Ten years ago, Kasha Ritter was searching for her style. She tried oils and acrylics, any media traditionally meant for a canvas, but found paint to be too heavy and the paintbrush too high-maintenance. She was losing hope when a row of acrylic ink jars caught her eye at a little art shop in Louisville, Ky. She followed her instincts and brought them home. That night, Ms. Ritter put her kids to bed, stretched her canvas, opened the jars, and turned away just long enough for her cat Lola knock them over onto the pristine canvas and walk through the mess.
“I picked up the dropper to try to pull the ink off and save it,” Ms. Ritter told The Times. “But as I did that, this shape formed that kind of looked like a hand and I thought, ‘Oh my God.’ That was it.” Ms. Ritter’s carefree style of liquid colors that splash into familiar shapes was born.
Ms. Ritter received formal art training as a student of fine art at Elmira College for one year before transferring to Graphic Careers Inc. in Rochester, N.Y. She graduated in 1985 and worked as a technical illustrator at Glen Godfrey Communications in North Carolina, where she met her husband Bill, stationed with the Marine Corps at Cherry Point. The couple started a family and moved to Louisville, where Ms. Ritter worked in typography, graphic design, and technical illustration at various companies and print shops until Mr. Ritter was called into active duty after 9/11.
“There was no time for art then. I was a full-time mom,” Ms. Ritter said. “When Bill got back, I said to him, ‘If I don’t seriously pursue [art], I’m going to, you know, go crazy.”
After years in the graphic design industry, where precision is key, Ms. Ritter craved the freedom of creating for herself and an escape from tradition. Thus began her search.
“Now, I will make mistakes. I will accidentally splash something, and I will leave it. I don’t correct because it’s part of the process, part of the art,” Ms. Ritter said. “That was the hardest thing, because I was taught, ‘Keep it neat and tidy, don’t make a mess.’ But I am more messy. I’m hands-on.”
Today, Ms. Ritter has turned the home she shares with her husband and their dog Zazu into her gallery and workspace. Vibrant paintings of dogs and racehorses, whiskey bottles and beach scenes cover the walls. Despite her self-proclaimed messiness and the unruly nature of liquid ink, there is a controlled quality in the many-colored nebulas of her finished work.
For the in-progress painting of Russell, a family friend’s corgi, Ms. Ritter demonstrated how she creates line drawings from a photograph for accuracy and, using an ink dropper and water, allows a first layer of oranges and light browns to spread across the canvas. She then uses a gel medium to form the fur and reflective black eyes that define his face before adding playful splashes and spills of color that work like the sheen of light on a pet turning his head toward his owner. Up close, the ink appears accidentally splattered across the white of the canvas, but when seen as a whole, this tactic suggests motion rather than mess.
Ms. Ritter cites the boldness and honesty of Georgia O’Keeffe’s and Andrew Wyeth’s use of negative space as artistic inspirations, but the driving force behind her current work is the creative support she received from her grandmother as a child growing up in Manville, N.J.
“When I was 5, my grandmother gave me a stack of paper and broken crayons, and something clicked,” Ms. Ritter said. “She always had art supplies around her house, and she didn’t mind that I made a mess.”
After a decade of experimenting with the freedoms and limitations of a liquid medium, Ms. Ritter’s paintings range from delicate and defined to abstract and overflowing. Many of her works are inspired by location: Racehorses and bourbon bottles come from her 20 years in Louisville, and night skies and ocean waves come from here on Martha’s Vineyard, where Ms. Ritter summered for 30 years and made her permanent residence last June. All of her work is inspired by the fearlessness she experienced in her early days of crayon drawings, and later as a mother watching her own children create in the same way.
“We all have that in us from when we were younger, that curiosity to say, ‘Can I do this? I wonder what will happen?’ I think your real art lies in your ability to be the kid you were,” Ms. Ritter said.
Pet painting commissions are currently Kasha Ritter’s primary focus; the playfulness and warmth she captures in a pet’s eyes toward their owners might be a wink from Lola the cat. Ms. Ritter’s work is available online at kasharitter.com, as original paintings or prints on merchandise made from yoga mats.