Arts, Featured, Outdoors

Painting the Great Land: Tips from Kwangsook Shaefermeyer and Susan Swiderski

by Justine Pechuzal for Seward City News-
‘Sunshine in Your Heart’ 30″ x 40″ acrylic painting by Schaefermeyer, photo reference.

Spring is in the air.  Increased daylight and warmer temperatures coax everyone outside where the scenery inspires: dramatic mountains covered in snow, sunshine sparkling off the bay, clouds piled high overhead.  One feels the urge to take a picture, or perhaps, make a picture. While pressing a button on a digital camera is straightforward, creating an image on paper or canvas can feel daunting. Luckily, local artists Kwangsook Shaefermeyer and Susan Swiderski have shared a few tips about painting landscapes in acrylic and oil paint to give the layperson’s creative urges some direction.

“When you start [painting] for the first time, it’s not going to be what you’re thinking,” Shaefermeyer councils.  “So forget about it. It’s normal to feel disappointed, and once you get more experience, you’ll feel more comfortable.”

Schaefermeyer’s art studies began at her Korean high school, where a high pressure environment of testing and critiques caused stress and tears.  She questioned her ability to fit in, but kept at her passion beyond school.

“Now I don’t have a teacher, so I don’t worry as much.  The audience who sees my work, they are the teachers. What they say about my paintings stays in my mind a long time and helps me try something new.”   

In the process of finding artistic independence, Shaefermeyer also shifted from watercolor to acrylics.  This economical, water-soluble medium made of pigment suspended in an acrylic polymer emulsion is a great option for both beginning and professional painters.

“I loved watercolor, but framing and storage was difficult,” Shaefermeyer says.  “Also, I have little kids at home, so acrylics are practical. They don’t smell, dry fast, and are easy to clean.”  

Over time, Kwangsook learned different techniques, such as layering or thinning paint with water to make her acrylics resemble the effects of oils or watercolors.    

“It takes awhile, but there are many ways to get your artistic vision,” Shaefermeyer says.  Some of her favorite subjects are, “…what you see here, the animals, the landscape, the beautiful ocean and beach.”  To capture these subjects, she tried painting outside, but found the experience challenging.

“Seward is too windy.  One time, my painting blew away!  And when there are lots of tourists around, I feel like a monkey.” Shaefermeyer says. She learned to bring her camera on outings, then work from photographs at home.  This practice is common to many landscape painters despite romantic perceptions of an artist and canvas poised at the foot of mountains. While a few painters like the famed Rockwell Kent did so, one must never underestimate the importance of practicality.

For Shaefermeyer, this means manifesting sunsets on water from her garage after everyone in her household, especially her young children, are asleep.  

“That’s the best,” Shaefermeyer said.  “I don’t have to worry about anything; I get to be with myself.”

‘Godwin Glacier’ 12″ x 16″ oil painting by Susan Swiderski, studio work with photo reference, image scene from a boat in Resurrection Bay.

Swiderski, an oil painter, likewise employs practical strategies to capture the magic of Seward’s scenery.   

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“I’ll just pull up somewhere [in my car] and paint from the passenger side.  It can be rainy or windy, whatever, and it’s comfortable,” Swiderski says. “I’m finding more and more as an artist, you have to do what works for you.”

Not to say that Swiderski spends the entire day in her car with a three-foot canvas crammed across the front seat.  A typical car painting session lasts an hour and a half and produces a small oil sketch no larger than 9” x 12”. Supplies are minimal: a tote bag holds a dozen tubes of paint, brushes, latex gloves, a canister of odorless paint thinner, and a few stretched canvases.  A small, specialized wooden box opens up to become an easel and palette comfortable on the lap. Swiderski works quickly, trying to capture the light before it changes.

“It’s very important to work from what you see because you’re able to get the colors and use intuition,” she explains.  The exercises also help her to know which elements of a scene to emphasize in more complex paintings made later on.

Like Shaefermeyer, Swiderski paints at home, where areas of her living room and bedroom have been transformed into spaces filled with canvas and color.  With her children grown and out of the house, she can also paint during the day. For these ‘studio works,’ personal photographs serve as an important resource, but Swiderski is careful not to just copy them. Instead, she uses notes and sketches recorded during the moment about what appealed to her in the scene, such as color, contrast, or a shadow, to guide the process.

When painting landscapes, Swiderski also keeps her focus on the art elements of value and shape.

“Simplify the scene,” she says, “You’re not painting a tree, you’re painting the light, medium, and dark shapes that make up the tree.  If you paint it all the same value, it will be flat, no matter what colors you use.”

If Swiderski’s advice sounds unfamiliar, there are plenty of resources to help de-mystify the process of landscape painting. Books, online videos, Instagram feeds of artists, museum visits and workshops are integral to Swiderski’s practice.

“Look at the art you like.  Decide what you like about it, and learn from it.”

Swiderski first studied oils in college, where she learned to love the the medium’s distinct smell, color vibrancy, and slow drying time that allowed her to stretch working time over days or a week.                  

“I’m not opposed to acrylics,” she said, “I am just more familiar with oils and their properties.”  

Swiderski demonstrates using her small lap easel, handy for painting when in the car. Photo by Justine Pechuzal.

That familiarity is then applied to the local subject matter that inspires Swiderski, who often includes man-made elements in landscapes.    

“I’m attracted to the juxtaposition between buildings and mountains, small houses and the ocean.  I really love this little town,” she says.

Her sentiment is echoed by many.  Get out there and capture it!

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