Donna Clair

Southwest Contemporary Artist

How I Came to New Mexico and learned about Art and Life



Jan Herring had taken a workshop led by Frederic Taubes, a well-known Polish painter and author.  Apparently she excelled and he invited her to be his assistant the following year.  Taubes had studied the methods of the Flemish masters and developed a line of copal painting mediums, which when applied to a board or canvas allowed the artist to complete a piece of art in one sitting.  This was called “alla prima” – all at once.

After two or three workshop demonstrations by Jan, I realized that paintings just didn’t “happen” – there were probably thousands of ways to paint and this was only one way to do it.  It is a myth that artists just imagine a painting, sit down and put some colors to canvas and a work of art is born.  Here was my first experience, my first understanding that there was a craft to creating – a technique that had to be learned. Now as I am writing this from my home in Taos 50 years later, I know it is a life long learning process.

Jan explained the method of working with the copal mediums and made a very complicated process look easy.  I wrote many notes and felt that my head could explode at any minute.  Words like underpainting, glazes, cartoon (the drawing), dark to light – ways of applying color.  Remembering some of the Renaissance paintings from the Art Institute….yes, here was a way those artists put their colors on the canvas!  It did not happen by accident, these paintings were made by mixing and layering colors – method, technique, craft.   I was learning new words – a whole new language!

The second day of study we opened our paint tubes and laid out the colors.   My first attempts at alla prima were forgettable.  We worked from live models and there were still lifes set up all around the studio.  Jan gave each student individual critiques and encouragement.   Her energy kept us all at a high level of creativity.  I had never had this experience of  being in a room where everyone spoke the language of art all the time.  Here was a teacher, a woman who seemed to have it all – a home and family and work that she loved – she was an inspiration!

Each evening I made a call to Santa Fe and talked to my babies  at that moment aching to be home with them – to see their sweet faces.  Homesickness overtook me.  Too much excitement – jumbled thoughts, ideas for paintings.  This was the “how of it” but it was only the beginning – a whole new beginning.

After the workshop ended, Jan took me aside and asked if I would assist her during next year’s workshop.  Without hesitation, I agreed!