An Interview with Shelly Penko

Published Dec. 20th 2012


ShellyPenkoShelly Penko earned a degree in fine arts and went on to teach art in public schools for 16 years before she left teaching to become a full-time artist.

Though she’s been painting since the age of five, she says that creating art can still be scary, frustrating, and exhausting. . . but even with all of those emotions, she finds creating a wonderful way to feel alive.

Today we’re going to learn all about Shelly’s creative process, her artistic style, and what sorts of things she takes into account when pricing her art.

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Alyice: How long have you been an artist and how did you get started?

Shelly: I have been an artist for as long as I can remember. One of my favorite photos is an old black and white of me standing at my easel at about 5 years old, with a huge grin and missing front teeth working on a painting of an owl. I’m wearing one of my father’s old shirts backwards and I look blissful.

Alyice: Why did you choose Acrylic as your medium?

Shelly: I love acrylics because there is no need to use toxic chemicals for clean up. I also love that they dry quickly; that quality enables me to work in many layers with very little wait time between layers.

I enjoy working intuitively, having the freedom to change my mind and change my painting as many times as I wish. It’s fun to see the older layers peeking through, or to have the freedom to completely cover them up if I choose. In the end, the final work is rich with many colors, textures and layers, so the eye has many things to explore, enjoy and ponder.

Alyice: What is the most challenging part about working with acrylics?

Shelly: Sometimes the same quality that makes something good also makes it challenging. Because of the fast drying time, it’s difficult to get nice blends and shading with acrylics. I tend to like soft edges and that can also be a struggle to achieve when the paint dries so quickly. Of course, that quick dry time can be a good thing too, as it keeps me from getting too bogged down with making things look “real.”

Alyice: What is the best part about working with acrylics?

Shelly: The flexibility. I love Golden fluid acrylics. They have the most marvelous, vibrant colors even when they are watered down. I love experimenting with drips and squirting the acrylic with water to see what it will do organically. Sometimes the best part of a painting is a happy accident that happens while I’m “playing.”

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Alyice: What do you wish you knew about acrylics before you got started?

Shelly: I wish I had known what a difference there is in quality and performance between the brands. Sometimes a cheap acrylic will do the job just fine, but nothing really performs like good quality paint. There are times when the expense of quality paints is the best bargain after all.

Alyice: Do you do anything in particular to seal your art?

Shelly: I don’t always seal my art. It’s not really necessary.

However, I do seal it sometimes; especially if the paint I’ve used has dried with different sheens. I’ve noticed some colors dry more mat and some have more of a gloss finish. If I feel it’s distracting to the finished work, I will paint on a coat of Golden Polymer Varnish with UVLS (gloss). That gloss finish can really give the work a unified, completed look. And I always wait until the work has been scanned for prints before applying a gloss varnish.

Alyice: What is your creative process like?

Shelly: My process tends to be intuitive. Really, there are two main components of my creative process. One part is about colors and textures and the “look.” The other part has to do with the emotions, thoughts and feelings behind the look.

I find I’m always thinking about the next painting so there is not a lot of distinction between my creative process and my plain old life! Colors are one of my big inspirations and, of course, they are everywhere. I’ll see a combination of colors I like in a garden, or on a garment and it will inspire me to do something with those colors. Sometimes I start a painting with one idea, but as often as not, the painting does not end up anything like my initial idea.

I almost always light a candle when I sit down at my easel. I try to be open to whatever seems to want to appear. If I don’t have an idea for a painting, I try not to let it keep me from painting. It’s important to paint regularly. Even if I don’t have a brilliant plan, I’ll just sit down and listen to music and begin putting colors on the canvas.

I’ll finger paint, or spray the canvas with water and explore a bit. If that’s getting me nowhere, I’ll pick up another canvas and work on it for a while. I usually have 4 or 5 (and sometimes 10!) canvases in varying stages of completion. If I do have more of a concrete idea, I’ll pick up one of those wildly colored canvases and let the new idea interact with what’s already on the canvas. In this way I end up with something unexpected and somehow more than just a planned painting.

Alyice: How has your style changed over the years?

Shelly: When I was young, I painted much more realistically. I went through a wildlife phase, where I painted raccoons, deer, foxes etc. Then I went through my western phase, where I painted lots of American Indians; then came the phase of giant flower paintings in watercolor.

I’ve taken bits and pieces of everything I learned from all of those painting styles, but now I am not really interested in realism. When I was young, I felt I had to prove I could make it look real to prove I was “good.” Now, I’m content to just paint whatever I find in my heart and let the viewer decide whether they like it or not. I’m much more open to going with the flow now. And I find painting is much more fun and satisfying.

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Alyice: What do you believe is a key element in creating a good composition?

Shelly: I have a degree in fine art so I know all the rules for composition. I won’t say those rules are worthless, but sometimes the most interesting compositions break the rules.

It’s good to have a center of interest. You can make it the center of interest by making it bigger or more interesting or different than anything else in the composition. It’s usually a good idea not to plop down your subject smack dab in the middle. It’s a good idea to repeat colors or shapes. But in the end, I believe the best advice is to just fill the space in an interesting way. Take it all the way to the edge. Even a wonky drawing will look good if it fills the space in an interesting way.

Alyice: How do you come up with a profitable pricing structure for your acrylic pieces?

Shelly: I try to think about it two ways.

The first is emotional: What price will make me happy to sell the piece? What price would make my effort feel validated? Would I rather have $300 or my painting? Would I rather have $500 or my painting? When I hit a number that makes me feel happy and valued, that’s a good starting point for my price.

The second is practicality: How much money do I need to make in a month in order to make a living and meet my obligations? How much work can I get done in a month?

For the sake of simplicity, let’s say I need to create four paintings. I divide that dollar amount by four and there’s my ideal price. It’s not quite that simple because there are other income streams I’m working on, like limited edition prints, teaching, etc. . . but those are two of my primary considerations when I price my work.

Learn more about Shelly Penko’s art at her etsy store and blog.

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