An Interview with Elizabeth Wilson

Elizabeth Wilson
Cumbria Valley IV, UK (8.75″ x 9.5″) gouache 2005

Elizabeth Wilson achieves a sense of spaciousness in her paintings that is somehow both calming and exhilarating. Whether her subject is a city overpass or a rural landscape in  Great Britain, her work expresses both a pervading quiet and a sense of awe at the breadth and grandeur of this world. Although her work is based on keen observation, her sense of color, brushwork and composition is subtly original, and completely her own.

You can find out more about Elizabeth Wilson by visiting her website.

TD: Elizabeth, can you tell us how you first became interested in art, and how you decided to become an artist?

EW: I never really set out to become an artist and to be honest, when I was younger, I didn’t know you could be an artist (painter, sculptor). I naively thought this was something dead people did. The living artists I was aware of seemed to me to be otherworldly.

I did consider the idea of becoming a choreographer when I was in elementary school, but I had no idea how to pursue such a thing. Music of nearly all types and particularly movie musicals played a big role for me in unlocking my imagination and introduced worlds unfamiliar to me. I was captivated by the choreography, the staging, the music, the story. They were visual/whole body experiences, which it is supposed to be. I clearly remember seeing a live ballet performance of, “Peter & The Wolf” when I was 15, (begrudgingly with the wonderful little girl I babysat for) and being completely moved to draw when I got home. This is my first memory having a direct connection of being inspired to draw by another piece of ‘art’, though I was perpetually drawing and making things as a young child- primarily faces made-up out of my head.  As I got older, I’d incorporate features of my friends.

In my teenage years, I also began to make collages of cutout magazine images and color shapes, carefully chosen and arranged before gluing. In retrospect, this was my initiation into the world of design/composition, though I didn’t have the language or awareness to know that there was such a thing. There are so many crossovers between design, dance, music and staging, so it is perhaps there that I began to think in these terms.

Towards Winchcombe, UK (8.75” x 9.5”) gouache 2002

I did visit museums with my father; I remember going to The Barnes and The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (well before its restoration in 1976). My first art book, when I was around 14, was a hardback Sotheby’s catalogue that my father gave me, which he had gotten through his antique business. It was there I was first introduced to Brancusi, Corot, Ben Nicholson, Monet, Munch, Delvaux, Picasso, etc…. I really didn’t’ ‘get’ most of the stuff, but something pulled me to keep looking. 

Manayunk Window View- Overcast (58"x40") oil on linen 1992

My dad would bring home all sorts of curiosities via his antique business, so I was exposed to small and unusual objects that I studied intensely. And I remember being on the camp bus and critiquing the houses we’d pass (keeping my opinions to myself) and also being horrified when I’d see a farm or open space being bulldozed for “progress”. I would say that my interest in art was simply instinctive and intuitive…. and becoming an artist was somewhat an unconscious evolution.

There wasn’t one specific moment, but a general curiosity and pull towards the awe of the natural world and the one we make. I was pretty much a directionless teenager in high school, and because I was completely drained by that experience I worked the year after graduating, to ‘collect’ myself, before deciding to go to art school.

Woodbine Avenue (21.25" x 29.5") oil on watercolor paper 1992

TD: You went to the Corcoran in Washington D.C. for a year, and then attended The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts for their four year program. Why did you transfer? Were you happy with the Academy? From which teachers did you learn the most?

EW: The Corcoran was a mistake really. I chose it because I wanted to move out of Philadelphia (where I grew up) and go somewhere new. And I wanted to go to an art school that was not attached to a university. I was quite naïve then and didn’t know what to look for in a school (i.e., the faculty and student work) and learning about schools then was no easy task either. Receiving printed materials was a long drawn out process of writing and waiting. I chose the Corcoran and in the end, it proved to be a most unfulfilling experience and was clearly in a state of decline when I attended. There was little drawing and practically no life drawing, though we did some significant color theory via painting flat patches of color in acrylics (for which I still have an aversion to, to this day).

On a visit home during spring break, I came across a Philadelphia Magazine at my parent’s house, which had an article on the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and profiled a few Academy students. The work blew me away. That summer I attended the Academy (summer of 1979) and regrettably returned to the Corcoran for another unsatisfying semester, because I had been incorrectly advised on how to transfer. I finally started Academy in January of 1980. In sharp contrast to the Corcoran, the emphasis was on the fundamentals of painting, drawing, seeing, thinking…..which to me is critical for any art student. I wanted to understand how color worked beyond Joseph Albers. I wanted to be around serious people, doing solid work with great conviction and commitment. I wanted total immersion and I got it.

Manayunk - Seville & Markle Streets (40" x 50") oil on linen 1995-6

It was the most profound and life altering experience of my life and continues to resonate. The people I have met through the Academy are to me, like extended family. As far as teachers, a lot of students couldn’t get past Roswell Weidner’s ability to humiliate but I owe my drawing sensibilities and strengths mostly to him. Arthur DeCosta was an amazing teacher and a resource of old master painting skills, materials, techniques, drawing, art history and encouragement. Dan Miller’s art history lectures were captivating and hugely informative. I only had Sidney Goodman once as critic, but his advice continues to be relevant.

TD: You graduated from PAFA in 1984, and began having solo shows every two years beginning in 1988. It seems the primary focus of your work from the late 80s and throughout the 90s was large urban scenes, primarily of buildings, streets and highways. Even in these city settings there is usually a softening element of the natural landscape, either by the inclusion of a green lawn/grass or a delicately painted sky. Can you explain why you were so attracted to these scenes?

I-95 Ramps from Callowhill Street (26"x40") oil on paper 1992  

EW: Technically I graduated from the Academy (PAFA) in 1983, but they allowed me to stay until 1984 to hang a second wall (this was because I transferred in the middle of the year). I lived in New Jersey for a time and traveled extensively on highways to get into and out of the city, so this became my subject matter for a fairly long period of time. My focus on highway and bridges went from serious interest to almost an obsession when I returned from a trip to France and Italy in 1990. Finding little of interest to paint (it being so beautiful over there, I was somewhat in a state of culture shock on my return), I became fascinated with the light, patterns, shapes and colors on the surfaces of the bridges, the roads, cars, etc….

Pedestrian Crossing (42” x 48”) oil on linen 1992
I was able to play around with abstraction a bit more than the paintings I had been doing prior. I coveted those little vignettes in-between the arc of a bridge; they were a welcomed contrast of the hard-edge structures and having something natural seemed necessary to ground me and the painting.

Girard Avenue Bridge (50”x60”) oil on linen 1992

TD: The paintings have a way of making highways and city streets look grandly calm, as though time has stopped for a while, but I imagine it must have been noisy and the air not clean. Did you paint the large cityscapes on location? Did you work from photos?

: I pretty much stopped painting on location by this time, due to some encounters with a few odd people; I always felt vulnerable anyway, being isolated. I also never felt comfortable with an audience. So I often would take my camera with me while walking around or driving. If I didn’t have my camera, I would return to the site, in the right weather and light conditions. In the late 80’s and early 90’s, my then husband Chris Nissen was doing stunning, large urban landscape paintings and so we’d often drive around together, looking for subject matter, taking turns driving while the other one photographed. Waiting for the film to be processed took days back then, but it gave me time to process in my head, what I’d seen. When I’d finally get the pictures, I’d sort through the images....finding a bit here in this one and a bit there in that one and do pages and pages of small, quick studies in pen or pencil, to get the perfect composition before starting the painting in the studio.

Reading Terminal (40” x 36”) oil on wood 1991

TD: In the mid 1990’s you visited the northern regions of England and have returned many times, and have also found inspiration in Wales and Scotland. You began to produce gouache rural landscapes, without the same contrast of the manmade and the natural as in your urban paintings. Was this a direct reaction to the beauty of the landscape? Can you describe what you found so appealing in the landscape of Great Britain? Have your trips over there made it difficult to still feel inspired by the Philadelphia region?

EW: I ask myself these same questions.... I went to England in 1996 in the middle of a personal crisis. I never expected that it would have such a profound impact on me or my work. With no real tangible explanation, I can say that I always felt a deep sense of belonging to the English culture ever since I was a very young child and heard music from the British Invasion and musicals at the time. Once standing high upon a hill looking across and over more hills, without a building in sight nor the sound of machinery…...I was simply overwhelmed. It was as near a spiritual reaction as I can imagine, to the beauty and to the scope of the land.

UK - Yellow & Gray (12" x 12") oil on wood 2007

For such a small country, nature seemed to be preserved or at least, worked into the culture, unlike the minimarts on every street corner here in the United States (or in the northeast anyway). It truly inspired me to paint. I did become somewhat immune to painting here in the Philadelphia area for a time. First of all, it was too familiar. I really need a change of light and scenery to become inspired. Though, I am working on a large painting of spot near me, outside of Philadelphia, that I started a couple of years ago….it’s an area that always intrigued me from the time I was little.

TD: Did you paint these gouache landscapes on location? If you did, how did you manage to paint shifting clouds with such clarity, and keep up with the changing light conditions that area is known for?

EW: The very first gouaches were painted in very close proximity to the North Sea in Northumbria, though these attempts were pitted with minute droplets of water….I hadn’t planned on this as a possibility when I first painted with gouache. So I finished them in the studio when I returned home. The majority of my landscape paintings however, are done in the studio.

Cumbria Valley IV, UK (8.75” x 9.5”) gouache 2005

I do a lot of looking at the sky in particular, so I have a lot of references that I take to the studio from memory. I also take photos as references, of certain aspects of the light or cloud formations, though they never really get the nuances. When I’m painting on location, I pretty much pick a moment and stick to that….for the sky I pick this moment and for another part of the painting, I’ll pick that moment…..always trying to make the painting cohesive…..but the light and shadow and shapes are really many variables of time.

TD: You have an individual way of painting that seems to delicately emphasize edges while keeping interiors soft, giving your work a tender and palpable quality. Even your soft clouds have clarity to their edges. Do you begin your work with a careful drawing, or do you begin more loosely? Do you work on a toned ground?
EW: How I begin to work, depends somewhat on the size of the piece I’m about to work on. If a small painting, I may do a few crude studies on a piece of scrap paper, to get the composition down or I might just analyze what I’m looking at and paint a crude sketch right on the painting surface and then begin working. If I’m working large (ie: working on something more complex), I’ll work out numerous compositions beforehand and once decided, I draw a generalized ‘map’ of my composition, fairly crudely. Years ago I was much more specific and found it was way too restrictive and didn’t allow much for chance….I was always afraid to compromise, when in fact, it’s all a changeable, negotiable process. I usually like a toned ground…..but sometimes I’m too impatient and work right on the white surface. Sometimes it’s a struggle before I can get the painting to cooperate but sometimes it works to its advantage.

Cloud Cover, UK (25”x25”) gouache 2005-2009

TD: Why did you begin working in gouache? Do you think working in gouache has influenced your style?

: Working with gouache was truly a last minute decision just two or three days before I was leaving for my trip to England in 1996. I had never worked with it before and I was somewhat paralyzed as to what I would bring with me to work with while over there----I was staying with a family friend, in an unknown environment and I wanted to be a good guest (ie: not smell up her place or ruin her bathroom sink cleaning brushes full of oil paint). I was looking at a friend’s sketchbook of croquis drawings he had just done and somehow I intuitively knew this medium was going to work for me. They were just simple line drawings but I could envision painting with it. So I bought a bunch of paint tubes the next day and did a couple of paintings on my porch and packed them away in my suitcase.

Guildford Snow III, UK ( 8.75 x 9.75) gouache 2003-2005

It never dawned on me that it was water soluble, though….that was a surprise and I also discovered it was quite a stubborn medium to work with. In spite of its issues, working in gouache absolutely has had a positive influence on my work. I was able to be much more spontaneous and less precious with my work then when I painted in oil. I think the fact they dry very quickly, I could manipulate the edges more easily without having to wait for the painting to dry or be tacky, as I would do with oils. I was also able to work at night, when I would teach during the day and it didn’t have the glare issues.

TD: I’m particularly interested in your current focus on skies. The skies in your gouache landscapes always have so much to say; they often fill 2/3 of the composition, and the color is either subtly unusual or the movement of the clouds is dramatic. Yet the landscape is not unimportant- the luminosity of the sky is counterbalanced beautifully by the darker and more indistinct land. The land and sky seem to be in a perpetual mutually dependent relationship. Are you after a beautiful “catalog” of skies, or is there something about this relationship between earth and sky that holds meaning for you?

EW: I never intentionally set out to do a ‘catalogue’ of skies (that was a reviewer’s observation) but realized after he mentioned it that my paintings were somewhat a catalogue of skies to a degree. And I am in perpetual awe by skies. My interest is in the subtleties of the changes between the permanent and impermanent landscape and making a painting of that reflects a particular nuance that I find beautiful….and therefore I want to freeze that moment. But it also must be gratifying as a painting, on its own merit and independent of the subject.

Clouds Drifting Over Field, UK (12”x16”) oil on wood 2008

TD: You are known primarily as a landscape painter, but have completed many large and complex scenes with figures. I sense the same mysterious quiet in these works as I find in your landscapes. How do you get your ideas for your figure work?

EW: Almost all of my figurative work is an experience from life, people I know and almost entirely autobiographical.

The Real & the Abstract (30” x 30”) oil on linen 1996

Scrabble (72"x50") oil on linen 1995-1996

TD: Do you imagine that you will continue painting people in environments, or for now are you focusing on landscape?

EW: I have been working on a fairly complex self-portrait in a landscape for the past five years and have had other ideas for paintings rolling around my head for some time. For now, though I am very much focused on the landscape.

TD: Can you name some of your favorite painters and tell us why you like them?

EW: It’s nearly impossible to narrow down some my favorite painters and even more impossible to encapsulate why I like them, but here are just a few and a list of attributes that come to mind:

Alice Neel: energetic, personal, personality, essence, color, insight, squiggly, intense, real
Holbein: color, weight, abstraction, solid, presence, drawing and painting finesse
Corot: drama, mood, light, dark, poetic, brilliance, beauty, intense, weight, pure, honest, composition, struggle, responsive, presence
Antonio Lopez-Garcia: poetic, mysterious, quiet, dramatic, atmospheric, ethereal, effortless, visionary, presence, composition, drawing and painting mastery
Lucian Freud: alive, honest, volumetric, fluid, textured, intense, composition, expansive, drawing and paint quality

TD: I find your work in photography arrestingly original. You often find wonderful, unexpected beauty in seemingly casual scenes that most people would overlook. You also show a great sense of fun, photographing insects you find in your garden, dryer lint, graffiti from a NYC trip. They have a random look yet there is perfection to the surprising compositions and color combinations. 

NYC Wall & Chain 2011

Do you see a connection between your photographs and your paintings? Do you take your photographs as seriously as your paintings? Do you ever think of exhibiting them? 

EW: As much as possible, I have always tried to take photographs that were well composed, starting with the images that I take for references of future paintings. With the ability now to see instant results via digital cameras (and with practically no additional cost involved), it’s gotten easier to take photographs of miscellaneous curiosities, that I might have otherwise kept as a personal memory....instead of recording them (i.e.: a leaf seemingly in suspended animation).

 Suspended Animation 2012

 It’s also become so much easier to control the results and no darkroom, no chemicals to work with. There are some images that I consider to be more ‘serious’ and I also consider these appropriate only as photographs (and not painted)….there are some crossovers, but I think there is a real distinction. I have been working a series of images that I have not yet shared with anyone, that I hope will result in a show at some point in some fashion. So yes, I do take my photographs as seriously (as serious experimentation) as my painting. But while they share many overlaps, they are clearly different physical animals.

Breaking Through 2011

Shredded Paper in B & W 2011

TD: Who are your favorite photographers?

EWIt’s really so hard to pin down favorites, because there are so many amazing photographers and still more that I don’t even know of, but here are a few: Diane Arbus, Charles Sheeler, Francesca Woodman, Robert Mapplethorpe, Vivian Maier (the latter is a new discovery for me).

TD: Do you have any advice for women artists who have recently graduated from art school?

EW: This may be a bit personal…..but I would tell them to be honest, do honest work, be assertive but kind….you do not have to compromise this. Do not be manipulative; which I have seen in both male and female artists and it is an awful trait. Make time to work, feed that interest, travel. Consider the consequences before making any major decisions along the way. Be around other artists or in communication with other artists, male, female, it doesn’t matter, but it’s essential….for your sanity and for expanding your mind and ideas. Be supportive of your friends. Don’t waste time with people who are a negative influence on you and your work. Don’t pigeon-hole yourself. Get a body of work together that you feel good about and submit to shows and find a few galleries in different geographical areas and start building a resume and collections. Find a balance between making a living, having painting time and having a personal life…..this gets harder the older you get. Take care of yourself and don’t keep ‘female painter’ in your head. Keep a sketchbook….and keep track of them. Keep a record of each painting (size, date, medium, title, etc…that’s easier now because things are digital). Set goals and live a happy and completely engaged life. Remember the ones who love you even if they don’t understand you.

TD: Thanks Elizabeth Wilson!

You can find out more about Elizabeth by visiting her website.  


  1. Thank you both for this brilliant, delightful interview. The landscapes are mesmerizing.

  2. What a great, informative and enlightening interview!

  3. This interview is intelligent, articulate and thoughtful. Not only is the work stunning, but the artist's humility and honesty is a refreshing counterpoint to the "art star" mentality where it's about hype rather than art.

  4. This wonderful interview will feed my artist soul for a long time.

  5. Wow. It is so nice to read her thoughts and see the quiet poetic paintings. Those skies are fantastic!

  6. Nice stuff. your paintings from the UK show nice depth of the landscapes. Your bright bold blue door and padlock and chain is bold.


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