Shar Coulson | In Conversation

Foster/White Gallery: Your work includes a combination of acrylic, dry pigments, charcoal, and graphite. What is your process? Do you have an idea of where you are going when you start a new piece, or do you find yourself being led by your materials? 
Shar Coulson: As it is with most artists I developed my process through years of experimentation. I narrowed it down to mediums that best produce the translucent layers and weathered textures that mimic the delicate, organic physical forms found in nature.


Shar Coulson, Fauna Flora Figure 163, mixed media on canvas, 40 x 54 inches 


At the start I rarely think too hard about the finished piece, with the one exception being my color palette. Color is one of the most personal aspects of my work, as it’s a powerful way to express emotion. My early color theory studies and years of practice gave me confidence to trust my instincts. Mixing an unexpected pigment that sits perfectly next to its complement or combining warms and cools to get just the right gray, helps define and strengthen the work. 


Works in progress in Coulson's studio.


F/WG: You have shared that nature is your biggest inspiration. Do you have a favorite way to experience nature? Places you return to again and again? 

SC: I paint outdoors so I can paint indoors. Creating nature-based work in my inner city Chicago studio may seem like a challenge, yet it’s never been a problem. Several times a year, I participate in national plein air painting events where my objective is not to capture the realism of what I see, but to “gather truths”. To build an inventory of textures, colors and sensations that I will draw upon once I’m back in my studio. Painting outdoors lets me see, smell and feel the elements with such intensity they become an innate part of my visual language.


One of Coulson's plein air paintings


F/WG: In what ways is your work informed by your experience as a designer? Can you share more about what this role entailed for you? 
SC: A very sound bit of advice I received after making art my full-time focus was to “Acknowledge my prior career and use the experience to benefit my life as a painter.” It didn’t take long to realize the value of my former careers as a Designer and Executive Creative Director. The obvious connection is on the creative side. The design principles, color theory and composition carried over seamlessly. The surprise was how much the branding and business experience helped in marketing my work...allowing me more time in the studio.


Shar Coulson, Fauna Flora Figure 165, mixed media on panel, 24 x 48 inches


F/WG: Despite the high contrast in the majority of your works, the eye is grounded in the physicality of the surfaces of the paintings themselves. Is this a deliberate connection of the abstract to the physical? 
SC: As much as I refer to myself as an abstract painter, I find it nearly impossible to keep my work completely away from connections to the physical world. My guess as to why is because I was trained in classical figurative realism. That foundation will always be a part of my artistic DNA.



F/WG: How do the ideas of abstraction and the influence of physically tangible elements intertwine in your work? 
SC: In the beginning, each painting is abstract in all aspects. Throughout the paint application, figuration appears and disappears. Periodically I will define an organic shape pushing it forward to a place of familiarity. I try not to make any aspect of my work too physically tangible, but sometimes it just happens. One viewer may see plant-like forms, animals, figures or landscape, but another only abstract shapes and patterns. I’ve always thought that in my work the reality is based in each viewer’s unique perception, allowing unlimited viewpoints within a single composition.


Inspiration from nature


F/WG: You have shared that Pareidolia influences your work, causing you to visually recognize forms within abstractions. Is this grounding essential to you as you work on the paintings? And is it something you want your viewers to experience? 
SC: The ability to see recognizable forms in abstraction, seeing things that aren’t there, has always come naturally to me. In fact in day-to-day life it can be a distraction, but on a walk through the forest, marsh or dunes it can be a total inspiration. I’m not sure that it’s essential to my work, but it does help me navigate. The idea of starting fresh with no idea of what is to come gets me to the studio nearly every day.

I’ve noticed that the viewer’s response is similar yet different.


Shar Coulson, Fauna Flora Figure 166, mixed media on canvas, 40 x 48 inches


F/WG: How did you choose to title your pieces as numerals within a series? Does a descriptive title dictate the interpretation of a work too much? 
SC: Recognizing early on that fauna, flora and on occasion figural elements—as obscure as they may be—are hidden within the abstract shapes in all my work, it became obvious that I use only one title for the series with numbers as identifiers. The idea of descriptive titles are just too specific to my own minds eye, limiting the viewers personal interpretation.

F/WG: Do you have favorite rituals in the studio? What brings you peace? 
SC: My favorite ritual in my studio is that moment when I feel it’s time to step back, grab a tea, take a seat and start problem solving. It’s the reflection time that allows me to truly see what’s next. 
Lastly, what brings me peace is to Listen to My Heart.



To learn more about Shar Coulson and to see available artworks please visit her page.

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