A Few Minutes With Sandra Smith-Dugan

Q.       Where does the inspiration for your paintings come from?

A.       I am inspired by so many things. Illuminated architectural structures are fascinating; as are urban and rural scenes, and old buildings that reflect another time. Faces and the human body are always objects of interest. I’m always looking at the structural aspects, the ‘bones’ below the surface, in every form I see. I approach them both visually and intuitively, looking for a sense of movement or an intriguing spatial dynamic. These are all aspects of what inspires me.

          The central concerns of my current work have to do with the character, mood and feeling of the subject matter, where it’s a place, an object or the human form. In my plein airpaintings, I soak up the mood and energy of an environment, including the weather and the light, and then seek to express that feeling through the use of color, composition, line, and intuitive brushwork. When working with the figure, the process is much the same except that I’m literally studying the person’s energy, emotions and body language. Again, I’m useing color, line and composition to portray my personal observation

Q.      Your past work was somewhat influenced by the Bay Area Figurative movement, resulting in your powerful imagery across a broad expanse of visual explorations. Have you continued along that same path?

A.       During college, when I first started seriously painting with oils, I was most impressed with Bay Area Figurative painters like Elmer Bischoff, Richard Diebenkorn, Joan Brown, and Wayne Thiebaud. They all applied paint with loose gestural brush strokes, often with very thick application of paint and a lot of texture. I loved the spontaneous and expressive quality of their work; it seemed so innovative, personal, and authentic. My own work has always involved the use of a loose painterly technique, and my fascination with color has clearly had a significant influence on how I handle oil paint. My painting style evolved out of observing the work of artists whom I admired - but the crux of its development has been the continued focus on creating work that satisfies my own eye and aesthetics.

Q.      Your style carries very well throughout all of your work. How do you balance plein airpainting with your studio work?

A.      When I began plein air painting, I found that I needed to work leaner in order finish a painting in a relatively short amount of time. As my skills improved I was able to bring back some of the thicker and juicier qualities of oil paint, and use both thick and thin paint to create a visually interesting and textured style to my work. My plein air paintings are of the San Francisco Bay Area and surrounding vicinities, including coastal, urban, landscape and architectural subjects. I work expeditiously and loose, with strong draftsmanship underlying the composition. The color is bold and my brushstrokes are spontaneous and expressive.

In the studio, where the paintings are often a larger format interpretation of my plein airwork, much consideration is given to composition and mood. While the technique is not as spontaneous and loose as when I’m working from life, my brushwork is imbued with lush applications of thick and thin paint. I strive for confident, painterly strokes of strong color, and I work with sensitivity to movement, space and line.  When painting from life, spontaneity plays a large part in my creative process, but when I work in my studio things become a little more planned and thoughtful.

Q.      Are there other artists who have influenced your style of making art?

A.       John Singer Sargent is a favorite. I greatly admire his loose, expressive brushwork, architectural renderings and figurative watercolors. Toulouse Lautrec and Honoré Daumier were outstanding artists o their time with their exceptional draftsmanship and figurative sketches.  Also, Marion Kavanaugh Wachtel, for her beautifully rendered watercolors of Southern California in a simpler time. And lastly, Franz Bischoff, for his small, beautiful plein air paintings.

Q.      Do you feel that you were born an artist? 

A.       Artistic expression was highly encouraged in my family. As far back as I can remember I was either drawing or painting, or role playing any number of characters my siblings and I came up with. My upbringing was very artistic, creative, and empathetic. My mother received a BFA in painting from UC Berkeley in the 1950’s, and my father was active in the local theater. That upbringing and support always provided a place where I could be expressive and honest – and have those qualities be appreciated and admired. For the record, my first major creative work was produced at the age of 5, when I got into my mother’s oil paint box and proceeded to “paint” the interior of our 1960’s Volkswagen bus.

Q.       What is your philosophy or credo as an artist?

A.       I strive to be truthful in my expression of what I see and respond to, regardless of the subject matter. It can be a person, a building, an animal, or an object, but there is an inherent character in that thing and it is exactly that which I seek to express. In terms of work ethic, I make every effort to create my very best work which is why I am always growing as an artist. This growth and freedom that creating art provides is critical to my well being and are essential elements of how I define myself as a person.

Q.      What are the unexplored areas of your art? If you had unlimited means, where wouldyou   take it from here?

A.       I would love to take my work on the road to Italy, Spain, and South America - and to paint on location while soaking in the local culture. When I was a student studying art history, I was deeply moved by the Italian High Renaissance art period as well the ancient Greek and Roman bronze sculptures. After graduating with a BFA in painting and drawing, I visited the Louvre and many other great European museums and churches to see the actual paintings and sculptures I had studied. I was completely awestruck by these masterpieces and wanted nothing more than to plant my roots in this artistic culture. Time has passed, I have a family and many connections that keep me in the Bay Area, but the passionate European people and their artistic culture, along with the beautiful countryside and amazing historical architecture, all still beckon to me - to live and work in that environment would be a fabulous.

Q.       What are your thoughts on the importance of art in our culture? 

A.       Art helps people settle down and introspect, a quality that seems to be harder and harder to come by as our society becomes more and more bombarded by electronic stimuli. We are aesthetic beings by nature and are profoundly influenced by our visual surroundings. Our culture at large must remain conscious of how our surroundings impact our psyche and how art plays an integral role in the health of our culture. We should choose to be surrounded by aesthetics that comfort, inspire, provoke and help us to introspect and ‘just be’. Whether we are creating art or viewing art, the experience satisfies an elemental need for enrichment, in ourselves and in our culture, that cannot be fulfilled by any other means.