Debra Keirce is a master painter of realism with many signature memberships and pieces in private, museum, corporate and government collections. Her art is represented by five retail galleries and she is an active member of The Salmagundi Club and The Copley Society of Art. She is also a juried member of The US Coast Guard Art Program, Copley’s portrait registry, The International Guild of Realism and Miniature Artists of America. She is also an Art Renewal Center Living Master. Debra paints three different themes that resonate deeply with her.
First, She honors the golden age artists of the 17th century with traditional renditions of still life, landscape and portraiture. Their classical realism teachings are the foundation for my oil painting process. Second, she embraces the vintage and surreal. There is beauty in the aging and broken people, places and things around us. Oddities are worthy of contemplation. Third, the vistas, faces and history of America are a joy to paint because the country is so very eclectic, rich and varied.
Debra miniature fine art and hidden painting series offer atypical ways to interact with my art. Centuries ago, paintings were often in cupboards or under curtains until people leaned in to view them. Debra finds that some art is more precious when you put effort into seeing it close up and personal. In these ways, she offers art that is visual and experiential. If you love her oil paintings they love you back by inviting you to feel appreciated, comforted, engaged and at peace.
While Debra subject matter varies, every painting has a job. It makes your heart smile. Can you feel the breeze? Do you hear the birds chirping? Can you relate to the mood on that face? Do you want to lean in and smell that flower or taste that grape? Good. Mission accomplished.
What’s your preferred medium to paint? Have you tried different mediums before?
These days I identify as a creator of realistic oil paintings. I love to paint in layers. Each layer provides information I use in the next. And every layer is another chance to increase the illusion of realism. Painting is like magic to me. I start with a blank panel and end with an image that people have to look closely at to discern whether it is real or a painting. Besides the long history of master oil painters to draw from, it is exciting to see how many different ways modern day artists employ this medium. Unlike other media I have worked in, oils invite me to explore, experiment, and strive to be the best I can be.
Before I even knew what an atelier was, I unwittingly set out on a classical curriculum. I was a student in the 70’s and then worked as a chemical engineer in the burgeoning biotech industry in the 1980’s and 1990’s. My art career was part time and I needed a medium that was portable and easy to use in short timeframes.
I began with pencil and charcoal drawings of still life. Then I moved into watercolor landscapes and portraits. Soon I was selling commissioned acrylic paintings of people, pets, houses and landscapes regularly. When I focused on a self directed study of classical realism painting in earnest, the instructors and schools favored oils. I found myself sucked into a rabbit hole I am thoroughly enjoying to this day.
Favorite living artists?
I have so many favorite living artists! I trick them into becoming my friends whenever I can. Some that I admire and have learned from are David Cheifetz, Sarah Siltala, Juan Ramirez, Ann Kraft Walker, TJ Cunningham, and Anthony Waichullis. Artists Julie Beck and Eric Johnson have been on my radar lately. I love what they are doing at The Boston Academy of Realism.
All of these artists have taken contemporary realism to a new level in their painting. Also, they continue to experiment and learn, and you can see it in their work. I really enjoy following artists whose journeys continue to evolve.
I live in Northern Virginia, about an hour from Washington, D.C. So I have all of the downtown Smithsonian Museums as well as several satellite locations available to me. Of these, The National Gallery of Art and the Renwick Gallery are my favorites. The NGA West Building, and even just the European painting section of it, can keep me occupied all day. The Renwick has rotating exhibits that are always so unique, and since it is a smaller museum it feels like a lot more personal experience.
Having said that, drop me off at Balboa Park in San Diego, or at The Walters Museum in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, or at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, or The Chicago Museum of Art, or The Detroit Institute of Art, and I will be happy for the day. I have spent many blissful moments in all of these places.
What’s the meanest thing someone has said about your art? How did you respond?
I literally don’t remember anything mean people have said about my art. I’m sure they have said things, but I don’t recall. You see, I don’t care what people think of it unless they are interested in exhibiting or purchasing my pieces. As an artist, you learn early on to grow a thick skin that deflects rejection. Everyone has an aesthetic preference and not everyone is going to love realism. That’s okay. Those are not my people.
I get affirmations every day that I am touching humans' emotions with the works I create. The best is when my art brings someone to tears. Joyful memories are a gift that I bring people regularly through my art. I was never able to connect with humanity on this emotional level as design engineer in the pharmaceutical world, even though I was doing work that helps save lives. Creating art that puts a loving smile in hearts is why I am on this planet.
Who was you biggest supporter when you decided to pursue art as a career?
I am so blessed to be surrounded by family and friends who support me 100 percent. At the age of 16, I had a supportive community and I was actually the City of Sterling Heights, MI illustrator in 1978 for a year. Even then I had a community that supported my art in the monthly newsletters and calendar and the children’s coloring book I worked on. I had a scholarship to The Cranbrook Art Institute that I turned down, in order to pursue my chemical engineering degree at The Univ of Michigan. My loving parents supported my choice even though it was a costly one. You see, realism was not being taught in schools in the 70’s and I knew I wanted to paint like Rembrandt, so I set about finding ways to do that on my own.
When I married, in one of the first conversations my husband and I had, I explained that I would be a full time artist one day, once we were financially able to make it happen. He has been one of my biggest fans. My kids grew up knowing Mom needed some time each day to create art.
I can’t think of anyone in my life who has not been a big part of supporting my art career. This is a dream I visualized as a teenager, and through hook or crook I’ve crafted a way to make it happen. It could not have occurred without all the people who helped me along the way.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to make art for a living?
If you want to make art for a living, be prepared to make sacrifices and be prepared to be tenacious. It’s a last man standing game. I didn’t want to be a starving artist, and I wanted to raise a family, so I had an engineering career to get to a financially stable place before pursuing my art career full time. That was a sacrifice. I would be much further along my learning curve if I’d jumped into art thirty years sooner than I did. Everyone chooses their own path, but none of us get here without sacrifice, and none of us get here easily. The journey weeds out the people who don’t figure out a compromise and those that give up.
In today’s world of instant gratification, and visual overstimulation, people want results fast. It takes time to learn the skills required to run and art business. Even if you can paint, you need years of making mistakes on the business and marketing side of things before you start to get it right more often than not. You can’t take a few workshops and become a master. You have to experience years of mistakes and successes.
Debra's Favorite Trekell Products:
I was first exposed to Trekell brushes when my friend David Cheifetz was teaching a workshop in my home studios a few years ago. The Trekell representative sent some brushes to me for his students to try out. I loved them, and I’ve used Trekell’s hog bristle brushes for stumbling layers ever since. However, I recently ordered Julie Beck’s brush set because like me, she confesses to being really abusive to her brushes and her Trekell set are her workhorses because they stand up to punishment. I have to say the Spectrum synthetic brushes are my new favorite brush. Trekell engineers them with the perfect amount of softness and spring. I am excited about this new tool!
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