Contemporary Charcoals:
Roberta Murray

The Contemporary Charcoals Blog Series continues this week! Up in this installment is Canadian artist Roberta Murray. A native of Alberta, Murray captures striking views of the landscape in her oil compositions, but it is in her charcoal works that we get an intimate window into the artist herself. Channeling themes ranging from Native American history to ballet dancers reminiscent of Impressionist Edgar Degas, Murray’s charcoal works are invested with a vibrancy that extends beyond pure black and white. For more about Murray and her work, please visit her website.


Backstage - 8x10" - Charcoal
Backstage - 8x10” (Based on Robert Demachy pictorialist photograph)


Nitram Charcoal (NC): If you had only one word to describe your art, what would you choose?

Roberta Murray (RM): Evocative.

NC: What do you hope your works communicate to the viewer?

RM: The world is full of mystery and beauty, but you have to give yourself permission to see it. Give your imagination the freedom to fill in the blanks and make up your own story to life.

Roberta Murray

 Paint Pony - 8x10"

NC: What drew you to working in charcoal? What advantages do you think it has over other media?

RM: I find charcoal to be a highly expressive medium, much the same as the oil paints I use in my paintings. My ultimate goal in creating a work of art is to express a mood, idea, or atmosphere, so using materials that are conducive to that end is important. Charcoal has the advantage of being able to be worked much like oils through layering, wiping back, working edges and values. The range possible with charcoal, from fine, delicate lines to heavy shadows or gradated areas, is a real advantage. Because I want to really explore the impression of a subject more than the details, charcoal allows me to be looser and to blur the lines and edges.


A Study After Stieglitz - 8x10


A Study After Stieglitz - 8x10"

NC: Do your pieces always start with a clear vision of what the end result is going to be or does the piece “create itself” along the way and dictate the direction?

RM: I have an interest in Pictorialist photography (from the late 19th and early 20th centuries), so many of my charcoal works are based on those early photographs. With those pieces the direction is pretty defined from the start, but I’m always open to unexpected twists. If the direction I started out with isn’t working to get the mood I want, I give myself the freedom to play and often the work ends up going somewhere completely different than what I’d intended. I’m okay with that as long as the expressive quality is there.


The White Swan
The White Swan - 8x10"


NC: The artist has to choose when a work is “done”. How do you know when a work is complete? How do you know when to stop “editing”?

RM: Is a work ever really done? I’ve been known to go back into a piece many months down the road. Sometimes you bring a piece to completion but there’s something about it that bugs you. You can’t define what it is that’s niggling at you, and often you’re the only one that feels that way. I like to put those works away and forget about them. Then one day I’ll happen upon it and the solution will be readily apparent. A big part of my practice is to take a cell phone picture when I think it’s done. Then I’ll sit down later and view that photo on my computer with a bigger monitor. Any mistakes or corrections are usually readily apparent so I’ll go in and make those adjustments before fixing the drawing. Putting some distance between you and the creation process helps to give you a different perspective and allows you to better judge the work.

Roberta Murray

 Pi'Ksii Dancer - 12x16"

NC: What’s the best advice you’ve received about becoming an artist?

RM: Separate self from career. Although creating art comes from a highly personal place, you are creating a product and that product and you are two different entities. When you put your work out there for public consumption you have to realize that it is the painting that is being judged not you personally. Being able to separate yourself and realize that rejection of your work is not a rejection of you as a person is important to survive the often brutal world of art commerce.

NC: What is your most unusual quirk or ritual when working on your art?

RM: I don’t really have a set routine or ritual like some artists do. I usually don’t go to the studio until mid-morning after I’ve taken care of any pressing business. I’ll break for lunch, and then work until it’s time to start supper – depending on what I’m doing.

The only thing that resembles a ritual is tea, which is usually cold by the time I drink it. Once I really start working I tend to totally lose myself to the work and forget everything else going on around me. Then I’ll come to a spot that needs some thought so will step back and sip the tea while thinking, then it’s back to working and forgetting everything else.


Free Spirit - 8x10" - Charcoal


Free Spirit - 8x10"

NC: What’s the first piece of art you’ve ever created? What did you learn from it?

RM: Oh my gosh . . . that’s an impossible question. I’ve been creating since I was a child. I don’t have any one piece of work that sticks out in my mind. I can tell you, though, what really turned my life around though. I was taking a fibre arts workshop and the instructor had us do some blind contour drawings as part of a lesson on how the mind interprets symbolism. That exercise had such a profound effect on me, because I had never thought of myself as an artist even though I’d spent most of my life in creative pursuit.

Prior to that I’d always had this crazy thought that ‘true’ artists had to be able to draw or paint from the imagination without using a reference, and I could not draw very well without a reference. In addition, I had always strived for photorealism in my works and was always disappointed at my failure to achieve that level of realism. That workshop exercise taught me that accuracy and realism was highly overrated and the expression or essence of a piece was more important. It also taught me about how ridiculous my views had been, and how I’d not been following my heart for a number of years!

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