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In a Louisville studio, IU Southeast's Debra Clem creates and professes a 'teachable art'

The studio behind IU Southeast Professor Debra Clem's Louisville house features dozens of her oil paintings displayed on the studio's white walls. In the center of the room is an easel holding a 7-by-3 foot canvas. Beside it, a table with more than 20 silver tubes rest in a pile, crinkled and dotted with teal, red and orange specks. More than a dozen dollops of paint -- varying shades of teals, blues, reds and oranges -- are smeared on the edge of the table near an aluminum can filled with water and paint brushes.

Debra Clem

Photo by: Allison Cooke

Debra Clem, a professor at IU Southeast, works on a project in her studio.

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The oil colors rest on the table, ready for Clem to paint vivid orange and red colors over a black-and-white digital image of trees superimposed on her canvas. When she's done, a woman's body will appear on top of the tree branches. Clem picks up a brush, ready to continue painting so that the branches, taken from a photo, will become the woman's arteries.

The paint represents turmoil, is a very complicated project and not one she would assign to her beginning students. For Clem, painting is relaxing, but it can cause stress among beginning painters who are often impatient to try advanced techniques. However, Clem is familiar with the issues beginning painters face. Among the classes she teaches at IU Southeast is a beginning class. Clem says anyone can paint -- even those who believe they have no talent.

"A lot of people think oil paint is hard, but it's really forgiving," Clem said. "It doesn't dry as fast so you can keep changing the painting."

Beginning painters may be tempted to use a variety of colors and to create a large painting. But Clem said the novice painter should start working in black-and-white oil paint and think small.

Clem asks her beginning students to first work with black-and-white paint so they can learn how to blend the paints to achieve the look they want. Once students master working with black and white, they begin to experiment with color.

Clem gives beginning a first assignment that requires working with local color -- the color inherent in an object. A good object to start with is a toy, a piece of fruit or a vegetable that provides a lot of vibrant color. By painting an orange, for instance, the student learns how to mix colors and how light affects different surfaces. Clem said she has the students paint the object so that it fills the canvas.

One tip she offers is to avoid changing the paint too much on the canvas. Contemplate every move before beginning a painting. Clem even encourages her students to make sketches before they begin working and to visualize a strategy. The danger with changing the paint too much is the paint will begin to have a muddy appearance. Clem suggests starting slowly and building gradually.

Oil paint is a 'forgiving' medium, says Clem, and intrepid beginners must cultivate a sense of confidence.

After learning how to work with basic color, the students learn how to manipulate a variety of colors on the canvas. Clem asks them to learn how to work with subjective color by asking the students to find a something in nature to paint -- like a stone or piece of wood.

"In this situation, they have to deal with color mixing and using color in a more subjective way," Clem said. "For instance, the sky is blue, but in their work it may be green. Or they may create a painting based on a contemporary artist -- I want to try to push the students outside of their box."

Learning to mix colors is important for several reasons. At times, an artist may not have a wide selection of paint tubes and mixing those paint colors he or she has allows for the creation of new colors without having to buy more paint.

"Not all blue and red paints are the same. Paints have pigments that make the mixture hard to get right. You have to be able to look at a red and realize that the red may be more blue than orange. You have to know when to use which colors."

Understanding how pigments can impact a color mixture can take time and experimentation. Clem encourages her beginning students to work from a reference point. She said it can be helpful for them to take a digital photo of an object they want to paint and to refer to it often while creating their work.

"I like it when they work from a reference point because they can hone their observation skills before they say 'Well, I'm just going to paint something,'" Clem said. "I like to encourage them to use their eyes."


Photo by: Allison Cooke

Clem has created a variety of water colors including this one entitled, "Contact."

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In addition to teaching students how to work with color, Clem also talks to them about learning to paint on different surfaces. For instance, students can paint on a canvas, but they can also paint on a board.

Ultimately, the challenge every painting student will face is finding his or her own style. To accomplish this, Clem sends her students to local art galleries and museums where they observe classic and contemporary artists. The goal is for the students to invent their own style or to synthesize the styles of other artists.

Once students have mastered the basic skills and found their own style, they are ready to practice. Clem said the ultimate path to success is for the painter to have confidence. With confidence, Clem said anyone can learn to paint.

"Painting is like anything else," Clem said. "I think it is something that people will do a lot better at than they think. It is teachable, but they need confidence in themselves. I can't teach confidence, but I can teach them to paint and if they have confidence, they will succeed."