Location: Gardnerville, Nevada
Describe your featured work:
My paintings rarely start out from an idea or concept. I have tried working that way, but I can’t. However, the illustration work is definitely concept driven. When I am in painting mode the creative process is layered by time because things slow down tremendously. I wait. I try things– sometimes they work sometimes they don’t. Sometimes I have to just start over. But the notion of ‘start over’ isn’t really true because the moment I ‘give up’ and start over is usually the turning point when things get moving. This is what I like about painting and what I hate about it. What keeps me at it is a fair amount of determinism, curiosity and struggle. I like to start something and then put it away–for weeks, months, even years. I put it away to forget it so that later on I may be surprised by something. But it is a little like trying to orchestrate the unexpected, a little ‘trick’ I play on myself. I do not completely understand it.
I am interested in the figure because of its emotional content. The figure is the context, the location. The figure allows me to perform all sorts of processes with it. The figure is sturdy and almost indestructible–I can layer all sorts of thoughts and feelings, pile loads of private meaning onto it. The figure can bear the weight of my struggle with the paint and my heavy hand, my chisel and spade. By an by the thing will start to talk back to me suggesting meaningful symbols or non-linear narratives which I then attempt to weave into the story of the forms, the physicality of the paint, the marks. I am interested in recognizable imagery as well as the abstract design of things. I am currently becoming more interested in juxtaposing the illusion of space with the reality of the 2D aspect of the canvas.
With my featured work, Palimpsest, I am playing around with these ideas. I was looking at the work of Vija Celmins–her paintings and drawings of surfaces captivated me. Her water surfaces–rendered painstakingly of every tone in the photo–to merge the surface of the paper with this illusion of the surface and space of the water. I decided I wanted to somehow create a similar effect, not as an illusion of space, but to accentuate the reality (truth) of the flatness of the canvas. The idea surprised me and excited me–creating an illusion to reveal a truth.
This is how Palimpsest has evolved (this is how painting happens for me). In 2016 I began with a photo of my husband’s parents when they were newly married. The painting was unsuccessful. I sanded it, but left some recognizable parts, like a face, a foot … On top of this patina, I painted my daughter at the age of nine head to toe from a photo. I liked the direction the painting was taking–that my daughter and her grandparents, whom she has never met, were coexisting on the same surface, fresh paint merging with the previous layer. Later I found an illustrated article on birds in National Geographic (circa 1940s). I tore the individual birds from the pages and taped them to the canvas just to see what would happen not only to space but also to impressions of what I was looking at and I was reminded of prayer for her from years ago–Psalm 91, “Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly pestilence. He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings, you will find refuge…” (The symbolism of birds and my daughter goes back to the hour she was born). None of this was premeditated. The birds and the prayer were buried in my imagination, they surfaced because of the process. I work very slowly. Time is a necessary part of how I work.
“A poet had once cautioned me not to live a life that was more vibrant and intense than my inner life, that inner life and outer must at least be kept in balance, but if one was to gather strength over the other, let it be the life within.”
I received a BA in illustration before the digital explosion. Instead of forging a freelance illustration career, I took a job as a layout artist with Disney Feature Animation. At that time in my life, it was a relief to be told what to do with my skills. The animation gig lasted about 8 years, and by then I was itching for something more. I quit Disney. We decided to start a family and had two kids all the while musing about the day when I would get to be “a real artist” and paint full-time. However, I had no idea what I wanted to paint or why. While the kids were young I kept up an attenuated art practice – in fits and starts just trying to keep my hand in it – painting landscapes, still life, some figurative, anything really. In 2010 (21 years after earning my undergraduate degree) I came back around to illustration not because I was pursuing it but because a friend asked me to do a portrait of a dead theologian for the former Theology News and Notes – now Fuller Magazine. I have been FM’s principal illustrator ever since.
Starting out illustrating in the 2010s (in my 40’s), I was way behind the digital curve. It was important to me that my images looked contemporary so I worked really hard at learning photoshop and studied illustrators I admired. I have been very fortunate that the art director/editor of Fuller Magazine allowed me to work in a semi-unpredictable way. She never asked me to repeat a style or technique. People just assumed she had hired a different illustrator for each issue. Limiting myself to one approach to making pictures would bore me. My materials & tools are anything that makes a mark, sketchbooks, photoshop, scanner, Google, collaboration. I was and am constantly challenging myself to grow, not toward a trademark style, but rather to make pictures that excite and surprise me. My process is a combination of intent and chance.
“I think of a grass fire. A ring of energy that moves out in multiple directions simultaneously, often according to the wind. Some parts die and some parts flame up. Sometimes, when the fire goes out, you have to walk across the burned field to pick up the other edge.”
–Jeffery Decoster, illustrator
What are you working on now?
I have two things going on:
1) Editorial illustration: I am given a featured theme with multiple texts to go with it and work collaboratively with art director/editor to flesh out ideas, tone, concept. There is always a deadline. Always shape & content parameters to consider and the temptation to settle for clichés, which must be eliminated as soon as possible. There is also the temptation to work in a way that is safe and predictable especially when there are many images to produce in a relatively short amount of time. I am constantly pushing myself to exasperate my own predictability.
2) Painting: I do not really know why I need to paint. I am still trying to understand what I am after, what I am chasing. I have no deadlines unless I assign one superficially; no text I am responding to from the outset. My materials are oil paint, pencil, pen and my tools are scrapers, pallet knives, paintbrushes, a sander… nothing unusual. I am attracted to common materials and tools; canvas, wood and paper. My work’s subject matter is mostly figurative. I dabble in landscape painting but am not a Plein air painter nor am I a purist in any sense. I am more instinctual, intuitive to a fault.
Denise Klitsie has been part of the Fuller community as illustrator of Fuller’s Theology, News & Notes magazine from 2010 until 2014 and, since its redesign into FULLER magazine, is the magazine’s principal illustrator. She earned her BFA in illustration from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, and studied with Ray Turner and Dan McCaw. She “keeps her fire burning” by painting and drawing things found in her home studio or outside in the high desert of western Nevada where she lives with her husband, Mark and their two children.