The strong horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines fragmenting Colleen Terrell Comer’s mostly Southern imagery originated as an intuitive response to the accidental mergence of overhead power lines and sketch marks not meant to be seen in the final painting. It piqued her interest and led to an aesthetic exploration that has come to define her work – at least for now.
A St. Paul's Episcopal School alum, Comer earned a B.F.A. in graphic design from Auburn in 2002 and recently participated in a month-long graduate-level study abroad program through Columbia University in New York: the Advanced Painting Intensive in Paris. Stints as a graphic designer in Charleston, S.C., and New York City preceded her return to Mobile two years ago. Although she still works in graphic design, she is shifting towards painting full time.
Not long after moving to Charleston, Comer realized work-related creative energy differed from that sparked by her fine art pursuits. She missed painting. As someone long-fascinated by “the idiosyncrasies of Southern culture and architecture, ” she found ample inspiration in the somewhat shabby, weathered old Southern architectural structures of her studio’s yet-to-be gentrified surroundings.
“I was surrounded by these beautiful old homes that everyone wants to paint. But most people subtract the power lines, and they think that the physical decay of an old building is unattractive, ” she explains. “I was trying to paint this building that was falling down. To get the rooflines, I was adding extended perspective lines, – and I had one of those moments. I just thought, that is so much more interesting than what I was going to do – the way the lines are connecting and the kind of breaking up of the surface. I liked the way it exaggerated that natural fragmentation.”
DEVELOPING A STYLE
Pointing to an obviously unfinished canvas, Comer sighs. “This one has taken almost a year. I have literally painted this thing three times. I have totally changed the layout, the vantage point. I have scraped it down to the original drawing twice. I’m getting there, but it’s hard coming, ” she laments. “My problem is I’m trying to paint the painting that I want, and I’m still trying to paint the lines. Maybe the painting that I see in my head doesn’t need lines, ” she says. “That’s a tough thing when you have to decide whether or not a style is still serving your intention. Is it time to move on, because you’ve explored it?”
She answers her own question: “Maybe I’ll still incorporate line work, but the whole image won’t depend on it.”
Comer paints around an often busy graphic design schedule. She works from home, mostly doing illustration work for the Amazon.com-owned specialty printer and book publisher, CreateSpace. “I do book design, book covers and interior layout for novels. She also handles commissions for children’s book illustrations, as well as illustration-based covers, like science fiction works.
In the studio, Comer works from sketches or photos she’s taken. Her paintings (nearly all oil on canvas) start with an orange-colored under-painting applied thin enough to allow glimpses of the underlying canvas. She roughs out major elements in charcoal, then adds graphite and conte crayon to the mix: doing a complete, detailed drawing that includes her trademark perspective lines. She premixes paints on the palette, never on the canvas, and stays mostly within the lines when adding color. Comer then paints in thin layers, around the lines, allowing much of the underlying sketch and adjacent areas of the underpainting to show through. Usually.
Then looking around, briefly studying each of the paintings that have served as backdrops to our conversation, she says, “This is fun. I don’t usually get to talk about this with people.”
Text and Photos by Adrian Hoff