Megan Seiter won the Still life/Botanical Award in the Jackson’s Painting Prize this year with their work Revival. Megan’s work celebrates the colour and texture of natural forms, presented in compositions that are both understated and monumental. In this interview Megan shares her thoughts on the importance of lighting and the best materials to use for achieving results that are sensitive to the subjects that she portrays.
Above image: Megan in the studio
Lisa: Can you tell us about your artistic background/education?
Megan: I was fortunate to be exposed to a breadth and variety of art forms at an early age. My mother was an artist, and our family was surrounded by an eclectic community of calligraphers, stone carvers, letterpress printers, and illustrators. I was invited to participate in art classes and exhibits. I became acquainted with many different forms of art, but I was most excited about drawing. In fact, the course of my education was shaped by my eagerness to learn to draw. In high school I attended a pre-college art program at Rhode Island School of Design where I learned technical art skills. In college, I studied art and Italian language for a semester at Scuola Leonardo da Vinci in Rome, Italy, and I was able to copy Old Masters’ work from life. In 2009 I received my BFA in General Fine Arts from Maryland Institute College of Art, and moved to California to pursue a career as an artist.
Lisa: Where does a drawing begin for you? Can you take us through your process?
Megan: Building a composition is the first and most critical element in my process. I try to create a captivating image by arranging my subject with natural light. I use reference photos so that I can work steadily and methodically. When I begin the drawing, I lay down the darkest shadow so that I can establish a full range of value from black to white. I learned (the hard way) that if I don’t start with shadows my values tend to stay somewhere in the middle, which makes for a lacklustre drawing. As I develop the drawing I’ll often step back from my drafting table to examine the composition as a whole. This helps me determine if I’ve become overly-focused on a single section of the drawing in a way that will disrupt the overall look of the piece. I also turn my drawing sideways and upside-down as I draw, shifting my perspective to reveal mistakes I’ve made or details I’ve missed.
Lisa: What qualities make for a good subject to draw, and do the objects you choose to draw ever surprise you during the process? (maybe the qualities you thought they had were different when you stopped to really look and draw them)
Megan: I’ve learned that anything and everything can be an interesting subject. As important as the subject is, I think that lighting is actually more important. The quality and direction of light create an atmosphere for the subject to exist within. Considering that, anything can be beautiful. At the moment I’m particularly drawn to floral subjects. Most flowers are beautiful regardless of good lighting, but I enjoy figuring out how to highlight the particular qualities of each flower that make them unique. I use light to reveal the buttery-smooth surface of a petal on a calla lily, or to reveal the luminescence and delicate veins of a hellebore. I’m always surprised how intricate and beautiful a single flower can be.
Lisa: Can you talk us through how you work out the positioning, lighting and composition of your objects?
Megan: I tinker… a lot. When I’m working out the lighting and composition for a drawing I approach the task with a general idea and a lot of flexibility. I work with a table full of flowers and vases so that I can mix and match to create an exciting composition. I take dozens of photos throughout the course of a day, adjusting the camera settings, the angle of the shot, the amount of light coming through the window, and the arrangement of the subjects. This gives me an abundance of options for my final reference photo.
Lisa: Your drawings have a slightly grainy, very soft quality to them, presumably helped by the materials you work with. What papers/textures do you favour and which pencils do you most enjoy working with?
Megan: The grainy texture comes from working on sanded pastel paper, which has a fine grit that feels similar to sandpaper. I love working on it precisely because of that effect! Sanded paper can hold a dozen light layers of wax-based coloured pencils without becoming oversaturated with wax, and without the top layer of paper flaking away. It’s also easy to layer dark colours on top of light colours on sanded paper, which can be a challenging task on other papers. My favourite pencil line to work with is Caran d’Ache Luminance. They are a high-quality, long-lasting, deeply pigmented, soft, and lightfast pencil — and they layer very nicely.
Lisa: Do you have any favourite techniques you employ to get the qualities you seek? Any special mediums/blending tools?
Megan: I work in light layers. I blend by applying even layers of different colours, one on top of the next, until the grain of the paper is filled in. Other than coloured pencil, I sometimes use watercolour, PanPastel, and a slice tool. When I’m working with watercolour, I use it as a base layer underneath the pencils. It speeds up the drawing by eliminating the issue of white paper showing through the pencil. It also creates a more vibrant drawing. I use PanPastel to fill in large background areas. I apply the pastels with an art sponge, covering a large surface area in very little time. I use the slice tool when my drawing is mostly complete, to carve out veins in a flower or to lift unwanted pencil from certain areas of the drawing.
Lisa: Have you always worked from photos, and if not, why do you prefer it to working from direct observation?
Megan: In the beginning of my career I worked almost exclusively from life. I learned to see, to interpret, and to express myself in a way that can be challenging when working from a photo. There’s a sense of urgency driven by time, especially with perishable subject matter. An artist truly has to stay focused. Currently I work from photos, and I’ll admit that I’ve found an equal passion for it! Time in the studio has become more limited as a mother, and drawing fruit and flowers would be out of the question without the use of a reference photo. An amazing advantage of working from a photo is that I can capture the light in an exact moment — soft light in the early morning fog, or golden light just before sunset. I can also achieve a higher level of detail in my drawings, zooming into each section of the photo to reveal details that I wouldn’t be able to see with my naked eye.
Lisa: What would you consider is the greatest source of frustration in your creative life and do you have any tried and tested ways of overcoming this challenge?
Megan: Physical stagnation is the most challenging aspect of working in a studio all day. If it weren’t an issue, I could work for hours and hours on end. I’m not used to sitting still for such a long period of time, and it does seem to take a toll on the body! I’m sure that many other artists and creatives feel this, working in a concentrated position for so long. It’s not unique to what I do creatively, but it’s certainly a source of frustration!
Lisa: What are your art influences? Who are your favourite contemporary or historical artists and why?
Megan: I draw inspiration from all over. Some modern still life artists whose work I admire are Jeffrey T. Larson, James Neil Hollingsworth, Larry Preston, and Jo Barrett, to name a few. Daniel Massad is an incredible pastel artist — I discovered his work about ten years ago, and I was so inspired that I wrote him a letter. He wrote me back, generously detailing the technicalities of how he achieves such a high level of realism pastel. I still have his letter today! I admire the work of florists, specifically Max Gill, Kiana Underwood, and Color Theory Design. And, influenced by my semester in Italy, I love the Old Masters — Bernini, Carravaggio, and Michelangelo.
Lisa: What makes a good day in the studio for you?
Megan: I’m sure you’ve heard about the psychology of flow — a state of mind that allows you to become fully immersed in an activity. A good day in the studio, for me, has a lot of flow. I’m in it, focused and excited, with a steady hand and a clear mind. As a parent, I don’t have many full days to work in the studio. There’s a small advantage to having limited time in the studio, which is that the time I do have is absolutely coveted. I look forward to my studio hours, and because of that I’m able to stay focused and to appreciate the time to be creative.
Lisa: Can you tell us where we can see more of your work online or in the flesh?
Megan: You’ll find most of my drawings on my website, meganseiter.com. I post drawings, updates, and works in progress on my Instagram page @ms_fineart. In person, you’ll find a few of my drawings in the ‘Five and Under’ show at Arcadia Contemporary in New York, NY, which is on view through September 12, 2021. I’m participating in the “Small Works’ show at Principle Gallery in Alexandria, VA, which opens on December 4th. I’m also represented by Dolby Chadwick Gallery in San Francisco, CA.