Art Collector Maine artist Julie Houck featured in Practique des Artes – a French publication based in Paris. January 2017
From Maine-et-Loire to Maine
Julie Houck’s Landscape Inspiration
Julie Houck’s contemporary oil paintings capture the essence of the landscape.
Julie Houck has been a professional photographer for 17 years and since 1995 has dedicated all of her time to art. She lived in Hawaii for twenty years and now resides in Maine. She is a member of many societies: the American Impressionist Society, Plein Air Painters of Hawaii, International Plein Air Painters, and Oil Painters of America. She leads Plein Air workshops in the United States and in France. When one views her Maine landscapes or her older paintings from Hawaii, it is hard to imagine that her painting career began in France, during a painting workshop near Angers. By observing the beauty of Maine-et-Loire’s landscape, Julie became enamored with its dramatic skies. Julie often painted outdoors once her daytime classes finished. She remained captivated by the expressiveness of a changing sky and the multitude of clouds carried by the maritime winds. For seventeen years, the ex-professional photographer traveled the world for her exterior photography assignments. In 1995 Julie finally decided to follow her lifelong dream of becoming a painter. What a compliment it is for France to have been the source of inspiration for her luminous canvases! We met with Julie to talk about her journey and the evolution of her work, as it moves progressively further away from her earlier interests in figuration.
PDA: You went from exterior photography to landscape painting – don’t you get bored of this subject?
JH: I am inspired by the play of light in landscape, this elusive and changing light that, just for a moment, intensifies the scene. These moments are always fleeting but thanks to painting, I am able to extend them and allow them to linger to contemplate the beauty that the light reveals. Contrary to a still life or a portrait, landscape is constantly changing. For example, I could paint the same scene, everyday for a year and in the end, I would have 365 paintings, all different from one another.
PDA: Between your series like “France” or “The West” and your recent work, we can observe an evolution towards a more abstract, a more personal style.
JH: I would say that my work is following a path that is getting away from representative interpretation towards a more reactive interpretation. I am less concerned about translating a literal view of what I see; my goal is to dig deeper in the scene to extract its very essence. I paint the smells, the sensations that I feel and the sounds that I hear, more than what I observe with my eyes only. The result is most likely more abstract, but the founding principles of a classical landscape are preserved. The foreground, the sky and the horizon, even if, from now on, are more suggestive rather than strict and unavoidable elements.
PDA: As an ex-photographer, is it still through the viewfinder’s eye that you capture the moment?
JH: It depends. Sometimes I use my camera only, sometimes I also sketch. I find one as practical as the other to capture the moment, however when I see something that provokes my will to paint, I simply take a “mental shot”. It is the advantage of my long career as a photographer. I can keep this ephemeral image in mind until I start painting in my studio. I also work from studies on the pattern painted alla prima.
PDA: How do you choose a place?
JH: I do not follow strict rules to guide my choice, but I tend to avoid common places, so no lighthouse, no cute little farm, etc. I look for scenes that inspire me and that interest me visually. It is all about capturing the light at a given time and the way this light affects the landscape, more than the picturesque aspect of it. The most important aspect is neither the scene nor the subject, but the interaction between the elements of landscape and the light. I would say this approach is the result of my classical training.
PDA: What guides your choice of technique?
JH: I was charmed by oil paints right at the beginning, plus I love its versatility. In parallel, I work with encaustic paints. This old technique brings a “plus” in terms of spontaneity and texture. When you paint with encaustic paints, it is very important to work in a well-ventilated place in order not to breathe the fumes of hot wax. I use a small heat gun or a small gas torch to melt and work the pigmented wax, as well as a wide range of tools to scrape and scratch away some material in order to obtain a smooth surface. The choice of the medium is essential. Contrary to oil paint, a canvas could not durably preserve the many coats of wax. Therefore I use wood panels primed with gesso.
PDA: Tell us about your creative process.
JH: Usually, I work on an undercoat of color and that first tint helps me bring luminosity to the sky. I build this by adding multiple coats; sometimes I do about forty layers of color, which explains why I usually work on five colors at the same time or even more! To make the sky vibrate, I have a preference for using a few colors for the first coat: pink, lavender, peach, ocher or even sometimes purple. In order to paint, I have two methods: the direct method and the indirect method. When I work with the indirect method, I can put up to 50 coats of transparent color to represent the scene. There are often juxtaposed with a zone of impasto, which is usually at the center of attention. I do not use mediums. I put each coat of color in glaze. Sometimes, I also put a few coats at the same time and then I let the whole area dry before I start again. When I work with the direct method, I put coats of opaque color, often with a painting knife in order to create movement and texture. You can see the illustration of these two techniques in my painting Dawn Comes to Paia. I painted the sky using many coats and well-chosen impasto zones for the light between the clouds. The painting knife allowed me to catch the whole relief of the sugar cane fields.