An Interview with Artist Jean Hirons


I came into contact with Jean Hirons during my recent show at River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Bethesda. Jean creates vibrant works in pastels with a wonderful sensitivity to color and natural light. I'm particularly struck by her Prague and Budapest miniatures.

A member of the Waverly Street Gallery, Jean recently published a book called Finding Your Style in Pastel to help beginning through advanced artists explore this medium. It's available in print and e-book, and it offers tips as well as exercises. She also offers a blog filled with instructional posts on process.

Q: When writing Finding Your Style in Pastel, what new things did you learn about yourself?

A: I’ve always known that the organization of information is one of my primary strengths. I worked at the Library of Congress in the cataloging area and wrote the standard manuals for serials catalogers. So I knew I could write and organize. What was more challenging was to figure why and how I did what I do in the much more intuitive process of painting. When teaching, students would ask why I used that color and not another and I really couldn’t answer.  In writing the book, I was able to think in terms of color theory to figure out what was the basis of my intuitive decisions. It was really an eye-opener! Having written the book, I now have a whole new vocabulary that I can use when I’m teaching, such as the “center of interest painting,” the “big shape painting,” “soft surfaces” and so forth. I feel much more confident as a teacher having spent an intensive 18 months writing the book.

Q: What's the one thing you'd like people who aren't familiar with you/your work to know about you?

A: As an artist, I guess there are several things that define me. One is that I believe very strongly that we must be true to ourselves and paint what we love and in the manner in which we love to paint, regardless of current trends. Thus, I am not an abstract painter. It doesn’t satisfy me at all. I need to relate to something I see. I want my paintings to be painterly, not photo realistic, but also to have enough detail to engage the eye over time. The abstraction is in the underlying composition of shapes and values and I think this is the most important aspect of any kind of painting. 

Aside from painting, my other passion is the piano. I’ve always been a real amateur, but some years ago I began studying with a truly wonderful teacher. I joined a piano group,  bought a new piano, and decided to take myself more seriously. I’m still very limited but I get much more satisfaction because I know I’m giving it my all.

Q: What's your favorite piece from an upcoming show and why?

A: My next show will be at the Waverly Street Gallery in Bethesda in October. In 2011 and 2012, I had shows in Bethesda and Massachusetts called “Shore Houses.”  I’ve become known for my paintings of buildings and was dubbed the “Architect of Color” in a June 2011 article in the Pastel Journal. With both of those shows behind me and the book published, I decided to just paint whatever I wanted to paint. I realized that the one common theme was the presence of some kind of water. No houses this time, but brooks, harbors, rivers, ocean. I grew up on the ocean so this isn’t surprising.  I’m calling the show “Waterscapes.” It’s hard to say what my favorite piece is. I’ve been playing with squares and I particularly like the painting The Autumn Marsh, one of four 20" x 20" paintings that will be in the show. Marsh in Autumn (2) is another favorite. It’s of the same scene that I painted from a number of years ago. The older painting was full of bright reds and oranges; the current painting is more subdued and much more pleasing to me. Both paintings are from the Eastern Shore/Delaware Bay area.

  Autumn on the Marsh 
(On UART 400 grit sand paper)

 Marsh in Autumn
(On Pastelbord)

Q: Do you paint intuitively, with a hardcore plan, or somewhere in between?

A: It all depends on the subject matter. If I have the perfect subject, I might forgo studies and just jump in to the painting. But I’m more likely in the studio to do composition and value studies and sometimes color studies. I love to work from black and white and supply my own color. I do studies to play with various places to begin the color as well as the overall color palette. Because pastel is all about layering, this is very important to the success of the painting.  Once into the piece, however, it becomes quite intuitive. I might decide to alter the composition or change the colors. What works in a small study doesn’t always work in a larger painting. I like to keep all of my options open! 

Q: Who is your biggest influence and why?

A: When I was in college, we had a show of paintings by RichardSchmid and I was completely taken with them. I still love his work and think he is one of the greatest living oil painters in the US.  The impressionists influenced my love of color and painterly representation. Among pastel painters, my favorite is Duane Wakeham, a landscape painter from California, whose work is ethereal and truly beautiful. However, the types of paintings I do more closely resemble the work of Washington State artist Susan Ogilvie, with whom I have studied.

Q: What do you feel is the best thing about being an artist in the DC area?

A: There are mixed blessings of being in DC. On the one hand, we have a wealth of great art easily accessible to us at all times. But I’m not sure that DC is a great art town when it comes to people purchasing art. I’ve been a member of the Waverly Street Gallery in Bethesda since 2004 and since that time I’ve seen most of the galleries in Bethesda close. If there is any area that could support art, it is Bethesda. But there are now very few dedicated galleries. I hope that the improving economy will change this picture, but for now, it is hard.

However, there are a great number of creative people and I’ve been fortunate to be part of a community of wonderful artists and musicians that enriches my life far more than painting sales.

Q: A lot of artists have that one piece in their studio that they would never ever sell. Tell us about yours.

A: I sold the painting that I never wanted to sell!  It’s called “The Horse Farm.”  It was done as the second painting of the day during an outdoor plein air festival. I didn’t completely finish it and I loved the way it looked. My husband convinced me that I needed the money and could do others. So I sold it to a friend. I’ve never done anything else like it.  
The Horse Farm
(on Textured Board)

Thanks, Jean, for sharing your passion for pastels! It was a pleasure learning about you and your work. For more about Jean and her beautiful art, visit her website or drop by the Waverly Street Gallery on 4600 East-West Highway in Bethesda.

Today's Gratitude


I deinstalled my show at River Road Unitarian yesterday. Many thanks to curator Mary Ferguson for organizing it... and to the new owner of Red String (Fortune) for giving this piece a home. When she picked it up, she asked if I think about my paintings after they're sold. I told her I do, so much so that I worry about them. If someone redecorates or their taste in art changes ten years down the road, does the piece end up in a dumpster somewhere? My memories and emotions are embedded in my paintings. They are a huge part of me.

When people buy my work, I feel like they are validating my existence not as an artist, but as a person. They are understanding struggles, celebrating high points, and standing right with me as I make visual the intense wonder I feel, both when I was a young girl and now as a 43-year-old woman. Wonder about the world, why we exist, and what it all means.

Since my little sideswipe with uterine cancer last fall, I've been trying hard to express gratitude for something, no matter how small, every day. The big things I repeat often: how grateful I am for it being caught early, for surgery removing it all, for not needing radiation/chemo. But there are other equally big things, big quiet things, that I need to vocalize more. Like making sure my friends know how much I appreciate their support for my art. Here's my dear friend and co-worker Lesley who just happened to match two paintings at the River Road reception. Thanks to each of you who come out and look at art whether it's the work of someone you know or not. People who look at and experience art keep our visual culture alive, and make us artists want to keep on doing what our hearts know best.