Dawn Whitelaw is living proof of love at first sight. Her career as an artist began as a romance with paint. A wife and mother, her life was busily humming away at a regular pace when suddenly all gears squealed to a halt. At age 35, a career graphic designer, Whitelaw was walking through a D.C. gallery when a painting nearly a century old smashed against her vision. She stared at a portrait of Henry Sturgis Drinker, Man with a Cat, by Cecilia Beaux with rapt attention. In the allure of Drinker’s arresting gaze, she found something rare indeed: a new world of possibility for herself. Whitelaw describes Man with a Cat as “a painter’s painting.” Through the veil of time, it beckoned her to an artist’s life.More than thirty years have passed since Whitelaw lost herself in that Cecilia Beaux portrait. She has achieved a national level of fame and become one of Tennessee’s most celebrated portrait painters. Tirelessly pursuing her passion, Whitelaw often works twelve hours or more a day at her studio in Franklin. She travels extensively across the U.S. through workshops, exhibits, and commissions. Although portrait art has been the most prominent focus of her work, Whitelaw sat down with us this month to talk about her plein-air landscape paintings and her exciting journey as an artist.
When asked about how she got started as an artist, Whitelaw smiles. She simply says, “Late.” She walked away from that D.C. gallery determined to study painting. With the encouragement of her family, she embarked on a pursuit of her newfound dream. “Thankfully,” she relates, “I got into a workshop with Everett Raymond Kinstler.” Nashville Arts Magazine readers might remember Kinstler’s name from our conversation last year with local portrait painter Michael Shane Neal. The connection is no accident. Kinstler, Whitelaw, and Neal are all connected by a line of pedagogy going back to the nineteenth century. Whitelaw, after years of painting, became Neal’s first painting teacher and later introduced the budding artist to her mentor, Kinstler. Whitelaw is not shy about the importance of teaching in her career: “I love painting, but my best work on this earth will probably be as a teacher and mentor.”
In a workshop with Kinstler, Whitelaw implored him for advice on painting people. How, she inquired, could she become a better portrait painter. Her teacher’s response was surprising. He insisted that she should apply her brush to landscape art. A true portrait painter, he insisted, must master different genres and techniques.
So Whitelaw bundled up her paints and, with a young student in tow, began climbing hilltops, wandering thickets of forest, and staring into sunsets for her subject matter. The outcome was electric. “Landscape painting is very much at the core of who I am as a painter . . . . The more I paint, the more the portrait and the landscape converge.” Whitelaw shares that the speed of perception and brushstroke that she acquired during sittings as a portrait painter perfectly suit the ever-changing realm of the outdoors. “The effects happen so quickly outside. You are on the line to capture that moment.”
Whitelaw’s landscapes are stunning bursts of color and broken lines. Lively brushstrokes and thick layers of paint lend spirit and movement to her canvases. Each image seems to capture a particular time and simultaneously meditate on a different feeling. As people, our interactions with nature are charged with emotion, and nature itself can roar and rage or gently caress us with its changing moods. Whitelaw has connected nature’s bold emotionalism with her own bright palette. Her landscape art develops like a journal in paint—every sensation from the scent of young pines to the flicker of sadness on a darkening day diffuses into the slashing bands of color on Whitelaw’s canvas.“I do a lot of drawings outside, and I make a lot of notes about what it smelled like, what it felt like. A photograph remembers everything—my pencil remembers what is important to me. If you look at a landscape, there are a lot of things you could include. I try to focus on one thought, and that one thought informs the painting. I just have to pour my heart into it.”
Whitelaw’s preliminary sketches resemble a diary. Quick pencil outlines are decorated with words that remind the artist of how a particular scene made her feel. When painting outdoors, Whitelaw works in quick, broad strokes to capture an impression of the moment. She later translates plein-air studies in pencil and paint to a fully developed work in her studio. The final result is a culmination of her visual and emotional record of a single time and place. She explains, “You go outside and it’s beautiful. Everything is like a kaleidoscope, and then it seems to fall into a pattern. It is that kaleidoscope moment that stirs something inside of me—it is a purely visual response. The process of finding it takes more time than the painting, but when the atmosphere is right, it’s magical.”
Like the Cecilia Beaux painting that inspired them, Whitelaw’s portraits capture a fleeting moment of her subject’s personality—fragile and intimate, they grant us access to the private realm of the soul. Her landscape art takes part in a similar phenomenon. By turning to nature, Whitelaw shows us flashes of her own experience. Her singular perspective plumbs the depths of her sensations and draws an outline of a feeling, spirited nature. Her studies are a record of the artist’s eye and a register for a painter’s heart.
Dawn Whitelaw is represented by Richland Fine Art Gallery. www.richlandfineart.com