My name is Jill Gustavis, and I’m originally from Pittsfield, Massachusetts but my husband and I moved over the NY border to quiet Stephentown in 2016. Since that time, you could say my daily exposure to the country and job at work have helped me reprioritize my art.
I’ve been artistically inclined and encouraged since childhood, but I found myself doing less and less art as I made my way through school. I mostly worked with pencils and oil through high school, and acrylics afterwards. I’d still really enjoy it when I did create, and sometimes the works were incredibly encouraging for being few and far between, but I still couldn’t find time.
Now fast forward to college, and my years earning a degree in Interior Design because I was one of many people under the perception that Artist, as a job, was a ‘dream job’, so I picked something ‘professional’. Now, I still pull many useful things from that degree, even though I don’t work in that field anymore. The most important being perspective and illustration techniques, but also a working use of Photoshop and some color theory. I was very basically introduced to watercolors during those years and even completed the renderings for my thesis project using Sakura’s Koi colors. I’ve had basic art instruction in a few areas, i.e. open ended art studio, drawing and composition, and interior rendering, but no extensive instruction as to how to really use the materials available, nevermind master them.
After trying to work in the Interior Design field after college (circa 2008, right when the recession happened) I was relieved to be laid off and had an excuse to freelance as an illustrator and graphic designer. Freelancing was a great change of pace, but ultimately I didn’t enjoy the assertiveness and discipline needed for self-employment at the time. A year or two later, in 2011, I started at the company I now work for, Lymphedivas. We make fashionable medical grade compression garments that treat lymphedema (sleeves and handpieces). In a way, this is where my journey back into painting starts.
I loved school, I’m a smarty pants at heart, and when it comes to art, I like assignments. After working my way up from a Production position, to Junior Designer, to Art Director, I now illustrate patterns based on a set collection of ideas. Yes, I am responsible for helping come up with said ideas, but then I have a timeline to get them done. A deadline is the surest way to be productive for me. Many of these patterns I create with watercolors on paper and then manipulate them to fit the garments in the computer.
Every time I would start a new painted design at work, my inner artist would rejoice and tell myself, “See, you love this, you should do this more at home!”. I would get all excited to get home and paint, only to get home and be exhausted, make dinner, watch TV or read, and go to bed.
Jump to 2016 and we were planning on moving to a more relaxing country area, I was doing lots of art at work, and something clicked. I felt more motivated to do art at home, and I followed through not once, or twice, but consistently. I started an Instagram account for my art that March. I invested in artist-quality paints and brushes. I made time. Now, a year and a half later, I’m still amazed at what I’d been missing all that time I didn’t pick up my brush. But I’ve also learned not to beat myself up about it, I wasn’t ready, and I let it go.
Now, I’d say I regularly paint, but I don’t always have a smooth studio session. I developed into quite the analytical thinker during those years away from my paints and sometimes this is a good thing as an artist, and sometimes it’s not so helpful. For one, and I think a lot of beginning and seasoned artists can relate, I struggle with the “what’s my style?” question a LOT.
The ‘how’ and ‘why’ of painting seems to have an immense philosophical weight. At work I paint what the pattern needs to look like, very straightforward. At home I can do ANYTHING I want, and that’s a bit crippling when you like to over analyze your options.
I also enjoy doing a little of everything creative. In addition to watercolors, I spend time doing photography, sewing, knitting, calligraphy, acrylics, carving, furniture restoration, interior organizing, and gardening to name a good range of interests. I don’t do some of these things regularly, but occasionally working the brain in areas related to painting is like Crossfit for your creative juices. That and I don’t end up making myself hate painting, forcing myself do it when I don’t want to. Instead I come back excited, missing my paints.
I enjoy the change-up the most after I do a lot of visual thinking or painting at work, I can come home and attempt to carve something, knit, work on the house, or anything that involves making something with my hands and intuition more than thinking.
At the same time, the large repertoire means my choices aren’t just limited to painting when I find an hour or two. I love learning about Leonardo da Vinci, he was the master of doing a little of everything. I do wonder if his brain felt a bit permanently scattered? Maybe I should make a magic 8 ball or an origami fortune-teller to make those decisions for me.
When I’m painting I’ve found, simulating the focus of an assignment, I have to trick my brain. I have to just jump in. My favorite way to do this, is to look through a portfolio of printed pictures I’ve taken, pick one, and paint it. I’ve painted some of them many times and each one looks completely different.
I also scroll through my phone photos, but then it’s easier to get distracted by Instagram or pulled into Pinterest. When I’m really lucky, I get to paint from life. Although, with my two cats, bringing flowers and plants into the house doesn’t happen anymore because they like to eat them, or at least knock them over.
My style ranges all over the spectrum from detailed studies to loose gestural sketches. When I became more focused last year, I followed a lot of botanical painters like Anna Mason and various botanical societies because my style using acrylics is very realistic. As time progressed, honestly, I got a little bored looking at only perfect renditions all the time and I started including looser artists like Angela Fehr, Thomas Schaller, and Eudes Correia. I have to really concentrate to do loose work, but most consistently, it ends up mostly realistic with some extra contrast or soft edges. My sense of perspective usually gets skewed too, still working on that.
Now, instead of saying I’m going to do a painting in a particular style, I just paint the subject however I’m feeling, then look to see what I like, what I learned, and what I’d do differently. Maybe in 10 years I’ll have a better answer to that question, maybe not.
My favorite subjects to paint are flowers, hands down. I love the organic shapes and tonal shifts, bright colors and endless variety. Most of my work is flowers, and I’m sure that will increase as I work to add a flower garden to our property in the future.
Other favorites are architecture, glass, and highly contrasting landscapes. There’s something highly satisfying about painting a subject with interesting shapes, colors or textures. I’ve had more fun painting tiny etched vases than full blown roses. I’ve come up short and bored, halfway through a highly repetitively detailed subject enough to know they’re just not for me, at least not in a detailed manner. I favor variety and contrast, I think it adds interest not only to your work, but also your practice. Sometimes looking for something truly moving to paint handicaps my sessions though, and I just end up being too picky and don’t paint anything.
When I can’t decide what to paint, only have a short amount of time, or I’m avoiding having to decide on anything, I’ll do color studies. Yay! A good outlet for my analytical brain. I can sit and swatch out colors for an entire day, and maybe come to one or two decisions, but enjoy the process the entire time. I’ve found the results of these romps is not always immediate, but they gradually build up an understanding of the materials I’m using.
On occasion, if I plan what the experiment is for, I’ll have more tangible results. For example, I received some samples of different papers from some lovely fellow Instagram artists, and since I really wanted to understand their properties as much as possible from that little sample, I made a plan. I took a look at what I usually paint, two subjects with different properties, and I decided that I do a lot of flowers and landscapes.
Painting the same flower, an iris in this instance, on half of each sample let me test how the paper took to soft blending and lots of detail. Painting the same landscape scene on the other half of each paper demonstrated how well the paper worked more wet, how fast it absorbed, and displayed the layered coats of pigment. It worked beautifully and I still have the swatches to reference.
Color studies also include supply explorations. They are not tests, but explorations, because I really do get that excited about them; it’s an adventure into the unknown! I also possess some Daniel Smith dots cards, and after playing around making pretend palettes, I’ve been known to write-up and recycle enough “potential new supplies” lists to make my own watercolor paper. Maybe one out of every handful actually gets saved for consideration when I do add to my supplies. My most recent exploration resulted in completing my translucent warm and cool primary options. As I tend to get muddy quickly, I’m hoping I’ll be able to scale back the heaviness of some of my work and learn the benefits of glazing.
Because I have a hard time making decisions on most things (especially exciting things like art supplies), I’ve mostly stuck to one brand of paint so far. I have one tube of M.Graham, but the rest of my artist paints are Daniel Smith. I enjoy the wide range of foundational and novelty colors that they offer, and like I said, the access to dot cards to try out paint colors instead of guessing has often hooked me once I see and feel a new color. Brush choice still eludes me. Like my assortment of pens, I switch from one to another as my mood changes.
I do enjoy the softness of squirrel, as well as the soft spring of sable. I use both in natural and synthetic options. For natural, I’m currently in love with my sable pointed round and squirrel mop from Rosemary & Co. out of England. For synthetic, I’ve started using the Neptune and Versatil series from Princeton and Escoda respectively. I’ve enjoyed all of them for different reasons too. The world of artist papers is still new to me and I know it’s taboo, but this was the last thing I upgraded. No one will ever convince me that cellulose paper doesn’t still have a place in my studio, but as I spend time and learn to work with the new, more absorbent cotton paper, I’m less frustrated by it’s unfamiliar behavior.
At work currently I have on hand: Strathmore 400 Series 140lb CP paper, Koi tube colors and my personal Black Velvet Squirrel brush. The paintings I do for designs are not for display or long-term use, so light-fastness is not an issue. I may upgrade the supplies as needed and as I learn more about them personally and see what would benefit my workflow there. I believe the pros and cons of supplies is a fluid subject, everything has it’s place and I’ve dug out supplies I’d hidden away in disappointment, only to fall in love with it using a new technique, or having changed my preference.
Excited to use those lovely supplies, I often get hung up on what to paint. I’ll make very extensive and thorough lists of potential projects, styles to try, experiments, etc. I’ll write them down with gusto, thoroughly excited to try them out the second I get a chance. Only I read through them as I sit down, and still feel unmotivated by these previously exhilarating ideas. A lot of times it comes down to it being after work, I’m tired, and I don’t want to start something. Other times it’s a roadblock I have that prevents me from creating anything I can’t envision a use for. If I can’t see it hanging in my house, and no one asked for it, then why am I painting it? I jokingly call it my KonMari syndrome. Like I said, I have to trick myself into painting anything sometimes.
This is where work comes in again. I enjoy having assignment-like focus when I paint. This no hesitation painting is most beneficial when I’m in a rut at home, and it makes me physically remember I like painting. Like running, I know I’ll feel good once I get out there, and starting is not always easy, but once I physically feel the high kick in, I remember why I like running and it’s easier to jump in the next day. I’ve tried doing the Doodlewash prompts, but I think I’ve only done one since last July… I’m setting a personal goal to try and do the 31 in 31 challenge this World Watercolor Month. Maybe I’ll make a gallery just for them on my portfolio site just to hold me accountable.
To make it even more confusing as to why I find it hard to paint, some of my work pieces are also the most rewarding. This is especially true when I have to paint something I’ve never painted before. I then get to research it (yay!) and do studies, and learn how to paint something new. I push more personal boundaries doing the wide array of painting styles at work than I ever have at home. I’m really excited right now, because I think I’m just starting to really understand the knack of water control, timing, and layering on my current work project.
The other really positive influence my professional work brings is the effect it has on the world. I’ve always wanted to do something that benefits society and when I did Interior Design, that was possibly designing environments that help people live better. Now, I create art that makes the very uncomfortable condition of lymphedema more bearable and less stigmatizing. My grandfather, who owned his own mechanic garage, once told me that he never hated going to work a day in his life. He may have meant he enjoyed working for himself, but I’d like to think a lot of that satisfaction is doing something you find purpose in too.
The long and short of it is trust your intuition, you’ll arrive at your destination when you’re ready. I’m still toying with the idea of selling and showing my work. I’ve done a few personal commissions, but I’m endlessly researching what would be the best route (web & paperwork/taxwise). I also contemplate how I want this new aspect to fit in with my already busy life.
I’m happy with where I am now. I may have took the roundabout route to get here but I’ve learned a lot about myself in the past few years; how what helps you create balance is constantly shifting, and to have patience with everything including yourself.
So, I paint when I can, I post when I can, and the only reason I finally got my website up and running was because Charlie offered me the opportunity to write this post and I thought, “Since I’m editing images, I should probably do those too… “. Chalk one up for deadlines!
All Lymphedivas patterns were commissioned by and are the property of Lymphedivas, LLC and have been shared here with expressed written permission.
Creator of Doodlewash® and founder of World Watercolor Month™ (July) and World Watercolor Group™. Sharing daily watercolor illustrations and stories while proudly featuring talented artists from all over the world! If you’d like to be a guest artist on Doodlewash.com, contact me!