“Golden Meadow,” by Susan Nicholas Gephart, pastel, 12 x 17 in.

For Susan Nicholas Gephart, a pastel instructor at the upcoming Plein Air Convention & Expo (PACE), art sometimes makes her feel like a mad scientist.

When PleinAir Today caught up with Gephart recently in her Pennsylvania studio, she was wondering what would happen when she went back into her studio that day. It’s almost like a laboratory for her, where experimentation is embraced, guided by “dream memories,” carefully chosen music, and reference material. Her materials are set up to surprise her and keep things spontaneous, with iridescent and hard pastel mixing with watercolor to create washes and passages rich with pigmented sediment, all creating an underpainting that will point Gephart toward a pastel piece that expresses emotion as much as physical reality.

“Blue Mountains at Myer’s Dairy,” by Susan Nicholas Gephart, pastel, 8 x 17 in.
“Blue Mountains at Myer’s Dairy,” by Susan Nicholas Gephart, pastel, 8 x 17 in.

At PACE, Gephart will have an underpainting already prepared with watercolor and hard pastel, ready for more pastel work and completion. She will also show how she does her underpaintings. Gephart likens it to a cooking show in which the cook shows how to prepare a dish but has one already going in the oven to more expediently show the finished product.

“Carmel Beach Paint-Out,” by Susan Nicholas Gephart, oil, 14 x 11 in.
“Carmel Beach Paint-Out,” by Susan Nicholas Gephart, oil, 14 x 11 in.

She has explored this underpainting approach a few times this spring, but it still was offering her surprises when we talked. “This winter and into spring has been mixed media info-gathering time,” Gephart says with a laugh. “I’m seeing myself as kind of an adventurer, trying different surfaces and media. I’m doing a fluid-movement underpainting combining iridescent and hard pastels, with the fallout of particles creating some randomness like watercolor, using gravity to suspend the pigments. I have achieved control over this but will see if I can do it again!”

Gephart will paint a demo on the pastel stage at PACE, but she will likely paint in oils out in the field. Her background is in pastel, but she is interested in several media — obviously. “For a multimedia artist, the convention is food for inspiration,” says Gephart. “While I’m at PACE I’ll concentrate on meeting artists and hearing what they are trying to accomplish, connecting with them and helping them do what they are trying to do. One can be blown away by problems out there in the field. I’ll be there to help.”

“1st Day Monterey Bay California,” by Susan Nicholas Gephart, oil, 6 x 12 in.
“1st Day Monterey Bay California,” by Susan Nicholas Gephart, oil, 6 x 12 in.
“Changing Light in the Adirondacks,” by Susan Nicholas Gephart, pastel, 11 x 16 in.
“Changing Light in the Adirondacks,” by Susan Nicholas Gephart, pastel, 11 x 16 in.

She’ll be working on a large surface for her demo — an 18”-x-24” white Multimedia pastel board. The subject matter will be a combination of things. “I’ll use dream memories, actual experiences, and references,” Gephart says. “Pulling up visions, emotions, and feelings from plein air work and relating it to the study and combining that with reference photos so the three elements are brought together. I like combining all that, taking what I see outdoors and using it effectively in the studio. Dream memories get filtered through your senses. It’s emotional stuff, the essence of something, what it felt like. How you felt, not just what you saw.”

Representationally, what she’ll be painting is sky and clouds, a motif of interest for Gephart. “The ground is bleak in wintertime, so I started looking up quite a bit,” says the artist. “I like to compose with low horizons and sky, exploring the subtleness of it.” Clouds can offer diagonals and other design elements, and Gephart also likes integrating hills, mountains, and water — the last for its promise of interesting reflections.

“Sunset and Clouds Over Hameau Farm,” by Susan Nicholas Gephart, pastel, 16 x 20 in.
“Sunset and Clouds Over Hameau Farm,” by Susan Nicholas Gephart, pastel, 16 x 20 in.

There will likely be music playing during her demo. “I am always playing music when I paint. There are two songs in particular that I want to play,” she says. “I like music that lifts me, energy-wise.” And when the energy gets going, look out. She forgets what she’s doing, to some extent. “One day recently I was painting with two brushes, one in each hand,” says Gephart. “I was like a scientist, experimenting. It’s the attitude of, ‘I wonder what will happen if.’ I didn’t even notice I was painting with a brush in each hand, and I laughed when I realized it. But the attitude is, don’t just ask it, try it. How are you going to do something new if you don’t take a risk when you are creating?”

“Light Around the Corner 3,” by Susan Nicholas, pastel, 12 x 18 in.
“Light Around the Corner 3,” by Susan Nicholas, pastel, 12 x 18 in.

Time is running out on the chance to join this experienced artist at the biggest gathering of plein air artists in the world. Gephart will be teaching at the Plein Air Convention & Expo, which will be held April 24-28 in San Diego, California. Have you seen the list of faculty members that will be instructing participants? It also includes Jeremy Lipking, Quang Ho, James Gurney, Charlie Hunter, and dozens more. The convention is almost filled. Go here to learn more and to register for PACE.

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