Accentuating the Light

BY Kathryn Manis

Joanne Geisel has always enjoyed making art but wasn’t always sure she would be a painter. “First I went to Pratt Institute as a fashion major and quickly decided that was not for me.” Geisel later attended New York State University and earned a degree in art education. The program’s curriculum required plenty of studio courses and helped her hone an innate talent.

Now based in Leland Geisel teaches aspiring painters alongside her own fulltime art practice.

Geisel says her students often inspire motivate and surprise her whether they are brand new to art or are seasoned pros looking to master a new technique.

“I find that I am so happy to introduce people to painting or to help them improve ” Geisel says. “I think it’s part of what we are as humans; I think we all need to create or be creative in some way. If I can teach people painting or open that up for them I feel like I’ve succeeded. Even if they don’t paint again after the course I’m hoping that they will appreciate art in a different way than they did when they started.”

Mastery of Light

An essential component of Geisel’s painting practice is her mastery of light. Capturing subtle nuances in light requires a sophisticated understanding of value and its role in the overall design of a painting. Value refers to the lightness or darkness of a color or hue and is a more complex way of understanding it than through shade or complements alone. Geisel says that this is another area where her teaching career has contributed to her studio practice.

“Teaching makes you focus on the structure of your paintings ” she explains. “What I try to teach my students is how to look at their values and how to come up with strong armature based on those. And to think about all the structures of the composition before they continue. Most artists want to focus on the color and jump in and deal with the design later. But teaching has forced me to think about that part first.”

Geisel’s focus on value in design is particularly evident in her still life paintings which often depict ceramics with pieces of fruit or vibrant floral arrangements. Paintings like “Sweet and Sour” and “Rosy Reflections” feature dark backgrounds with multiple values of black white and gray that are contrasted by the equally complex colors that make up the ceramic pieces and other accoutrements.

She describes her understanding of light and its importance as spiritual and deeply personal as well as technical. She recently proposed a multifaceted exhibition of her own work titled “Accentuating the Light ” which would include representational pieces as well as some of her newer abstract paintings. In an eloquent description of the show and its purpose Geisel writes “As a painter being conscious of the light on a landscape a life model or flower arrangement is often integral to the painting’s success.Similarly finding the inner purpose or light in a nonrepresentational piece of work can bring an abstract painting to a new level.While I am painting and when I am teaching I always ask ‘Where is the light?From which direction does the light come.’ Knowing this answer brings life shape and substance to the subject and everything else seems to fall into the place.”

Largely impressionistic Geisel’s landscapes are painted both en plein air and in her studio. Her paintings often feature spacious local landscapes and carefully crafted still lifes. She strongly believes the two ways of painting — inside with photographs and outdoors in the spontaneous moment — inform each other.

“When you’re outdoors you get the feeling of what is going on around you and it is generally easier to get those feelings onto the canvas. But you have about two hours before the light is going to change so you don’t have much time to think. You have to have some kind of structure in place and you can plan for and develop that in the studio.”

Pieces like “Afternoon Anticipation” and “Forgotten Treasure” showcase Geisel’s facility with handling of color and light as well as the beauty of local scenery.

“Afternoon Anticipation” is an oil composition depicting a cloud-filled blue sky above marshland placed in the bottom quarter of the canvas. A small stream runs through the center of the tall grass and a bright light reflects off the water’s surface. The slow-moving water appears bright white where light is sharpest and dark murky blue-green in the shadows of the tall grass. The remainder of the composition relies on a dreamy bright blue sky which fades to a darker shade as the viewer’s eye moves from the center to the top edge of the canvas. The painting’s showstopper is an enormous and impossibly fluffy cloud rendered in an impressionistic combination of bright white tans subtle grays and pale pinks. The brushstrokes are loose and the effect is a vibrant skyline that seems to shine and move slowly in an imagined breeze before the viewer’s eyes.

“Forgotten Treasure” features a wholly different kind of landscape in which a dilapidated Southern-style farmhouse is depicted amid pine trees and unkempt grass. The painting’s titular building is rendered in a stark white despite its obvious age and derelict condition. The roof is a fading red tin and the chimney red brick. Geisel uses light-blue paint and shades of pale pink and tan to provide contrast and to highlight the surprisingly clear white quality of the abandoned building’s exterior. Around the center structure Geisel has painted the foliage at once crisp and whimsical; both realistic and impressionistic using a palette knife to apply her choice of thick oil paints. Trees flanking the old house are represented with fine lines and detail while a sidewalk running along the left side of the composition maintaining a definitive edge. At the same time Geisel has laid several strokes of blue-green paint into the foreground accentuating the grass which has grown wild. The composition’s treetops and background greenery are similarly depicted in thick dramatic lines and larger swaths of paint laid on with the palette knife’s edge.

Many of Geisel’s other outdoor paintings represent beachside vistas and coastal homes. She and her husband moved to North Carolina about 13 years ago and Wrightsville Beach has become an important place featured prominently in her oeuvre.

“I love painting at Wrightsville Beach ” she says. “My friends and I go there often to paint the cottages or the beaches. It’s a beautiful beach. And I know that a lot of people feel a connection to it for all different reasons.”

Larger Canvas for Bigger Questions

Geisel’s abstract paintings like “Cobra Totem” and “Choices of the Cosmos” encourage the viewer to pause to think about what is being captured and why reflecting on similar questions in their own lives. Often on larger canvases and utilizing brighter flatter colors and tones than those that make up her representational work these paintings have an immersive quality which invites contemplation and curiosity.

She is also tackling larger questions of emotion and human connection in her illustrations for a children’s book.

“It’s about how we make mistakes and forgive ourselves. It’s about handling big emotions like sadness anger compassion and love; it’s about how life is about doing things over and over again and trying to learn lessons from that repetition ” she says.

Her motivation to paint sums up an understanding that “art is something that connects us to something special and spiritual within us. And when I feel that or others do I think that’s a success.”