An Interview with Mary Sauer

After receiving her BFA and MFA, Mary Sauer trained at the prestigious Grand Central Academy of New York and, then, worked with the celebrated contemporary artist Jeff Koons. Her ambitious multi-figural paintings reflect a rare combination of traditional and contemporary arsenal of painterly skills.

After receiving her BFA and MFA, Mary Sauer trained at the prestigious Grand Central Academy of New York and, then, worked with the celebrated contemporary artist Jeff Koons. Her ambitious multi-figural paintings reflect a rare combination of traditional and contemporary arsenal of painterly skills.

>I grew up in Hanson, Kentucky, about 150 miles southwest of Louisville. I knew I wanted to be an artist from a young age. I grew up on the outskirts of a small, rural town and only had brothers who liked to play too rough for me, so I spent most of my free time drawing. When I was in kindergarten I got tattled on in class for drawing a picture of Minnie Mouse rather than working on the assignment. In 3rd grade I won a county wide art competition. After that, other kids at my school started paying me their lunch money to draw pictures of them. It made me feel good to see how happy my art made other people. My teachers would tell my that I had an unusually long attention span for my age, and to this day I can still go 16 hours or more on a painting if I’m in a good groove.

Mary Sauer (b. 1986) Release (2015) Oil on canvas. 90 x 60 in.

Mary Sauer (b. 1986) Release (2015) Oil on canvas. 90 x 60 in.

>When I started my art education I was in the Studio Painting program and quickly realized that there was not an emphasis on traditional skills or the figure. It was more about what you feel and how to express yourself. I was surprised to discover that the more commercial based art majors like animation and illustration considered it much more necessary to develop traditional figure drawing skills. So I transferred to illustration, which was not what I wanted to do as a career, but gave me the most exposure to narrative figure painting. In the university setting I never found the kind of training that fully gave me the skill set to allow me to do the kind of work that I’m doing now, but it did give me a solid, skill-based foundation. 

>BILL WHITAKER was such a big help and he pointed me towards the schools in New York that have helped me fine-tune a lot of things. I started studying privately with Bill at a time when I was really starting to fall in love with drawing and painting the figure. One of my professors at BYU recognized that I had potential with this kind of art, but that I needed more intensive study than was possible at the university. So one Saturday he took me to Bill’s studio and introduced us. Bill took me in like I was a member of his own family and gently nurtured my abilities. He was never harsh or overcritical, but always encouraged me even when I doubted myself. Knowing that an artist of his caliber believed in my potential was an enormous boost to my confidence. Bill was the one who first assigned me to do a Bargue copy drawing. It took me about three months to finish it. I had never worked on anything even close to this detailed. It was a paradigm shift for me. It showed me what it really meant to be sensitive in drawing. He also allowed me to just sit and watch him work. He would explain in detail what he was doing as he painted. The things he taught me about edge quality and expression through paint have been invaluable. The sacrifices made by him and others to keep the traditions of the old masters alive in the next generation of artists can not be emphasized enough.

>I had always been very inspired by the work of painters like John Singer Sargent, Anders Zorn, and Abbott Thayer, but at the Pennsylvania Museum of Fine Arts I saw the work of CECILIA BEAUX for the first time. There was a painting on display named, “A Little Girl” that really struck me. I really enjoyed her work and was concerned that I’d never heard of her before, though I had studied about her contemporaries; perhaps this was because she was a woman. The show included multiple portraits and even her painter’s palette, which made her come even more alive to me. I thought the dream of being a painter seemed to be somehow more real and attainable after seeing her work. Something inside me changed after that day.

Cecilia Beaux (American, 1855-1942) The Little Girl (1887) Oil on canvas, 36 x 29 in. Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia.

Cecilia Beaux (American, 1855-1942) The Little Girl (1887) Oil on canvas, 36 x 29 in. Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia.

>I have a BFA in Illustration from BRIGHAM YOUNG UNIVERSITY where I studied with figurative artist ROBERT T. BARRETT. During my last few years in Utah I was fortunate enough to apprentice with master painter William Whitaker at his amazing studio at the foot of the Wasatch Mountains. After college I moved to New York City and studied part time at THE ART STUDENTS LEAGUE OF NEW YORK and THE GRAND CENTRAL ACADEMY OF NEW YORK where I was able to more intensely study the figure from life. 

>During that time I also spent 3 years working in the Chelsea studio of contemporary artist JEFF KOONS. At Jeff’s studio I learned a lot more about color mixing and painting in the hyper-photorealistic style. Because of my job with Jeff Koons, I was able to be "in the know" about everything that was going on in the New York art scene a lot better than I would have had I not worked there and so I was constantly going to museums and gallery openings and I credit this with contributing almost as much to my education as actually attending classes. 

>I then moved back to Utah and earned a MASTERS OF FINE ARTS in Painting and Drawing from the UNIVERSITY OF UTAH. I continue to attend conferences and workshops as much as I can. I never want to stop learning and growing.

Mary Sauer (b. 1986) About My Father's Business (2016) Oil on canvas. 60 x 40 in.

Mary Sauer (b. 1986) About My Father's Business (2016) Oil on canvas. 60 x 40 in.

>Deepening my understanding of the basic principles of value, color and light has helped to strengthen my confidence in mark-making, enabling me to make bolder decisions regarding brushstroke. It's also helped me to "play" with my decisions in breaking or sustaining rules in my work, sometimes using theories of how I understand things to push them further than what I actually observe. I am constantly using my art to question the world and find answers to situations I find myself or others in.

Mary Sauer (b. 1986) Color study for About My Father's Business (2015) Oil on canvas.

Mary Sauer (b. 1986) Color study for About My Father's Business (2015) Oil on canvas.

>I have a bit of a paint brush fetish. I love them all—bristle, filbert, round, synthetic, sable…currently I am obsessed with the Rosemary brushes, especially the size 2 ivory egbert synthetic brush. It’s long handle and super long bristles make the paint feel like its glides across the canvas, but keeps a spring that won’t feel mushy like you would expect from a softer bristle. They are made in England by Rosemary herself. If you ever get a chance to meet her she is a sweetheart with a terrific accent. I also love Windsor and Newton Series 7 Kolinsky Sables size 1 for small details and large filbert bristle brushes from Trekell for my block-ins. I am also a big fan of the William Whitaker series from Trekell. He did a great job designing the length of the handle. I like trying brushes from all over the world: Escoda sables from Spain, DaVinci synthetics from Germany, and the French Manet’s are all excellent. I love to find really beautiful vases and ceramic pots to put them in.

Mary Sauer (b. 1986) Goals (2011) Oil on canvas. 40 x 30 in.

Mary Sauer (b. 1986) Goals (2011) Oil on canvas. 40 x 30 in.

When I painted for JEFF KOONS I finally learned what real quality paint was all about. My favorite paints are from Vasari. I also use Windsor and Newton Titanium White, Holbein Alizarin Crimson, Old Holland, and Mussoni paints. Holbein Vernet Superior Artists’ Oil Colors really pack a punch in the pigment department. One drop of Cadmium orange will last me on my palette for an entire week! Rublev Natural Pigments makes a really excellent medium called Oleogel, which I use along with pure linseed oil and Gamsol. I also like their walnut oil based Lead White No. 2 because walnut oil dries more slowly than linseed oil and gives me more time to work. It has a beautiful ropey quality. My daily palate is Titanium white, Naples yellow light, yellow ocher, lemon yellow, cadmium orange, cadmium red, alizarin Crimson, sap green, cadmium green, ultramarine blue, cobalt blue, dioxizine purple, cobalt violet light, burnt sienna, raw umber, ivory black. I've got a ton of other colors that I throw in depending on the situation, but that is my everyday pallet.

>For a major painting I usually begin with a stream of conscious exercise and contemplation and then translate that into a visual map to organize related ideas. Once a concept is narrowed down I'll research about the topic through journal articles, TED Talks, documentaries, podcasts, blogs, and anything else that I can find on the topic. I will then sketch compositional idea thumbnails and then finally do a photo shoot. I then go back to my studio and take all of the raw photo data and compile digital compositions. My final painting reference is never just one photo. In fact it might be a composite of a dozen or more. I then might do several sketches of the composition and then I like to do a small color study to help me work out the basic pallet and edge manipulations. If this is successful then I feel comfortable proceeding to a larger scale version. Sometimes I will take several days to do a detailed drawn version of the composition in graphite to develop a very specific value scale. Painting is a series of problems to be solved. I am constantly trying to decide the best way to interpret the visual information that I see in my reference or live model through my paint. The long process that takes place before I ever lay down the first brushstroke on my large canvas actually makes the painting process go much faster since I have already accurately pre-solved many issues by determining my value relationships and color pallet before I begin.

>My daily routine is very different than it was a year ago because I now have a 9 month old daughter which means that I don't have a set routine at the moment. I try to fit in as much painting as possible, while still enjoying my baby. Some days that might be 8 hours if the nanny is watching her, or sometimes not very much at all. I am also learning to be okay with this.

Mary Sauer (b. 1986) Comparison Diptych (2015) Oil on canvas. Two canvases. 30 x 40 in. each.

Mary Sauer (b. 1986) Comparison Diptych (2015) Oil on canvas. Two canvases. 30 x 40 in. each.

>My advice to young artists? Figure out what kind of art you want to make and learn everything you can about it preferably from those who are best at it. It takes a lot longer to develop skill than to think up a concept. While a great concept is important, it can lose its power when poorly executed. So focus most of your energy on increasing your technical ability in your chosen kind of art and then you will be able to communicate your message with greater force.

>Specifically for figurative artists: Even if you think that you are good at figure drawing, you can always be better, so do it as much, and as often as you can. The best artists I know are constantly honing their drawing skills to stay sharp. Drawing is where we learn to be accurate both in proportion and value. If you don’t have a good handle on these two things, then throwing color into the mix will only magnify deficiencies in those areas. I see too many artists wanting to jump right into painting with oils before they have ironed out major problems in their drawing. Take the time to learn to draw really well. You will be amazed at what it will do for all areas of your art. 

>I was fortunate enough to be asked to create a portrait of the first apostle called in the new dispensation, Lyman Johnson, to hang in the portrait hall in the Conference Center in Salt Lake City. I love that I can go visit it any time and that it is in a place where it can be shared with the large number of people who visit the building every single day and hopefully it helps to inspire them.

Mary Sauer (b. 1986) Woman at the Well (2014) Oil on canvas. 36 x 48 in.

Mary Sauer (b. 1986) Woman at the Well (2014) Oil on canvas. 36 x 48 in.

>I want to make larger pieces that include larger numbers of people. That is when making paintings gets really cost prohibitive. You need the space to make the work, the money to hire all of the models and furnish the sets, and at least the hope that somebody will purchase it so that the massive time investment wasn't in vain. An example would be a life-sized painting of Christ setting apart the Twelve Apostles. There would be at least 13 models and costumes, and a set. The size would be substantial, but it would be a very exciting piece.

>I want to be remembered as someone who made major steps in making 19th century academic painting techniques relevant again in a post modern art world.

Online: www.marysauerart.com

Instagram: @marysauerart

Email: maryrosesauer@gmail.com