It's an amazing thing to watch someone blossom as an artist. Many, many moons ago I worked in a gallery with Whitney Knapp. She was just starting out as a painter then, and over the years I've watched her go through years of art schooling to hone her craft and become an art educator herself. Her work continues to astound me, and I find her deep dedication to it hugely inspiring. Read on for her wise, insightful words about artmaking, education and creativity.
How do you define creativity? Creativity, to me, is using the imagination to generate unique, fresh, and inventive ideas.Within a visual language, I think this translates to innovation in approach and technique.
There’s an important distinction for me between creating versus making. I consider making to be the production of something from something, whereas I define creating as the construction of something from nothing. This difference places me in the position of a maker, an idea that is really at the heart of my own artmaking.
What is it you love about the medium of paint? Color is what I most love about paint. I have a greater affinity for oils than for other materials and for more specific reasons. I’m interested in the physicality of oil paint… the way it can be layered, mixed, diluted, blended; and the flexibility that this ultimately provides.
When I was in art school I was challenged to consider why I was using oils, and how they could be best employed to convey my subject. I began thinking about building up the texture to suggest grass, allowing my paint to run when describing water, scraping, dragging, pushing, pulling, etc. I find the infinite possibilities of approach so appealing.
A lot of your canvases are significant in size. What is it about a larger canvas that draws you to it? My larger work requires significant time to complete and I am attached to the ambition of these paintings. There is a power generated in bigger pieces that is absent in my smaller paintings. I enjoy the sense of being in my work during its construction, and recognize that the energy in my large pieces reflect this immersion. My larger work allows me to inhabit the paintings and I feel more invested in them.
This is due in part to of the amount of time spent painting, but also to my involvement in their entire execution. For these pieces, I cut and tack raw canvas to my studio wall, gesso the canvas, and later stretch the final piece. This hands-on approach continues to be a more intimate experience than working on pre-prepared small canvases.
How does nature play a role in your work? Nature plays a tremendous role in my painting because my work is really about my own faith, as reflected through the natural world. I consider the emulation of our natural world to be an act of reverence to the Creator. This undertaking reminds me of my subordinate position of maker. My work is also about place, and I paint in order to acknowledge places that have been significant in my life.
Finally, through painting I am able to encounter a heightened understanding of my own environment. This might be one of the most exciting things about making art.
You have an MFA and also teach art. In what ways has education (and being an educator) informed your work? Working toward my MFA was instrumental in shaping me into the artist I am today. Art school challenged my aesthetic and forced me to address difficult questions about my own work. It also provided me with the opportunity to discuss my convictions and explore new ideas. The critiques were often painfully honest, but provided valuable feedback.
Perhaps most importantly, I was exposed to a community of artists I deeply admire.
Being an educator has impacted my work equally. By providing students with an introduction to various techniques and media, I am inevitably inspired to employ them myself. Also, I learn by observing my students. Oftentimes their approach varies significantly from my own in ways I couldn’t have imagined. Teaching also provides my schedule with a sense of structure that can often be missing for self-employed artists. Finally, I’ve found that facilitating critiques and providing feedback has fine-tuned my ability to problem solve in my own studio.
Recently your work had a shift to a more impressionistic style. What accounts for that shift? I believe that artists should never become too complacent with their own work, because this will ultimately lead to the production of stagnant and stale paintings. If one’s process has become too easy or too mechanical, then I think it means one has been in the same place for too long.
I recently began painting with a knife in order to experiment. Working with a knife has contributed to the thick paint application and more vivid color relationships that make my new work feel more impressionistic in style. I find that my colors don’t become muddied working in this capacity, and I like the thicker, layered textures that a knife can generate.
I’m also interested in edges developed with a knife, and enjoy negotiating transitions in this sense. I’ve had to surrender a sense of control working without my brushes, but find it to be liberating. I feel as though I’ve just begun to scratch the surface with this approach, and have a lot more territory to explore.
Any daily habits or rituals? Unfortunately, I’m much too disorganized to have any daily habits, but there are things I’ve found to be helpful in the production of my work. I make a point of looking at other artists’ work: in books, galleries, museums, and online. This serves both to inform my work, and to provide me with inspiration.
I also take photos constantly. I’m primarily a studio painter so I find images to be helpful as reference. Life is busy and oftentimes I can’t begin painting the moment I feel inspired. I take photos to document my inspiration, which enables me to revisit it later.
Favorite artists or influences? I’m influenced by a stylistically varied group of both historical and contemporary artists. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but the following are some of my favorite painters: Alex Kanevsky, Gerhard Richter, Zaria Forman, Bo Bartlett, Ran Ortner, Richard Diebenkorn, Stuart Shils, Antonio Lopez Garcia, Rackstraw Downes, Frederick Edwin Church, J. M. W. Turner, John Constable, Jacob Van Ruisdael, and George Inness.
Advice to young painters? It’s crucial that painters of all ages take their work seriously and make it a priority. A staggering percentage of art students abandon their direction after graduation. I vividly remember making a commitment to myself while I was in graduate school that I would never step away from my work. It’s imperative that you believe you can accomplish the goals you’ve laid out for yourself. It’s important to cling to your convictions.
Artists must build time into their schedule for artmaking, as painting is a craft improved only by doing. Be willing to experiment, to try different techniques, and be open to failure. I’ve learned just as much from what doesn’t work, as I have from my successes. Place yourself in a community of artists, look at as much art as you possibly can, apply to shows and subscribe to mailings.
Finally, know that vulnerability is necessary in order to achieve growth.
Whitney Knapp was born in Connecticut, lived in Surrey, England for nearly a decade, and currently resides in Virginia. She earned her BFA from Denison University, and her Post Baccalaureate Certificate and her Master of Fine Arts Degree from Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. She is represented by galleries in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Rhode Island, and she teaches drawing and painting courses at several community colleges in Maryland and Virginia. You can see more of her work on her website here.