S&H editor Ben Nussbaum spoke with artist Jess Polanshek about drawing porcupines, working at an art supply store, and embracing layers.
You work in watercolor, which takes a lot of patience. There’s a lot of waiting for a layer to dry.
Usually I try to have two pieces going. That way I can put one aside and work on a dry one. But if I’m working on one piece, you can start on the face and then work on the pattern part, and by the time you go back, things are dry. Because it’s many, many layers, over and over again.
Depending on what I’m going for, if I’m doing a sky or a forest scene, there are layers of light and dark, for the leaves and the sky and the light shining through. There might be up to 20 or so layers of paint.
How do you know when you’re done?
It’s a gut feeling. My pieces are never perfect when they’re done, and that’s not really what I’m going for. If I look at it and I’m happy, that’s when I’m done. I’ve also learned the hard way that overworking things is terrible. It always leads to sadness. If you layer too much, you end up getting mud in the end.
Have you always been a watercolorist?
I actually started in acrylic, all through high school. I started working at an art supply store after high school and tried literally every medium there is. Oil painting, block-printing, book binding, all the different pens and markers … I think I tried everything that exists. And landed on my favorite.
My coworkers, too, were so intelligent, and knew everything about everything. It was way better than going to art school.
So many people have art degrees but don’t do art.
Working for an art supply store, I got to see how a business is run and also learn about what I wanted to do. It was kind of like getting paid to learn.
Are you a nature person, or is it more that you’re drawn to it as a subject?
I’m a massive nature freak! Pretty much if I’m not drawing I’m outside. Hiking or walking or gardening. I have big gardens. It’s one of the two things that I do.
When people look at your art, what sort of reaction are you going for?
I just want people to wonder about it. Generally, people are happy when they see animals. That unites a lot of very different people who like my art. I want them to wonder what’s going on and where this creature is, and kind of make up their own situations.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I sell my work in almost 200 shops in the U.S., my cards and prints and stuff. So probably 90 percent of my day is packaging, shipping, paperwork, and all that non-glamorous art stuff. Then I end my day in the painting studio.
I’ve been working really hard to make a better balance. That’s one of my main goals this year. Last month I created a whole new painting space apart from my production space. It’s been amazing. I can separate the two now, which has been really helpful.
What’s next for you? What are you looking forward to?
I’m not looking too far into the future, because I like to be open to all possibilities. Basically I’m going to make as much art as I can in my life and see where it takes me.
I want to make more books, for sure. The current series I’m working on is Woodland Home. It’s the third in a series of three, after Woodland Kitchen and Woodland Garden. Each has 20 pieces in it, and eventually I’ll have 60 altogether, which I want to combine in a book. I started it at the very beginning of the pandemic when everything shut down and all my stores were closed and I didn’t know what to do with myself.
Last question: Do you have a least favorite animal to draw?
No, honestly. Even the challenging ones are a nice change. I just drew a porcupine for the first time in a long time and it killed me a little because it was so much harder than I remembered. But it was fun. In the end I felt good about it.
Check out Jess’s art throughout the March/April 2022 issue!