Artist Heather Sommers takes on cold wax and oil painting

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The pandemic has impacted us all, and for artist Heather Sommers, it’s been a demarcation signaling a change in her work. Formerly working in clay, right before COVID hit she turned to painting. As Sommers explains, “I am on a new trajectory. I enjoy the challenge of mastering a new skill. During my years as a sculptor, I was thinking in volume, weight, and surface texture. I was very aware of objects in space. Now that I paint, I am seeing color like I never did before. I have a richer visual experience of the world around me, and a new outlet for creative expression.” Her exhibit “Portrait” is currently hanging at the West Tisbury library.

Her works are rich visual and visceral encounters, infused as they are with gesture and texture. Sommers learned the technique of cold wax and oil painting when she took a workshop just before the world shut down. For this type of painting, you mix oil paint into viscous wax and then layer it on top of a board or thick oil paint paper. Although eschewing the totality of three-dimensional sculpture, it’s not surprising that this painting technique intrigued her, as it lends the ability to create all different kinds of surfaces by scratching away, pulling, scrubbing, dragging, or adding more pigment with either a rubber rib or roller.

For a theme, Sommers turned to portraits of family members for the personal connection, although form, color, and texture are her interest rather than detailed realistic renderings, even though she uses old photographs as inspiration. Once selected, Sommers layers on swathes of the paint-infused wax mixture, and then can put additional colors on top as well as reveal the original underlying hue by swiping away parts of the newly applied paint. You can see this in her striking self-portrait, in which sheathes of color depict her body and frame the more modeled working of her facial features. In another frontal portrait, “Youth,” you detect more of the back and forth of the technique where Sommers scrapes away pigment to create the strands of the boy’s brown hair and eyebrows, revealing the bold blue underneath. Likewise, Sommers etches the floral design in the same manner for the background wallpaper.

“At Chesterfield Gorge,” the same youth is in a three-quarter view, looking off to the side rather than straight out at us. Again here, the large fields of color focus our gaze on the complexity of the boy’s hair with its varied shades of brown and lovely gold highlights seemingly reflecting the sun’s rays. Although absent any specific details, Sommers’ gestural handling of his hair conveys that he has just emerged from the water mentioned in the painting’s title. In the amusingly titled “Pandemic Princess,” the young woman in three-quarter view looks straight out at us obscured not with a veil, but a black mask, which stands out strikingly against the seductive pastel-like warm and cool colors. Again here, we can see how Sommers has worked in the adding/subtracting technique in the young woman’s tangle of hair, creating a riot of texture and gesture animating what is otherwise a serene scene. She says about her process, “It’s sort of like trying to guess the layers I might want, and going back to find them and to bring them out again.”

More recently, Sommers has begun working on oil paint paper in a sparer, looser, and freer manner, allowing the underlying white of the paper to shine through and giving the compositions an internal glow. “It’s a little less about layering,” she says. “I think I’m heading in this direction. More sketchy. I realize I like to leave big sections of white.”
Sommers adds, “I’ve always dabbled in paint, but I’ve mostly worked in clay and called myself a sculptor. But there was a point where I knew I had just explored the paint as much as I wanted. I want something more immediate so I’m not waiting for clay to dry; not needing to fire it or make a glaze. I wanted something that if I felt like working on it at midnight tonight, I could go and paint on it.”

“Portrait” is open during library hours from 10 am to 6 pm, Monday through Thursday, 10 am to 5 pm on Friday and Saturday, and noon to 4 pm on Sunday. The show can also be viewed online at wtlibraryvirtualgallery.org.