Contemporary Realism - Karen Offutt, "Taking It All In," 10 x 10 inches, Oil on canvas
Karen Offutt, "Taking It All In," 10 x 10 inches, Oil on canvas

Contemporary realism art inspiration > Karen Offutt shares why – and how – her artistic style has evolved over the years, including what it was like to take time off from painting.

To Be Continued


In art there is an expectation of consistency. Whether it’s about having the same theme, a consistent approach to technique—even the same content—I think the outside world’s expectation is that your work won’t change. They can recognize your work from ten years past to the present.

While I do not disagree with this idea, I do appreciate seeing the evolution of an artist’s growth and watching them forge ahead into new creative frontiers.

Realism art - Karen Offutt, "The Observer," 10 x 10 inches, Oil on board
Karen Offutt, “The Observer,” 10 x 10 inches, Oil on board

It’s taken me some time to give myself license to explore a new direction. I’m not saying that I want to abandon completely the way I painted years ago. I just want to tap into something that allows me to have more of a personal connection with the subject matter as well as to develop my technical skills.

I once took some time off painting to raise my two boys. Finding time to be a mother and to paint was becoming too difficult—the energy and time involved was simply too much. So I had to make the decision not to put the added pressure on myself. I am very lucky to have a supportive—and employed—husband, which financially enabled me to do that. But it was very difficult for me not to create. For self-preservation I had to force myself to compartmentalize my life and put painting on the back burner.

During that time, however, I was able to really reflect on what my work meant to me, how I saw it back then, where I wanted to go with it, and to ask myself what I wanted to achieve. It was important to me to work on my technical skills; that is, to refine my attempts at realism so as to give the impression that the subject matter is emerging from the canvas.

Karen Offutt, "Lunch," 6 x 6 inches, Oil on board
Karen Offutt, “Lunch,” 6 x 6 inches, Oil on board

It’s hard to put into words exactly what’s happening at each step of a drawing or painting. It really depends on what I’m drawn to at that particular moment. Some people are great at it, but when I’m engrossed in a painting, I go into my wordless little world. Maybe someday it’ll be easier for me. The process is a combination of deconstructing and reconstructing, reevaluating shapes and the drawing; the play of value and color, and what visual detail is pertinent and what can be implied.

In a figurative piece, for example, I will look for a few things that stand out to me. It may be the way the light hits the face, shoulder or hand, etc., or it may be the surrounding shapes. I will also assess which part of the composition needs to be “spelled out” and which part does not. When we are looking at something directly, like the focal point of an object or a person, the surrounding area (or periphery) loses detail. And the farther out from the periphery, that surrounding area is even more out of focus.

Before my formal education in art, I was very detailed in my drawing and painting. Then I learned that for every five brush strokes, I should do three, and so on. That more efficient approach enabled me to see past the detail and to get the impression of realism—to have an understanding of creating something with more of a three-dimensional effect, using less information.

You can draw and paint everything you see in fine detail, but there is a chance of losing depth in the work. The eye is too busy trying to sort out all the detailed information rather than evoking an immediate feeling of the moment. So now I’m exploring avenues where the detail can contribute to the work. For me, it’s all about making new discoveries, having the freedom to try new things and the confidence to make it happen.

There is a constant evolution in any artist’s creative journey. I have a lot to learn and explore. Ask me in another ten years and I might have a different path.

It’s always changing . . .

Karen Offutt, "On the Streets," 6 x 8 inches, Oil on board
Karen Offutt, “On the Streets,” 6 x 8 inches, Oil on board

The above article was written several years ago, and yet is still current and relevant. Learn more about Karen at:

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