Art Treatise: Paintings That Pop

BY Simon Gonzalez

The colorful floral art of Nancy Noel May

After 12 years Baltimore had become too monochromatic.

“I could not take another winter of that ice and snow and those big mountains of slush in the parking lots ” Nancy Noel May says. “Everything was gray. I can’t even stand to watch movies that are gray and dreary with no color. My husband and I said ‘Why are we staying here? We don’t like it here.'”

The couple put their house on the market and moved to Wilmington in August 1984.

“It was a big decision for us but it was the easiest one we’ve ever made ” she says.

May was immediately at home in the coastal city finding the conditions ideal for painting.

“I grew up on the Chesapeake Bay ” she says. “I grew up on the water. The quality of light you get near the water is so different than the light in an inland city. It’s just clearer; colors shine and sparkle more.”

Color is a recurring theme in a conversation with the Wilmington artist.

“I have always loved color saturated color ” May says.

Her work particularly her still life collection is proof. Her paintings are bright vibrant and indeed saturated with color. “Green & Yellow with Carrots ” for example features vivid yellows and oranges with hints of red and blue.

The subtle — or even not so subtle — red and blue is present in virtually every painting. It’s part of the technique for May recently retired after 15 years as manager of the Spectrum Gallery.

“I paint all my canvases with cadmium red light ” she says. “It’s kind of a reddish-orange color. That’s the under painting. No matter what direction I’m going to go I always start with that. I start to do my painting on top but I leave little peeks and voids where you see that cadmium red peeking out. Then I use a paint called phthalo blue. It’s a really dark rich blue. I basically draw the whole painting with phthalo blue. Then I start to fill in the colors and add colors on top. Sometimes that blue gets totally obliterated other times you’ll see that outline.”

Her other colors are dependent on the subject but their placement on the canvas is intentionally chosen to make them more vivid.

“Opposite colors on the color wheel when they are next to each other make each color more vibrant ” she says. “When you have blue and orange which are opposites or red and green which are opposites it makes them pop.”

Before putting paint to canvas to create a still life May goes through extensive prep.

“I start to gather supplies ” she says. “It might be a couple of different tablecloths some different vases. Then I’ll go buy some flowers or if I’m lucky enough find some flowers to pick. Usually I include some other objects whether a pottery bowl or a couple of pieces of fruit to put something else with the flowers. Then you just start playing and building. It’s like a florist doing a floral arrangement. I don’t always know what the finished idea is going to be but it’s not like you throw some flowers in the air and start to paint. You want to find a pleasing arrangement.”

The arrangement won’t be reproduced on canvas exactly as it appears in the studio of her home in Bentley Gardens.

“My style is impressionistic ” she says. “You know what I’m painting but it’s not photo-realism. I want you to feel something when you look at it. Preferably I want you to feel good. I don’t do paintings that I think are ugly or disturbing. I don’t like to go to those movies I don’t like to read those books and I don’t want to do those paintings. I want to uplift and celebrate.”

Her paintings move more than just the spirit. She also aims to move the eyes of the viewer.

“I don’t like static symmetrical things ” she says. “I like to do a more flowing asymmetrical feel. Often you want to have kind of an S curve going through a piece to pull your eye throughout the painting not just one thing popping in the middle of the canvas. That to me is always a successful painting when your eye naturally moves around the painting.”

When May is almost finished with a piece sometimes it won’t look quite right. So she’ll employ a couple of tricks to figure out what is wrong and how to improve it.

“If you take a hand mirror and look at the painting over your shoulder you will see flaws that you never saw before or things that bother you ” she says. “Like ‘Oh my gosh that’s so out of perspective.’ Or that line is way off. But you can’t tell when you look at it straight on. Another thing to do is use a piece of red glass or red acrylic. When you look at a painting through the red it takes everything down to tones. So you see if you have light tones mid tones dark tones. If everything is the same tone even if it is colorful it is a boring painting. So when you knock some things back and pull some things forward then all of a sudden it’s like ‘Wow that’s a painting that pops.'”

Most of her painting is done with acrylics. She made the switch after using oils for many years finding they better suited her style.

“I like to paint quickly and acrylics dry faster ” May says. “If you’re painting in oil and you want to layer your color then you have to wait until something dries underneath before you can go on to another color.”

May’s still life florals are the perfect paintings for an early spring day echoing the new life of the new season. But she is equally adept with other subjects.

“I paint all kinds of things ” she says. “I do travel paintings of architecture and landscapes. I do beach painting. I like to paint crabs. I like still life. It depends on how I feel that morning. A style that I have really enjoyed is what I call interiors with a view. I make up a room where I think ‘Gee I’d like to hang out here and have a cup of coffee or a glass of wine.’ I always have a nice big window with a view of something that I would really like to sit there and enjoy.”

Often May finds inspiration in what she sees whether here at home or on her travels to Europe. She is always prepared to capture what is before her eyes.

“I’m always taking pictures ” she says. “When I travel especially I always take a little sketch book and pens. On a couple of trips to Italy I took a small watercolor set.”

Other times her art is birthed in her imagination.

“Sometimes I dream about a painting at night and I wake up in the morning and that painting is just right there ” she says. “I’ll go up in the studio and it just pours right out. It could be an hour and a half. Your painting is finished and it’s like you saw every detail.”

No matter the subject or the inspiration the one constant is bright vibrant color created to elicit happy feelings.

“I have people all the time who purchase my paintings who say it just makes me smile it makes me feel good when I look at your work ” May says. “That is just a wonderful compliment. That’s when I am successful.”