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Katy Schneider: A Life in Paint

If you are flipping through the pages of Once I Ate a Pie, either because you love children's books or puppies, or both, you might not know the illustrations are made by one of the America's finest realist painters.  Katy Schneider has been an accomplished artist since her undergraduate years, painting the things around her that she loved.  Her work (as seen in photos 1 -13) is ambitious in skill and modest in size and subject.  Flowers and babies populate her paintings, as well as domestic interiors. It's the deftness of her hand guided by honest, empathetic seeing that makes her work so alive, unmistakable, and ultimately compelling.  

Schneider earned her B.A. from Yale University and M.F.A from Indiana University, also having attended Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. She's been the recipient of numerous grants and awards including a Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship and a National Academy of Design purchase award. Since 1990, she's been a professor at Smith College, and she also teaches summer workshops for ambitious teenagers.   

Katy was gracious in answering a few questions for thalo had about her life and work.   

thalo: How did you begin painting and what made you stick with it for a career?

Katy Schneider: My parents got me paint-by-numbers once when I was little.  I was amazed at how the little flat blotches eventually added up to a recognizable image. It seemed so much more sophisticated and exotic than the broken crayons and the dried up markers that I was used to.

I eventually went to the High School of Music and Art.  I took an oil painting class. It was fun but we were not assigned many paintings to do – I think a total of 3 for the whole semester.  Having painted for 30 years now, I know that for every really strong painting, it takes at least 10 or 20 lousy ones.  

Once I got to college, I didn't think I wanted to "waste" my Yale education on art. However, by second semester freshmen year, I remember throwing my anthropology book across the room, as I enviously watched my roommate do her drawing homework.  I took painting the next semester-- my sophomore year.  It couldn't have been more opposite than the high school semester of oil painting.   Fifteen paintings were due over Spring break alone.  In this environment I was able to create enough work to figure out what I liked, what I didn't like, what particular path I'd like to follow, what situations were inspiring, etc.  I was completely hooked on painting but not yet thinking about it as a career.  I didn't think I had "it."

Growing up in the 70's in NYC, going to shows in Soho and the Village, taking a little art history in high school,  I was convinced that to be a "real painter," you either  had to be a non-representational artist, have a much wilder imagination than I had, or you had to paint about mythology, religion, or politics.  I did not have any role models. I knew no one who was painting as a career – especially doing the kind of work I enjoyed doing.

th: How did these projects come about and what was it like to go from painter to illustrator?

KS: Luckily I was friends with the author Patricia Maclachlan and her daughter Emily Charest Maclachlan.  Patty and her husband were neighbors of mine.  They liked my work and wrote Painting the Wind with my work in mind as the illustrator. The story itself was inspired by my husband's and my life.  Patty asked her editor to consider me and the editors at Harper Collins agreed to give me a shot at it even though I was not technically an illustrator.  The editors liked my work.  And  Patty had won the Newbury award so her name was big enough to carry my unknown name.   I did not have to get an agent or create an illustrator's portfolio.  I  simply sent slides of a variety of images I have made.  Normally, one needs to do these things as well as have an illustrator's  website. All of these I need to do now if I want to get more work.

The book was about painting so they wanted images that were painted.  The transition from painter to illustrator was challenging for the first book.  I have never started with an idea and then painted it.  I normally stumble upon a scene or just begin painting a particular spot and allow the meaning or the narrative./story  to reveal itself to me through the process of painting it.  My editor taught me that I didn't have to be literal, that I could create a whole other story or aspect to the story with the pictures.  Stylistically, I was able to keep my "handwriting".  At times I had to get  tighter than usual. Other times I had to be looser than normal.  I also had to enable more of a flow from page to page.  In the last 2 books, which were about dogs, I was instructed to avoid any background, to keep it nice and white.   This was fun. It felt like cheating.  I felt like I was allowed to break all the "painting rules" that had been drilled into me.

th: You are able to teach painting in colleges, exhibit your own work in art galleries, illustrate children's books, and run instructional workshops for teens  – in a seamless way.  This is remarkable.  How do you pull this off?  What is it like to have such career crossover?

KS: Don't be too impressed –I don't do them all at once.  I have bursts of doing  one thing or another.  It takes me several years to come up with a body of work that I want to exhibit.  When I'm illustrating, I'm not painting my other work.  I teach half time so that allows me to have time to do my painting. When I'm inspired, I have tremendous energy and get a lot done.  Getting inspired is the hardest work.  Once I find it, I'm compulsive.  I'll exhaust a particular idea and then, exhausted, have a chill-out period.  I have many periods where I simply want to cook or write music.  It's boring to do just one thing.  I'm finally allowing myself time to do whatever interests me. I know that I'll eventually spiral back around and get to painting again. I spiral back with a fuller life under my belt,  with more to say.

th: Do you have advice for artists early in their careers?  What have you learned along the way?

KS: Paint for yourself.  Make good work.  Make lots of work. The rest will follow. Try to paint every day, even for a short while. Use vegetable oil to clean oil paint off your hands (not turpentine or soap)

Look at it as a positive when you've hit that moment when you're hating your work. This is when you can really take some chances, make big changes, advances, etc. Risk making it even more hideous.  What do you have to lose with a painting that already stinks?

Sales, gallery affiliation does not determine the quality of your work.  The vast majority of artists cannot financially support themselves with their work.  They teach or make a living other ways.  

All photos courtesy of Katy Schneider