Somewhere Between Realism and Abstraction: A Studio Visit with Nancy Bass

Nancy Bass at work in her studio. Nancy Bass at work in her studio.

This week we’re sharing our write-up of a studio visit with local artist Nancy Bass.

On a grassy knoll just south of town sits Historic Anchorage House, a landmark on the National Historic Register of Places. Built in 1825 by John White, this beautiful building now functions as the studio space of local artist Nancy Bass. I visited with her to meet her beloved cows and to learn more about her work.

C’ville Arts Blog: Tell us a little about yourself as an artist. Why animals?

Nancy Bass: I think I’ve been painting since I was really young. My first memory is from when I was about three years old and I wanted to have a pet. At the time, my parents were struggling financially, and my father just didn’t want a pet. My mother bought me one of those huge boxes of crayons, one of those really big ones with all the different colors, and I figured out how to draw a pink poodle because I really wanted one. After that I started making poodles in every different color so that I could put them all around my room. That’s my first memory. It’s just so funny to me because it hit me one day when I was giving a talk to little children that I am doing the same thing I was doing when I was three years old. I’ve come back around.

I wasn’t always painting animals. When I was in my twenties I was doing portraits for people, and when I moved here in the early ’80s I started painting landscapes. At first the cows would be in the background, very small, in the style of a typical landscape. As time went on, the cows got bigger and bigger in the composition until they reached the size of what I paint currently. Now my pieces have become portraits of the individual animals. So I went back, in a sense, to what came naturally to me as a child, which is really loving animals and really liking the personalities of the individual animals.

At the same time, I really like abstraction. I feel like the genre of painting animals has a lot of historical basis in the tradition of the British horse painters like George Stubbs. But I wanted my work to be contemporary, to be of the time that we are living in and reflect the current movements in art.

Why abstract backgrounds?

When I was in college, I had a professor who I remember because she was a color field painter. We were required to go to her retrospective at the Des Moine Art Center in Iowa. It was three gigantic rooms of these paintings that were made up of little lines only and for some reason I just could not “get” it. I wondered “How could anyone paint only little lines for thirty years?”

Then, about six years ago, there was a large retrospective exhibit of color field paintings in D.C. Although I didn’t see it, I read about it, and it made me think about my old professor. That was when I started thinking about the conflict between realism and abstraction. I thought about how the whole idea in color field paintings was not to have anything that could be identified as realistic in any way. I wanted to combine that somehow into my realistic paintings. I had played with abstraction before and that is how I got into this, by playing with it.

It’s worked really well for me because every animal, in light and shadow, picks up different colors. I pick out different colors from the animals, or from the story of the animal or the name of the animal, to use in my backgrounds. For example, I have a painting of one of my calves. She is the whitest calf I have ever owned, so I named her Snow White. I knew I wanted to paint her, and I made it so the background colors reflect the kind of cow that she is.

I try to let the colors of the figure inform my background. In doing so, it picks up mood and personality and a story line. Even though it looks simple, it’s extremely challenging for me to make the color fields work with the animal. I have to decide the direction of the lines, the breakup of the space, and come up with a background that even without the animal in it could be interesting all by itself. That is important to me as well. But putting the animal in the picture makes the piece comes together and makes the composition whole. That’s where I’m working right now.

Sometimes the colors change and become bolder, sometimes the color field becomes smaller or enlarged, and this group of diagonal paintings that I am working on now uses color blocks. I’m trying to achieve the same thing with those blocks as in color fielding, but it allows me to play with a quilt-like background instead. It still reads as a contemporary painting while allowing me to build up texture and play. The blocks are a little bit freeing, and I can put lettering and things in there, so it’s just another change in the same direction.

Once in a while, for practice, I’ll still do your very traditional landscape, although I don’t do it very often. It’s just so different to go backward and to do a cow in the landscape. For me, it just doesn’t pop the same way. It’s just not as exciting. But I still like to do it for practice.

Ultimately, I think that using an abstract background highlights the animals more, whereas they are just part of the whole of the landscape when they are in the landscape. When they are against an abstract background, they become more iconic.

I like that people read my paintings in different ways. I’m not giving you all the information, so people will walk in and come up with a story, saying “Oh, it looks like they are standing against a barn” or “It looks like they are standing against a wall with wallpaper.” People say all kinds of different things, and I think that that’s what art is about. Art shouldn’t give you the whole story, so I like that I can play with people’s perceptions.

Do you have any formal training?

I studied art in high school and then I went to college. I went to Drake in Des Moines, Iowa, to study art. But it was in the days when you really didn’t learn anything, back in the 70′s. You just went in and made something and you didn’t learn technique or anything about materials. So I got out and didn’t feel like I knew anything. But I started painting and since then I’ve taken workshops. I’ve studied with Janet Fish twice and I’ve studied with some local people, even with Yvonne Jacquette. So I would go and take a workshop once a year and feel that in one week I had learned more than I ever did in college. I still do that once in a while if there is something that someone knows that I would like to know. I’ll just go and study that specific thing. Of course, now you can get so much information on the web, too.

What would you call your style?

Contemporary realism. I think that’s what I would call it.

What is your medium?

I love oil paint, and I use walnut oil for my medium. It is a traditional medium that is not used very much. The materials I use are completely eco-friendly and as environmentally nontoxic as possible. Obviously some of the paints contain metal, but I’m not a sloppy painter and I like to keep the environment in which I paint safe. I also love to work on wood board in the style of Renaissance painting. With canvas, you always have to build up enough paint to get up over the tooth. On wood board, it’s already smooth, and it just works for me. I love it.

What is your method of working?

I usually start with a very simple sketch. I find a lot of times that the sketch doesn’t translate into the painting, but I have to play with the idea and the cropping a little bit. I work on wooden panels, and the first thing I do is paint them all orange after I put an additional coat of gesso on. I like the bright orange because it bleeds through underneath and gives me that glow and a lot of brightness. I always use that for my mid-tone. Then I’ll do a sketch of the painting on the orange panel, and when I feel that I have it right I start my under-painting. For my under-painting, I use the opposite color. So, for example, anything that would end up in a warm, light yellow tone would have been under-painted in a purple tone. I do the whole painting that way. After that dries, I start going back in with the colors that I’m going to use and working up the layers on the animals. I usually start darker and then go to the highlights. In the end, it ends up being tons of layers.

I am usually working on three paintings on a time to allow the various layers to dry enough before I go back and continue working on a piece. My layers usually dry within a day or two. It takes a lot of layers to make the fur look like fur, and the color fields also need to be painted up enough that they develop a surface that feels right to me. That of course allows me to play with texture. I’m currently playing with screen; I take a piece of screen and push paint through it to build up layers. I’m also doing different fun things like incising into the paint, just experimenting and having fun. I always work on the figure and ground simultaneously. In the figures, I start with the big shapes and then work down to the little ones.

Do you use photographic sources?

I take photos all the time. I have storage files for images of my heifers; I have files for images of my calves; I even have them all broken down into categories online, too. I’m constantly taking photos to build up resource materials to work from. So if I have an idea for a painting, then I’ll need images of a particular cow and I’ll need to find the right light or the right direction. Probably everybody who paints animals will use photographic resources.

How do you choose your subject matter?

I’ve always loved animals since I was really young, but I never really thought I would end up painting animals. I think raising them here, I’ve just fallen in love with them. I never really had an attachment to cows, but coming here and having them, I’ve realized that they’re just wonderful animals. They are great mothers, they are beautiful to look at, and I guess I’ve just become enchanted with them.

I have my own herd, and the herd is based on my painting. Unlike most people who are picking cows to be good milkers or good beef cattle, my cows are all about painting. So I have all different breeds, and I interbreed for a variety of looks and colors leaving me with a crazy-looking herd, all different colors, shapes and sizes. I like cows with very sweet personalities that are also interesting looking.

I will also go to other farms since we have so many wonderful artisanal farms doing heirloom varieties of everything. That’s where I will go to take photographs of other subject matter like sheep or pigs.

How long does it normally take you to finish a piece?

Maybe a couple of moths for a bigger painting. Partially because of the number of layers in the painting, but I will also live with a painting for a while to decide whether or not it is finished. Even if I think a piece is done, I will usually figure out something that I don’t like about it, so it’s a process. If it’s a really small painting than it will take me a shorter time to finish and others take longer.

How regular is your studio practice?

I work in my studio pretty much every day.

Who do you consider to be your audience?

While I was at the McGuffey, I was very successful with a particular clientele that likes landscapes. So when I switched and started doing abstract work, I really lost that audience. They would come into my studio and ask “where are the landscapes?” But I was at the point where I wasn’t feeling satisfied with my work, so I knew that I had to change. Being inspired is not a production factory type of thing, so it’s never really been part of the equation for me. But I do have an audience, and what I like about it is that it’s a younger audience. Young people in their thirties or forties have really enjoyed the work and that has been fun for me. They understand it.

Also, when I am near to finishing a painting, I take it out to my house and I hang it over my mantle and decide whether or not I like it enough that I want to live with it. That’s my criteria. If it makes me happy, then it is finished. If it doesn’t, then it comes back to the studio, and I work on it some more. So I do work that I love and that I can live with and that makes me happy. That is just the nature of who I am. My audience are people who are pretty much like me. They are animal lovers and they love color. But I also really want my work to be unique. You’ve got to find your own voice as a writer or an artist and figure out who it is that you are. So you have to get away from the pleasing thing and be willing to go out there and just create.

What is your favorite Bodo’s bagel?

Once a year I allow myself to go and have egg and cheddar cheese on a whole wheat bagel. That’s my favorite.

Visit Nancy Bass online at

~ Rose Guterbock and Aaron Miller

Posted In:     Arts


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