26 January 2017
Once Deborah Nixon found her inspiration as an artist, she never stopped. Her interest in art was a result of her mother’s yearning to become an artist, Nixon said. But like many women of the pre-World War II generation, she didn’t cultivate such aspirations and instead became a secretary. But her desire to become a painter never left her and after retiring, Nixon’s mother began painting again, taking Nixon’s sister, Beverly, with her to an art in the park class on Saturday mornings. At first Nixon didn’t join them, but years later when her mother’s vision began to fail and she could no longer drive, Nixon joined the group.
“My mother and I would make each other crazy because she was very precise,” Nixon said. “She started in one corner and worked down and out from that. After I saw an exhibit in Spain of Pablo Picasso, I became very wild in my painting.” Nixon said she became very proficient at copying Pablo Picasso and signed her copies D Picasso.
“Picasso and his free style, which is actually as brilliant as we imagine, has influenced my painting since then,” Nixon said. “If you get a line or a color wrong, it matters. You’d think, just looking at Picasso, that he just threw paint on the canvas, but I learned when I tried to copy him that if you got the line wrong, it ruined the painting.” Picasso and the impressionists became her inspiration and it shows in her fluid, sweeping motions and the vibrant colors seen in her work.
Nixon never studied art in school and instead got her master’s degree in history, teaching at Molloy College on Long Island and later at Five Towns Community College. Though she was passionate about teaching, she could not find a job she liked after moving to Reston, Va., and ended up with a real estate license. Nixon sold real estate for a few years and then worked as an office administrator. She enjoyed her newfound work but continued to paint at the Saturday morning art class.
Mostly self-taught, she reads books and copies paintings to learn underlying technique, which she said is something she enjoys. But it was in her lessons with local artist and Fluvanna Art Association (FAA) member Troy Weidenheimer that she learned about gradations from white to black.
“That was eye opening for me,” Nixon said. “I had been trying for years to paint a portrait of an elderly aunt. I could never do it. After one of Troy’s lessons I took a piece of scrap paper, black water color and created a portrait of Aunt Esther in less than 30 minutes. It is one of the best things I’ve ever done. I had to pay to have it professionally framed,” she laughed. Nixon won an award in one of the FAA’s art shows for Aunt Esther.
Painting people proved to be a challenge when she painted a picture of her son with a group of people. Capturing his features was one thing but correcting skin tones was another. She admitted her obsession, painting at her kitchen table until all hours of the night. It took all summer.
“I then created a peanut head on top of the body,” she said. The painting is now hanging in her house and she pointed to the five or six layers of paint it took to render her son’s head.
“I am not embarrassed, but I laugh every time I walk past it.” She said she understands that each experience helps her to intensify her skill as an artist.
“I am in awe of the portraits at the National Portrait Gallery, but I could never do that. I don’t have the patience or the talent,” she said. “Instead I learned to just do it. Put paint on the canvas and just keep going. That is the greatest lesson.” Nixon learned through doing what all artists eventually come to terms with: reawakening their inner artist.
“I put broad strokes all over the canvas, layering, using up the paint on my brush, and ultimately working in the detail. Somehow or other a painting emerges,” she said. Most of the time she surprises herself, she said, and that is part of the magic of enjoying art.
Other than a brush, Nixon’s favorite tool is a palette knife. “I’ll also use whatever is available,” she said. “Pieces of plastic and toothpicks are great to make grass and weeds, cotton, my fingers work especially well.”
She laughed when describing how sloppy she is when painting: “I’ve got an old men’s shirt as a smock and it is a work of art in itself.”
Nixon usually paints with acrylics because it is fast, and she can add layers to repair mistakes. She also employs a trick of watercolorists, using a hair dryer so the process goes faster. Like many artists, she likes the ease of watercolor but finds it a difficult medium to master.
Nixon stopped to reflect for a moment about how she has evolved as an artist. Other than mastering techniques, she is learning not to be afraid of a blank canvas. She admitted she obsesses if the composition isn’t how she envisioned it or the color isn’t right, but she realizes this is all part of the artistic process.
Her current project is an ambitious one. She is presently painting a large triptych (three separate panels or canvases) and has done a lot of planning for this piece.
It was during Nixon’s time as president of the FAA that the group advanced into the group that it is today. Nixon laughed when she thought how she became president.
“Actually I was an accidental president because I showed up to a random meeting,” she said. “The current president was stepping down and no one would step up. Someone said, ‘Deborah will do it.’ I said, ‘I’ll do it if Page Gifford will be vice president.’ We came out swinging, kicked up the programming and, I think, brought the organization into the 21st century,” she said. “We have had two more presidents since I got involved and the growth of the organization has been wonderful. It is a force within the artistic community of Central Virginia and I am very proud of it.”
Nixon has wise words for artists: “ Just start, keep going, and don’t let your inhibitions stop you.”
Nixon’s work may be viewed at http://www.fluvannaart.com.