Painting Whitewater

After working diligently in the studio on a very difficult perspective problem for the past few days, I stepped outside for some much-needed plein air painting.  I found painting whitewater at the Poudre River to be the perfect solution.

Whitewater, 8x12, oil on linen, © Nelia Harper
Whitewater, 8×12, oil on linen, © Nelia Harper

Apparently, I needed to unleash some pent-up color craze and fluidity.

My goal was to focus on color and abstract shape, thinking beyond rock and water, placing paint and leaving it untouched. Mix and place. Mix and place.  One of the greatest challenges of painting whitewater is seeing and understanding the changing color and placing it in the context of the big picture.  And, water isn’t actually white.  Water color is it?  What color is it in the shade?  In the sun?  Whitewater, with it’s eddies and foam and dips and swells fools the eye.  It rolls back on itself while constantly moving forward.

The color got a little crazy, as I dipped repeatedly into transparent oxide yellow.  Here it is, photographed on-site in full sun.  It looks more muted indoors.

Needless to say, I feel much better and ready to go back to fixing the perspective on the studio painting.

Twirling Syd, pastel, 16×22

Just a simple moment caught in time.  A girl sings a song and twirls an umbrella.  A cell phone camera captures the moment.  That moment, shared among friends becomes a moment of inspiration.  The artist eye sees that moment, and the urge to paint is there.

I can see the painting in my mind’s eye.

“Sure!” Mom says.  “I’d love to see you paint this!”

We talk about what the painting could be, I throw out some ideas, thinking out loud.  Then, back in the studio, I dive deeper into the image, and I realize that so much is said in so little.


Twirling Syd, 16x22, pastel on UArt © Nelia Harper
Twirling Syd, 16×22, pastel on UArt © Nelia Harper


As I worked on this painting, I came across this quote from Andrew Wyeth.  It summed up my feeling of painting precisely.

My struggle is to preserve that abstract flash – like something you caught out of the corner of your eye, but in the picture you can look at it directly.
– Andrew Wyeth

My goal with the piece was to focus on her expression as she sings.  Does she know that she is watched?  Or is she simply not self-consciousness?  As she twirls the umbrella, lost in her imaginary world, we have a small glimpse into the life of this little girl.  Who were we at this age?  Were we inhibited?  Or did we talk to our dolls and ourselves?  Did we read books without a care in the world and dress in what we fancied that day?  Did we hold hands with our friends and skip to our own song?  Do we remember ourselves?

See this piece in person

This piece is part of the 3rd Annual Expressions show being held July 25-August 4 at the Carnegie Center for Creativity in Fort Collins, CO.  Open Wed-Sat 12-6.

Nothing to Wear, Pastel on Canson Paper

Four months of drawing the figure two nights a week. Working from a model, we worked out proportions, foreshortening, anatomy, and skin tone values. Soon, it was time to create our final project. The assignment was open: the human figure as a representation of inner psychology. Although the focus was on drawing, we were allowed to use materials with which we were familiar. As much as I wanted to use oil paint, I immediately chose pastel.

As our instructor shared examples of artists using the human figure to express this idea, I wondered, don’t we do this every day in subtle ways? I looked around at the students, most of them were in their 20s. Their hair, clothing, backpacks, cigarettes, they way they stood, the use of headphones, was this not an expression of their inner psychology every day? Do we even realize what we do?

As I thought through ideas for the project, I thought about my nieces and nephews and how children clamor to be Spiderman, Superman, monkeys, dogs, and other creatures and heroes. “Pretend I’m a dog,” they clamor. “Pet me.” They pretend to do tricks. They embody the persona of that character. How many times as a child did I pretend to be a mother? An explorer? A writer? Acting out skits for classmates, I tried on various roles.

As adults, we take on roles of father, mother, millennial, hipster (is that still a thing?) executive, artist, activist, the list goes on and on. How many mornings have we stood in our closets preparing for the day and thinking about what to wear to fulfill that role? And how many times have we thought, I have nothing to wear?

All these ideas rolled around and turned over in my mind. I began to think of our clothing as masks we wear and how we can hide our true feelings. And, how we express ourselves through the way we dress and look. How we choose how we want others to see us.

Thinking about masks, preparing for the day, hiding our identity, consciously or otherwise, I searched through my house and decided to use a Venetian mask and myself as the model.

Nothing to Wear, pastel on paper, 21x18.5, © Nelia Harper
Nothing to Wear, pastel on paper, 21×18.5, © Nelia Harper

Using a camera on a tripod with a self-timer, I posed with various masks and body positions. After several hours and dozens of shots to get the mirror image ‘just right’, I then cropped and the image and tested a color palette on various papers.

Here, dressed in a simple black dress, a woman holds a mask to her face. Is she preparing for a night out or a day at work? What do we assume about her from the mask? How do we read her eyes shining through? When you look at the image, what do you see?

See this piece in person

This piece is part of the 3rd Annual Expressions show being held July 25-August 4 at the Carnegie Center for Creativity in Fort Collins, CO. Open Wed-Sat 12-6.

Lilacs, oil on linen

For a week, I stood in the backyard studying the form and color of lilacs.  Hidden among the trees, I tested out Cobalt Violet, Cobalt Violet Deep, Alizarin Crimson, Ultramarine Blue, Pthalo Blue, Raw and Burnt Umber and Rose Red Deep.

Time was running out as the temperatures climbed.  Soon, the lilac blooms would fade. It was either now or wait another year.

I cleared the studio, set up the still life stand, took a deep breath, and filled a bucket with freshly snipped lilacs.  Then, I arranged them in a large vase with a deep violet velvet backdrop.  For the next three days, I painted hour after hour each day, creating the forms of the lilacs while breathing in their soft perfume.

Now available.  Frame included.

Lilacs, 16x21, oil on linen, © Nelia Harper
Lilacs, 16×21, oil on linen, © Nelia Harper


See this in person

This painting is part of the 3rd Annual Expressions Art Show show being held July 25-August 4 at the Carnegie Center for Creativity in Fort Collins, CO.  Open Wed-Sat 12-6.

3rd Annual Expressions Art Show July 25-August 4

It’s time for our 3rd Annual Expressions Art Show here in Fort Collins. I’m excited to show some new floral paintings that I’ve been working on as well as a couple of figurative pieces. Branching out into floral and figurative work has been a challenge and I look forward to sharing them with you.

The show runs for two weeks, Wed-Sat, July 25 – August 4 from 12-6pm
Our Artist’s Reception will be Friday, August 3rd, 6-9 pm

Location: Carnegie Building, 200 Mathews Street, Fort Collins, CO
This event is free and open to the public.

The show includes wood-turning, felted sculpture, photography and of course paintings ranging from abstract to realism, in large and small formats. It’s a fun show, and we hope you’ll be able to make it.

3rd Annual Expressions Art Show

Along the Yampa River, Oil on Canvas Panel, 8×10

Along the Yampa, 8x10, oil on canvas panel
Along the Yampa River, 8×10, oil on canvas panel

Each painting brings back memories.  This painting “Along the Yampa River” is no exception.

Last fall, I participated in the Steamboat Plein Air Event, a week-long plein air event that supports the Steamboat Art Museum.  At the same time, I was painting daily as part of the Strada Easel 30 Day Challenge to paint from life every day in September.

That day, I drove up to Steamboat and found the town blanketed in fog and rain. Anxious to get out and explore, I quickly checked in with my roommates, and ventured out in search of painting locations.

Within minutes, I found the Yampa river and a pedestrian bridge with a perfect view of the Yampa River and a foggy mountain in the distance.  Crouched under my umbrella, I painted as quickly as I could. The rain came in waves, dripping from me and the umbrella. Once the palette filled with water and my gloves were soaked, it was time to go and warm up.

Needless to say, it was an adventurous day of painting!  You can see my other paintings from the 2017 SAM Plein Air Event, here.

Now available at auction.

Cheryl Portrait Study 16×12 oil on linen panel

"Cheryl", 16x12, oil on linen
“Cheryl”, 16×12, oil on linen

An alla prima oil painting of Cheryl from our bi-monthly portrait painting session.

We are lucky to have so many professional and amateur models willing to sit for us. Each session is 3 hours, with 10 minute breaks every 20 minutes.

This is on Claessens Belgian linen (13DP), a fine surface that wipes back to the canvas.

As I was painting today, I thought of this as my ‘before’ painting as I’m about to spend four days at a Michelle Dunaway portrait workshop. I can hardly stand the wait.

I’m excited to see how it impacts my painting and deepens my work. Looking forward to the ‘after’.

“On the Cob”, 6×8, oil on canvas auction

Now available at auction.

"On the Cob", 6x8, oil on canvas panel, © Nelia Harper
“On the Cob”, 6×8, oil on canvas panel, © Nelia Harper

​”On the Cob” was such a fun painting to make. It reminded me of childhood summers and working in the garden with my Dad.

For as long as I can remember, my father planted a large garden. And, he still does. I loved to help him. As I placed corn kernels, hunks of potato, and tiny onions in the ground, a feeling of hope and promise filled me. I marveled at the straight rows, and the little seeds that grew into giants. Planting miniature versions of vegetables felt like a million little possibilities.

In August, we could start to pick the corn. Pulling away the husk, was like unwrapping a present. Under the papery wrapper, rows and rows of sweet kernels waited for a slather of butter and salt. We devoured those ears of corn on the cob. Fresh green beans, cucumber salad, and baby potatoes completed any meal.

Even though I don’t have a large garden, I still love to plant seeds, and see those little seeds reach for the sun.I especially love it when I can step outside to ‘pick dinner.Although I didn’t pick this ear of corn from my garden, I still delight in knowing that a seed created this ear of corn. And, there’s nothing like the taste of fresh corn on the cob, slathered in butter and salt!

You can now add this little gem to your art collection.  See auction details and bid here.

In Your Embrace

In Your Embrace, 36x48, oil on canvas
In Your Embrace, 36×48, oil on canvas

This morning is cool and overcast, much like the day we went down to the river to paint.

From that plein air, this painting was inspired for the Colorado Capitol exhibition that will take place this summer.

The day was foggy and a light snow fell as we painted. The river was full and quiet, creating a mirror reflection.

As I painted this piece, I thought about the strength of river, the tree and the power of love.

Self-Portrait – Pastel on Canson

Where you lucky enough to take art classes in middle or high school?  Do remember drawing a self-portrait?

I remember drawing a self-portrait on two occasions; once in elementary school and once in middle school. I remember that the drawings all had almond-shaped eyes, round heads and a front view.

As a kid, I don’t remember giving much thought to how the self-portrait looked in elementary school.  We knew our features.  I had brown hair, blue eyes, red lips and whatever color shirt I had on.  Done!

In middle school, I dreaded that assignment. The extent of our instruction was various face shapes: round, oval, heart, and square. There was no consideration to bone structure, muscles, turning form or the effects of light.  (Of course, there’s a good chance we wouldn’t have paid much attention anyway.)  At the time, I felt foolish looking into a mirror and analyzing my face and features in front of other students.  As if middle school wasn’t challenging enough, now we had to parade our insecurities in front of the class!  I still had brown hair and blue eyes, but how do I make it look like me?  Needless to say, that drawing didn’t make it to the refrigerator.

Fast forward a couple of decades and dial-up the notch of desire to learn.  Suddenly, a little instruction, a few years of practice and deeper knowledge made a difference in the outcome.

As many of you know, I’ve been taking figure drawing at the community college this semester.  Our assignment this past week was to complete a self-portrait in pastel.  Oh, the students moaned and groaned.  I could feel the anxiety as our instructor shared the assignment.  I simply smiled to myself and thought, “This is going to be fun”.

This time, drawing a self-portrait was more fun and insightful than the second attempt (or third, fourth or fifth time for that matter).  No longer did I critique the shape of my nose, the asymmetry of my eyes, or the countless sunspots.  Instead, I found myself seeing shape, form, the way light travels across the forehead, through the eyes, and around the nose.  I saw how the light bounced off the cheekbone and curved over the chin. I saw the softness of the cheek, the fullness of the lip, the angle of the ear, the way the head connects to the neck.

Oh sure, I see where I can improve the drawing.  This or that could line up better.  That could angle more, this could soften here.  Thankfully, as artists, we know there is always room for improvement.  Learning to see what we want is the first step to creating.


Rembrandt pastels (black and white), grey Canson Mi-Tientes paper (smooth side), fixative (this will darken everything), tortillion and Faber-Castell pastel pencils (black and white).


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