What better way to conclude our January 2022 blog lineup than with an interview of California Impressionist painter, Nita Harper!

If you haven’t heard of this artist before, you’re in for a treat. Here’s the story of how our paths crossed.

With so many virtuoso California Impressionist painters, my boss, Linda Wehrli and I are thankful for active art organizations like the California Art Club. As one of the oldest, largest and most active art organizations in the country, the California Art Club is committed to keeping the traditional arts and its time-honored skills alive. In their most recent email newsletter, a painting titled The Snow Bush by Southern California artist Nita Harper caught our eye. We had to learn more about this remarkable artist.

We decided to reach out to Nita for this month’s Artist Interview Blog. She graciously accepted our invitation! We’re pleased to introduce you to Nita and the story behind her exquisite landscapes.

JLS: What is your style of painting referred to? For our art students, would you please describe what this style means or represents?

NH: I would describe my work as representational with a bit of an impressionistic flair. The subject of what I paint is instantly recognizable, although I tend to “push” or exaggerate color, edges, and brushstrokes a bit to create some drama.

JLS: Lovely! I was admiring your brushstrokes. Much of your recent paintings feature landscapes and wildlife. What is the story or inspiration behind your choice of subject matter? Do you paint in plein air or study from photographs?

NH: For the first half of my artistic life, I never painted a landscape. I lived in Illinois, Florida, and southeast Texas, all areas that were pretty flat and uninspiring to me. As an art student, I concentrated on figurative work, and eventually began painting portraits.

Over the years, I painted many pet portraits as well as architectural subjects, mostly commissioned paintings of houses. After we moved to Los Angeles, I met a woman who painted en plein air. She asked me to join her one day at the beach. I had to borrow one of her easels, and was immediately hooked. I had a lot to learn, though.

In the beginning, I was trying to put every leaf on the tree, and add way too much detail. A fellow artist gave me a painted sign that I hang in my studio. It says, “Simplify” and reminds me every day that the key to a successful painting is just that.

JLS: Amen to that. I need that sign…Please go on.

NH: I love the challenge of committing to shadows early on and working quickly without chasing the sun. I also love that the landscape doesn’t ask you to make it look twenty pounds thinner or twenty years younger!

JLS: Hah! Good point. How do you go about your plein air painting?

NH: My landscape paintings are almost always started on site either as a small plein air study. Often, the plein air paintings end up a finished piece. I find the spontaneity achieved on site is hard to duplicate using a photo in the studio until you have many years of experience and can remember the nuances of warm and cold shadows, light on the planes, and atmosphere. Photos are flat.

JLS: Good to know. Indeed! Sounds like plein air painting was meant for you. Linda and I would love to try this out with her students one afternoon. Speaking of which, Linda’s students are always interested in the latest tools of the trade. May I please inquire, what is your preference for paints and brushes? Do you use oils or acrylics? Do you paint on canvas board, panels, or…?

NH: There is not one brand of paint I prefer over another, but rather, certain colors in many different brands. I like paint with a lot of pigment. You can estimate the amount of pigment by the weight of the tube.

JLS: Ah. Good to know. What brands do you like?

NH: I use DaVinci or Utrecht for their wonderful, phthalo free Ultramarine blues, Gamblin for other transparent colors including alizarin crimson, transparent orange, and viridian. I also use Gamblin radiant violet as a mixer. Winsor and Newton is my go-to for sap green, cadmium yellow, cadmium orange, yellow ochre, and burnt sienna. My white is either Utrecht titanium white or Permalba. I use Holbein brown pink and cobalt turquoise on occasion. Grumbacher red is a beautiful cool red.

JLS: Thanks! I had never heard of Permalba white, brown pink, and colbalt turquoise. I’ll have to check out those colors. What about brushes?

NH: For brushes, I like Isabay 6068 series flats, Silver Brush Grand Prix series flats, and Rosemary and Company classic filbert size 4 and 6. I don’t mind using many of the cheaper brushes, especially for signing and detail, and I never throw a brush away. I love to use old brushes for scrubbing in a background.

JLS: Same. How do you care for your brushes?

NH: People are surprised to learn that I never wash my brushes. They lose their springing action. Instead, I clean them well with a Viva paper towel and reshape them as well as possible. I rarely buy filberts. Flats become filberts eventually.

JLS: I can see that. What about grounds?

NH: I use Raymar single-primed linen panels almost exclusively. They make lightweight panels for plein air, and large panels for studio paintings. I rarely use stretched canvas, mainly because finding frames deep enough to accommodate them is becoming more difficult.

JLS: Thank you for the intel!  Are you represented by any art galleries or do you work solo?

NH: I have been represented by several galleries off and on in the past. I used to show work a lot in New Mexico as well as in California, but the expense of shipping out of state, and damage to several frames made me reconsider. Several of my galleries have gone under since the pandemic began. I am currently a juried gallery artist at the Desert Art Center in Palm Springs, and will have a two-person show at the Leland Gallery in LaQuinta in April.

JLS: So sorry to hear about the galleries going under during the Pandemic. Very unfortunate. I’ll have to check out the Desert Art Center and Leland Gallery. Thanks! For our students, what do you believe are the pros and cons of gallery representation?

NH: I see both pros and cons to gallery representation. A gallery usually has a good list of collectors that they invite to their openings. I have found, however, that if a painting doesn’t sell at the reception, it probably won’t sell. The painting can then be tied up at the gallery until the show comes down, and you usually can’t remove it or show it in another venue.

JLS: Wow, I didn’t realize that. What are our thoughts about promoting your artwork on social media platforms vs. galleries?

NH: Since the internet has become a place where artists can easily be found, it doesn’t seem quite as necessary to have gallery representation as much as in the past. Most galleries take 50% of a sale, and some require the artists to pay for publicity on top of that.

JLS: I bet. Whoa, that’s crazy. What other ways do you promote your work?

NH: I enter a lot of art club and museum shows which, when paintings are accepted, I find are great for exposure and finding collectors. I don’t write a blog or a newsletter, but I know a lot of artists who do, and I am considering doing that if I can find the time. I enter plein air events, and have also participated in several invitational events. With a few exceptions, I typically don’t do art shows where the artist sets up and mans a booth, but I know artists who are successful at that. There are one or two events of that kind each year where I know the clientele is looking for representational artwork and are not balking at higher price points, and I will do those. Events associated with a charity can be a good place to sell art also.

JLS: Good strategies. Thank you for sharing. At what age did you realize you wanted to be a professional artist?

NH: As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be an artist, but I wasn’t always sure if it was a smart choice to be a professional fine artist. I thought about commercial art for a while, as I thought it might be a more steady and secure career. My father, whose own father was an artist during the Great Depression, was a banker who was always worried about me having a financially secure future. In college, I majored in art with an emphasis on painting, though I took classes in lettering, commercial design, and art education just in case.

JLS: Good idea. Did anyone try to talk you out of venturing into an art profession? If so, how did you handle it?

NH: It was just the opposite. Everyone in my family and all of my friends encouraged me to go into art. In high school, I was one of those kids who lived in the art room. I had an art instructor there who encouraged me also. I was always drawing, sketching, painting, and did a lot of daydreaming about going to an art school in New York, though I had never been to New York. I enjoyed reading about artists. I liked writing and history. I was not particularly good in math or science. It just seemed natural for me to study art.

JLS: That’s wonderful to hear. Way better than the alternative! I understand you are the granddaughter of a professional artist who showed his work with painters like Edgar Payne, Victor Higgins and Walter Ufer. So cool. Would you be up for revealing your grandfather’s name and share with us a little bit more about him?

NH: Sure. My grandfather was Richard Fayerweather Babcock. He was a painter, illustrator, and muralist. He studied at the Art Students League in NYC, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He also studied in Europe. He, along with sixteen others, formed a group who called themselves the American Artists Club. They were a group of American artists working and living in Munich just before WWI. Included in the group were E. Martin Hennings, Victor Higgins, and Walter Ufer, who later became three of the original members of the famous Taos Society of Artists. My grandfather returned to Chicago and taught poster design at the Art Institute. He also taught at the American Academy of Art. He was an artist member of the exclusive Palette and Chisel Club where he met his friend Edgar Payne who had studied at the Art Institute for only a short time. Another friend, Joseph Kleitsch, was also a member. All of the artists mentioned here showed their work together in and exhibition at the Palette and Chisel Club in 1916.

JLS: Wow! That is very impressive. Linda is a huge Edgar Payne fan, often teaching from books featuring his work as well as the anthology of his notes which his daughter published. It is definitely apparent that the artistic gene runs in your family! 🙂 I understand you were born in Illinois. What brought you to California and how has living here impacted your art?

NH: My husband and I were both from the Chicago area where we married and had four children. His career moved us to first to Miami, FL, then to Houston, TX, and finally to Los Angeles. Until we moved to California, I had only worked in a studio, and had never ventured outdoors to paint. I guess you could say that moving to California changed everything for me. I fell in love with the landscape and being outside. I joined the California Art Club and met many other artists with the same interests. There, I met a group of like-minded, adventurous women, and we formed a group called PAC6 which means six women Painting Across the Country. We have traveled extensively throughout the western US to paint. We have exhibited the work at galleries and every three years we have a show at the Santa Paula Art Museum.

JLS: Nice! We might just have to dedicate a blog on the PAC6 at some point! California is definitely an inspiring place for artists, especially plein air painters. Did you study art in college or are you self-taught? What are the pros and cons of studying at a university vs. self-taught?

NH: I studied art in college and afterwards. I would say most artists benefit from instruction but, in my opinion, the experimentation one does on their own will be the way they find their own voice as an artist. Although you will likely have special artists you admire, you shouldn’t want your work to look exactly like anyone else’s work. The goal is to let others be able to identify your work with something unique. In school, you learn the basics and the importance of developing skills in drawing, perspective, composition, color, etc. Techniques can be taught, but the most valuable lessons are the ones you learn on your own through practice and perseverance.

JLS: All great points. Thank you. Do you teach any workshops via Zoom or in-person?

NH: I do not teach via Zoom. I have taught workshops and done demos for various art associations only in person. I teach one color workshop per year in the desert.

JLS: That sounds lovely. Perhaps you might consider hosting one at our lovely Valley Glen studio at some point. Linda can fill you in on the details if you’re interested. What is some advice you can give the young artists studying at Pastimes?

NH: As I said earlier, try to find your own voice as an artist. Just the fact that you are studying art shows you have a passion for it. There is nothing better than having the desire to be creative. If you can, find those living artists you admire and ask if they teach or offer mentorships. Some of the best instruction I had was in small group workshops, or even one-on-one. An immersive week spent with a great instructor for eight hours a day and critique in the evening can help you to see your work with different eyes and bump it up several levels.

JLS: Thank you for sharing that sound advice to our students. Art can touch people’s lives, bringing happiness and hope. For example, my boss Linda Wehrli, partners with CoachArt to provide free art classes for families impacted by childhood chronic illness. Is there a charity you are fond of or support, that you might like our readers to learn more about?

NH: Over the years, I have volunteered with different programs that brought art education into elementary schools. Since art is one of the first things that is cut when funds are tight, there is a huge need for volunteers. There are several nonprofit groups that still do this. PS Arts in Los Angeles is one about which I have heard good things. Volunteering at an art museum is also a great way to get involved. I was a docent at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and at LACMA for a while. Working with young children is so rewarding. If you spark interest in just one child, it’s worth it.

JLS: Very true! Thank you so much for the inspiring interview, Nita!

You can learn more about this talented artist on her website and on Instagram.
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