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An interview with Lisa Ober

3 November 2015

I interviewed Lisa during the middle of her night, at 3.30 am. Naturally being a late night person, and then only finding peace and quiet to work during the night when her children were small she continues to do so now. 


Your first great artistic influence was your grandmother, can you describe the essence of what you learnt from her?

She instilled in me a desire to do my best work, and to keep pursuing this, to keep moving the bar every day. She spent a lot of time painting, and modelled that for me. I took to heart the ‘practice makes perfect’ message. Like John Hersey*, I have those perfectionist tendencies.

(*John Hersey, the founder of Unison Colour, searched for absolute perfection when creating the range and quality of colours we have today. )

When you first started to do portraits, you were studying illustration and graphic design I believe?

I was, and although I enjoyed the illustration, graphic design was not for me, it didn’t inspire me, or speak to me. It was really the illustration that motivated me to draw and paint, and to tell some kind of a story. Originally that was the intention, to tell stories through illustration, but this didn’t fulfill what I was looking for, there was some hole in there. I really missed the people element.

While I was studying I needed extra money, and I love drawing people. I happened to be at college in my home town, and I already had connections and familiarity with the area, so I began doing people portraits, and animal portraits by word-of-mouth, and it kind of snowballed! I realised that the levels of both my income and the excitement about my work, going into my field of study - illustration, just didn’t compare with the possibility of directing my own career, and being able to do what I adore more of the time.  So financially, emotionally, and as an aspiration, portrait painting was what I wanted to do.

What is it that you adore about doing portrait?

For me it is the whole process from start to finish, not just the artwork. You get to meet people, take some time to get to know them, and understand what is important to them. Every day you make new connections by taking reference photos or meeting with people to do their portraits. I am not a quiet person who likes to work alone all the time, so it does fulfill that need to be around people. The connections I have made with someone which are in the background of my mind, augment my ability to create a portrait that perhaps has a little more meaning.  Whatever I learn from people, sad stories, happy stories, I am thinking about while I am painting them, and I love that. I feel like I get it all!  It's a win-win situation because I get to be around people and I get to work alone when needed.

Do you paint from life or do you use photographs?

I do fewer portraits from life than in the early days, because as people become busier they are not able to set time aside to have a portrait done from life. Also I am doing many more corporate and children’s portraits these days. So although painting from life is ideal, I do work mostly from photographs which I take myself. It is a sad necessity. I would prefer paint from life, but it rarely happens with business people being too busy or children squirming and getting impatient. To make it a happy commission for everyone, I find working from a series of photos to be the best option.

How do you distill a series of photographs into one image?

Sometimes I ask clients for input. So for instance, if I feel I didn’t get a good read on a child’s personality or expression, or haven't been able to spend enough time with them, I ask the parents what expression they feel best represents their child. They, after all, are going to live with the portrait, and so I want it to be representative of the way they see their children. Portraits are different from anything else since you are working on a commission. The way I see it, I am working for my clients, and painting what they want, not necessarily what I might want.

Does that come into conflict sometimes?

Almost weekly! I prefer a gentle, traditional expression. But many of my clients are younger than I am and are used to photographs with big smiles. I always recommend the traditional gentle smile with no teeth showing, but I don’t always win! But that is ok, because I am working for them and I want them to be happy with the result.

If someone is happy with the result, even though it might not be how you would have chosen to do it, does that fulfill the feeling of having done your best, that we were speaking of earlier?

Yes! I see my job as providing a service and pleasing the client. It is not about me, it isn’t even about my artwork. It’s about how the end product makes them feel. When they hang it in their home or office, what memory does that portrait create for them as their children grow, or as a CEO retires who has a legacy to leave? It is all about them, not about me.

If someone really likes a portrait, what kind of things do they say to you?

Those kinds of compliments are wonderful, when someone says to me that I have really captured this person, or that they see their personality in the painting, or that they will cherish the work forever. But one of my favourite things to hear is ‘Do you know, the portrait you painted of my son would be the first thing I would grab, after my family, in a fire!’

That must have quite an impact on you?

It does but again it is not about me, it’s because the portrait embodies somebody they love.

When a portrait is going well, as opposed to when it’s a struggle, what makes the difference?

I think it has to do with the connection I seek to establish when I meet a client.  I may not find out enough to be as invested in someone as I wish.  It might be the reference photos, how the light was, or what the client is wearing. Or just the challenges of everyday life. Some days I might not feel one hundred percent like being there, but I need to be because this is my business, my livelihood. When it all comes together it’s because I have great reference photos, a good sitting, am well rested, and have a great connection with whom I am painting-or a connection with the one who has commissioned the piece, such as the parents in the case of a child. I feel really good about providing clients with something that they are going to appreciate. Also having the right tools, I am not kidding! That means everything.

What are the right tools for you?

Most of my work is done is pastel, about half the time doing portrait and half the time doing still life painting. With a good pastel, it is possible to get incredible luminosity. I haven’t arrived yet, and it might take me another fifty years! But that potential is there. I don’t see this in any other medium. I love the immediacy of pastel, it is instantly rewarding. It is forgiving, especially on the newer surfaces that are now available. You can make corrections easily and achieve the results you are looking to achieve. Portraits need to be so nuanced to get a likeness, that it is important that you are able to make corrections. Even a tiny mark can make all the difference in the world. I’d rather paint in pastel than anything and what is available now in pastel compared to when I was younger is incredible!

Tell us the difference for you between portrait and still life, as you do both.

Well, the approach is completely different. When I do portraits I am working for the client, so if the client wants a black tie, I might make a different suggestion. If that is want they want then that is what I will do. I am following their artistic direction. With still life, it is my artistic direction! What am I trying to convey? What do I find interesting? What will I choose to paint? It is so freeing! I spend most of my time with portrait painting in beige, and cream, peach and brown, tan and all those skin tones. So still life is an opportunity to add some colour to my life, some excitement to my palette, so those are the kinds of still life paintings I look for!

You describe wearing many hats, in terms of all the things you do, and you part own a gallery. What is that part of your work like?

That fulfills the social side of me and also affords me the opportunity to meet potential clients, and sell my still life paintings. I love artists as well and enjoy working with them. I have lots of different interests and the gallery fills one of those big chunks!

Is your life then, just how you want it?

I am always looking for the next thing, a next project. I have my work life, in terms of producing art, just where I want it. I understand what I need to do to get better. I love doing it, and I will never stop. The gallery has given me tremendous opportunity to meet people, to network, and to talk about art including about what is going on in the art world, what is going wrong in the art world and how we might fix it. I would like to address some of the issues that have come up in my community. So the next big step for me is going to be some not-for-profit project.

What are the issues you would like to address?

In the U.S.A there has been a trend away from traditional art, representational art, and a classic art training, but I think there is a need for it and a desire. People are hungry to find teachers of traditional art, such as learning to draw first, learning colour theory, practising figure drawing. I find that people crave that, miss that, and they don’t get it at universities here probably as much as they would like. I am not critical of different kinds of art or different approaches, but here in our country we have erred on the side of concept versus skill and I feel we have lost the balance. I would like to see that change. So my dream is to create an art school, a destination place, a large building which could host numerous workshops from artists from all over the world, artists who do take a more traditional approach and could give students a great foundation for pursuing their own art. More than a community art centre, but a community art centre as well. I would like to put a building like that on the map. For people who want to be true artists, serious, committed artists, and for crafts people, so I will definitely include sculpture as well. I have a whole team of wonderful people whom I have met over the last few years and we are endeavouring to put that together. So far so good.

I think you get to the point in a career when you think ‘What does all this mean? What is the point of being an artist, apart from making paintings?’  When you are younger, you are building a career, you are raising a family, you are thinking about how to put food on the table. And then something happens and you realise, ‘Wow, my life has been ordered in such a way that these opportunities have come along, made me what I am, and given me a passion for something that is even bigger.’ That’s the whole point. You want to leave something positive. Part of what I have noticed in my community is how discouraged artists are because they don’t know where to go to learn a particular skill that would catapult their career. Often, they don’t know how to run an art business, which is another side to art education that is lacking. That makes me sad, because there are so many amazing artists who have spectacular things to say, and they struggle to develop the skills they need to do it.  That is why the art school I mentioned is important.

What are your top three tips for being a good portrait artist?

1. Spend your day in observation and when you talk to people, look at people, look them in the eyes. Listen, but notice, ‘What is that shadow across their nose doing, in terms of the shape, value, and colour? If I was painting that shadow right now, what would I be doing?’

2 Do figure drawing, not necessarily nude, but practising and practising this.

3. Constantly paint, or draw. Draw in all your free moments, draw in a sketch book. Set time aside if you are serious about having a career in it. There is way more time involved in it than I thought when I was young. To be decent at it requires a lot of practice. You learn what the pencil does in your hand. You learn how much pressure to apply with the pastel. You learn what colour choices mean. It is all experience, both visual and hand-eye coordination, and learning how those work together.

To find out more about Lisa, she has a website, is on Facebook, and runs the OA gallery in St Louis.
To contact her email
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