Artist Profile Story by Jamey Bradbury
Ask painter Karen Whitworth how she broke into the Hawaiian art scene, and she’ll tell you that she followed her passion. “Passion outweighs circumstance,” she declares. She then reveals the other element to her success: “Twitter.”
Just a few years ago, balancing a job with motherhood left her little time for painting. Then Whitworth took a long-awaited trip to Hawaii, where she found her artwork transformed as she began to incorporate saturated colors and aspects of Hawaiian sunlight into her paintings.
“After that first trip,” recalls Whitworth, “I knew I had to get back there somehow. I thought, if I want to get to Hawaii again, I’m going to have to make it part of my job. Painting in Hawaii meant that I had to really pursue my art professionally, not just creatively.”
Doing so meant quitting her job and relying on her husband’s income to support her family while she slowly built her business. “I don’t know if it was the perfect storm of needing to provide financially, as well as having all this pent-up creative energy,” Whitworth says, “but it was like an explosion: I couldn’t stop painting. It was great. And it solidified that I’d made the right choice. Because I was worried. It was a huge step to go from having a steady income to potentially nothing.”
Painting full time was only half the equation, though; the other half turned out to be social media. “I needed to get into Hawaii with my art, so I sought out people on Twitter,” says Whitworth, describing a process she’s dubbed “virtual sidewalk pounding.” Through social media, she eventually befriended the person who managed the Twitter account for the East Hawaii Cultural Center. “We had small talk back and forth, and at one point she invited me to submit a proposal for a show, and said she’d make sure it went to the people who needed to see it.” Now Whitworth’s work is represented by five galleries on the island of Hawaii.
When she’s not there, feverishly trying to capture the ever-changing Hawaiian light, she’s working in Alaska, where her memories of warmer climes get her through the winter. “Alaskans have a strong connection with Hawaii – it’s like our lifeline. I self-medicate through painting. When I can’t get to Hawaii, I compensate in color and subject matter. I’ll be working on some huge tropical painting when it’s dark and it’s cold and the wind’s blowing.”
Even in paintings that feature Alaskan wildlife and landscapes, Whitworth plays with luminosity and color. She plans compositions by making notan sketches, tiny two-by-three-inch drawings shaded to reflect the balance of light and dark she wants to achieve when she paints.
At the easel, she often stains her canvas. “Staining allows the white to show through, so the painting has a luminous quality. You can see the drips of stain running down the elements in the picture. I like letting bits and pieces stay loose and abstract while the focal point is tight and rigid.” Whitworth works in oils, luxuriating in the way they allow her to build the topography of a painting. “I like to wipe the excess paint off in the shadows, so you still see the light of the panel underneath. Then there’s more texture and contrast, where the paint is thicker, at the point of interest.”
When weather allows, Whitworth takes her work outdoors to paint en plein air with a Valley-based art group called The Painted Ladies. “There’s no better challenge than trying to paint from real life,” says Whitworth. “You’re able to see subtle differences in light and shadow, and your brain has to work harder to translate three dimensions into two.”
The Painted Ladies have provided a camaraderie that Whitworth finds crucial to her own development. “We have a vested, mutual interest in seeing each other succeed. We push each other in the best way possible to progress in our field. Before the Internet and Facebook applied to our profession, it was easy to be too inwardly focused.”
Whitworth’s involvement with The Painted Ladies began when she connected with another painter who happened to live just a few doors down from her on Knik Goose Bay Road. So, how did this connection initially happen?
Whitworth grins. “We met on the Internet.”