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Carole Pivarnik Talks the Talk with 1stAngel

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Founder of 1stAngel Arts Magazine Social Area Manager on Fine Art America An oil painter by profession, it is actually my digital work which has been exhibited. I enjoy bringing art to non artists and artists to other artists. I have interviews on my magazine from all kinds of artist, writer and musician. I hope you enjoy them and my site as much as I do

Carole Pivarnik is a watercolor artist who specializes in dogs. She is the author of Doggitude: What Dogs REALLY Think–In 17 Sassy Syllables, a light-hearted book for dog lovers which features 36 of her soulful watercolor dog portraits.

When did you first become interested in art?


I think I was born with a crayon in my hand and an incurable case of horse fever. My mom recalls me whining constantly for a pony from age 4 or so and since I couldn’t have one, I indulged my obsession by drawing them. When I was a teenager, I was able to purchase my first horse…an old part draft school horse. I helped pay his board and buy things for him with money earned doing horse and dog portraits in graphite and pastel.

What style of art do you use most?

My work is representational and realistic, but not photo-realistic. I want people to be able to see that my work is a painting and still be charmed by the “realness” of whatever it is I have painted.

Fresh White Lilies ©Carole Pivarnik
Fresh White Lilies ©Carole Pivarnik

Has your style changed from when you first began as an artist?

My preferred style hasn’t changed much from even the drawings and paintings I made as a young person. Along the way I have dabbled in abstract work but a realistic style seems most comfortable and natural to me. My preferred subject has evolved as well. Although I still love horses, I have very little interest in painting them. Instead, I prefer to paint dogs and am continuously fascinated by their diversity and expressiveness.

What medium do you use?

For portraits and paintings, I work exclusively in watercolor. In sketchbooks, I may use some combination of ink, graphite, watercolor pencils or crayons, and watercolors. I have worked in soft pastel in the past. However, while I love the look of pastel work and the actual process of painting in that medium, it doesn’t have the same magic as watercolor does for me. Besides that, the dust issues in working with soft pastel are bothersome.

What made you choose that medium?

Watercolor has always fascinated me with its magical, serendipitous properties and the challenges it offers in terms of preserving the light in paintings, controlling the wetness and movement of the paint, and achieving dramatic results.

Gnocchi A Maremma ©Carole Pivarnik
Gnocchi A Maremma ©Carole Pivarnik

Do your ideas come from life or imagination?

It is a combination of both. My ideas mostly come from thinking about the things I love to paint–dogs, flowers, riding gear, glass, and light–and what might be an interesting story or viewpoint to offer in a painting of such things. For example, there is something delightful about walking into a tack room full of gleaming leather and metal equestrian gear…I’m not sure how to explain it, but horse people will totally get what I mean! And so I’ve been thinking about how to represent that in a series of paintings.

Once I have an idea, then I start looking for opportunities to take photographs that I can use to develop that idea and serve as references for a painting.

Because I love to paint things close up, I tend to zoom in on interesting patterns of light and color. Particularly in terms of flowers and cut crystal, it is fun to sort out the intricate visual puzzle and paint it. For dogs (which are my specialty), the details we rarely notice–the rough texture of paws, the depth of the eyes, the direction of hair growth around their facial features–all fascinate me. All of these things make me want to paint them…in a way that from a distance work reads as very realistic, but up close the pieces of the puzzle are much more in evidence.

How do you choose your images and colours?

Images used as reference photos for portraits are chosen from whatever selection the client provides. When working from my own photos, I am drawn to images that are dramatically lit…I enjoy the drama of painting bright light and deep darks in a single piece. Sometimes, the color scheme for a painting is self-evident. When it’s not or when I am wondering how I might push it in a different direction, I will use photo editing software to explore lighting and color possibilities, not to mention composition options.

Do you work in a studio?

For “serious” painting, I work mainly in my home studio. I love my space so much…it is light and bright, full of things I love, and the one place where I can simply turn on the music (loud!), start painting, and disappear into my work. When I need a break, I can wander outside to the studio patio. In summer especially, the patio is like a little garden retreat. There is a hammock, many potted plants, a large cutting flower bed, hummingbird feeders and small table and chairs. It is shaded by the deck overhead and the view from there is trees and green pastures.

I enjoy sketching on location, too, armed with just a sketchbook and a small watercolor sketching kit. A wide range of subjects appeals to me as a sketcher: animals, moving water, scenic vistas, urban venues, rural scenes, even the pastry on my plate in a coffee shop!

Who is your favourite artist?

Oh now that is a tough question! I enjoy the work of watercolorists whose work contains dramatic light and color and visually complex subjects. Some of my favorites include Paul Jackson, Nick Simmons, Fealing Lin, Guy Magellanes, Sue Archer, and Iain Stewart. But there are so many more! I also love the work of Marshall Arisman; he is not a watercolorist but there is something visceral, compelling and disturbing about his work.

Home Alone  ©Carole Pivarnik
Home Alone ©Carole Pivarnik

What is your favourite piece of work by yourself?

At the moment, my favorite of all the dog portraits I’ve done is of a Maremma pup named Gnocchi. I took the reference photos of him in early morning light, and his white coat is just filled with wonderful colors in the shadows. I had a great time painting that one, splashing on all the beautiful magentas and yellows, played against cool violets and a dark warm blue background.

My favorite floral is one of a cluster of white lilies that had just opened and were captured in early morning sunlight. That painting was so much fun to figure out compositionally and I enjoyed the challenge of getting all the colors to “play nice”.

How much time (on average) does it take to complete a work?

It depends on the piece…one could say it takes all the time it took to develop your skills, plus the contact time to paint a given painting! But from a practical standpoint, I usually figure two days for a dog portrait, sometimes more if it is particularly large or includes more than one dog. Complex florals or other scenes…again, it depends on the size and complexity of the piece.

I’m not prone to taking forever to do work…when I have an idea, I want to get the brush on the paper and get it done. Spending a week on a single piece would be a long time for me, but this is stated from the perspective of working full time as an artist. I prefer to avoid letting paintings linger unfinished for too long. I know from experience that I am likely to lose interest in them and move on to something else, never to complete the unfinished piece. For that reason, I tend to work on one painting at a time until it is done.

How well do you take criticism?

I welcome constructive criticism and take from it what seems to be useful and make sense relative to my work. It does help to have outside perspectives, because it’s so easy to fall in love with the elements in a painting that are going magically right and overlook the not-so-well-done elements which might be significantly improved with a little more attention. Observers will often notice those before the artist does. So it is worth considering feedback from many sources depending on the subject of a given painting.

That said, I am equally comfortable ignoring suggestions when they are not helpful, when I feel confident about the results I’ve achieved, or when they run counter to my clear view of my direction as an artist. I always weigh the opinions of others against the reasons I made the choices I did in my work and in that balance decide how and whether to incorporate feedback.

Kato An Australian Shepherd  ©Carole Pivarnik
Kato An Australian Shepherd ©Carole Pivarnik

What do you do to overcome a ‘block’?

I am never blocked when it comes to ideas for paintings. Ideas are always floating around in my head, so what to paint is never an issue. I have days where I don’t feel like painting, where I don’t seem to be inspired by anything. Usually the reason is that I am tired either mentally or physically. When that happens, I just need to recharge by sleeping or refill the well by taking a day or two off from art to focus on other stuff I enjoy.

On the rare occasions I feel blocked in the middle of a painting, it is usually due either to insufficient planning or biting off more than my current skills are capable of achieving. Failing to plan puts me in the position of having to make a lot of decisions on the fly during painting. That’s not always the best time to make them. Biting off more than I can chew causes me to have to stop and think a lot about what I am doing and where to go next in a piece. Either scenario can lead to bad decisions that make the painting go wrong. When I begin to notice it is going wrong, I become less and less enthused and eventually get stopped in my tracks unable to see how to get back on track. At that point, the best plan is usually to trash it and start over with the lessons learned fresh in mind.

How do you know something is ‘finished’? Is it easy to walk away?

Since I’m so process oriented, I know when I am near the end of a painting. At that point, I prop it up in my studio so I can look at it for a few days to see what nags at me. The things that keep grabbing my attention are usually the ones that need some work. Often, the slightest tweak will set things right and make the painting look “done”. I have no trouble calling it done either because by the time I finish a piece–no matter how much I love it–I am tired of it and ready to move on to the next challenge.

Have you had exhibits in galleries?

I have had a piece or two exhibited in local shows and galleries, but I’m not a big fan of painting specifically for gallery exhibition. Considering the costs involved in framing and shipping work not to mention gallery fees and long lead time to get paid for sales, I’m not convinced it’s the most profitable course for an emerging artist. I believe there are more effective ways to become known, find a market, and sell work than galleries can offer.

Lucy A Labrador Retriever ©Carole Pivarnik
Lucy A Labrador Retriever ©Carole Pivarnik

Have you any exhibits in galleries planned for the future?

No. This is not to say that I wouldn’t exhibit my work in a gallery if I happened to have a framed collection available that would be suitable for that. But I have no desire to paint with a gallery exhibit as the primary goal.

What are you currently working on?

I am painting my way through a queue of dog portraits commissioned by backers of my Doggitude Kickstarter, which raised funds to promote my book Doggitude. (That book features 36 watercolor portraits of dogs accompanied by their irreverent haiku opinions and an endearing bio.) There is a considerable amount of work to do yet, and I get new inquiries about portraits on a regular basis so the portrait queue sort of has a life of its own!

What are your plans for the future?

Doggitude projects occupy my future planning at the moment. I aim to publish a 2014 Doggitude calendar that includes my favorite paintings from the book as well as a few more recent portraits. I am also working on a design for a tabletop card game inspired by my book. If I can develop it sufficiently and get preliminary play-testing done, I will likely do another Kickstarter to fund its publication.

On the painting side of things, I am working on preliminary sketches for three series of paintings featuring puppies, foxhounds, and riding accoutrements. I hope to start painting them later this year.

Of course, all this “speculative” work has to fit in between my commission commitments.

Shiloh ©Carole Pivarnik
Shiloh ©Carole Pivarnik

What was the best advice given to you as an artist?

“Sling paint!” This is the signature line used on a popular artists’ forum by Virgil Carter, a watercolorist whose juicy, colorful style I really love. To me, the phrase neatly sums up the idea that an artist should not fear boldness nor serendipity in the making of art. Whenever I find myself fretting about a piece, it is usually because I am letting myself worry too much about doing what is technically “right” rather than boldly exploring to uncover something that could be a potential breakthrough to a new level of achievement in my work.

What advice would you give new artists?

Fill your brain by reading, taking workshops, watching videos, looking at the art of others, etc.

Paint every day. Put miles and miles and miles on your brushes to develop the necessary paint handling skills to produce good paintings. Practice and perfect techniques before worrying about painting full-blown paintings. Accept that your early paintings will miss the mark in one or more ways. Accrue experience, refine skills, and apply lessons learned from honest self-assessments and your work will improve. The more you put into it, the sooner you will see that improvement.

Don’t get wrapped around the axle worrying about “doing it right” when it comes to art. So much paralysis by analysis! Just play, explore, try things, think about process so you can repeat your successes, and create art that makes YOU happy and that you enjoy doing.

Buy professional (not student) quality materials…it will make a huge difference in your results. Once purchased, don’t be miserly with your art supplies…using them is a necessary investment if you want to grow as an artist and become confident in your skills.

Interact regularly with other artists. Share your work in discussion groups online and seek feedback. Take advantage of the brain trust offered by such groups to learn and grow.

Have you done any courses to help you?

I am mainly self-taught but have taken a couple of college level courses in drawing and design, as well as a couple of watercolor workshops. I love attending workshops and have the goal of attending one major workshop each year. I’d love to do more but they are so expensive!

Winnie A Hungarian Wire-haired Vizsla
Winnie A Hungarian Wire-haired Vizsla

What do you do to market your work?

I published a book of my dog portraits which I promote at book signings and various venues online. The book is a showcase for my work and has resulted in several portrait commissions. I leverage online opportunities to market and sell my work, as well as local opportunities such as a very well-attended annual artists studio tour in my county. I sometimes participate as a vendor in dog events, hunt race meets, and local art and craft fairs.

In addition to original paintings, I also sell prints, note cards, and sometimes merchandise imprinted with my art.

Do you use social networking in your day to day life?

I maintain a presence for myself as an artist and for my book Doggitude on Facebook, self-hosted web sites, Twitter, Fine Art America, and other social media venues. I blog and post to Facebook fairly regularly but use Twitter only rarely. The trick with social networking is to find a balance that maintains a presence and helps you build community but doesn’t suck you in so much that it eats up all your painting time. Discipline is the key. I try most days to do email and social media for an hour in the mornings and then only sporadically throughout the day when I’m waiting for paint to dry (one of the banes of being a watercolorist!).

Artist Facebook page:
Artist Web Site:
Doggitude Facebook page:
Doggitude Web Site:
Twitter: @Doggitude

Are you available for work (commissions)?

Yes, I accept commissions for pet portraits. There is information on my Web site regarding rates, policies, and process. I am happy to answer questions by email or phone, too.

Doggitude Book Cover
Doggitude Book Cover

Have you got hobbies?

Of course! I enjoy trail riding (and sometimes camping) with my mule Emma; walking and hiking with my young terrier; reading science fiction and science books; container gardening; and geocaching (a kind of treasure hunt that involves use of handheld GPS devices).

Where are you based?

I am based in Rappahannock County, Virginia, a pristine rural community on the morning side of the Blue Ridge Mountains about two hours west of Washington, DC. My husband and I live on a small farm where we raise miniature donkeys and where my studio is located.

© 2013, Isabella Francesca Abigail Shores. All rights reserved.

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