In a typical year, plein air painter Allison Chambers would be working in her studio, taking trips abroad to paint, teaching classes and participating in shows. This is a busy life that she loves. However, with classes, trips and art openings postponed or canceled, Chambers found a silver lining in the unexpected windfall of time: an opportunity to refocus and reeducate herself on her medium. As she often tells her students, putting in “miles on the canvas” is the best way to grow and evolve. Over the last year, the artist has put in plenty of miles, and the result is evident in her new works.
Chambers began her career as a mural and faux-finish painter but transitioned to oils about 14 years ago. In addition to taking classes, she interned with Andy Braitman, who eventually introduced her to teaching. “He insisted it would make me a better painter,” she says. “I found I enjoy it. It’s a way for me to give back after so many artists have been so generous with their time with me.”
One of the most challenging aspects of being an artist is the counterintuitive fact that some of the best work happens when you aren’t forcing it. While it’s essential to master techniques, staying open to intuition and experimentation is how an artist creates work that is entirely their own.
Chambers knows this is a vital element and has an impressive ability to embrace it. Even though she’s been painting for 14 years, one of her main goals is to continue to loosen up. “When I was a muralist, I would paint tightly, but I was painting things that required details. Now I’m always asking myself what I can do to make myself loosen up. That’s been my number one journey,” she says. Her brushstrokes have become more fluid and intuitive through the years, and her color has calmed and softened. It’s not unusual for Chambers to journal onto a blank canvas before starting a painting.
“The most exciting thing for me is to constantly be learning,” she says. “I can’t imagine not coming in my studio and being overwhelmed with ideas.”
Chambers also believes the most important thing an artist can do is spend time alone in the studio. “This last year, I couldn’t be distracted by all the other things I wanted to do, and it allowed me to be at home,” she says. “It was a gift to be able to focus on what I love to do. It allowed me to get into a mode where I repeated motifs or color palettes and experimented with other ideas. I’m just at the beginning of that.” Recently, she’s been experimenting with oil paints on heavy-pound watercolor paper.
The artist says she’s been pushing herself to experiment with new ways to paint a motif she’s done before. For example, she has hundreds of photos of beautiful buildings in Charleston and Provence. Lately, she’s been painting just the entrances, windows and doors in bold, loose, impressionistic strokes. There is an element of time travel with impressionism. Done well, it captures a moment and the spirit of a place that transcends time. By not overengineering the work, the viewer is welcome to see whatever they see and feel whatever they feel.
As part of her process, Chambers explores ways to lose and find elements in a painting. She may paint a flower in such a way that it might give you the impression of a flower, and it might not. For the artist, the delight lies in hearing what other people see when they view the work. “I don’t think I’ll ever stop feeling humbled when someone responds to something I’ve opened my soul to create,” she says.
With light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, Chambers has a trip to France planned for September and is looking forward to art walks. “I miss interacting with other artists and clients, and I am looking forward to teaching again,” she says. But for now, there’s at least a little more downtime to savor. *
Robin Howard is a full-time freelance writer in Charleston. See more of her work at robinhowardwrites.com.