Yesterday began an interview with Tonja Sell, a painter and mixed media artist. What I liked about her work when I saw it last summer was how she incorporated found objects and miscellaneous materials into her designs. The effects were sometimes astonishing and the pictures here do not adequately convey it. Do take time to click on the images to enlarge them. And enjoy Tonja's commentary on various facets of the artist life.
Relationship to Color
TS: Color was very frightening to me for a long time. I used it but never felt very confident in it. I have so much to learn! I combine color currently with a lot of curiosity in the process. Hmmm, what if I do this...? Since I have started working again fear really hasn't been an issue. Not that I feel I have mastered anything, but I am embracing color and choosing to explore it's possibilities without fear! I am approaching everything in my work that way. I don't care if things are "successful" or not. I am much more concerned about the process and what I can learn through and in it. It has been very liberating.
A Dreamlike Style
TS: I think glass exposure has been an influence here. Glass is so fluid and the color layering and patterns that evolve in the process of glass blowing likely shows up in my work more than I realize. It's hypnotic to watch. There are definite similarities there. I am a collector of images. Not always physically, but certainly mentally. I am always making note of patterns, interesting marks, fabric samples, flowers, leaves, etc...So they are very much filed in my mind and come out as I am working. Occasionally I will include specific images that come from a collected reference, but more often they simply develop in the space as needed.
TS: I am very much drawn to patten, texture and color layering as seen in the work of Klimt and Van Gogh, the mood, details and drama of Mucha, the beauty and grace of the Pre-Raphaelites and Vermeer. The exaggeration of figure of Egon Schiele, So many things about so many artists that I love. I live in Rural Northern Wisconsin now and find birds, natural patterns, flowers, pets and my kids show up quite
often... It makes sense I suppose, as it is my life.
Are many of your paintings self-portraits? If so, what is the appeal of working from yourself as a model? Do you work from models? Photographs? Internet images?
Many people wonder if I use myself as a subject. I find it very interesting as I rarely do intentionally . I will often refer to my face or the faces of my daughters if I am working out a shadow or specific color, but I usually have the pose or facial features worked out before this point.
I much prefer working from life than photos and hope to be able to do that more and more. The difficulty comes in finding willing and able models that work cheap! My kids are usually somewhat willing and always available. I will use what suits me at the time. I don't have an aversion to photo images as I know artists some do, I just find it easier and fresher to work from life.
Tell me a little about your process, from start to finish. What drawing or painting techniques are particularly important in your process?
I am drawn to simple poses. Moment in time settings, almost like you walked in on someone and caught them unaware. I will often observe a pose and file it away in my mind until I need it. When I prepare to work I often just look at my canvas or paper for a while and see what "appears". It sounds silly but it rarely takes more than a moment for something to begin to take shape- very loosely but still a direction.
I will then usually set up the pose using family or friends or look for a magazine image or reference that is helpful. I have a pretty good grasp of the figure so I am mostly working out color or light and shadow issues. Once I have the figure placement pretty much worked out in a loose sketch I begin to work the whole piece at once, working from the outside in. I am very much considering the entire composition as I go.
The negative and positive shapes are very important as well as the possibilities of what is happening inside those shapes. I almost never work on one area for more than a few minutes before moving around the space. I find that I am careful to repeat colors as well as patterns around the whole piece. I want the eye to move around the piece coming to rest on the intended focal point. I am rarely thinking about it as I am doing it, but find it usually happens in the works that I am most please with.
Often it will begin very loose and aggressive. Fast, loose and bold strokes, patterns and bright color. I am learning the importance of the under painting in my work. I love to have the unexpected show through and that only seems to happen through significant layering. I am intentionally working quickly, trying not to labor over specifics. Learning from a piece and moving onto another. I figure I can always paint over it!
Most of the things I am doing now are done in a day or two, working as I can fit it in. I also home-school my children so days are still full.
TS: I have recently rejoined the Art Resources Galleries at the Galleria in Edina, MN and International Market Square in Minneapolis, MN. They are currently the only gallery where my work is being shown.
I am looking for other galleries where my work may fit. I used to be very timid about approaching a gallery but have found it worth the effort. If there seems to be a place that carries work of the same caliber as yours and you think your work may fit- approach them, why not, what do you have to lose. If they consider your work --great, if they reject you, respectfully ask why. You may get a very helpful critique out of the experience and that's always useful!
I always have the gallery set price of the piece. They know what they can sell for in a given area. They know their market and have always been happy with the outcome.
The Business Side
TS: I have been involved in commercial free-lance illustration, children's book illustration, art fairs and gallery representation. Commercial illustration paid well but was very high pressure production and very difficult to do with a young family.
Art fairs can be enjoyable or a nightmare. So many factors are a play. Weather, advertising, reputation... I do one outdoor festival that has existed for 40 + years. The artists are treated very well, it is well attended and is a pleasure to participate in as long as the weather is cooperative.
Galleries are my favorite setting. The exposure potential is significant and with the event of the Internet only growing. They are usually able to secure prices that can be hard for artists to otherwise attain.
The Internet holds so many possibilities of self representation. I am very interested to see the opportunities for artists on all levels.
TS: I am a veracious book collector. I love children's books, anything cheap with great illustrations, also magazines, I will often take 10 minutes and tear through a magazine pulling anything that stands out for any reason. Some I will save in a box if they are small or put them into a categorized three ring binder with clear sleeves- faces, hands, birds, fabric....I have several binders full! While I rarely work directly from them they are invaluable!
I have recently discovered Etsy and am enjoying exploring it very much! lol! I find inspiration in the oddest places and Etsy has so many interesting things every day. I have created an Etsy page with my kids where they sell things they find from our woods. It's a hoot! I am just beginning to explore the Internet as an inspiration resource. I would love to have a list of great sites passed on to me!
Present Projects, Future Plans
TS: I am currently working on a large painting that was inspired by a quick study. It is unique for me as I have incorporated some collage elements into it. I am curious to see if it works. It is typical for me to have multiple projects going at once. Right now I have 4 paintings and 5 drawings in various stages of development, as well as assorted fused jewelry projects, glass mosaics and felted scarves. I am also preparing the sketches I do during the drawing group, that I meet with weekly, for a show that will be held in that space. I just intend to keep working and experimenting and see where it leads, enjoying the process as I go. Life is a breath- live it with intentionally and with gusto!
Other Creative Endeavors
TS: My husband and I are considering opening a java/art/cafe in the nearby town of Brule, WI where we would provide opportunity for emerging and local artist to show their work and a place to offer art classes. I would love to create a comfortable environment where artist and those who appreciate art can come together to make, learn, buy and sell. We shall see!