Artist Q & A: Sheila Kernan

In anticipation of Calgary-based artist Sheila Kernan's exciting upcoming exhibition Inbetween, we talked with the artist about the allure of the west coast, Gestalt theory, and her detailed process for achieving the extraordinary signature look of her paintings. Inbetween by Sheila Kernan opens on August 5 and runs through August 17, 2023.

Sheila Kernan, I Can't Get Enough. Mixed Media on Canvas, 36 x 48 inches.

1. You are based in Calgary, Alberta. What is it that continually draws you to explore the coastal area?


I am inspired by many different subjects, themes and materials, and find joy in experiencing and exploring the world around me. Living in Canada, this can take me to a wide variety of landscapes including mountains, prairies and coastal areas. The biodiversity within the coastal areas is completely mesmerizing - I find it incredible how in just a few kilometres things can change so drastically from one area to the next. For instance, amongst the many colours, shapes and textures of the rock formations, one might be completely smooth and another rough with eroded circles. The types of aquatic life that form in the tide pools create beautiful patterns and textures. One can spend hours exploring, documenting and reflecting upon their beauty. 


 Sheila Kernan, Feel the Rush. Mixed Media on Canvas, 54 x 54 inches.

2. You are known for your inclusion of multiple paint application techniques to create the unique effect in your paintings. Can you tell us how this approach began and how it developed?


I am a super-curious artist who loves to explore and master different ideas, mediums and techniques. I have been that way since I was a young child. I first like to play with my materials using a scientific approach: I create many test pieces to see how my curiosities will develop, and I test and record different drying times, combinations of colours, mediums etc. This arms me with knowledge that then transfers into perfectly poured paints, gradations, hard edges, soft edges, thick textures and more.  This process is ongoing, continually changing and always exciting. When I make new discoveries, I’m like a kid in a candy store who just discovered their favourite treat.

Regarding the actual act of painting, I could spend a lifetime figuring out different ways to manipulate paint to convey my narrative. With this collection I was obsessed with each individual layer. I started painting on raw canvas with wet-on-wet techniques - the untouched canvas absorbs the paint and creates the most magical blends from one colour to the next. I then saved specific areas that I loved and continued to work more layers. Subsequent washes absorbed differently into the canvas, pooling and resting on top. The edges dried differently, creating soft lace-like crisp lines. I then explored more washes, blends and textural components until I was happy the with the resulting work. It is like a dance, balancing between hard and soft edges, textures and patterns. I want the viewer’s eyes to effortlessly glide across the canvas and take in everything, both the individual parts and the painting as a whole.

Sheila Kernan, Come Get lost With Me. Mixed Media on Canvas, 44 x 84 inches. 

3. To what extent do you like to plan a painting?


My work is extremely planned out in the initial stages - compositions are meticulously planned, and I make cut-out photo collages and compositional maquettes. I also create colour studies and plan out my layers. All this gives me a very good visual idea as to where each piece will end up even before I start painting. However, once I start to physically create the work, I rely on intuition and a lot of looking, thinking and reacting to uncontrollable moments. This is where the true magic happens: allowing the uncontrollable moments of painting to direct me to save and enhance them. This is where my best work is created – it’s a balance between planned and unplanned moments.


4. You talk about Gestalt theory which you brilliantly apply to your painting practice. Can you tell us more about this, and what prompted you to utilize this concept?


“Gestalt Theory” is a theory about how the human eye perceives visual elements. I was naturally drawn to it because I have worn glasses my whole life, and I am always aware of things being in and out of focus in my visual fields. When I discovered the theory, I immediately felt a connection to it because I could understand and relate it so well.

Gestalt theory aims to show that when complex scenes are reduced to simpler shapes and patterns, the eye will then “connect the dots” and perceive these shapes as a connected whole rather than as individual parts. It has five main principles: proximity, similarity, continuity, closure and connectedness. The concept is very much like the connect-the-dot exercises we did as kids: our eyes use these principles to group things together even if we can clearly see separate parts. If you look long enough at a connect-the-dot image, your eyes will add the line and complete the form on its own.

What I love about Gestalt theory as it applies to my paintings is that two things can be true at the same time. From closer up, one can see an abstract collection of individual elements (a stencilled, hard-edged form, separated marks, dots, dashes or lines, etc). Stepping back, the individual parts form a complex coastal scene as the eye automatically connects all the elements. As such, my paintings are both abstract and realistic at the same time. Not all details are provided for the viewer; I am asking your eyes to fill in the gaps.

In understanding these Gestalt principles, I am hoping to predict how different design elements will come together in my work.

Sheila Kernan, Can't Get You Out of My Head. Mixed Media on Canvas, 48 x 48 inches. 

5.What or who would you say are additional influences in your artistic approach?


I am influenced by life itself. Being an artist is 24/7 - you never know what is going to inspire you, so you must remain open and available to new ideas, curiosities, and questions. Solving visual and contextual problems becomes second nature. I always have my phone and sketchbook on hand to record notes, take photos, or talk thorough an idea. In recording hundreds of tidbits, you never know what will come through in your work next. Often, I resolve things in my dreams and wake up ready to put ideas to canvas.


6.What three words do you think best describe your work?


Bold, skillful, textural.


The artist at work in her Calgary studio.

Continue browsing
Your Order

You have no items in your selection.