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ARTIST SPOTLIGHT - SARA FERNANDEZ

"I REALLY LIKED SOMETHING I HEARD FROM ALVARO CASTAGNET WHICH WAS THAT 'PAINTING IS THE JUXTAPOSITION OF IMPERFECTIONS THAT IN ACCUMULATION, LOOKS GOOD.' THAT IS ALSO WHAT I RESPOND TO IN ART, BECAUSE I OFTEN THINK THAT IT IS THE SO-CALLED IMPERFECTIONS THAT MAKE IT INTERESTING TO LOOK AT."

I had the pleasure of interviewing Sara Fernandez. Sara is an avid lover of urban landscapes. She received her bachelors degree in architecture from California and Copenhagen, Denmark. It was in university, while studying in Copenhagen, that she took an urban sketching course and discovered a passion for sketching and painting city streets and buildings. After university, Sara worked abroad as an architect in Singapore and Israel. She continued to travel, sketch, and paint for pleasure throughout Asia, the Middle East and Europe.

This interview took place over email.

- Ronaldo Acuna

 

RONALDO

Can you describe your first efforts in painting? What was it like when you first started?

SARA

As a kid I liked to draw, but my first real painting efforts were in college, painting models in life drawing classes and then cityscapes and landscapes in watercolour around Europe. I instantly loved painting from life and couldn’t seem to get enough of it. It felt rewarding to see my skills evolve with experience, and besides developing my hand the more I drew and painted, it was of course teaching me to see, which impacted not only my design efforts, but also the way I viewed the world. It’s funny how when you start to paint and draw, you seem to notice everything because you really look.


Maple Tree Square An expressive watercolour painted on location and inspired by Maple Tree Square in Gastown, Vancouver. The painting vibrates with red undertones and an abstract composition is created by windows and tree trunk shadow shapes running across the road and red building facade.

Maple Tree Square

An expressive watercolour painted on location and inspired by Maple Tree Square in Gastown, Vancouver. The painting vibrates with red undertones and an abstract composition is created by windows and tree trunk shadow shapes running across the road and red building facade.


RONALDO

How did you choose to become a painter and illustrator? Was it a path you were certain about? 

SARA

While I always enjoyed drawing and making things as a kid, for some reason I never considered art as a career. I decided to study architecture (in California) after my high school history teacher recommended it to me because I kept making drawings of buildings on posters I did for every country we were studying. I spent 7 years getting my architecture degree (a 5-year program) because I ended up taking so many art classes in addition to all the required architecture ones. I really enjoyed studying architecture and design as well. One of the highlights of my architectural education was the year I spent in Copenhagen, Denmark. We had a class called architectural journal (nowadays known as “urban sketching”) where we walked around the city sketching streets and buildings, followed by a watercolour class the following semester. I loved both of those and got absolutely hooked on travelling around Europe sketching and painting watercolours on the city streets.

RONALDO

What attracted you to watercolour? 

SARA

The watercolour class in Denmark was my first experience painting with watercolour and I took to it immediately. I really enjoyed the way that the watercolour had a life of its own, a way of painting itself, and could be exploited by changing the ratio of water to pigment. I discovered unpredictable results by dropping colours into painted water shapes and seeing what would happen. I really had fun playing with the medium. It was also a practical way to sketch and paint on the streets of Europe in my travel watercolour sketchbook with my portable watercolour palette.

Watercolour has traditionally been a favourite amongst architects because it’s transparency lends itself well to rendering architecture. Watercolour is a wonderful medium that emits light and does well at capturing the mood, drama and atmosphere of the city. In more recent years, I’ve since discovered that watercolour pigments can also produce incredibly rich colours, in the full range of values from not just the lightest washes, but also into beautiful juicy darks, full of depth. In the right hands, watercolour is capable of creating powerful works of art that rival oil painting. It is a difficult medium to master, and I am still working on it, but I continue to find it exciting and gratifying.

RONALDO

How do you choose the landscape you want to capture? What do you look for and what is your process in creating a piece?

SARA

I basically start with a point of inspiration, which for me usually comes from a scene that grabs me. With my background in architecture, I often feel inspired by cityscapes, as well as landscapes. It may have to do with the light, the composition of shapes and elements I see before me, the colours, and often some combination of these things together.

Before I begin painting, I do have in mind a certain plan of attack. Value is very important in watercolour, as this is what gives depth to a painting. I aim for a wide range of values from light to dark, beginning with the lights and working toward the darks. I am also aware of achieving a balance of colour and so I think about this as well before beginning. While painting, I am aware of contrasts, and work them against each other, balancing lights and darks, warm and cool colours, small shapes and big shapes, watery washes against heavily pigmented brushstrokes and so on. The more intuitive this is, the freer I feel to let loose, and give the watercolour free reign to do what it does. If I can step back and not try to control the watercolour, it will seemingly paint itself and achieve some natural results that I could have never made happen if I tried. That is both the challenge and the excitement in watercolour, that it is a bit of a dance between the painter and the medium taking turns leading the way and each doing what they do best.


The Rocks, Sydney, Australia A simple watercolour composition of a building in Sydney’s oldest English settlement (“The Rocks”). The dark shadows and sculptural tree contrast with the building facade bathed in bright sunlight.

The Rocks, Sydney, Australia

A simple watercolour composition of a building in Sydney’s oldest English settlement (“The Rocks”). The dark shadows and sculptural tree contrast with the building facade bathed in bright sunlight.


RONALDO

I’m intrigued by the state of “flow” and how other artists achieve it. What goes on within you when you sketch and paint?

SARA

When I begin a painting, it is my goal to somehow capture the essence of the place that inspires me to paint it in the first place. It helps to have a sort of vision of what I am trying to capture, while at the same time not having it all planned out to allow for happy accidents. It is usually in the unplanned parts of the painting where the magic happens and the watercolour is allowed to do what it's going to do without being overly controlled by me. That is basically at the core of what I’m trying to do when I paint. I am trying to strike that balance between knowing something of what I want to express through the painting, then jumping into it, while not wanting to have complete control over it, and allowing the watercolour itself to play a vital role in the expression. The best paintings happen when I get a bit lost in the painting, enjoy the process of painting, just let it happen, and let the water and the paint do their thing. That’s kind of the goal. It’s also when this happens that the results look fresh and spontaneous.

RONALDO

Who do you look to for inspiration? Who are your favourite artists? 

SARA

Some of my favourite artists are Richard Diebenkorn, Helen Frankenthaler, Joan Mitchell and Alvaro Castagnet. When a work of art inspires me, it elicits an immediate response which is hard to put into words. Usually there’s a certain energy, a sense of spontaneity. It can be different things with different works, a fluidity and beauty in the brushstrokes, a unity of composition and colour that I respond to, a mood captured, something left to the imagination. I love a lot of abstract expressionist art, as well as paintings that have a starting point from a landscape or cityscape, but then gravitate towards abstraction. Most of my favourite Diebenkorn paintings are that way and they seem to transport me to the place I imagine he was when he painted them. I am constantly trying to learn from the artists and paintings that inspire me, but that is only a starting point as well.

RONALDO

What are some struggles you have faced (or are currently facing) as an artist?

SARA

Having a background in architecture and illustration, when I go to do a painting, I have to tune in to a different part of my brain. I need to turn off the part that wants to recreate the scene and instead use my imagination to abstract it in a way that captures the spirit of the place, and for me makes a more impactful work of art.

The struggle that I face with any painting is trying to achieve that freshness, spontaneity and looseness with the watercolour which is for me at the essence of any good painting, and with watercolour in particular. I am the one that gets in the way of this happening when a painting ends up looking rigid, overly controlled, overworked, boring, and lifeless. This is usually the problem with any bad painting. I have learned to embrace the bad paintings as learning experiences and appreciate the good ones as little gifts that almost seem to happen on their own.

RONALDO

How have you matured as an artist?

SARA

I think it is a constant process of maturing, one that never stops. I think that’s also what makes it compelling and interesting. I do think though, that the more experience I have as a painter, the more intuitive the process of painting becomes, and the less I have to concentrate on technique, balancing the composition, paint handling, etc. Becoming less cerebral and intellectual about it frees me up to be more expressive and explorative. This is an ongoing challenge of turning off the logical and critical-thinking mind to take risks, explore, and discover, without knowing where it leads.

RONALDO

What are you working on right now? 

SARA

I am trying some new things at the moment that are getting further away from representation and am trying to push myself further out of my comfort zone. The work I enjoy looking at and surrounding myself with tends to be much more abstract than what I paint myself, and I’m starting to gravitate more towards that direction in my own work. I find this approach requires that I have less control and thoughtfulness, and that I allow myself to approach it more expressively, loosely, and intuitively.

I always loved the art that my kids made when they were really young, like in preschool, kindergarten, and 1st grade, before they really knew what they were doing, or had any critical voice inside their heads telling them that it was “wrong” or "inaccurate.”  Those paintings were so free and expressive and I loved them (and many of them still hang in my house). Picasso said that it took him a lifetime to paint like a child and there really is something to that. When I’m involved in a painting, I need to resist the urge to think too much, or become self-conscious, and instead allow my pure expression to have free reign, which is something that kids naturally do.

I really love looking at paintings where I get especially drawn in by the colours, mark making, and compositional elements, which themselves create a space for a viewer to dwell. I think this type of work engages people in a different, perhaps deeper way, leaving a little more open to interpretation, and more room for expression on my part. I would like to see where approaching painting with less regard for capturing my subject matter in such a descriptive way might take me. I am still inspired to paint by places and spaces, so I don’t see myself getting away from that entirely, but I am enjoying exploring new territory in my approach and seeing where it leads.

RONALDO

What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?

SARA

Get yourself out of the way. And, it’s not about perfection. This goes for life and for painting. I really liked something I heard from Alvaro Castagnet which was that “Painting is the juxtaposition of imperfections that in accumulation, looks good.”  That is also what I respond to in art, because I often think that it is the so-called imperfections that make it interesting to look at. This is something I remind myself a lot because I think that by nature, I am a perfectionist, which is really not good, in art, as well as in life and relationship.


Harbour View, Lonsdale Quay, North Vancouver This plein air watercolour captures the essence of a classic Vancouver harbour view with cranes, buildings, ships and tugboat. The watercolour was painted on location, looking into the morning light with a yellow glow behind the silhouetted industrial shapes.

Harbour View, Lonsdale Quay, North Vancouver

This plein air watercolour captures the essence of a classic Vancouver harbour view with cranes, buildings, ships and tugboat. The watercolour was painted on location, looking into the morning light with a yellow glow behind the silhouetted industrial shapes.


RONALDO

What are three things in life you know to be true?   

SARA

Our perceptions change constantly as we grow and develop.

It is better to pursue purity (of process and motivation) than perfection (of result).

What I choose to focus on becomes important, so I want to make sure that what I focus on is what I believe deep down to be important.

RONALDO

Any parting advice to those who wish to pursue art?   

SARA

I think it’s worth pursuing if you enjoy it. For me, the best art comes out of a joy of making it and I think that’s reflective in the art.


Marine Building View of West Hastings Street in Vancouver with the iconic art deco Marine Building as its focal point, framed by the elegant MNP Tower behind it.

Marine Building

View of West Hastings Street in Vancouver with the iconic art deco Marine Building as its focal point, framed by the elegant MNP Tower behind it.


CONNECT WITH SARA

E: sara@sarafernandez.ca
W: sarafernandez.ca