I first learned about Abbey Ryan and her Painting a Day project through beachbungalow8 where Megan described Abbey's paintings as "little delectable morsels of art ... perfectly sized to lean against books on a bookshelf, tiny jewels waiting to be discovered." Since then, I've been a devotee of Abbey's work.
I hope you enjoy this first portion of my interview with Abbey:
Tell us about your background and your journey to “becoming” a painter.
I grew up at the beach in New Jersey. Growing up, I was always drawing and making tiny worlds with clay, and seeing my mom work as a full-time artist. I took my first real art classes in high school. I think I was lucky because I had two amazing and inspiring teachers in high school.
After high school, I went to Arcadia University, where I had planned to major in physical therapy. It was there that I took my first oil painting classes with Betsey Batchelor. At the time, I was pursuing a degree in scientific illustration, so I stayed in school an additional year to also finish a degree in painting. One summer in college, I also studied at the Art Students League with David Leffel.
After college, I began studies in the medical illustration program at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, but soon realized I wasn't certain that I wanted a career other than one involving painting. I decided to leave the program to find out what painting really meant to me. I took that year to paint and get together grad school applications, and then went on to get my MFA in painting at Hunter College.
I don’t necessarily think that all my schooling made me who I am as a painter – I think people are really born to be painters. But these are the choices that brought me to where I am today, painting full time and teaching at a university.
What are your earliest memories of painting and creating art?
I have some vivid memories when I was in pre-school painting big colorful abstracts and making mobiles out of evergreen branches imprinted in clay. (I have images of those paintings, too, which is so fun). In my pre-school classroom, there were easels set up with big cups of paint. And each cup of paint had its own brush. How fun is that?
Tell us about the creation of your 'painting a day' project. How did it evolve?
My painting a day project didn’t really evolve – I just decided one day to do it and hit the ground running. When I started, I had almost no knowledge about the precedent that other artists had already set with it – which I am glad about. Last week marked one year since I began. I keep doing it because I enjoy and look forward to it every day. I’ll probably stop when I stop looking forward to it, but I’m so fascinated and challenged by painting that I doubt that will ever happen.
How do you decide what you'll paint each day?
For the daily paintings, I usually don’t know what I am going to paint until moments before I begin. Even if I have an idea, I still sometimes will set it up and abandon it at the last second (before it’s too late, ha). It’s an indescribable thing, what creates the spark to make a painting. In a way, before I begin – and for a split second – I almost see the finished painting in my mind’s eye. That might be close to what the spark is like for me. For my ink paintings, I usually spend over a month on each painting, so it is an ongoing process. I make studies before I begin, so that helps me decide when to start something new.
Does where you live affect your art? How?
I don’t know yet about living in Philadelphia (it’s too soon to tell), though I am interested in the light here (i.e., Thomas Eakins’s work). I think growing up near the beach has affected my work. In my ink paintings, the motion of tides overlapping, the transparency of colors, and changing contrasts – all very much relate to the vastness of the ocean and its ever-shifting surface. I think this influences how I perceive space and the fluidity and cyclicality of nature. In the daily paintings, I think it relates to my interest in and ability to slow down and just spend time looking and taking something in (i.e., whatever object I am painting that day). There are not many “things” that people can spend all day staring at like they do staring out at the ocean. My daily painting practice relates to that kind of activity; the difference, of course, is that I am attempting to capture the essence of that object, so that I can expand beyond my own experience to create/provide it for someone else.
Take us through a typical workday.
If I am teaching that day, I get up and have oatmeal and tea before I go teach. After my morning class, I come home and take a short nap before I work in my studio and make a daily painting. After my painting is finished, I have an early dinner before I go back in to teach my afternoon and night classes. On the days that I don’t teach, I get up and go hiking in Fairmount Park. After that, I’ll do administrative things (i.e., respond to emails, pack up any paintings that need to be shipped out that day, prepare panels, etc.). Then I am in the studio until dark – working and often reading. Depending on what else is going on, I also squeeze in some freelance design or illustration jobs, here and there. I try to post my daily paintings to my blog before it gets too late, but I never know what will be keeping me in the studio.
A teacher I had at Hunter, Lisa Corinne Davis, told me a story once during one of her visits to my studio about an artist friend of hers. This artist was supposed to go to an opening one night and Lisa asked her how it went. She answered that she never got to the opening because she had been painting and her work kept talking to her, calling her back into the studio every time she tried to leave.
(Coming up: In Part II, Abbey discusses the biggest influences on her painting and her life. Stay tuned.)
Abbey Ryan's paintings are available for purchase through her Painting a Day website.