Welcome to our fifth Artist Spotlight featuring Virginia artist Kirsten Cooner! Every other month, we interview a fellow creative to showcase their work and ideas, and peek into their very own Lake Michigan Book Press sketchbook.
What is your background in art?
I won’t bore you with stories about how I began working with art at a young age, because in many ways I didn’t. My childhood was spent tinkering with my dad’s woodworking scraps and mother’s craft closet. The concept of working as an artist was never presented as an option for me, and when I started art school I pursued a degree in graphic design. Prerequisites for my design degree included traditional studio classes, which devastated me since I was convinced that I “couldn’t draw.” I believe the biggest misconception we feed young people is that art requires natural born talent. In actuality an accomplished artist has simply spent many hours at work. I learned this quickly as I labored over projects and my instructor’s brutal critiques started to stretch my skills and perceptions. Over time I realized that my passion was in studio work and I decided to make a change. I switched my major and graduated with a degree in studio art with a focus on mixed media and a minor in art history. Since art school I’ve held various creative jobs ranging from design work and instructing community art classes to now running Hushwing Watercolors.
Your website showcases a range of talent in different media from sculpture to photography to painting. Which do you prefer and for what reasons?
If I’m honest I prefer them all which could be considered my achilles heel or redeeming quality when it comes to my artwork. I’m always trying new things and experimenting with how they might fit together to create a particular narrative. I’m not so worried about perfectionism in any one medium as much as I am about how that medium communicates with the viewer. Now that I am working on Hushwing Watercolors my love of all mediums has paid off, since I use so many different skills on a daily basis. One day I’m painting and testing out new watercolors for our line, and the next I’m product styling, taking photos, editing, designing, etc. As entrepreneurs we wear many hats (or outsource, but I’m stubborn!) and having a diverse skill set can come in handy.
Do you have a piece that no matter the price you couldn’t part with? If so, which one and why?
Yes! I think as artists we all have this piece, don’t we? Mine is a mixed media piece, “Confined,” which features a combination of painting, photo transfers, and sculpture. Not only is the inspiration for this work very close to me, but it served as an important affirmation in my journey as an artist. It’s been featured in several group shows and received an award, which gave me a push to move forward with my creative career. For me it serves as a symbol of gaining more confidence creatively.
How/when were you first introduced to paint-making? At what point did you know you wanted to create watercolors professionally?
I was first intrigued by the idea of paint making when I discovered the work of Amanda Brazier, who creates her own oil paints. I knew that “when I had the time” I would like to try my hand at making some sort of paint. Watercolor is a beautiful medium with a truly interesting history and relationship with artists. I also have more experience with it as a medium so it seemed like the logical choice for me. The idea marinated in my mind for a while before I actually bought the supplies and tried my hand at paint making. Amazingly enough, my first batch of watercolor paint turned out great and I was hooked (I credit beginners luck). After that first batch there was a lot to learn but my knowledge grew over time as I researched and experimented. In the future I definitely hope to branch out and make other paint mediums as well!
I’ve always had an entrepreneurial streak so creating handmade watercolors professionally felt like a natural stepping stone for me. Running my own businesses allows me to spend my time doing what I really enjoy - creating. Whether that be making paint, taking photos, chatting with customers, or stealing some time to make art myself; I enjoy the process.
Does your background in art history inform your choice in paint materials as well as the colors you mix?
Yes, without a doubt. My love of art history runs deep and plays a major role in my process as a paint maker. Prior to modern paint manufacturers all artists made their own paints and over time we’ve lost this immediate connection to our materials. I long to reignite that spark between artists and their medium of choice. As I formulate new colors I spend time researching historical paint recipes so that I can learn from them; both in what to do and what to avoid. I can’t even begin to count how many hours I’ve spent trying to read the illegible handwriting in artists journals from years past! There is much to learn from those who have came before us. J.M.W. Turner famously used pigments with questionable longevity against the advice of his peers and now many of his paintings have faded with time. I admire his innovative spirit but can also learn from his mistakes - you won’t be finding any carmine pigments in our line!
Do you ever find yourself torn between spending ‘enough' time creating art versus paints? How do you find balance between the two?
Yes, this is truly my biggest struggle and a problem I am working to resolve. Thankfully Hushwing Watercolors have been flying off the shelves, which keeps me busy - I love it! But sometimes my own artistic work can take a back seat, and running a business can be creatively draining as well. I have a lot of ideas I’d like to bring to fruition. I’m also a total night owl and it’s difficult for me to think creatively during the day so I’ve been entertaining the idea of taking some time late at night to work on my personal art. History shows that many masters worked almost exclusively after midnight so I think I’m in good company!
What hopes do you have for Hushwing Watercolors in the long term?
I truly hope that Hushwing will continue to grow, change, and adapt. In the four months since I opened shop there has been a tremendous response and it’s encouraging to know that people are picking up what I’m putting down. We’ve had features on both Etsy and Etsy Studio, along with fruitful artist partnerships and wholesale opportunities. It’s wonderful to be connecting with the creative community and empowering artists to form a more thorough understand of their materials. I’m also hoping to branch out and offer more products and perhaps workshops and classes in the future (if there’s something you’d love to see, drop me a line!).
You own one of our watercolor sketchbooks! What have you found it most useful for?
Everything! My sketchbook is where I brain dump and just try it all. I’m definitely not one of those people who is worried about filling every page with something meaningful; I have detailed illustrations next to my to-do list. I think it’s important to have a judgement-free zone to experiment and also just play. I sketch ideas for illustrations, draft design concepts, try mini practice paintings, doodle, etc. Most importantly I also test a lot of paint formulas in my journal to see how they handle on the page. Every watercolor I make goes through several tests and formulas, so my Lake Michigan Book Press sketchbook is the perfect place to try them out. I’m a also a big fan of color charts so you’ll find a lot of those in my sketchbook pages!
Kirsten Cooner is the paint-maker and artist behind Hushwing Watercolors. Kirsten lives and works in Alexandria, Virginia where she is inspired by the surrounding history and culture. In addition to running Hushwing, she is an avid traveler, outdoor enthusiast, and practicing artist. A graduate of George Fox University with a Bachelor of Art in Studio Art and Art History, Kirsten’s work can be found in both private and public collections. Follow her on IG @hushwingwatercolors, Facebook or visit her online shop on Etsy.