Abstract artist Karen Scharer explains why your three-year-old can't paint what she paints

"Flavors 3," by Karen Scharer
"Flavors 3," by Karen Scharer

I've heard it a million times. The last time, I was looking at a Kandinsky, minding my own business, when someone behind me chattered to her friend, "Look at that. Ugh. I bet it's worth a million dollars, and my three-year-old could paint it." The truth is, the painting is worth way more than a million dollars. And no three-year-old could have done it -- not even a three-year-old Kandinsky.

Abstract and abstract expressionist painters sometimes get a bad rap since their art doesn't always look like something recognizable. So, in order to better explain their process and why only they could produce the art they do, artist Karen Scharer, whose work is currently showing at Space Gallery, took some time to explain the finer aspects of her abstractions and give an answer to the people who think her work is easy.

What makes your process, as an abstract artist, different than the process of a traditional artist?

When I started painting, my work was very representational. Over time, I became more comfortable with less control and my paintings became more about the mood, the materials, and the overall structure and design, rather than any particular subject or story. It is interesting to me that what has changed in my process is the planning, and not so much the act of painting. My planning now consists of creating a palette that I want to work with and then moving immediately to the work. Working intuitively is so critical to how I paint that I find that level of planning to be limiting rather than helpful.

I guess the short answer to your question is that the key differences between my process and more traditional content work, at least if I were doing the more traditional content work, are that my process involves less planning and more intuition. Technical concepts -- color, composition, contrast, variety, balance, line, shape -- are all still critical in my work if I am going to achieve my objectives. In fact, I think those things are perhaps even more critical than in representational work.

"February Wetlands," by Karen Scharer
"February Wetlands," by Karen Scharer

Is there a way to "read" your piece -- are abstract pieces more open for interpretation, in your opinion?

I definitely think abstract work is more open to interpretation and as far as I'm concerned, my pieces are totally up for grabs. I've done pieces that were very organic and for me had a natural foundations, and people have said, "Oh, that's really industrial." Everyone brings their own experience, and when you don't tell people what the subject of your painting is, you the the risk that they'll see it a different way. But, that's also an opportunity, because you give people the chance to see what they want.

It can make me nuts if people say, "That's an elephant," and there's not an elephant near it, but that's the experience people bring to the work, and that's part of it. If I put a visible tree, I could sell a lot more work, because people like to have something to hang their hat on, but then it wouldn't be my work, so I don't go there.


"Sky Pool," by Karen Sharer
"Sky Pool," by Karen Sharer

What is your subject? Or, what inspires you?

I live and work in the Colorado mountains at 7,500 feet, about fifteen miles from the highest peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park. I spend my days completely immersed in the inspiration of constantly changing atmosphere, color, shapes, and moods. My work is created against that rich backdrop, and every painting is influenced by it. Although this body of work is certainly non-objective in its foundation, the palettes and forms of my environment demand to play a role. My work is born from intuition that is nourished by my surroundings and experience -- I have no choice but to comply with those demands.

The external influences may not be apparent in my work. I'm not seeking to portray what I see around me, but how I feel about what I see around me. I am not so brash as to try to paint the sun and the wind, the warmth or the bitter cold. I absorb, reflect, and refine, then look within to create my visual response. I see it as a form of alchemy -- the seemingly miraculous change of one thing into another. I internalize my experiences and surroundings, process them through the filters of my past experiences and surroundings, and what I return to the world is my work.

"Spring Break 2," by Karen Scharer
"Spring Break 2," by Karen Scharer

What would you say to those who think they could paint what you paint, or that their three-year-old could paint your paintings?

This really depends on my mood. If I'm feeling flippant, I might respond, "Go for it." If I'm feeling belligerent, I might respond, "No, actually, you probably couldn't." But, if I think it's worth making a point, I might respond, "Perhaps, but you didn't." And that's probably the most valid answer.

The point there is it's not about whether someone could duplicate a particular brushstroke or even a group of brushstrokes, but whether they would think to do it in the first place. Anyone can learn to make a crème brulee; the artistry was in making the first one.

It sometimes surprises me that so many people have trouble grasping the idea of abstract art. It is very easy for me to think of art in the context of music. In that scenario, representational art equates to songs with lyrics "about" something, or that tells a story. There are rich, complex songs, and there are trite little ditties -- the same range of depth is found in representational art.

I equate non-representational art to instrumentals, where in both instances much more is left to the imagination of the observer, whether it be a listener or a viewer. Without question, there are profound instrumentals and superficial instrumentals, as there are masterful non-representational paintings and superficial scrawlings. Nevertheless, the fact remains that an instrumental is a very valid form of music, and certainly can create a mood or convey an idea even without words. Why is it so easy for so many people to accept that kind of "abstraction" when using their sense of hearing, and so difficult to accept it when using their visual perception?

What's one thing you think people don't know about being an abstract painter?

It depends what you mean by "people." If it's those people who think they could do it, I think that it would have to be that a lot of people don't understand the level of skill that's actually required. The fact of the matter is, my skill is best represented in the pieces that took the least amount of time because that's when I'm tapping into -- the intuitive process -- instead of what I know should happen in this painting. It's invigorating and exhausting, and it's incredibly fun and frustrating and terrifying. When you start a piece, you never know.

Sharer's work shows at Space Gallery, through July 7, with artist Judy Campbell. For more information, visit Space Gallery's web page. For more information about Scharer, or to contact her, visit her web page.

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