Debra Keirce is an experienced chemical engineer, a mother, a wife, a full time artist. Her art expresses the places she’s been, the people she’s met, the challenges she’s faced. Her paintings tell stories of a mother sending her grown children out into the world, a creative soul with a burning passion, and an unpredictable journey through life.
Using oil or acrylic paints, Debra paints in a tightly rendered realistic style with classical, fantasy and Trompe L’Oeil influences. Debra specializes in small and miniature paintings, ranging in size from two feet down to two inches. Part of her process for creating miniature fine art involves the use of magnifying lenses and close range binoculars. She enjoys demonstrating these techniques.
I recently had the privilege of asking Debra a few questions about her techniques, art, influences, and of course favorite indulgences!
Q) You specialize in miniature paintings (smaller than 25 square inches), what led you to start painting miniatures and what keeps you hooked on them?
A) I started painting in miniatures when I heard about them from some online art groups I joined in the 1990’s. I really liked the people, and the first miniature shows I went to were such great experiences. I came home so inspired and with a whole new group of online artist friends. I continue to enjoy creating miniatures because I have an established presence in the miniature artist community, including several signature society memberships. I sell well and win awards at the shows. In 2015 alone I was honored with 7 awards, many of them “Best in Show” for my miniature and small format art, in shows all over the US.
So I guess I feel like I’m on a roll… why stop? Plus, shipping expenses are not an issue when you work in miniature. Many artists will avoid certain venues because shipping costs are prohibitive for them. My minis go anywhere and everywhere. I have several in Johannesburg South Africa right now at the World Federation of Miniatures show in Hyde Park!
Q) How are the tools and techniques you use in miniature different from larger paintings?
In miniature, you really can’t do a drawing transfer. If you do, you don’t have much detail in it. Think about it. If you did a transfer on a 1 inch head, how much could you really fit in that face? So, I paint directly on the smooth (not canvas – never canvas) panel, and all my drawing is done in the painting, with the brush. Also, you really can’t apply typical brush strokes in miniatures. I love impasto highlights and texture in fur, but I achieve these with clay tools, exacto blades, embossing tools – whatever I need to push the paint around and sculpt it into the space I want it to occupy. Most of the painting is done using stipple or hashmark brush strokes. Otherwise, all the same art concepts for composition, color, glazing techniques, etc. apply for miniatures. The goal is not to squeeze the most detail into a painting as you can. The goal is to create a little jewel of a painting that, when magnified many times over, remains tightly rendered and looks like a piece you could hang above your mantel. Miniature paintings can be any subject or style – abstract, impressionistic, realistic, etc.
In this way, I create miniature paintings that fill a niche for collectors who love art and want to collect many different pieces, but have price point and hanging space considerations.
Q) Your paintings are wonderfully full of many interesting objects that seem to tell a story. Do you collect these objects with the stories/paintings in mind?
I often do. I have several series of painting ideas floating around in my head. (See photo to right of the still life items I have collected.) When I look at them, they are a sort of steampunk collection – Metal and lace and industrial items infused with glass and wood and brick textures. I call my work hauntingly familiar when people ask, because that is what I think of when I look at my collection of thrift shop still life props. I got this idea from Carrie Waller, a wonderful artist friend of mine. I have pictures of various rooms that would comprise my dream home – the home I would love to decorate for a collector. Every one of my paintings has to fit in one of those rooms. So when I collect props and develop ideas for paintings, I think of those rooms and where that painting would hang in them.
Q) What led you to found the WAM: Women Artists Mentors group? What goals have the members set out for the group?
A) I founded the group when I was listening to an “Artists Helping Artists” podcast a few years ago. Leslie Saeta hosts a show with lots of useful tips for artists, and her discussion about starting a mentoring group where the members support each other in their art careers, was something I had been thinking about for many years. Ironically, Leslie interviewed us a few months ago, and you can go to her list of podcasts to see the episode WAM aired on, if you’d like to hear more about us. As artists we are pretty solitary creatures. It is wonderful to have a group of like minded friends to consult with. We refer to ourselves as “WAM – Artists with a punch.” That’s because we believe that working together we can be much more impactful than working alone. WAM has many, many goals. But the ones we are concentrating on at the moment include (if you go to our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/WAMArtists you can follow us to see if we achieve our goals) :
1. Create a Facebook Page. We’ve been posting videos of our studios on the Facebook page. At some point, when we have more followers, we will also create a website.
2. Travel! We have traveled together to several locations for art related experiences together. These include DC, Charleston, and Tokyo. Our next trip is to Venice in May. Next spring we’ll be in Montana for a group show we are organizing at The WaterWorks Museum there. We are working to organize some retreats as well, and we hope to invite others to participate in those at some point.
3. Group workshop experiences. In the workshops we will offer all 5 of ourselves up as instructors, but we haven’t worked out the details for that just yet.
4. Inspiring other mentoring groups. We really enjoy telling others about our experience. Our hope is that other artists will also create successful mentoring groups and do great things. Our next group event is an interview on Linda Fisler’s AMO Art Chat podcast. That is going to happen on May 18th.
Q) As if you aren’t busy enough, you also started DebKArt Home Studios! In 2016 alone you have an amazing lineup up of talented painters teaching workshops (Sarah Siltala, Cindy Procious, Shana Levenson, Chris Saper, and David Chiefetz). What was the inspiration to creating your own Studio?
A) Thank you for asking! www.DebKArt.com/workshops is the place to go for people who want to learn more about what Sarah Siltala, Cindy Procious, Shana Levenson (with her assistant David Kassan) – a two for that one!, Chris Saper and David Cheifetz will be teaching. I worked hard to get a huge amount of diversity in this program. We will be learning the glazing techniques of the Venetian and Flemish masters, photoshop for impactful still life compositions, charcoal drawing the portrait from life, capturing a live model’s essence in oil paint, the business of being an artist, posing and photographing live models for photo reference, and mastering focus in still life palette knife paintings. I will attach the poster I’ve been using to get the word out on these workshops.For a few years now, I have been facilitating workshops for others, which led to hosting workshops here in my home studios.
Coming back from The Portrait Society of America conference in Atlanta last year, Teresa Oaxaca was waiting in the airport with me for our plane to board. I told her I was hosting Kate Stone and then Juan Jr Ramirez in the coming months, to teach in my home studios. Teresa suggested I come up with a name to make it stick in peoples’ heads. Of course, I argued I was only inviting friends over to paint. It wasn’t a legit business. I just love being around artists and this was a great way to get to know more of them. Fast forward to Juan’s stay at my home. Juan is a very thoughtful person. So the last day he was here, he asked me to go for a walk with him, and he talked about his time staying in VT and painting with the High Street Painters there. His friend hosted artists in her home studios. By the time our walk was over, Juan had me thinking of all the win/win scenarios if I got just a little more serious about launching this workshop hosting idea into something bigger. I already had the equipment and the routine, so when I decided to do this, things just fell right into place. And because I had attended the portrait conference, I met many of the artists face to face, and I was able to talk with them about coming to teach.
Here’s the thing. There are so many talented artists in the metro DC area. Art leagues and groups have sprouted up all over. But Northern Virginia is not an artsy culture at all. It’s politics, government contracts, information technology. “Art” is what you get at Art.com, Target or Home Goods. Don’t get me wrong. There are certainly collectors here and people who appreciate good art. But it’s not a part of our culture the way it is in Santa Fe or Charleston. So, I feel like DebKArt Home Studios fills a need for A-list artists to come and share their expertise with the growing community of artists here who are hungry for their insights. Also, I see this as a relaxed atmosphere where students meet new lifelong friends. One of our groups of students has already got plans to meet up again this year and enjoy each other’s company.
Q) What is your favorite piece of work that you have created and why?
A) I really don’t have a favorite, because I feel like my favorite piece is always the last one I created. I hope that never changes. If I start to feel like I am no longer improving, I fear it may take the wind right out of my sails. I love that you can paint for a lifetime and still have more to learn.
Q) What are you working on at the moment?
A) I’m working on five different pieces at the moment, but the one that’s closest to the finish line is one I think I will probably call “Amber Waves.” It is a 7 inch x 9 inch oil painting that shows how subtle color variations of warms and cools, coming from Egyptian glass bottles, undulate over a background of lace. Everyone can invent their own narrative, but I was thinking about the way life sucks you in and pushes you back, like ocean waves. So when you look at this piece, that fold of cloth sucks you into its fold, the large amber decanter (which I picked up on that trip to Tokyo I mentioned earlier) pushes you back, with its steamy insides looking like they might just pop that cork. The detail in the lace behind that pale bottle sucks you in as the pale bottle is almost transparent against the background. The grouping of bottles to the right pushes you back, sort of guarding and stopping entry at that side of the painting. Those were my crazy thoughts as I was composing this piece.
Q) What is your favorite sweet treat to indulge in?
I loved France, because they had the most amazing cheese and fruit plates for dessert. Specifically, Fegersheim in the Alsace part of France, along the German border. French food with a bit of German influence. Of course, I was 6 months pregnant when I was there, so my sense of smell and my and tastebuds were all in overdrive. One day I want to go back and see if it’s as awesome when I’m not preggers!