By Brianna Wray
The Times 

It's a colorful life

Painting with Martha Mason


November 19, 2020

Brianna Wray

Mason's thumbnail sketch is a smaller scale version that allows the artist to figure out elements of the composition.

At this point in history, color theory has established a well-documented dialogue. Various studies of human psychology note that the color yellow may elicit feelings of comfort, while red tends to make people hungry or impulsive. Marketing experts refer to the pairing of red and yellow as the Ketchup and Mustard Theory. Green and earthy tones are sometimes used to convey a message of healthiness and environmental responsibility.

One might feel moody looking at the ocean's deep blues or soothed by the clear blues in the sky. How does one decide how much blue to imbue? The visual artist must capture and convey the human condition, ideas, emotion, and movement using whatever means available or necessary.

For artist Martha Mason, not only individual colors but their relationships with one another make the difference. When it comes to color, her cup runneth over. She uses the long side of pastels or Conte crayons to lay in fields of color before adding finer details to create mixed media works of art.

Mason, a skilled portrait artist with a characteristic blend of abstraction, is colorfully adorned head to toe-literally. Her hair may have pink tints, her fingernails in alternating colors of yellow and red-the specific shades of each color mirror Mason's mood of comfort and impulse.

Mason is currently using her skills to paint the Good Shepherd, a large-scale composition commissioned by Andreas Beccai for the Walla Walla University Church to replace the previous baptistery roundel done in the 2000s.

The shepherd stands amongst his flock, set in a rural African landscape. The figure emerges from a black background as the forms are beginning to take shape. The project isn't anywhere near completion yet. At over 8 feet in diameter, the painting process has become a bit of a dance and will take time.

Work began with the reference image of a Massai shepherd. Mason created thumbnail sketches of the idea before moving to the canvas.

Black gesso, an acrylic primer, was layered to tighten and reinforce the weave of the canvas in preparation for the paint. Mason then laid out the painting's elements in a gesture drawing. Once her colors are chosen and mixed, it will be time to refine the image.

"I'm an abstract expressionist at heart; the subject is incidental," says Mason on the majority of her work. "I love cubism and when figures are kind of angular. This will have some of those qualities."

Mason demonstrates mastery in the mixing and blending of color as a means of expressing emotion, movement, or both. The flock's blurred grey tones could be indicative of a frenzied motion or distance. Following Mason's example, one must play in color. A splash here and there couldn't hurt.

"I love the idea of a yellow sky and in the desert, and it's probably more common at the edge of the day. I might add some gold, the byzantine look," Mason muses, "I can't resist."

When beginning from a dark foundation, "you have to really pull it up to get the colors to stand out," Mason says, "but that'll make it more interesting and give it more depth."

Martha Mason grew up in a small town in southern California. She studied art at UCLA and the University of Illinois in Urbana, where she earned a BFA in painting in 1970 and an MFA in painting in 1975. Mason has taught art at the University of Illinois, University of Wyoming, Weimar College and Academy, Walla Walla University, and Walla Walla Community College. Though she is no longer teaching formally, her devotion to art and joy of life inspires everyone lucky enough to know her and her art.


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