artist, Indiana, Painter

Sabrina Zhou

You went to art school in China…

Two art schools in China and one in Canada. All different majors. The first one was Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts. I was majoring in watercolor. Then I met my husband and moved to the art school that he was in. That was in Sichuan, the southwest of China. This is where pandas come from. So first I did fine arts [watercolor] and then interior design. Then went to Canada and there I did fine arts…

What made you come to America?

I knew I was going to leave Calgary, it’s just too cold there. It’s like half a year in winter. We have to walk in tunnels and all of that. I didn’t think I would come to America until I visited a friend here. [We went to school together in Canada.] He was a New York street artist [at the time.]
…He was good and he inspired me. I just followed his steps…

So you started off on the east coast in Connecticut…

For seven years. Long time.…There was an old storage place they turned into artist lofts and rented them only to artists. So the rent was much cheaper than the market. You got to live with all sorts of artists; painters, singers, poets, writers, etc.  And then parties and talks... It was fun.
…I had a booth at the mall in Connecticut for Christmas and I was doing about 10 portraits a day… I came here to Indiana and had a booth at the mall for one year, in 2013.  I was playing video games on the computer the day before Christmas. People were not interested…

I focused solely on portraits for years and eventually hated it. Mostly I worked from photographs. People had all kinds of photographs. [laughter] Some of them where really hard to work with! And they asked funny questions; you can do this? You can do that? Can you put this head on that body? All sorts of questions…

When you do still lives. Do you set them all up and draw from life?

Yes…That’s part of the fun.

Setting everything up?

Yes. I rarely did oil in college because it’s so different than watercolor. With oils, you can mix all the colors together. You can be a pastel artist and oil painter, but watercolor and oil are so different. Different procedures.

[Pastels are] a smaller medium but once you get the hang of it, it’s so much fun. I could just sit here for hours doing my little feathering. It’s very controllable and the colors are so vivid. It is the pure pigment here. Paints can change color over time, but pastels stay there. …  [Pastels do fade in the sun a little bit,] especially the cheap ones. But that’s it. It can be very expensive. This tiny little stick cost $3 and you need so many different colors. Since you are working with the straight color you can’t blend it like you do with paint to get the color you need.
At this stage I don’t blend the pastels but the first few stages I do.

How do you blend pastels?

My finger. Someone told me you can rub the oil in your hand into the painting. So far I haven’t seen any problems with that. I use paper towels for the background because it is a big area. It is very different than when you rub with your finger. You can get a much smoother result with your finger.

When I do landscapes. People keep asking me where is this…where is that? It’s here, [points to head and laughs] it’s not real.

 

This landscape is all made up from your head?

Well this one I got the inspiration from Cool Creek Park. We walk over there with our dog. There is an area of birch trees. I added this mountain behind it. For the color variation. Indianapolis is so flat! I like that deep blue-purple color in the back and the trees against it. I like the effect. I can also show a little bit of pink, reddish color here and there. To compliment the green. So that part is coming out of my mind wherever I feel it’s necessary.
...
A good thing to do when you finish a painting is to put it aside for a few months. When you come back to it you find a lot of problems you want to fix. When you are just staring at it you are like, “[groans] Okay. I think it’s done.”
...
All those things that we learned in China, I don’t know any different until after years of being here. We learned the Russian system of art, called social realism. It’s more realistic. That’s why I was going so tight. All these details! I was considered to have a bad sense of color when I was in school. And I grew with that because when you get really into details you forget the fresh thing you had when you first looked at those still lives. You get into shape and volumes more than colors. So I thought, “Ok, I can’t see colors, I am so bad.” It’s a good thing I switched to oil because I work faster with a wider brush…I want to be John Singer Sargent. And I like that style better. I start to say “Oh, now I see more colors!” You can really relax and get loose. I see more colors and I like that. So when I go back to my pastel, I feel I work the color better. Even when I am doing detailed work like this, I see more colors. I benefit from that.  

John Singer Sargent, he’s a great portrait artist. I saw a painting of his with two ladies sitting in a garden with a table. The lady’s hand was painted really thick but loose brush work.  When you get close it’s just piles of paint up there, but when you step back, it’s a perfectly done hand. He is that awesome…
If you take the time and get into details, I can make it. But he was madly good, his strokes look so impatient, [whoosh of air and wide hand gesture] but everything is already there. So good.

It's interesting that you would admire Sargent, a more impressionistic painter, because your pastel work is very tight. You can get really up close to them and really appreciate them. But, your oil paintings are looser, more impressionistic.

Right. I’m trying to hide my tiny little brushes away from myself. So I just grab the bigger ones. All the tiny ones are there where I can’t reach them. So I am trying to use this bigger brush to get into the little detail and it’s become more vivid that way. It’s not as tight. With pastels I can’t [get bigger], they are already this shape.

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Last year, I was in a show in Columbus, Ohio. I sold a painting that was not done. It was still wet! I didn’t have enough paintings to fill out the booth. This guy came in and said, “I just love that.”
I said, “You can order that. Once I am done with it I can ship it to you.”
He said, “No. I want it just like that.”

That’s pretty incredible. Did you sell it to him?

Yes! He took it. It needed to be varnished, but it was still wet…  He is not interested in me finishing the painting. That’s nice sometimes, the work doesn’t have to be really completed as you want. Some of the looseness in the first few stages appeal to people.