drawn to these objects, and why the absence of people in most of the paintings?

A: Buildings and other man-made structures provide me with a positive sense of strength, permanence, and stability. Maybe it’s a realization that we’re not alone in the world. Somebody was here before me, and I’ll most likely not be the last person to travel this path. I include people in my work by depicting what they create—the buildings, roads, and utilities.

One Way by Karin Nelson
From the safety of the shadows, we look out to the city street in One Way (acrylic on canvas, 36×36).

Q: Not only are people represented in your work, but you, as the viewer and storyteller, are in the work, too.

A: Yes! I take something that resides outside of me, and I internalize it. I ponder and analyze the mystery or beauty of what I observe. When I paint a building, I’m identifying with those who built it, lived in it, often imagining the lives that are intertwined with it. In many instances, the scenes I paint absolutely accost my senses to a point where it must be painted! It’s as if I rotate it around and around in my hands like an apple waiting to be eaten. I’m responding to beauty or the feeling that dominates in the scene. So in that sense, I’m painting a feeling.

Q: Why the strong focus on shadows?

A: There is a corner in downtown Grand Rapids, Mich., I’ve painted numerous times because each time I’m there it looks different due to the quality of light. There are so many factors that affect the lighting (time of year, time of day, the absence or presence of sun, colors bouncing off of neighboring buildings). It’s a new statement in each and every painting. One of the things I particularly love to capture on a building is that edge between the sunlit and shaded side—the line where they meet. That line is delicious to me, and it seems to get more so the closer I crop in on it.

Q: What drew you to the scene depicted in Can’t You See a Truck is Coming and Blowing its Horn?! (above)?

A: I was originally drawn to the hills in the scene that inspired this painting. My intention was to delete the crazy truck that was “in the way” when I snapped the photo. But as I kept coming back to the photo, I realized that it was the white flash of that truck that caught my attention.

Can’t You See a Truck is Coming and Blowing its Horn?! by Karin Nelson
Light from any source can attract the artist’s attention such as the white flash of light from the truck in Can’t You See a Truck is Coming and Blowing its Horn?! (acrylic on canvas, 36×48).

Q: So it was light, again, that drew you in.

A: If something grabs my attention, it’s usually because of the lighting conditions. I don’t care what it is, I have to paint it, and this time it was a truck. I wondered before I started to paint it, would anyone want a painting that featured a truck?

Q: Is that foremost in your mind when you paint—the finished work’s marketability?

A: No, and yes. I have marketability in my mind, but I paint what I like. And when I painted that truck, I decided I couldn’t be the only person out there to love it.

Q: How do you improve upon your craft as a self-taught artist?

A: One of the best ways I’ve continued my learning is to deeply analyze paintings that intrigue me. I observe the brushstrokes, markings, and the layering, as well as the emotion that’s expressed by the artist. It’s a common saying that we can only paint what we can see. So I make it a point to look deeply.

Q: Which artists inspire you?

A: I’m drawn to Andrew Wyeth for the neutrality of his colors and the lonely, bare, quietness of his scenes. For the use of saturated color, it’s Edward Hopper. Richard Diebenkorn is also high on my list for the manner in which his style challenged the way I assumed a painter had to paint. It’s amazing how many subconscious rules we have to give ourselves permission to break along the way. I’m still uncovering (and hopefully demolishing) more rules.

Evening Sun on the Grand by Karin Nelson
The artist returns to the same areas of downtown Grand Rapids, Mich., to study the everchanging light and subsequent shadows as seen in Evening Sun on the Grand (above; acrylic on canvas, 30×40).

Q: What rules do you find yourself breaking?

A: One of the first rules I learned to break, after studying contemporary artist Roos Schuring, was you don’t have to cover every bit of the canvas with paint. You can leave a place white, and who would care?

Q: Can you tell me about a contemporary artist that inspires you?

A: Looking at Tibor Nagy’s work, I feel like I can sense the emotions in his painting. He paints with some wild marks. Yet I don’t feel like he puts them down wildly; it feels more like it’s thoughtful and careful expressions of the emotions, not hemmed in by convention or rules. And that’s always my goal, to paint from within.

Q: Why do you work in acrylic?

A: Acrylic was handy and the first thing I saw on the aisle. I quickly learned to love it. Acrylic’s fast-drying property is a positive and a negative. Since I’ve learned many tricks to compensate for the negatives (such as how to end a brushstroke or straight-edge application to avoid that spotty look when swiping over a dry area), all that’s left are the positives.

I don’t have a lot of patience, so I appreciate that with acrylic I never have to wait long between stages of a painting. Because drips dry so quickly, it’s nice that only a few hours later, I can brush a watered-down transparent paint over them, allowing the drips to show through. Another thing I love about acrylic is its opacity.

Little Barn on the Prairie by Karin Nelson
A solitary barn in the field allows Nelson to capture shadows and light as well as structure in Little Shed on the Prairie (opposite; acrylic on canvas, 36×48).

The Secret of Her Success

Karin Nelson works with pre-gessoed canvas so when she feels the energy or tension that drives her work, she can dive into painting and forego the prep work. She has a rich library of reference photos that she crops to bring the focus onto the edges of the buildings that will appear in her painting. Thin washes of watered-down transparent paint are applied to the canvas—such as burnt umber in areas where there’ll be sunshine, and ultramarine blue for areas to be shaded. She paints loose and free, applying wild strokes of color to the canvas. Drips of paint are permitted and preserved to add texture to the final piece.

Next, with thick opaques, the large puzzle pieces of value are laid in place—often while the canvas is turned upside down to allow her to focus on form and color rather than the overall scene. Nelson uses thin, transparent paint, often over opaque color that has dried, to adjust colors while allowing the strokes of the previous layers to show through. She employs this method to brighten a sunny area or to deaden a shaded area that needs to be pulled back.

One Last Goodbye by Karin Nelson
Nelson used minimal brushstrokes with One Last Goodbye (acrylic on canvas, 36×36).

Throughout the process, Nelson balances abandonment with restraint. “In painting One Last Goodbye I tried so hard to hold back and use as few brushstrokes as possible. I wanted to see how little I could render and still make the scene recognizable,” she says.

About the Artist

Karin Nelson began her self-taught art path 11 years ago while working as an Executive Assistant. The immediate receptiveness to her paintings soon motivated her to leave the 9-to-5 position and pursue art full-time. A thread running through her work is the interpretation of timeless structures. Also dear to her heart are the open skies and country fields near her home in Wyoming, Michigan. Her medium of choice is acrylic; her handling of its distinct properties opened the doors to numerous internationally published articles, where she shares her knowledge on this subject. She has received multiple awards, participated in many juried exhibitions, and has had numerous appearances on television, radio, and in various publications. Karin lives near Grand Rapids, Michigan with her husband of 45 years. They have three grown children, a son-in-law, and three precious granddaughters.


This article originally appeared in Acrylic Artist. For more fantastic acrylic artwork, get the latest issue of The Best of Acrylic!

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