LEARNING TO SEE

“I’m a little bit like a Family Circus cartoon. I like to work on
three paintings at a time, so I’m able to move around from one painting
to another. When I feel a little bit stuck on one, I’ll move to another.”
—MEREDITH COUGH, artist

 

. . . . . .

 

interview by KATE COUGH
paintings photographed by GEORGE BENNINGTON
portrait photography by JAMIE COUGH

Artist Meredith Cough in her studio.
Farmland Maine
32 x 58 inches
Oil on panel
Falling
40 x 60 inches
Cold wax and oil on panel
PSQ Mr. Owen
47 x 35 inches
Oil on paper
Allesandro
29 x 25 inches
Oil on linen
Cafe Portland
32 x 36 inches
Oil on linen
Fog Frenchman's Bay
24 x 20 inches
Oil on panel
House on the Point
24 x 43 inches
Oil on panel
Low Tide - Higgins Beach
25 x 52 inches
Oil on panel
Still Life with Thread
12 x 16 inches
Oil on linen panel
Woman and Bath
9 x 12 inches
Gouache on panel

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Plympton, Massachusetts, a small town near Plymouth. I moved to Maine to attend college when I was 18 and have made Maine my home ever since.

How did you become interested in art?

Growing up I had a neighbor who was an artist-illustrator, who I would visit occasionally. Her home studio was just so lovely. Once she gave me a very fancy graphite pencil. I treasured it. Materials are one of the things I love about being an artist; they are seductive. I love the wide array of pigments, the fine papers, beautiful linen and sable brushes. It is part of my love of art, and it started with that graphite pencil.

You went to college at the Portland School of Art, which is now called the Maine College of Art and Design. Tell us about your experience there.

I took the typical foundation classes, which was the strength of that program: two-dimensional design, three-dimensional design, painting, figure drawing, color theory, woodworking, sculpture, art history, etc. It was a broad education. I concentrated on painting my last two years.

I loved drawing classes. I like the idea that my mind is recording what I see and that a line can create space on a page.

The other class that I enjoyed was the color theory class, which was a class where you move around pieces of color and see how they react next to each other. I find it is a marvelous thing to figure out, the changing relationships of color. I love the infinite possibilities of mixing color. It is one thing that keeps me interested in painting.

You do an exercise along these lines, in which you limit yourself to just one or two colors. Why?

It’s kind of fun to set up restrictions because the exponential factor of mixing color is so great, sometimes you need to rein it in. So, “Okay, I’m only going to use these three colors today—let’s see how it translates.” Picasso said, “If you don’t have red, use blue.”

You recently spent time studying painting in Florence. Tell us why you went and what you took away from that experience.

I wanted to learn the mechanics of making a quality painting, from the beginning—from building the supports, choosing the right linen, sizing, underpainting and glazing. If you look at the Italian Renaissance and Baroque paintings they are fantastic—Caravaggio, for example, the colors are so bright, the darks are rich and the surfaces are beautiful. I wanted to know how they achieved that. Having looked at so many paintings, I knew that there was a bit of a formula involved; there are steps to making a good painting regardless of the style or subject.

Before I went I felt like I was fighting the materials. Even after four years of art school I didn’t know which brushes to use or why, which pigments did what, which oils to use. I wanted to go to the source of it all, to see beautiful works of art and learn how to create a quality painting. And I did learn those things. (I also learned a lot about espresso, so that was nice.) I learned a bit about the properties of oil paints and how they work, like Alizarin crimson, Naples yellow, lead white and so many more.

Walk us through your process. What does a day in your studio look like?

I’m a little bit like a Family Circus cartoon. I like to work on three paintings at a time, so I’m able to move around from one painting to another. When I feel a little bit stuck on one I’ll move to another. Usually the three relate to each other based on an idea that comes to me.

I take about a half an hour and mix paint and think about the colors I’m going to be using in that piece. I paint until I stop seeing the changes clearly. If I begin to feel stuck I’ll stop, I’ll stretch and prime some canvases. I prefer to create my own supports. It feels like part of the creation. You have a little more reverence for a product if you’ve taken the time to make it from beginning to end. Something you make yourself does not feel disposable.

I have learned that painting takes a long time, it takes persistence. Colin Page taught me this—you’ve got to slow down to hurry up. It’s a great piece of advice, because the more you slow down and get the color right with the first touch the less you have to fuss with it later. I also notice if I take the time to get it right, I stay more engaged. It’s easy to get sloppy, it devolves. I find that’s the most rewarding aspect: being engaged.

Choose two paintings that have special meaning for you.

Certainly the “Portland String Quartet” series (Above: Mr. Owen, 47 x 35 inches, oil on paper) has special meaning because I reached outside my comfort zone. I challenged myself to go beyond the safe haven of my studio, to reach out to the members and follow them for a brief period of time in hopes I could paint their portraits. I decided to work on prepared paper, which meant the paintings felt precious right from the start, since paper is delicate. I realized as I worked on each one that I was not only working on a portrait of a musician but a portrait of a beloved instrument. The scale of these paintings is important; they are quite large so you interact on a human level with them. I had the added joy of sitting in on rehearsals and concerts to get information for the paintings and that experience was an honor, watching the give and take of them making music together.

The Lake Mist (60 x 40 inches, oil on panel) painting has special meaning for me too. It is a place I know well, looking out from the front porch of our camp. There are days when the air is so heavy with mist that the lake and opposite shoreline disappear and the patterns inside the forest reveal themselves. Those are the moments I look for.

What attracts you to a scene or to create a still life?

Typically, I am initially attracted to patterns, some kind of repetition, red seat cushions at the café, bright-colored cottages on the beach, treetops reaching above the forest, anything that unifies what I am seeing. Something I can connect and make whole.

Do you have any advice for aspiring artists?

Learn how to draw what is in front of you, from life. Even if you’re using a stylus on an iPad, draw. You’ve got this hand-eye connection. Trust your vision, trust that connection, and learn the very basic techniques of drawing. I learn to see when I am drawing.

What do you hope to give people through your work?

I want people to feel a sense of place when they look at my paintings. A sense that feels familiar and comforting. I want people to sink into a painting and say “Oh, I know this place.” And that’s what you bring home and put on your wall, the experience of a memory.

. . .

meredithcough.com

November 2022 show of new work at The Gallery in Readfield: galleryinreadfield.com

Visit the Meredith Cough Shop Page on SHOP CREATIVE MAINE.

Previous StoryNext Story