Oil painter’s figures emote off the canvas
The human figure has taken many forms in art, from the stick figures on cave walls to the ample flesh of Rubens and the deconstructed bodies of Francis Bacon. Hendersonville artist Laurie Yeates Adams continues that figurative exploration with her distinctive oils — probing the inner life of her subjects, hovering on the border between the representational and the abstract.
“My focus is to find and convey the inner spirit of my subject, that which is unseen but felt,” Adams says.
Working with a muted palette of black, whites, and browns, Adams observes her subjects through simple line and shape against a plain background, stripping away any external references of time or place.
Some of her figures may be more defined but recede into the background as we glimpse only part of their faces or bodies through a heavy impasto foreground. “My palette is soft and muted,” Adams notes, “and often black and white. I feel it serves the simplicity of emotion that I wish to communicate. It does create a subtle reality — a quiet pause, so to speak.”
The abstraction of the figure came later in her training, after a beginning 30 years ago with basic drawing classes in her native Southern California. She was earning a living in marketing and special-events planning when her work took her to Colorado, where she studied with the Denver portraitist Ron Hicks, drawing inspiration from Rembrandt and other Old Masters. Her four years with Hicks, Adams says, “taught me the gift of seeing.”
It was some years after her time with him that Adams began simplifying her figurative work. “My approach to painting is always about seeing large shapes first,” she explains. “I start with a transparent wash, then build up the layers — thinking fat over lean — then ultimately play and experiment with ways I can communicate the figure as simply as possible.”
She paints from both live models and from photographs as starting points for the journey toward some inner essence of the subject, reducing the surrounding background to basic shapes and the figure to fundamental line. She chooses her subjects intuitively from how she relates to a particular person or the presence of something instinctively compelling to her eye, building each work from the darker end of her palette and working through the midtones toward the lighter shades as the work takes shape.
“The goal is always about finding the essence, inner spirit, or character of my subject,” she says. “That’s most important to me.” That goal is most evident in her nudes, ethereal and contemplative against their misted and obscure backgrounds. But the technique applies, too, to Adams’ more traditional portraits of children, portrayed at play on the beach or gazing quietly at the viewer, and in her delightful animal portraits. “I do love painting animals, and have owned many along the way,” Adams says. “But I approach painting them the same way I do my figures.” The stoic placidity of a cow, the inquisitiveness of a dog, the watchful belligerence of a bull — all are projected from the canvas with almost startling immediacy.
Although Adams is chiefly known for her oils, she works with a variety of other mediums, sculpting in clay and exploring work in acrylics. “Especially during the last year of COVID seclusion, I began to experiment with acrylics and mixed media,” she notes. Among the materials she’s combined in her latest work are ash, sand, powdered chalk, and plaster.
“Using these materials has created an exciting play of layers and textures,” she says, “in which I’m able to add and abstract the figure and form within my painting. It’s been an exciting departure from oils and has really fueled my creativity. I do, however, remain forever attached to oils.”
Whatever materials come to hand, it’s her fascination with the human figure that continues to drive her creative energy. “My technique of painting has not changed over the years, even though the materials I use to create paintings have,” she says. “I most admire the human figure and have created work in one way or another with the figure as my subject. Essentially, I’m looking for the insides of my subjects. If I’m able to reveal an inward significance, then I feel I’ve succeeded in my effort.”
Laurie Yeates Adams, Hendersonville. The artist is represented by Art on 7th, 330 7th Ave. East, Hendersonville, arton7th.com, “Art on 7th” on Facebook and Instagram. (Adams is also represented by Revealed Art Gallery in Charleston, SC.) For more information, see laurieyeatesadams.com.