An Interview with Katy Schneider

Katy Schneider Self Portrait Mae 13.5" x 15" oil 1997

Katy Schneider uses the overhead lighting in her basement studio to emphasize structure over minute detail, and to provide a dramatic unity to her busy family scenes. Her very natural paintings of family life are a complete embrace of the complexities of her life as a wife, mother and artist.  

You can find out more about Katy Schneider at her website, www.katyschneider.com

TD: How many children do you have? How many pets?

KS: I have 3 children (2 daughters and a son), a bunny and a dog (a bichon frise).

Family Portrait 12" x 10" oil  2002

TD: When you would include your young children in your family portrait paintings, did they have to pose for long periods of time?

KS: I painted my first child, Olive, from life often. As a baby she would hang out in her high chair or on my lap for an hour or so.  She took very long naps in her car seat. I could draw or paint her for up to 3 hours when she slept there. When I had my second child, I started using video as a supplement to working from life. I took videos looking into a mirror and the children didn’t have to sit still at all.  I could pause the video anywhere and get poses no one could ever possibly hold. This was life changing.

Kitchen with Olive 36" x 30" oil 1994

TD: In my opinion it is not cheating to use a photograph- in fact I think it is much harder to paint well when you aren’t working from life.  Some of your family scenes are so complex, in a sort of organized jumble, that I find myself wondering if you take pictures for reference.

KS: I’m glad you had to ask. I don’t want the paintings to feel photographic. Paintings done from still photos tend to be so even across the surface. Everything is flat in a photo especially when a flash is used. I avoid still photos. I much prefer working from videos. I set up a spot light which reduces detail and emphasizes geometry. By zooming in I can capture a bit more color and tone than you’d get with a still camera which sometimes bleaches out the highlights. By zooming out I can see the 2 dimensional structure of the composition.

Tub with Olive and Mae 8" x 10" oil 2000

I have painted directly from life for many years. This training has been invaluable. I think it would be impossible to paint from photos without first having studied, from life, how to make space with color.

When doing the family scenes, I videotaped the scene in a mirror and sent the video through the tv or the computer. After I had blocked in the basic tonal structure, I would return to the mirror to paint. Only working from life could I find the right temperature and tonality of the colors

Self Portrait with Olive and Mae 10" x 13" oil 1999

Self Portrait with Olive and Mae 6.5" x 10" oil 1997 

TD: Do you prefer natural light or artificial light to paint by, and why?

KS: I prefer artificial light because it is constant. I want to be able to work any time. If I had a studio with sky lights and north light, however, I might be swayed. I’ve worked in a dark corner of my basement for 18 years. It’s warm by the boiler in the winter. It’s the coolest part of the house in the summer. I like the freedom a lamp allows me.  I can position the light source however I choose to get long or short shadows. It helps create drama, it helps me organize and it helps me with my sense of scale. Lamplight feels reminiscent of the warm NYC apt in which I grew up. We had minimal natural light.  I guess I’m drawn to the familiar.

 Basement 10"x12" oil 1997

TD: Your forms are so tangible. I find myself wanting to reach my hand out and hold or touch. The brushwork is beautiful but always closely tied to the subject, with no bravura.  I would call your style very earthy, very honest. Do you see it this way?  Do you feel that you are in a sense re-creating reality, and not calling undue attention to the paint?

KS: I’d like the paint to have a voice but not to separate itself from the space. Image and meaning should be embedded in the material.

Olive and Mae 8"x12" oil 1998

TD: What has been the most difficult about balancing motherhood and painting? 

KS: I suppose it is the issue of time. Having enough time to both parent well and make progress with painting is challenging. It’s not impossible though.  It has been my experience that when I am really inspired by what I’m painting, I find the time to do it. I felt extraordinarily inspired when I was pregnant and when my children were young. Their proportions, their personalities, their size relative to me, my shape, our life -  I saw paintings all the time. I’d run down to my basement studio and paint during their naps or in the evening. 

 Jason, Eliza, Maggie 12"x30" oil 2013    

The real challenge is getting inspired. With inspiration comes energy.  Where there’s a will there’s a way. The inspiration comes in waves. When I am not feeling it, I find myself doing more music or learning how to make croissants or anything- to keep growing. The next visual wave eventually comes along. It certainly is tough in between.

It’s very easy to beat yourself up. It takes a lot of energy to get a new body of work going. Once I do, the excitement builds on itself and provides the energy needed to get things rolling.

Family Portrait 12" x 14" oil 1997

TD: In your family portraits you are usually the one person with the direct gaze at the viewer. Of course this was because you had to look towards the mirror while your children and husband did not, but there is an effect of you being a still center in a churning atmosphere. Did you intend this effect? Did you ever feel that the act of painting your family was a way of finding your center?

KS: Yes this is intentional. I’m the story teller. This scene is not something someone else happened upon and I want to be clear about that. This is my take on my life right now.
Painting anything is a form of meditation for me. It definitely has a grounding effect. I guess that may be coming through.

Profile 12"x12" oil 1995

TD: I’m fascinated with the self portraits you completed while pregnant. Frankly I get tired of paintings of women’s bodies by male artists, and I see your depiction of your very pregnant nude self as an act of defiance. Am I reading too much into this?

KS: I looked in the mirror and I saw a body that was hilarious, absurd, beautiful, absolutely mesmerizing. What you see is a fascination with my belly’s defiance of gravity more than an artistic act of defiance.  Having another sphere on my body inspired so many compositions. It was such a great orb. I felt such urgency to work with it before it was gone.

Self Portrait with Oranges oil 10" x 12" 1999

I don’t understand how there aren’t more pregnant nudes out there. I was very taken with Alice Neel’s paintings of pregnant women. She’s so frank. Having seen her work first, I don’t think I could call myself defiant. I was trying to follow in her footsteps.

9th Month 10" x 7" oil 1995

TD: Many artists find self portraits difficult because they have a self-critical attitude towards what they see in the mirror.  It doesn’t look as though you have this difficulty. Is there some trick you can tell us about how to look at ourselves so honestly and with such self-acceptance?

KS: When I look in the studio mirror, with a paint brush in my hand, I see only interesting or uninteresting shape, color, tonal or spatial relationships. The bathroom mirror is another story...

 Michaela 8" x 8" oil 1999

TD: Your paintings of children have a charming freshness that can only come from a lack of sentimentality. I can sense the spilled milk. Have you ever accepted portrait commissions of children, and if so, have you felt pressured to sweeten and sentimentalize?

KS: I have done many commissions. I let parents know that I don’t usually go for a smile- which can immediately read too photographically as well as sentimentalize. Rather than use photos provided by parents I avoid the sentimental with “my” lighting which is positioned to emphasize the weight of the skull and it’s particular concavities and convexities. I can get a more lasting likeness this way, and create a more interesting painting.  
Jack 13" x 10" oil 1998

TD: I’ve read that at first you thought you wouldn't make a good painter because you didn’t think you had anything profound to say, but gradually realized that the subject of light itself is enough. Do you still think your work is mainly about the light? Because while I find your sense of light and color is very beautiful and quite distinctive, I also see your subject matter as important.

KS: I’m happy to hear you find my subject matter important. There are so many duds. Bland.  I’ll paint the same subjects over and over again. Some paintings end up special, others end up meaningless. Why something seems important, why something moves you is pretty mysterious. 

There is no formula.  As an artist you’re always chasing after what might conjure that magic. In my strongest paintings the light hits you first. Experience tells me that by working on the abstraction, discovering and honing my personal sense of geometry, the “matter” takes on meaning. Otherwise, I am just illustrating.


In the way that melody and lyrics work together to create a song, light and subject matter work together to create a painting.  They are completely interdependent. Some pretty mundane lyrics have been elevated by melody. The same is true of paintings. So to answer your question, yes and no: While trying to make something interesting happen with light, I discover the meaning of the painting; subject emerges.  It can happen with flowers, my treasured children, or a plastic horse next to some dead light bulbs. The “subject” I’m after is a feeling, a sensation.

Orange Table with Flowers 9" x 12" oil 2002

TD: You’ve said that an artist should try and paint every day, and to complete many paintings in hopes of doing one good one. What do you think of the Daily Painting Movement?

KS: I am unfamiliar with the Daily Painting Movement. Painting for just 10 minutes some days has the power to keep me connected to the process. It keeps painting a habit.  It’s so easy to break good habits. I find it similar to exercise. Once I start, I get into a rhythm. Once I stop for a few days, that becomes the rhythm.

Pink Peonies  9 x 12 oil 2012

TD: Your flower paintings are beautiful- as beautiful as flowers really are- and carefully observed, with such intense color. Does it feel emotionally simpler to paint flowers instead of people?

KS: No it doesn’t feel simpler. Trying to make a compelling image is always a mystery and a challenge.  Flowers tend to get illustrative very easily. To find the poetry, rather than to simply describe, is the true challenge in both the still life and figure work. I enjoy the freedom to change proportions though. There is room for a lot of invention when doing the flowers.

Red and White Roses 10"x11" oil 2012

TD: Your tactile painting surface makes me guess that you spend a while on your work. Do you ever try and finish a painting in a day? How long does a painting typically take?

KS: I start out every painting hoping it’ll take one sitting. That would be a lucky day.  I sometimes work on a sanded down, rejected painting. This surface takes paint nicely. Dragging thick paint I can get optical mixes which enhance the luminosity.  Paintings can take anywhere from a day to 6 weeks to finish. A recent painting was completed over a span of 5 years. When I attend model sessions, I have no choice but to finish in 3 hours. I like being forced to make decisions quickly.

White Peony oil 2012

TD: How do you begin? Do you complete compositional sketches first? Do you tone the painting surface? Do you begin loosely?

KS: I often work on a toned surface but it’s not a must. The paintings begin loosely and I try to stay loose the whole way through. I get into trouble with tiny brushes. Parts have a better chance of relating to one another if the brush is bigger. The whole painting is usually blocked in by the first 20 minutes. I don’t do sketches on paper first. I can paint faster than I can draw. Working small, I can make changes quickly in paint.

Rudy's Kitchen 8" x 9" oil 1993

My drawings tend to be finished statements of their own. I have not yet had success turning a drawing I liked into a painting. But I’ve done etchings from my paintings.

TD: You’ve illustrated several books.  Do you have more in the works?

KS: I have illustrated 3 books, all written by Patricia MacLachlan and Emily Charest MacLachlan. “Painting the Wind”, “Once I Ate a Pie” and “I Didn’t Do It”. Currently I am writing and illustrating some stories of my own. I hope to present them to a publisher soon.

 Plastic Horse and Lightbulbs 4" x14" oil 2011

TD: You are teaching at Smith College. Do you provide painting instruction?

KS: I teach studio classes in drawing and painting at Smith. 

TD: You got your BFA from Yale University, and your MFA from Indiana University. Who were your favorite instructors?

KS: I came away with something important from all my teachers. Bernard Chaet had us focus so much on the skull in Drawing 11.  It really helped my portraits to be conscious of this structure first and foremost. He was very encouraging to me at Yale which gave me confidence to pursue art.

Barry Gealt at I.U. said something that really changed how I worked, really helped me play with the space in the paintings. He said “You always stand the same distance away from what you paint. The greatest paintings in history have a foreground and a background and no middle ground.”  I’m not sure he truly believed this but it really got me thinking. I started composing differently from that day forward.

Robert Reed, in Painting 1, had us do so many paintings (15 during spring break alone) that I left realizing: you make progress that way.

Roger Tibbetts at Yale, was a tough critic which I valued immensely. He was frustrated with me.  He wanted the parts of the painting to relate better. In response to feedback from him, I decided to take the figures out of my paintings. They were too literal. My facility in capturing a likeness was getting in the way of me taking a painting to a transcendent level. I started doing interiors.  Light, color,mark, shape, space all became the subject of the painting. Surprisingly, some of these interiors became the most successful self portraits I have ever done.  If I were a room, this is what I would look like. 

Thanks Katy Schneider!

Katy Schneider is represented the Hidell Brooks Gallery. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, Massachusetts Cultural Council Artists Grant, the New England Foundation for the Arts Regional Fellowship, the Blanche Coleman Award, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Purchase Prize.

You can find out more about Katy Schneider at her website, www.katyschneider.com


  1. I really enjoyed the interview and Katy's work.

  2. Great interview Taryn....and great paintings from Katy.


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