Preview The Book
Dot Bunn designs before she paints, analyzes every step
by Bridget Brier
Little Green Shed
Dot Bunn rests atop a wooden stool in her Bucks County studio and looks out a window while searching for the right word to express her thoughts on painting. “Oh look, a hummingbird!” she exclaims. “Did you see it? It was just there.”
Seconds later the scene from the window, save the lush summer flora, is hummingbird-free. The years of watching and waiting have given Bunn an eye for the ephemeral. “I drive by a lot of scenery and there’s nothing there and one day you drive by and it lights up and it is the moment for that thing. If you can find that moment then you find something just beyond it that exists. You capture it in its most beautiful state and that’s what you’re after.”
Bunn is best known for her oil on board landscapes although her recent foray into figurative painting has received accolades. Yet, landscape or figure, her subject matter must capture something more elusive. “You want to tap into that essence that real … I don’t know what it is, that quintessential essence. It’s not superficial. If you go out just looking at a landscape or barn, it won’t have soul. If you go out looking for a moment in light, its moment in light, then you get something beyond that and people just identify with it,” she said.
Each of Bunn’s paintings begins as a photograph, which she then downloads into her computer. For her it is not an option to simply copy the photo; she manipulates the image until it rivals that in her mind’s eye. “There is a great deal of distortion from these photographs. You can’t just reproduce the picture the way it is. It’s a science in a sense,” she said. After looking at the image in grayscale she moves it to a grid, “so that things work in better harmony with each other,” she explains.
Bunn speaks spiritually yet practically about her painting method. She has a head full of white and grey hair but an air that conveys a younger woman’s youth and one begins to sense that all of her searching for, “the essence,” of some thing has kept the symptoms of aging at bay. Yet, for all the mysticism, Bunn credits the success of her paintings to the large degree of control she maintains.
A sentence is written in pale green paint over a large bay window in her studio. “Without design, there may be representation, but there can be no art.” It is a quote from Kenyon Cox, a sculptor from the 1800s. “If you don’t design the piece it may look like something but it isn’t art. It’s the principle we live by. You can’t just throw a piece of artwork together like you can’t write any old thing. You have to have structure,” she explains.
Detail of Remnants of Time
Door to the Garden
Describing herself as a classical painter of the traditional style, Bunn emphasizes that the techniques she practices are centuries old. “People go out and they paint what they see and wonder why it’s not a great painting. Even people like [Edward Willis] Redfield were not painting directly what they saw, they were interpreting it through their own sensibility. I bring the image back. I put it on the computer. I digitally play with it until I see what my mind remembers it looks like out there. Then you alter it once more when it comes to canvas and this is something that artists have been doing since the Renaissance, which is maintaining a two-dimensional plane while they were painting a three- dimensional object. You don’t ever want to lose that otherwise you have holes in the canvas. You have to balance.”
Bunn’s landscapes have brought her a large degree of her success, and she continues to paint the quiet scenes inspired by Bucks County, but her present passion is painting people engrossed in their own raison d’etre. She’s looking for people who are engaged in an activity that they are somehow taken by, “because it changes them. They become engrossed in that activity,” she said. Although Bunn explains it is not always easy for her to capture an image of her subjects.
“I’ve had to photograph and work with people who think they’re having portraits done and they keep sitting there and smiling. I have to finally get them out of that somehow and get them focused on what they do because then they forget me and get involved and that’s the beauty of the picture. Of course it shouldn’t be staged, it should be something that they are really and truly invested in.” Bunn acknowledges this technique for the success of several of her character studies. “I did a painting of a seamstress and people invariably came up to me and said I remember my mother, my grandmother … so there was something in the picture that was quintessential to people sewing and they picked it up.”
Autumn at Prallsville Mill
Bunn is quick to point out, however, these are not quite portraits. “I’m more looking for the passage of light over form. I’m more interested in something that allows me to use color in an unusual way.” Bunn’s credits her distinctive use of color to the time she spends studying under Myron Barnstone of Barnstone Studio in Coplay. Barnstone is a renowned teacher who stresses the underlying design of each painting. Bunn speaks highly of Barnstone and encourages other artists to study with him “He’s the person who will take you through that wall to the next level and teach you how to self-critique. I will probably study with him and reference back to him for critiques for as long as he’s willing to keep doing it.”
Bunn’s goal in each picture is to formulate a color system. “I have to come up with a key so one color becomes a spark color for the whole thing. Something’s got to dominate,” she said. “You’re constantly making decisions.” Bunn motions to an unfinished landscape painting. Black and white geese dot the foreground, while a stone barn occupies the background. “In this picture blue violet is my key color so everything else has to be kept in the warmer colors so that the little bit of blue violet brings all the other colors to life.” As she mentions this, one’s eye appreciates the depth of the painting, accentuation by this deep violet. Bunn takes special care with each step of a painting, always analyzing, always accessing. “There’s a lot of garbage that goes in and out while you’re trying to get that essence and you can’t force it. If you’re just pushing it out to make money it shows, you see it.”