Illustrator draws on experience

Mary Carlton parlayed her design skills into fine art. Mary Carlton brings decades of commercial design to more recent ventures in fine art – and the experience shows. In just 10 years of painting, Carlton, who shows work in a group exhibit in Winslow through June, has evolved a complex and personal iconography by melding realistic figurative painting with elements of abstraction.

  • Wednesday, June 1, 2005 9:00am
  • News
Mary Carlton in her Suquamish home.

Mary Carlton in her Suquamish home.

Mary Carlton parlayed her design skills into fine art.

Mary Carlton brings decades of commercial design to more recent ventures in fine art – and the experience shows.

In just 10 years of painting, Carlton, who shows work in a group exhibit in Winslow through June, has evolved a complex and personal iconography by melding realistic figurative painting with elements of abstraction.

“I think design is where I excel,” Carlton said. “It’s my best point, rather than the painting itself.”

She may be unduly modest. In 2001, with just a few years of watercolor painting under her belt, the

Suquamish artist took first place for a painting she entered in the national American Watercolor Society competition.

Carlton has since moved to combinations of watercolor with acrylic paint. She alternates between opaque and luminous passages that often traverse the canvas diagonally. The direction is dynamic, while the variation in paint transparency lends depth to a picture plane that also contains contiguous female figures.

Carlton resolutely denies that the paintings are oriented to content.

“I use the female figure as a vehicle for exploring shapes, color and design,” she said.

But it may be arguable that canvases featuring combinations of figures – particularly figures whose boundaries are blurred by the “interlocking” puzzle-like shapes Carlton has devised to break up the space – inevitably imply relationship and therefore story.

And, despite an artist’s natural desire to convey what is intended, viewers do have the last word when it comes to interpreting works.

Whether viewers focus on content or composition, there is likely to be accord about the canvas’ overall appeal.

Besides the skillfully drawn figures and color fields built from unified palettes of complementary colors, Carlton’s paintings are interesting because they exist at a particular juncture of abstraction and figuration the artist has staked out as her turf.

“I take a straight-on figure and I just sort of fracture them,” she said. “I redesign them.”

Cover the faces and the paintings appear solidly Abstract Expressionist. Reveal the idealized visages and one has a canvas in which faces are painted far more realistically than the rest of the image.

The stylistic gap could easily, in less-skilled hands, have been jarringly disjunctive, but Carlton has honed her design skills for decades. It’s that knowledge – now almost instinctual – that allows her to pull off a quiet tour de force.

“I always go for the opposites,” she said, “but I try to make every element part of every other element.”

Now 73, Carlton was career-oriented in the 1950s, a decade during which women were expected to forgo work for child-rearing. She didn’t want children; she wanted to be an illustrator.

After graduating from Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles in 1955 with a degree in fashion illustration, she was hired by department stores that used her illustrations to advertise women’s fashion.

By 1969, having moved to the Northwest, she was drawing for such stores as Nordstrom and The Bon.

Illustrators worked from live models hired by the stores, but in the mid-1970s, as photography began to supplant illustration, Carlton would instead take a timed shot of herself posing in the clothes.

“The face didn’t matter,” she said. “I just needed to see where the folds were.”

By the 1980s, fashion artists were reduced to jobs like Carlton’s stint drawing “puny little illustrations” for McCall’s pattern books. A decade later, she joined a group of watercolorists who met weekly on the island, sponsored by the Bainbridge Island Park and Recreation District. She applied her design skills to fine art, in workshops with such well-known Northwest painters as Frank Webb, Carla O’Connor and Alex Powers.

In 2001, Carlton received notice that not only had her painting of two semi-abstracted female figures been accepted into the prestigious National Watercolor Society’s annual juried show, but a work titled “Friends” had won the gold medal.

“I had just sent a slide in and lucked out,” she said. “Oh, of course it was very thrilling.”

* * * * *

Go figure

“The Figure in Art,” an exhibit by eight gallery artists on view June 3-25 at Roby King Gallery presents variations on the human figure. Local artists Diane Ainsworth, Mary Carlton, Judith Barnett, Louise Lamontagne, Mary Powell, Jane Wallis, Hidde Van Duym and Tatiana Zaits show works ranging from portraiture to Expressionist interpretations in media that run the gamut from bronze to fabric. There is a reception 6-8 p.m. June 3 at the gallery. Call 842-2063, or see www.robykinggalleries.com.

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