In the Studio: Aimee Erickson
Aimee Erickson’s exuberance for color and design are palpable through her well-composed and richly harmonious still life, landscape, and portrait paintings. This West-Coast based artist is equally passionate about the theories of perception and optics, specifically how artists are capable of training their eyes to have even greater depth of vision and visual understanding. Starting out as a Design major in college and taking a job as an architectural color consultant not long after taught the artist the powerful role of color in space—one of her favorite concepts in art-making—and she continues color-consultant projects to this day. She also learned that the principles of design can apply to the creation of art in any medium, a lesson she regularly shares with her workshop students. In this interview, Erickson tries to contain her excitement (and exclamation marks!) as she answers questions about composition, color, and design—and the lifelong craft she continues to pursue with passion and joy.
AM: How do the principles of design contribute to your painting process? Would you say composition and color are your favorite elements of picture-making?
AE: Yes! The principles of design inform my decisions at every level. There’s a learned intuition that develops with practice, so I’m mostly going by feel. A square has an innately different feel to it than a 2:1 rectangle, for an easy example. Balance, harmony, weight, movement—all those things contribute to the feel of a finished painting. If something is not working, I’ll do a conscious review. The beauty of it is that judgment is always required, so there’s a mental engagement that is really satisfying.
AM: Do you have a background in any other art form or type of design? Do you find you enjoy interior design or decorating?
AE: Yes, my college major was in the Design Department—not the Art Department, which was across campus and where they were encouraged to “express themselves”—and that also included Interior Design, Industrial Design, and Graphic Design. The principles of design can be applied to the elements of creating with any medium. I’m going to refrain from using multiple exclamation points here, but this is one of my favorite subjects! Other forms of design that I practice: quilt design, gardening, and yes of course the arrangement of furniture and objects to create beautiful living spaces.
I’ve had a parallel “extracurricular” career of architectural color consulting, which is SO much fun. After college I took a lot of side jobs when art wasn’t paying any bills. Painting houses was one of them, until I realized that the part I most enjoyed was getting the right color for the space, and that I could do only that part (and get paid for it) and let other people apply the paint. I love the collaborative aspect of it—working with the homeowner or business owner to get a result they love, and saving them twenty trips to the paint store. I am forever interested in the place where color and shape/space come together and create emotion. A room can feel tight and restrictive, or open and inviting, depending on paint color and placement. Every house and room has character, and the room will ‘relax’ when the color is right. The architecture we live in shapes our lives. Getting a color that’s right for the room is one way life can be more wonderful.
AM: I know you were born in Paris and now live in Portland, Oregon. How long were you in Paris, and does French culture/art continue to inspire you?
AE: We left France for England during les évenements de ’68 [a period of civil unrest], when I was a year old. Later, after we settled in California, my mother taught us French, and we had French-speaking-only dinners once a week. I have been back to France many times. It’s funny, when I’m there I’m told, “Not only are you French, you are Parisian!” On my last visit I saw Monet’s water-lily murals at the The Musée de l'Orangerie and an exhibition showing his direct influence on American Color Field painters.
AM: When you first gradated college with a degree in visual communication design and a focus in illustration, what career were you hoping to pursue? At what point did you turn your attention to fine art and painting?
AE: I had no idea about careers. I think I must have had a mental block against it. I did know that I wanted to paint.
AM: Who have been some of your most influential teachers and why?
AE: I had a teacher who looked at one of my drawings, pointed to a line, and said, “Here you were thinking about where this line goes, two-dimensionally” … then she pointed to another line and said, “Here you were thinking about form. Do this more.” I was floored that she could read a drawing that way. She also conveyed in a few brushstrokes, and fewer words, the essence of the language of painting. Her name is Sherrie McGraw.
AM: How much of your time is now devoted to teaching? In what ways does this “giving back” approach serve you in your own work and pursuits?
AE: I’ve been teaching four to six workshops a year, plus a few demos. It brings me a lot of joy to be in the room (or, now, on Zoom) with people who value the same things I do, and to be able to demonstrate or articulate things in a way that opens their understanding. It seems to me that there are aspects of painting that you can’t teach yourself; that knowledge is passed from teacher to student. So, yes, I’m happy to be in a position to pass it on.
AM: I know that the concept of “artistic perception” and tuning in to how we see and how our minds interpret visual data is something you are passionate about. Can you summarize your thoughts on this topic and why you find it important?
AE: Oh, I do love this topic. Our eyes are capable of perceiving minute shifts in color and light. Just the fact that we have light-sensing organs in our faces is cool. But our eyes don’t work like an old-school camera; they are an extension of the brain, and we learn from infancy how to identify what we’re seeing. In fact, sometimes “see” and “understand” or “identify” are synonymous. And as far as survival goes, it makes sense to cease observing closely once you’ve identified something. This means that a lot of visual information gets overlooked. As artists we can train ourselves, not to unlearn what we know, but to see more: to perceive more of the purely visual information that our eyes receive, and filter it for what’s important in terms of color and shape.
I heard it hypothesized once that Monet was able to turn off his macular vision—the central part of vision that we read with—at will. I think it’s entirely possible to do. There’s a sort of softening of the eyes and vision that can enable a broader sort of seeing. And if you see differently, you see more. Voilà!
AM: Can you name a painting (recent or otherwise) during the creation of which you really felt this concept was driven home or brought to life in your own mind and eye?
AE: I do ask myself how to summarize the essence or the nature of the thing. The one that comes to mind is the one looking out over Laguna Beach in the afternoon, with the glare on the water, and the sky kind of slamming down with light. The title of that painting is Laguna Main Beach.
AM: What was your process for learning color? Did you explore several different approaches and do many exercises and experiments? What was a helpful or pivotal tool/exercise you used to train your eye to choose and harmonize color?
AE: I had an entire glorious semester of Color Theory in college, and I’ve designed and taught a color-theory class many times. The thing is, when presented methodically, color theory is easy. The interesting and more challenging part comes in the practice of color, when your ‘primaries’ are tubes of pigment and the range and delicacy of color variation is enormous. I spent decades looking at things and asking, “How would I mix that?”
I’ve always been very experimental in my palette. I love mixing color just for color’s sake, seeing how different pigments interact, finding beautiful color combinations.
There’s an exercise in color, a gift, I give my workshop students: Mix four grays, from dark to light. These are the first column in your chart. For the rest of the chart, you can put whatever color you want, as long as it’s the same value as the gray in that row. And make the colors touch—no gaps between them—so you can really see their relationship. Students tend to imagine that charts are boring, but, without exception, everyone is surprised and delighted by how much they enjoy this exercise and how much they learn.
My feeling is that authentic changes in painting come from something internal—having learned how color behaves, or expanding your capacity to see, for example. If you learn to see differently, then you can’t help painting differently.
AM: Where’s one of your favorite places to paint for the color and quality of light? What is your favorite subject to paint and why?
AE: Laguna Beach at sunrise. Any open field at dusk. I love the cusp of day when sunlight is filtered through the atmosphere at a low angle.