By Catherine Bodry
Gail Niebrugge's paintings get straight to the point – literally. Using a technique called "pointillism," Niebrugge creates realistic scenes by painting thousands of small dots on a canvas. Viewed from afar, the dots blend together to create Alaskan scenes inspired by her own experiences.
Though she didn't begin using pointillism until the mid-1980s, Niebrugge claims she was born a painter. "I was always that kid who colored, always laid on the floor drawing," she says. Her earliest influence was Norman Rockwell, and she remembers her excitement at receiving each new issue of the Saturday Evening Post. "Magazines were illustrated back then, and they were my major exposure to art," she reflects. Once she was older, she turned to Vincent van Gogh and the Impressionists, explaining, "I loved their colors, and the texture they could create with a pallet knife."
Niebrugge earned a master's degree in art illustration at Syracuse University, but it wasn't until she moved to Alaska that she was able to fully explore her potential. "An instructor told me that I would never mature until I could understand the seasons," she recalls. She was raised in Southern California where the seasons rarely flux, and after she moved north, Niebrugge discovered that her instructor was correct.
"In Alaska, I have a lifetime of subject matter to paint," she muses, pointing to Alaska's "incredible colors, skies and landscapes." And, she adds, "having wild animals around all the time is pretty exciting."
Niebrugge originally moved from California to Copper Center, where she and her husband raised their two children and ran a small restaurant. Nineteen years later, she and her husband moved to Palmer, in part to be closer to galleries.
Her technique has evolved from using a brush to create detailed, realistic oil paintings, to 10 years of using a pallet knife, to finally arriving at her current stage: pointillism. She last changed her technique in 1986 when she was bedridden from an accident; her husband rigged a canvas above her and placed her pallet on her chest. Niebrugge focused on painting her now-trademark dots and claims, "once I learned I didn't want to go back!"
Niebrugge's art has been recognized both in Alaska and nationally. She's won the National Diabetes Association's Holiday Art Search five times, and she's been the recipient of several One Percent for the Arts grants. Last year she spent the summer as Wrangell-St. Elias' first artist-in-residence, and Governor Sarah Palin appointed her vice chairman of the Alaska State Council on the Arts.
Although her vocation is painting, Niegbrugge's interests are varied. She's a pilot and a gardener, and she and her husband raft – "we're just outdoor people," she says with a laugh. She constantly takes photographs outside for painting subjects, and prefers mornings and evenings for their "long, low glow."
"I let nature inspire me," she says. "Everything I do is based on light. I'm always looking for something to jump out, like fireweed. That is what I try to recreate in my paintings."