AMANDA BAKER

 

Tell us a little bit about your situation now as an artist. What are you working on? Are you excited for anything on the horizon?

I’ve started working on more project-based work that can translate into a series in different mediums. Most of my past work has been comprised of portraits with abstract elements in the background, and I’m working to round that out to be more storyline-based. I don’t really want to plan the image and statement out ahead of time as much as I’d like to use stream-of-consciousness mark making to visually articulating thoughts that come up while I draw.

As far as bringing this to different mediums, I’m interested in greeting cards right now. Not the light and cheery ones though;  Instead, the juxtaposition of more personal, moment-to-moment thoughts displayed on surfaces that usually celebrate holidays or life accomplishments.  The phrase,  “Me Time”, for example, has a really exciting number of possibilities such as a self portrait of me doing the “inchworm” across the carpet. The activity depicted is not necessarily taken from life, but the feeling behind the activity is somewhat relatable. The greeting card format also makes it fun to take phrases that are traditionally feminized and use visuals to strip them of any gender stereotypes. 

 
 

Some words used to describe your art are “twisted, raunchy, unique, real, sick, and stunning”. Do you agree with/identify with those descriptors? How would you describe your work?

Totally, every single one of those. My work often takes the shape of organic growths. When I attended school at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the textures in my drawings started looking like muscles or like tree galls and burls. It helped to take a lot of imagination drawing classes. There were a couple of particularly great teachers named Karl Wirsum and Gladys Nilsson who helped form a group called The Hairy Who (part of the Chicago Imagists). I felt comfortable, in those classes, embracing the grotesque and surreal of my own work. I experimented with a lot of collage then, and while my mind would streamline in one direction, it was really refreshing to have teachers who could articulate visuals in my work that I did not catch while creating it. They’d point out brand new “situations”, as Karl would to say, which helped me learn to see my work through different lenses and to go with my gut in creating it. 

 
 

How did you begin? Have you always been creative since a young age, or did it develop later? How do you think being a creative person has influenced the way you live your life?

I’ve been drawing since I was around 3 or 4. My mom pointed out something that stuck with me. I have a lazy eye and can’t see much from far away. So from a really young age, she noticed that anything I was interested in, I had to have my face right up in it. Drawing seems to be how I learned to focus.  Both my mom and my grandpa paint too, and I recall having a lot of fun toting our materials from site to site, comparing plein air drawings. 

Even with artistic genes on my side, I have to make myself stop watching that HBO series for the night, open the studio door and get back to work. Just like any muscle, my drawing ones can quickly become weak without regular exercise. My goal since I got out of college has been to make enough money to maintain my my own studio and have at least one show a year. I’ve since been able to maintain the studio space, but it wouldn’t hurt  to have more shows.

 
 

Tell us a little bit about your method. You paint - can you describe your process a little bit?

I usually start with a sketch in pencil or graphite. I often erase as much as will allow me to maintain accurate proportions but that won’t leave dark undertones beneath the paint. If I’m working with only watercolor, I need that white of the paper to depict light.  I do frequently use white gouache to fix highlights that I accidentally painted over though.  

I think every painter has something that they like to paint more than anything else. My favorite thing to paint is definitely people; but more specifically, I gravitate towards articulating the eyes, nose and lips first. Typically I’ll start out with those elements and build it out to be a face and some kind of identifiable posture. That said, I try to maintain even distribution of attention across the whole page from start to finish. This ensures that the weight of the different elements keeps the viewer’s eye moving around the page instead of starting and stopping at the one zone that I happen to have a knack for. My eyesight makes this particularly tough, but it’s something that I’m always trying to integrate more directly into my workflow.

As far as inspiration falls in my creative process, I’ve been doing lots of trips to the Portland Art Museum these days; strolling around with my headphones on and landing for several minutes at anything that catches my eye. I’ve seen everything in there multiple times but it’s such a thrill when I can connect with one that I’ve overlooked in the past.  

My favorite piece in the museum right now is An Oak Tree by Alexandre Calame. The mysteriously punchy shades of beige and green bring the otherwise ho hum tree to life. During what may have been an awkward amount of time starting at the shapes and brush stroke choices, I took a look at the artist description and discovered that the artist lost an eye in an accident, thereafter becoming one of the best landscape painters of the nineteenth century! This of course served to assuage any fears I had surrounding my poor eyesight and immediately warmed my heart with all these creatively kindred embers. 

I’ve also been drawing a lot of female musicians and actors recently. I really respect the singers and guitar players, Tracyanne Campbell and Kazu Makino (of Camera Obscura and Blonde Redhead). Both are quite prolific and have an ability to elicit moods and sensations that I rarely get to experience in everyday life.  In these portraits, though, I try to be mindful of the way I perceive someone and how I’m depicting them. 

 
 

How has your process as an artist evolved as you’ve gotten older? Did you always paint, or did you evolve from some other method?

I do remember the first time I thought, “Oh wow - I might actually be pretty good at this.” I was working on a portrait of a portrait in this book on rendering faces. The portrait was in graphite and a three-quarter view of a young girl with dark hair and light eyes.  I dove into the features first and then spread out from the center.  It was the first time I’d finished a well rendered portrait down to the wispy hairs around their ears. 

On that, I’ve always been interested in depicting character in drawings. In college, I used different mediums (printmaking, sculpture, some video) to evoke a variety of vibrations from the subject matter. In the end though, I made my way back to my comfortable little watercolor sketchbook and paint pallet. Watercolor is particularly playful. It takes a lot of disheartening mistakes before you can trust yourself with the medium. It’s hard to know how colors will blend or how the texture and thickness of various types of paper will absorb water until you fail at it a few times. Each stroke poses a new challenge, but sometimes you get a beautiful mistake and you remember that mistake for another time.

Layers are also key in watercolor. Once I’ve got the flesh tone on the page, I’ll lightly wet the cheek with water and dip the corner of the brush into red; Take that brush corner, ever so slightly touching the wet layer so the red bleeds over and eventually into the flesh tone, and Voila! We have a blushing cheek. 

I feel right at home with watercolor, but I’ll always try new mediums to find inspiration through the challenge. 

 
 

You use a very distinctive color palette - warm tones. Could you tell us a little bit about why you gravitate towards those colors, and if you always have? 

I’ve been attracted to warm tones since I started using color in my work. My partner, Andy, includes a lot more cool tones, darks and red-to-black contrasts in his work. His work is similar to the work of a fantastic artist out of the pop art movement named Robert Rauschenberg - bold primary colors comprised of collage and seemingly cursory motifs. 

While I appreciate and sort of covet this instinct, I almost always land in the warm tones. All I can gather is that my primary subject matter is the human body and face, so warm pigments are more familiar.  When I do use cool colors, it's in an effort to create a pop or stark contrast in the piece. For example, if somebody has a blue collar, the collar is going to pop and have a better shot at informing the overall concept of the piece. With that said, there are lots of skin colors with blue undertones, and if I’m going for hyper realistic painting I’ll almost always find that every color (including blue) is used at least twice on the page.  If I was to do more abstracts or landscapes maybe I’d lean more towards cooler colors, but those aren’t necessarily my forte at the moment.

 
 

Is there a piece that stands out to you as the most significant? Why?

Sure, there’s a sketch that sparked my interest in storytelling. It’s of a girl who’s resting her head on the back of her hand. In the background, there are legs overhanging the lip of an old bathtub. The two images appear disconnected but are very much feeding off of each other, whipping up both ominous and auspicious feelings.  I should note that I didn’t plan for them to be in the same drawing; but the pleasant surprise made me want to start working more in the vein of depicting pieces of stories.

 
 

Do you feel vulnerable when you create? Why? Do you use this to your advantage, or is it a difficult feeling to have?

I do. I think I make my best work when I’m at my most vulnerable, creatively speaking. It takes a few hours of garbage drawings to get into it, but eventually I start to let go of mental roadblocks, taboos and stigmas and  start to follow more closely behind my instinct.   It’s a lot like riding a bike - paying close attention to every mark at first but soon enough feeling uninhibited and on a roll.

The benefit of feeling vulnerable is that I make something new. That new thing could be idea based, image based or energy based. Sure my art is my work, but it’s also my play. The most difficult aspect of feeling vulnerable while I work is sweeping all criticism and judgement out the door. These might be my own negative thoughts, but more often it’s voices of those I want to impress.  The backlog of critique rolling around in my head can make it difficult to remain authentic throughout the creative process. Notwithstanding, each movement on the page helps me clear the path to a more keen understanding of where I stand creatively.

 
 

You work reminds me (at times) of Stephen Gammel’s - you both have that distinctive, slightly surreal, “drippy” effect. Can you name a few inspirations that have influenced your work and why they’re significant?

That’s such a compliment! Thanks. He’s an influence for sure. I don’t think I’ve ever deliberately tried to copy his drawing style but I read those books throughout my early childhood so they very well may have subconsciously influenced my drawing style.

Another inspiration would be another children’s book actually.  I find that I paint a lot like the illustrator, Kathryn Meyrick. The book I’m thinking of is called Hazel’s Healthy Halloween. It’s about a witch with full hips and legs and pointy finger tips and spiral-toed shoes. I used to trace those drawings as a kid and loved how the expressive curves brought the figure to life.

As far as more recent influences go, there’s an artist named Andrew Wyeth who paints beautiful landscapes with traces of human life in each. He hones in on one area and leaves a lot to the imagination; similar to the illustrations by Stephen Gammel, actually; just that Wyeth’s are in color and not terrifying. I like Wyeth because, although he paints primarily landscape, I understand his process. I can see similar mark making techniques to those I use in portraiture. 

When I got a little older, I got more into figure drawing, because it’s methodical. There are objective ways of becoming “better” at it, and I liked learning about and ultimately getting pretty good at it. The flip side of something you can always work at is that I’ll always need to practice figure drawing to keep up my skills. The classics are my inspirations in figure drawing; Schiele, Rembrandt, DaVinci. First off, their sketchbooks are incredible; and figure drawing mastery aside, these artists are great at telling a subtle story with facial expressions and posture. 

Another is Dubuffet whose work is more abstract, but very texturally satisfying. He founded a movement called ‘Art Brut’, which formally acknowledged and integrated outsider art into the mainstream art world. I totally appreciate his gumption here and have become rather bewitched by outsider art as a result. 


 

 

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