Full Chroma with Julie Himel
Julie Himel | In Conversation
Foster/White Gallery: Do you remember the first moment you knew you were an artist? Or has it always been an innate part of you?
Julie Himel: I remember when I started school, we had a low-heat heating plate set up in class. We would put a piece of paper over it and as we drew with crayons the wax would melt on the paper. I couldn’t get enough. I would take the paper wrapping off the crayon and use the long side to make broad marks, or shape the point for a variety of line qualities, and in general would get completely lost in the way the colours would mix on the surface in their liquid form. I recall being singled out for using the materials in a unique way, and clearly remember colour theory being a very early understanding and obsession. Later in elementary school I was sent to a gifted arts program at the junior high school. Until I went to university to study anthropology and religious studies and had no time to continue my art practice, I didn’t realize how essential art was in my life. The absence of art at that time was what alerted me to the fact that I needed to redirect and go to art school.
F/WG: In your work you utilize recognizable (even if imagined) natural elements. Your landscapes feel both actual and imagined, dreamlike. What role does spending time in nature play in your work?
JH: Yes, my paintings tend to touch on actual recognizable forms of our natural environment while being about the ethereal, or the way we might remember, or imagine nature in the future when our environment has changed. I remember hearing Kim Dorland say in an interview that he felt that he would be irresponsible to portray nature as beautiful in his paintings. I actually feel the opposite. Our relationship to the environment and our need to protect it, as a landscape painter, is top of mind. I can’t unsee the beauty of earth in its natural state, and memory, dream or spiritual connection inform a beautiful longing for such spaces. I feel it’s important to portray that beauty, to think about all we need to preserve for future generations. The time I spend in nature is where I ground myself in that beauty, studying forms and qualities of light, but it plays an equal role to the time I spend away, dreaming, writing and responding to memories of natural spaces. The time I spend in reflection is the ingredient needed to steer me away from straight rendering of nature.
Julie Himel, Ironically Grace, mixed media on canvas, 36 x 36 inches
F/WG: Will you share your process with us? Do you make initial sketches, take photographs, work from memory?
JH: All three actually, as well as a lot of writing. My process is quite organic rather than formulaic. When I’m out in the elements, I photo document compositions that interest me, capture light. This is sometimes the only document of the space I have to start with. Other times I bring my sketching or plein air kit with me and spend some time sketching from life and translating the view into something a little closer to how the painting will be. If I’m without materials to draw or paint with, I will sketch from the photo when I’m back in the studio. That process filters the image from reality to a more emotional response, a step deeper than simple seeing.
I have notebooks and sketchbooks filled with sketches and writing all over the place. My response to the environment comes at different times. Titles or phrases come to me, or colour biases or colour combinations stand out and I imagine how the scene would look and feel through that lens. I write those things down; I make notes on dreams and memories of places. I refer to those notes and bring them back into the paintings. When all of the preliminary work is done, I block out simple forms in emotionally driven hues, build up the image in layers of different materials, and then essentially respond to the canvas itself, referring to the sketches and notes as needed, which tends to be minimal. The paintings don’t work if they rely too heavily on the photography; they need to become a reality of their own on the canvas.
F/WG: You have spoken of the balance between the “wildness of nature and the order of our attempts to control.” How do you strike this balance in your own life?
JH: In my painting life, it’s in letting paint be paint and simply directing it to deliver enough information for a viewer to connect. In the rest of my life I try to ride the waves of ups and downs life delivers while keeping my own personal practices in order to stay grounded and happy. As a parent, letting my daughter find her own way while helping guide her to eat her vegetables...
F/WG: Has your approach to your work had to change during this season, as we face the continued challenges of the coronavirus?
JH: At first I was a little derailed by the state of things, but I quickly adapted, as we do. Having a studio at home allowed for things to remain relatively consistent and unchanged. I’m very grateful for that.
F/WG: How do you cultivate joy? What favorite rituals or pastimes bring you comfort?
JH: I have had a meditation and yoga practice for many years. Those things keep my perspective in check and keep me in a state of gratitude. In that vein, I read that Buddhists believe that one of the easiest routes to feeling joy is through colour. It’s why they wear yellow and red. I’m in colour all day every day. My work is full chroma as is my home. Spending time with my friends who are so important to me makes me happy. Spending time with my daughter is one of the most joy inducing experiences I enjoy endlessly. And of course, a full time painting practice that also requires me to be in nature is a dream come true. I’m a very happy person. It is my way to search for the joy in all things, and any adversity that comes my way pushes me to dig deeper into that practice.