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A Painting Life, Interview with Nancy

Nancy moved into Nubi about four years ago, around the time my family moved here too. I’ve loved getting to know Nancy and learning about her remarkable life and art. Born and raised in Medina, Ohio, Nancy is a talented musician and was initially a music teacher by profession. She raised two children in Ohio, and when they reached independence, she and her husband bought a boat in England and traveled by canal and river to the Mediterranean. Then they sailed on the Ionian Sea for two years and the Aegean Sea for two years. Along the way, she discovered her love for painting landscape, which she actively pursued through her journeys. After their years living on a boat, she and her husband bought a home and settled in southwestern France, where Nancy remained for 20 years, as a widow for the last 15, until she relocated to Nubi. Her work has shown in galleries in the U.S. and Europe; prints and posters have been made of 35 of her paintings. What follows are notes from my recent conversation with her about painting. —Johanna

How did you get started as a watercolor painter?

After taking a couple of drawing courses and dabbling in oil paints, I took a workshop with a well-known watercolor instructor named Frederick Graff. Graff teaches many workshops including some in France. After the two-week workshop in Medina, Ohio, I was completely smitten with watercolor and never looked back. I’ve never wanted to work in any other medium.

From the horse pasture

Watercolor was wonderful to do while I was traveling in a boat because it didn’t take much room and it dried right away. Wherever we docked, I would take my paints and sketchbook and find something to paint. I think that it added a great deal to my appreciation of the places we visited. Now when I look at a painting that I’ve done, I can smell, and hear, and remember, “oh yes, when I was painting here a lady came out to peel an orange with a huge thick skin, which she ate.” I learned so much about the inner workings of the places we visited.

It really is the sense of place that I work on. I don’t have a manifesto that drives my work, except for trying to capture the things around me. Of course, I do have a lot of political and environmental issues that I think about, but I can’t express those visually. I’m motivated in my work to capture something that intrigues me, trying to reproduce a moment in time that has meaning for me.

Your work seems like it is about the process of slowing the senses, really seeing and appreciating what is in front of you.

The amazing thing is how much something will change over a couple of hours. I remember being in St. Emilion, France, where I was painting part of the church. I was painting along on a gray day when the sun burst out and a red vine on the church became brilliant. Before it was any old vine—the effect of the sun was miraculous. Most of my paintings are about sun and shadows. Indeed, the painting that I’ve sold the most copies of is called L’ombre, or “shadows” in French.

A l'ombre

Can you reflect on how your technique has evolved over time?

For several years after I began with watercolor, I did pen-and-ink drawings with watercolors added. I started and finished them in one sitting, which suited our lifestyle. They were easy and I sold a lot of them. And then in 1982, my husband and a friend took our boat from Greece to Italy for some papers, and wanted to bring back a kitchen sink along with other supplies. To allow for more space, I remained in a rooming house on Paxos, across from the campanile, or bell tower. One morning I began painting it, then got up to run errands as the light changed. I returned to it the next morning. And I realized that I could REALLY paint the campanile if I got up every morning and painted for an hour. ‘I don’t have to finish it all in one time.’ I don’t know why that hadn’t occurred to me before that. So that was a break through. And I really started to change.

Later, when we moved to France, my stepdaughter pointed out, “you know, now that you are settled, you should paint bigger and with better paints.” And I had to admit that I was still painting with children’s paint boxes, which fade in time. So I began exploring better paints—tube watercolors—and heavy paper. I now use a 360-pound paper, a very heavy paper for layering paint. The paint really soaks into it.

At this point, I have a couple of colors that I mix myself before I paint. One is a black, which is a combination of brown and blue. And when you change the proportion of brown and blue, you can make about 50 different shades of gray. I use these a lot for the undercoating for shadow and then I add the colors on top of it. And the other color I mix is a really dark green. I use a very bright shade of green that I’d never use on its own, but if I add enough red to it I can get a wonderful dark green.


When you layer paint do you wait until it dries before you apply another layer?

Yes, I often apply a layer before I get up to take a break. I walk away have a cup of coffee and when I come back it is dry enough to layer on. Sometimes I will build up 20 layers of paint, which creates an almost three-dimensional effect. A lot of painters just paint purple shadows, but I can’t do that because I don’t see purple shadows. I see a shadow that is just a different shade of the same color—it doesn’t have a separate color. Painters paint what they see, and everyone sees differently.

When you changed techniques, how did you inform yourself? Did you have to experiment?

I experimented, but I also sat in on classes at an art school in France, directed by a good friend. She often brought in new teachers and I would sit in on the classes and take notes. I exchanged home-baked whole wheat bread for auditing classes. “Bring me two loaves of bread,” she would say. That school is where I learned about mixing colors, for example.

behind Bogdinatika

Can you talk about the different places that you’ve painted? Since place is such an important part of your work, how does it affect your painting?

Of course, the places that I’ve painted the most are Greece and France, where we lived for the longest periods. I’ve also painted in England and Holland. But mostly we were traveling, so we didn’t stay very long in any place along the way. Everyone talks about the “Greek light,” but I’ve never really been able to see a difference. The difference is that the palette is completely different. France is green and Greece isn’t, except at certain times of the year. Spring in Greece is very green, but summer is brown and rocky. And olive trees have a very different green from most of the trees around here or in France.

St-Emilion de la Tour du Roy

Doors, windows and archways always fascinate me. At a show in Switzerland, a woman said to me, “I love your painting because you give me just enough information to imagine what is on the other side. And see what it is.” I love walking along the streets in cities, particularly Paris, when occasionally you catch a glimpse of an interior courtyard from the street as someone passes through. You can hardly imagine the courtyard garden from the barren door facing the street. Some quality of a half-hidden scene fascinates me. In my paintings, I love to let people imagine what is beyond the immediate subject—through the door, or around the corner.

Are there places at Nubi that give you that sense?

I love the scenes along the river. I love going up in the horse pasture to look at the mountains. I’ve just finished a small painting of a vernal pool in the woods that I came upon exploring up by the big rock. It was definitely an “ahhhh” moment for me. Lately, I’ve been working on small paintings, vignettes really, or parts of an image.

Can you reflect on working and living in the Monadnock region?

There are so many artists around here and so many opportunities: Sharon Arts, artists with open studios, Jaffrey Civic Center, an incredible amount of stuff that is really well done. Peterborough is kind of a magnet, or place where people settle because it is a good place to paint, sculpt, and photograph. There is a wealth of material.

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