Artist Spotlite - Interview With Karin Wells

This interview has been reprinted in its entirety from Ralph Serpe's Art Instruction Blog on May 21, 2008 in grey type below:

"I love the dignity and grand style of classical realism. My work reflects the deep influence of the Old Masters in both method, style and use of light."


Q - What medium or mediums do you work with?

A - I enjoy working with traditional oil paint on linen canvas. The Old Masters take my breath away and when I look at what they have done with this traditional medium, it gives me endless inspiration to learn more.

Q - How long have you been an artist? How did you get started?

A - I guess that there are two answers. First – the short one: I was probably born with the heart and soul of an artist. It has always been what I have wanted…whether I knew it or not.

Secondly, the long answer is a newspaper article reprinted below:


TITLE: Challenging The Odds: Wells Settles The ‘Nature vs. Nurture’ Debate - “What Do You Expect? She’s An Artist.”

by Joni Hullinghorst, reprinted from the Keene Sentinel on 10/17/03

Those were the words Karin Wells’ parents used to dismiss the annual hand-drawn Christmas card from a mentally ill neighbor.

“I never wanted to be an artist,” says Wells, “because in my mind that would have been like wanting to be a streetwalker.”

It’s hard to imagine that a person whose background was otherwise devoid of art could create the extraordinary portraits and landscapes that come out of her Peterborough studio. Her father was a no-nonsense engineer and her mother was a teacher who, when Wells finally ended up in art school, told everyone that her daughter was in secretarial school.

Still, she drew constantly. She disliked school, so she used for her textbooks as drawing paper. “I wrecked many school books,” she confesses.

After high school, Wells tried nursing school but dropped out and ended up drifting from job to job in Rockport, Massachusetts. For fun she would sit on the end of Bearskin Neck and draw tourists on a tablet of writing paper. To her surprise, the tourists happily paid $5 for what she considered mere doodles.

Those $5 doodles earned the enmity of another artist trying to sell legitimate charcoal portraits for $20. Though she doesn’t know for sure, she suspects he reported her. However it happened, one day a cop grabbed her and read her the riot act for working on public property without a license.

“You artists are all alike!” she remembers him yelling at her.

It should have been a traumatic event. Instead it was a spiritual awakening.

“He called me an artist,” she says. “It was like a light bulb went off in my head.”

So when the angry cop dragged the euphoric young artist into the police station, Wells happily paid her fine—weren’t her pockets stuffed with money she’d earned as an artist?—and immediately got on a train for Boston to enroll in art school.

The light bulb may have gone off, but it didn’t illuminate much. It was September. Schools had already started, yet it never occurred to Wells that she might have a problem enrolling late, much less getting accepted at schools where people applied a year in advance. She called the MFA first. They laughed and hung up. Undaunted, she called the New England School of Art and Design.

“The secretary was at lunch,” she says, “so Mr. Cox, who ran the school, happened to answer the phone.”

Instead of laughing and hanging up on the fledgling artist, Cox invited her to the school. Naturally, he wanted to see her portfolio; naturally, Wells had no idea what a portfolio was. He told her there was an entrance exam composed of exercises, such as drawing a cereal box in perspective. Safely cushioned by her cocoon of naïveté, Wells told Cox she would be back in an hour. She went to a coffee shop and completed the entrance exam on her writing tablet. An hour later, she was back on Cox’s doorstep.

“It gets really weird here,” Wells says. “Someone had just dropped out, and by the time I got back, Mr. Cox and arranged a place for me to live, a part time job, and a partial scholarship.”

So there she was, still oblivious to the miracle she had achieved but happily enrolled in a commercial art school, despite the fact that she’d never been in a museum in her life (she burst into tears during her first visit to the MFA) and had no idea of basics, such as the fact that paint came in tubes.

One benefit of her serendipitous good fortune was the focus of a commercial art school on drawing.

“This was the era of abstract impressionism,” she says of the sixties, when the only palatable realism was an Andy Warhol soup can. “Schools like the MFA focused on art rather than craft, but I had to learn to draw. I had life drawing three hours a day, five days a week, for three years.”

Though she is a realist who counts Titian, Vermeer, Rubens and Van Dyke among her teachers, no one appreciates abstraction more than Wells. “Underlying all good art is good abstraction,” she says. “Composition starts with a good abstraction. Then you sneak into the painting and add the realism, then sneak out again.”

She graduated with honors in 1965 and went right to work as a commercial artist. She worked steadily for five or six years, then got married and had two children. Once her children were in school, Wells found a career working with brain-injured children. She didn’t think twice about abandoning her art career, didn’t fret over the loss of it for the next twenty years. Then she found herself a single parent and knew she wanted to make a living from her brush, but she had been out of commercial art for so long that she couldn’t get work. So she became a sign painter.

“I painted a truck for a friend,” she says. “It was beautiful, but I didn’t know anything about the proper paints, so when he went to pressure wash his truck, the paint washed off.”

Back to school, this time to the Butera School of Art. She finished the two-year program in less than a year and, in 1986, again graduated with honors.

“I was a sign painter’s sign painter,” she says. “They knew I could draw, so they’d subcontract to me for, say, a four-foot cheeseburger on the side of a roach coach, and they’d do the lettering.”

She met her current husband, Peter, a retired architect. But while her personal life blossomed, her professional life was failing. A recession hurt her sign-painting career, and she found no work at all after she and Peter moved to Peterborough in 1990.

Wells had always loved painting portraits; as a sign painter, she had once painted a used car dealer’s face on a blimp. She told Peter she wanted to try to make a living, estimating it would probably take her two years to get established.

In October 1992, Wells took a weekend portrait workshop at the Sharon Art Center. That workshop marked the first time in her life Wells had ever sat down to paint on a canvas. Aside from signs, she hadn’t painted or drawn in twenty years.

“I couldn’t believe what I saw coming off the end of my brush,” she says.

She continued studying with Numael Pulido, whom Wells considers the greatest painter she’s ever met, at the New England School of Classical Painting in Greenfield. Despite all the training, she still wasn’t confident enough to undertake commissions. Then an artist friend from Belgium arrived on her doorstep with a plea for Wells to help her finish 22 paintings she had committed to a European exhibition.

More serendipity: Flying back to Europe after a painting frenzy, Wells’ friend happened to be on the same plane as Susan Gibbs. For years Gibbs had been looking for someone to paint a portrait of her son. As soon as she saw Wells’ work, she knew she had found her painter. No matter how much Wells resisted, Gibbs insisted. And so six-year-old Grayson Gibbs became the first formal oil portrait she painted entirely on her own.

“Susan cried and cried the first time she saw it,” Wells says. “I thought she hated it.”

On the contrary, Gibbs was so moved that the single mother quit her job, moved to Atlanta, and opened the Twinhouse Gallery. About six months ago, Wells began painting landscapes? (something she’d avoided due to an eye problem that limits her depth perception), which Gibbs sells in her Atlanta gallery. Grayson’s portrait also won the first in a long line of awards: a first prize in the 1997 American Society of Portrait Artists Portrait Arts Festival Competition in Montgomery, Alabama, where she also won Best Portfolio, and a special recognition award in the 1998 International Juried Portraits Only Competition sponsored by the Washington (DC) Society of Portrait Artists.

Today Wells is a member of the American Society of Portrait Artists, Portrait Society of America, the Portrait Society of Atlanta, and the Copley Society of Boston.

Her portraits glow, not only from her jewel-like technique, but with the personality of her subjects and the personal touches she includes.

In “Mother & Daughter,” for example, Wells took down the curtains in the living and dining rooms and incorporated them as drapery in the painting. The daughter is barefoot because the mother, who was in her forties when she learned she was pregnant, and for reasons of health at that time, was mistakenly encouraged to not go through with this pregnancy. Then the mother saw one very clear, tiny foot in a sonogram. How, she wondered, could anything be wrong with a little girl who had such a perfect foot?

“Mother & Daughter“ won the Richard and Mary Schroeder Portrait Award from the Copley Society of Boston in 2002. Her portrait of Zabie Nields won first place in the Portrait Society of America’s 1999 competition, and she won the People’s Choice Award during the 1997 Regional Jurors’ Choice Competition at the Thorne-Sagendorph. It’s an impressive record for someone who only started painting portraits eleven years ago.

“I love what I do,” Wells says. “I don’t just like it, I love it, I love it, I love it.”

It shows.

-End of news article-

Q - Do you have any formal training or are you self-taught?

A - I had the great good fortune to study with Numael Pulido. And I copied the paintings of the Old Masters - they were and still are my greatest teachers.

Q - Do you have any favorite art supplies that you would like to recommend?

A - As a matter of fact, I do indeed have some favorites listed in detail on my blog:

I list some of my studio essentials that I get from the local hardware store and even my kitchen. Also my Hughes Easel and my amazingly comfy Turtlewood Palette are all listed and pictured with details.

I add items to this section as I think of them.

You can also visit my studio, take a virtual tour and see what I’m using:

Q - Do you work with any specific styles or subject matter?

A - As to style, I am heavily influenced by the Old Masters and you can see this in my work, my palette and the traditional materials I like to use.

As to subject matter, I am best known as a portrait painter. I also paint still life and sometimes landscapes.

I am always surprised that people do not know how beautiful they are. When I paint a portrait, I really work to show the beauty, personality and character or each person using all the tools I have – lighting, costume & props.

In still life, I like to portray the incredible beauty in simple objects.

I think of myself as a “Classical Idealist” rather than a “Classical Realist.”

Q - Can you recommend any books, videos or other resources that will help new artists?

A - I have a lot of books – most are the collections of the paintings and drawings of the Old Masters. I tend to not collect “How to paint books…” unless they are by someone whose work I greatly admire.

About Painting: “There is more written than is known on this subject (if you get my drift here)/” - And you can quote me on this.

Study the work you love – copy the masterworks you love - and you will be learning your lessons from the best of the best.

I learned most of what I know by copying the paintings by Vermeer. All of his lessons are hiding in plain sight – just waiting to be learned.

Most of us artists learn by seeing and doing – not reading. So if you want to get good - fast - copy and learn. Even the Old Masters copied and learned from each other!

Q - How do you get ideas to create a piece? What inspires you?

A - Hmmmm. I have more paintings in me than I have time to paint them. I carry a sketchbook or at least a pad of paper and scribble ideas.

I mostly work by commission. I like the challenge of having severe constraints, tight deadlines and all of the thorny issues of other people’s expectations. Other than the sometimes unpleasant headaches associated with this manner of working, it challenges me and forces me to find really creative solutions.

Faced with a blank canvas and the “what shall I paint today” attitude is not good for me. I like limitations.

Q - Are there any artists that have influenced you and why?

A - Vermeer. His work delights my eye, makes my heart pound and fairly takes my breath away.

Q - Do you have a website you would like to share?

My blog is the most fun for me. Watching paint dry is so lonely and blogging is such a fun way to exercise that little used left brain of mine.

Q - Finally, do you have any last words of advice for beginner artists?

A - If you want someone to teach you how to paint – only sign up with a teacher whose work you love and admire…and who knows more than you do.

I live in rural New Hampshire and there aren’t a lot of teachers around here. So in order to learn to paint the way I wanted to, I spent two solid years copying the paintings of the Old Masters out of books. When I say two years – I mean it. I put in 40-60 hours per week, 52 weeks per year. I logged in some heavy-duty easel time.

My hairdresser told me that she needed to put in 1500 hours just to get a license to wash my hair. It is funny but I meet an awful lot of artists who aren’t willing to put in this kind of time but somehow expect a good result.

I think hard work over a long time counts more than talent, i.e., perspiration v. inspiration.

Being a full time professional artist is hard work – but I cannot think of any other work I’d rather do.

Note: Ralph Serpe has other artist interviews on his blog at:


Tracey L. Harris said...

WOW! What a great story! Your paintings are beautiful. I rarely comment on these things, but that was the most interesting and amazing artist bio I've ever seen.

shazartist said...

I loved your are meant to be an Artist!

Shersart said...

Thank you Karin. Your work is amazing and thank you for sharing your step by step portraits. I am working on one now and I always fudge my way through them, but this one is giving me grief. Your work is amazing! LOVE your Blog!!