Austin-based artist Sarah Ferguson discusses her creation process, inspiration, and how her work has developed throughout the years.
WHERE ARE YOU FROM AND WHERE DO YOU LIVE?
I was born in Boulder, CO. When I was three, I moved to Austin, TX with my Mom and Dad and became a big sister to my twin brothers. At six, my parents made the bold decision to move our family overseas for 6 months. We resided in the Castello di Spannocchia in Tuscany. It is now the Spannocchia Foundation (www.spannochia.org), an educational center with a mission to sustain cultural landscapes for future generations by providing guests and interns with lessons on Italian culture, organic farming and environmental responsibility. Although I was very young, the memories of our time there remain quite vivid and have influenced my life profoundly. Afterwards, we moved to Spokane, WA for two years before moving back to Austin, TX just before I entered 3rd grade. With the exception of one year of college in California, I have lived in Austin ever since. For the most part, I am the rare, original Austinite.
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN AN ARTIST?
I do not remember a moment when I decided to be an artist. Art is just something I’ve always had to do, in one form or another. Shortly after college, I began accepting commissions from individuals and sold several pieces to a corporation. However, once my husband and I chose to start a family, and I gave birth to our daughter, my focus shifted to motherhood. It was not until my daughter entered adolescence that I started painting again regularly. Becoming the artist I am today was a very organic process, never something I sought out. In 2010, a friend of mine introduced my work to one of Austin’s most established and well-known galleries, Wally Workman Gallery (www.wallyworkmangallery.com). Wally contacted me, I brought some pieces into the gallery, we talked and I left with a contract. I was, and still am, very grateful to my friend for the introduction and to Wally for the opportunity, for that is when I truly embarked on my profession.
ARE YOU FORMALLY TRAINED?
I studied photography extensively in high school. After graduation, I decided to take a gap year before entering Savannah College of Art and Design as a photography major. But, as is the case with many in their 20s, plans changed. I worked at an interior design firm, backpacked throughout Europe and spent a year at Pepperdine University in Malibu, CA before settling down. Ultimately, I graduated Summa Cum Laude from St. Edward’s University with a B.A. in Studio Art.
HOW HAS YOUR WORK DEVELOPED FROM WHEN YOU FIRST STARTED TO NOW?
Basic Geometry (particularly the square and rectangle) and color exploration have been consistent elements throughout my evolution as an artist.As an art major in college, I concentrated on collage. For the background, 2-3 colors were applied loosely in horizontal and vertical strokes spanning the height and width of the canvas. The top layer consisted of squares cut out from origami paper, tissue paper, newspaper and magazines. Charcoal and pastels were used to accent the paper squares.
After college, I progressed towards a more disciplined, orderly version of the background layer. Tape was adhered to the canvas horizontally and vertically and paint applied inside the exposed squares outlined by the tape. Multiple layers using the same technique and the introduction to color gradation resulted in hard edge paintings with apparent depth.
From there, an obsession with the precision of line and the square, as well as a mathematical application to color mixing and gradation followed. The result being pieces that were more rigid and refined.
Honing my approach to color gradation and expanding the concept of gradation to include geometric shapes produced pieces with subtle optical illusions. I also introduced a singular contrasting color to create a focal point of lightness or darkness.
More recently, I have found myself playing around with the notion of dimensional, shifting and sometimes fragmented planes.
THE USE OF COLOR IS SUCH A PROMINENT COMPONENT OF YOUR WORK – HOW DO YOU ARRIVE AT YOUR COLORS FOR YOUR COMPOSITIONS?
Color inspiration is found everywhere, everyday. When I am struck by a color or a combination of colors I usually try to capture it in a photograph. Although I am aware of vetted color systems and theories, I reference them only to use as a foundation for my advancement. For me, the experience and knowledge I’ve gained through daily experimentation with color has proven to be the most fruitful and enjoyable. My reaction to color is an emotional one. I believe that may explain why my work is generally monochromatic. Working with too many colors can easily be overwhelming and unsettling, but lately I am challenging myself by introducing gradations using 2-3 colors and employing a contrasting color to create focal point.
CAN YOU TALK A LITTLE ABOUT YOUR PROCESS OF CREATING A PIECE?
I use my basic knowledge of Adobe Illustrator to work through concepts on my computer. It allows me to play around with color and pattern easily without commitment. Once I settle on a concept, I gather my t-square ruler, a pencil and eraser and transpose the geometry onto the canvas, assigning a number to each shape.
Before applying paint to the canvas I mix all the colors, which is quite time-consuming and mathematical. It usually takes 2-4 days depending on the size of canvas and the amount of colors that need to be mixed. I keep detailed notes of color mixtures for each painting, along with color charts displaying the gradation of color. I often have to ignore the result of the mathematical measurements and rely on gut instinct and my eyes to tweak color gradations ever so slightly. Once I’m content with the gradation, colors are assigned a number corresponding with a numbered shape on the canvas. Each paint color goes into its own airtight container and labeled.
Once the colors are mixed, I apply tape to mask off the areas I need to paint. I am quite discriminatory about tape. I inspect the edges of each roll scrupulously to ensure a smooth, hard edge, and have developed and refined a technique over the years when applying tape to the canvas. With the tape intact, paint color is applied to the appropriate field with a foam brush in continuous, fluid strokes. Multiple layers of paint are applied until I reach the desired opacity. I let the layer dry, remove the tape, and repeat the process with subsequent layers. Pulling tape off the last layer for the final reveal is either superbly gratifying or dreadfully mediocre. Although my process is regimented and seemingly straightforward, the end result of each painting is usually a bit different than expected. To me, it mirrors life’s pattern, an invitation to both the applied and the sublime.
I am not prolific. On average, I complete about 6-10 paintings each year. My process is rather tedious and leaves very little room for error. I’m tense, hyper-focused, methodical and meticulous throughout the creation of each piece. As a result, once I complete a painting, I am filled with both exhilaration and exhaustion. It always takes me a while to find my footing, get motivated and begin again.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE NECESSITIES YOU REQUIRE WHEN CREATING A PAINTING?
Concept creation: My computer and Adobe Illustrator.
Paint mixing: My 20-year-old trusty smock, rubber gloves, Golden or Matisse acrylic paint, measurement spoons and cups, small rubber spatulas, palette and palette knife, cloth rags, recycled 32 oz yogurt container with water, journal to document color mixtures, white card stock for color sampling, glass jars with lids, tape for labeling, Sharpie permanent marker.
Concept to canvas:
36” t-square, pencil, erasure, blue or green masking tape, scissors and/or xacto knife, coded paint mixtures, foam brushes, stretched canvas.
Throughout the entire process, I listen to copious amounts of music, podcasts and audiobooks.
WHO DO YOU ADMIRE OR DRAW INSPIRATION FROM?
I have been influenced by many over the years – family, friends, teachers, other artists. They have all inspired me through both example and encouragement.
I relish reading non-fiction and watching documentaries about art and artists. Several years ago, I learned of Carmen Herrera. I was struck by her outlook and approach to her work and found it not unlike my own. She painted in anonymity for the majority of her life, shadowed by her male contemporaries and snubbed as a Cuban living in America. She realized recognition late in life, with international appreciation arriving at the age of 101 with solo shows at the Whitney Museum and Lisson Gallery in 2016. She’s truly awe-inspiring.
WHAT IS NEXT FOR YOU?
One of my favorite quotes comes from a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow –“Our todays and yesterdays are the blocks with which we build.” I find it reflects my approach to life and my artistic process, both literally and figuratively. I learn from experience and attend to my intuitions in an effort to harness a discipline that is reliable and propels me forward, but that process is inherently continuous. It requires constant edits and evolution. Because of that, I rarely project too far into the future, choosing instead to be open and flexible in the present. I will say that recently I have been drawn to more subdued color, larger scale and revisiting the idea of a small format series of paintings. Also, I have been approached to collaborate on a project that would expand my vocation beyond fine art. As always, there is more to come, so stay tuned.