Featured Artist January 2021: Karen Saleen
by Karen Smith
“I can’t remember a time that I wasn’t creating something,” Karen Saleen exclaims when asked when she began her adventure with art. This probably means she either has a very bad memory (highly unlikely) or started before her memories began to form, like age 2 or 3. I’m voting for the latter reason. Colored pencil came later, courtesy of Karen’s sister-in-law. It’s a story, not too long, not too short. Kinda Goldilocks length.
Karen did have some formal art training for a short period during college. Actually, art mixed with science. First, she majored in zoology (notice her interests went from A for art to Z for zoology). “I threw in an art class every chance I got,” she says. She loved the science classes, but as the math got more and more challenging, she “ditched my zoological plans, became an art major and studied art history, drawing, sculpture, and design.” Things were rolling right along; she was learning a lot and having fun when (cue scary music) she met someone.
That someone (her soon to be husband) was an animal science major. What luck! Back to animals! Art went by the wayside and animal science moved into the major space. Which was fortunate because animal science didn’t require advanced math!! Conclusion: a Bachelor of Science in Animal Science, a husband and partner for life, children, volunteering in the schools, which “led to another BS, in elementary education.” Karen’s first teaching adventure was in special education, which opened a door to a Masters of Science in Special Education. Which meant she could consult in the field of autism.
“Children with autism often have a very strong visual preference for how they receive information. So, working with that strength in my students played to my own desire for creativity.”
And we come full circle. Karen’s art adventure was back on track.
“My sister-in-law, Leslie Born, got me interested in colored pencil, but I was insecure about my drawing abilities; I chose to start with hand-colored photographs in colored pencil.” Actually, that turned out to be a great training ground. Karen learned a lot about shading, pencil pressure, strokes, textures, and layering colors while not worrying about drawing skills at all! “After retirement, Leslie invited me to participate in the DC 207 annual Samish retreat. I learned so much and met so many fabulous, warm, and friendly colored pencil artists that I was hooked.”
It was that retreat at Samish that sealed the deal on colored pencils. “I love the layering process: its portability, its flexibility to be used on a variety of surfaces, and the fine art quality one can achieve.” The Samish retreat made Karen realize she’d found her tribe. “It was such a special time spent with talented colored pencil artists in a wonderful location. How could you not long to be a part of such a splendid group of people?”
So, in 2014 Karen joined the Seattle chapter of CPSA, even though she’s a proud Oregonian. She didn’t know any colored pencil artists in the Salem area at the time. Now, Karen belongs to The Keizer Art Association (KAA) CP Gals, CPSA National Governing Board (NGB), Seattle-DC 207 and Portland-DC 201 and in all of those groups she has a very real sense of belonging. “For some reason I’ve always felt like an outsider; I never really belong to other groups of people. But colored pencil folks are a breed unto themselves and I like the feeling that I get when I’m around them. This appears to be my niche; this is where I belong.”
Karen flirted with acrylic painting but discovered, as so many CP artists do, that brushes aren’t for her. “I find watercolor intriguing, and someday I may try that, but right now my focus is colored pencil.” However, that focus doesn’t stop Karen from combining other mediums with her trusty colored pencils. “I’ve combined ink, marker, pan pastels, watercolor, and gesso with colored pencil.”
At the moment she’s blowing acrylic ink onto paper and then figuring out what the random shapes make. “It is so much fun!” There was a lion fish (Lion of the Sea), and a monster of an angler fish with an ugly snout and an attached light. After putting WAY too much dark colored pencil over an inked surface, she found, “To my delight, colored pencil was easily erased from the inked surface without damaging the ink!”
Karen began working on a variety of papers: Bristol, mat board, watercolor paper. Her experience with suede board where she can use the color of the board itself as a background, was a learning one. “It’s a pain how it eats the colored pencil, but I love the softer look of pieces done on suede board.”
One project, a drawing of an apple blossom on grey suede board provided an ah-ha! lesson. “I have a tendency to work at night, in my living room with terrible lighting. I wanted to add some yellowish highlights to my white flower and went to town on the petals. Did I bother to look at the color of what I picked up? NO. Was it a nice pale yellow just for highlights? NO, it was Prismacolor Canary Yellow, and it was all over my white flower.” About to toss it in the circular file, she wondered, “What would happen if I attempted to put Derwent Inktense White over the colored pencil and dilute it with a little water?” So, she did. And it worked! Apple blossom salvaged. “There’s a lot to be said for trial-and-error learning.”
But her favorite surface, at the moment (ranking slightly ahead of suede board) is double-sided drafting film. “I’ve found that these surfaces suit my style. I like the 3D quality that you can achieve using drafting film and I like how the pencil lays down the pigment on the surface.”
Where did she learn about drafting film? Possibly from a workshop – in person or online. She is a fan of workshops, taking lessons from Gemma Gylling, Jesse Lane, Eileen Sorg and Rhonda Dicksion. Skills learned from these artists increase Karen’s ability to think herself out of some of the holes she finds herself in. Other influences include a fascination with Bev Doolittle and her ability to hide images in her works. She’s learned from James Gurney (Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter), Barbara Dahlstedt (use of drama and contrast). But one person leads the pack: her mentor, teacher, supporter and cheerleader: Leslie Born.
Favorite pencils? “I don’t really have a favorite, but my go-to pencils are Prismacolor. I also use Luminance and Derwent Lightfast, Coloursoft, Drawing, and Inktense.” Why Prismacolor? “I use those because I’m used to the colors and I know how the pencils will react on my chosen surface. But, in reality, my pencils are all mixed up, so in any given piece I’ll use most if not all the brands. I have weeded out non-lightfast colors, though.”
Karen doesn’t really have a preferred subject. But more often than not, her drawings come from nature. “The more I draw, the more attention I give to values, contrasts and light sources. The subjects that draw my attention are flowers or plants, a pile of leaves, or tender moments with animals.” Given her choice of subjects in college, this shouldn’t be a surprise.
Karen doesn’t stick with a single approach to creating her initial drawing. Sometimes she works from her own photos. Sometimes she uses a grid system. When she’s doing something completely from her own ideas, like her Alphabet Series, she does an initial sketch and then transfers that to the drawing surface. Colors come as she begins to work rather than being selected at the beginning. “Since I’m drawn to contrasts, I pay attention to the lightest and darkest values and, though I don’t really have a personal palette, I admit I’m most at home with the Craftsman Era colors. Fall colors of the 70s.”
For example, look at Amaryllis Belladonna. “The contrasts were so striking, I just had to see if I could do it justice.” The stunning cluster of flowers are brightly lit, against a dark background with intense shadows. The piece is on Aquarelle hot press 140 lb watercolor paper. “The black background was to the ultimate challenge.”
Some artists use a combination of colors to get a black background with depth. “First I put down a layer of Indigo, then Crimson Red and then Dark Green but I couldn’t seem to get rid of the white specks of paper showing through.” What to do? Odorless mineral spirits and Karen do not get along, so that was out. Karen remembered that fellow artist Linda H. Clark uses an Icarus board to achieve her evenly blended surfaces, but Karen didn’t have one of those. What she did have a heating pad. And a heavy piece of glass. “I used my own version of an Icarus board and black pencil over the combined CP layers to create a background that is stunning, in my humble opinion.” We agree. And Karen learned something new in her search for ways to get the result she wanted.
The Corona Virus lockdown hasn’t slowed Karen’s creativity at all. During the isolation she’s freed her crazy, creative spirit and created crazy trolls out of toilet paper tubes (see? There is a reason we bought up all the TP in the county!), acrylic inks, and the continuation of her Alphabet Series.
Karen’s depiction of the COVID Cocktail, consisting of a martini glass with a corona virus in place of the olive. “Special today: COVID-19 Cocktail; it has the same ingredients as a martini, but you drink it alone.” In the background is a diagonally placed grid of equidistant spacing, filled with a variety of colorful masks.
One day, on her way to Keizer Art CP Group (masks and social distancing observed) Karen spilled coffee in the car; forgot her art supplies; had a stressful discussion about pre-cut mats. She returned home. With her she took a bunch of TP rolls, given to her from a good art friend. “So, I went home, cried my tale of woe to my husband and set about making a Jan Fagan troll! When I was finished I was happy as a clam!” Ah yes, art therapy. The 3-D surface that was foreign – flimsy cardboard, tubular – forced Karen out of her comfort zone and out of her blue funk. Behold, the Troll!
She’s worked on her biggest challenge with colored pencils – seeing the subtle color changes in her subject. For example, “I see the obvious colors of a red apple or a yellow buttercup, but the subtle shade differences sometimes elude me.” So, she experiments with what she knows and chooses complementary colors for deep shadows and whites for highlights. “Sometimes I’ll draw with a limited color palette (red, yellow, blue and black) just to get used to adding a color that I don’t actually see but will work out in the end.” Other times, a more limited palette provides opportunities to achieve the outcome she wants. “Jan Fagan’s trolls have helped me in this area. So what if he has a green, purple or blue face; let’s see what I can do to make it believable.”
Yes, you’re saying. Exciting and creative, but didn’t I read something about Karen taking on responsibilities at a national level? How does she find time for that?
“My involvement on the National Governing Board has made me aware that much of we do is about the image, be that our personal art or the CPSA image, and how that is presented to the world.” This has made Karen more aware of a professional approach to art. Fortunately, “My experience in education consulting gave me the perfect platform from which to build my CPSA professionalism.”
Okay. But why? I’ll let Karen tell you.
“Well, that’s a weird story. I also belong to the Portland-DC 201 chapter and we just happen to have two Board members in our chapter: Kay Schmidt, Vice President; and CJ Worlein, Corporate Image Director. The NGB was losing their current District Chapter Development Director (DCDD) and these gals asked if I would be interested in applying for that role? Excuse me? More information please. I was already on the board of the Keizer Art Association, had recently been vice president of our Portland chapter and was caring for my aging mother. I didn’t think that I had the time. So, at the CPSA International Exhibition & Convention in Brea, I told CJ Worlein, no thank you.”
“’Oh, you need to talk to Vera Curnow!’, she said, which I did. Then I talked to CPSA President Deborah Maklowski, then Kay Schmidt. By the time that they were done with me I said, Okay, I’d apply.”
The process took six weeks. Then one day I got an email that I was approved! My job did not start until November 1, 2019 and now I’ve been at it for a year.”
Karen is thoroughly impressed with the whole national organization. “They’re the most organized, professional, knowledgeable, supportive group that I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with.”
What exactly does the development director do? “My position is to support the 20 individual chapters throughout the country. I keep in contact with chapter presidents, assist with questions, help with starting new chapters, refer new CPSA members to chapters, distribute and collect paperwork associated with non-profit tax-exempt status, and a myriad of other duties focused on keeping chapters healthy. I am required to write a report at least once per year and to provide two articles for To The Point, each year.”
What’s next up for Karen? Why, more art, of course!