Artist Karen Knutson: Soul Work

“Waiting for Mr. Right”, Karen Knutson

“The painting sometimes talks to you, and you have to go with it.”
– Karen Knutson

Repetition, variation and dominance are the three principles of design that Karen Knutson teaches her students. “That’s what makes a really strong painting,” she says.

Creating a link between the light values and working with simple shapes can carry out these design elements. For example, explains Knutson, if you have a smile shape – a line curving up – then you want to have a line that curves down somewhere in your painting. If you have a vertical line, you could introduce a horizontal line as well. If you have a diagonal element going in one direction, you could have a diagonal in the opposite direction – “that’s the repetition and variation,” she says.

By the end of the painting process you want to have “dominance” – a dominant value, a dominant temperature (warm or cool). “I like a dominant color. Dominance is everything,” Knutson says. “If those three principles are there, usually I have a strong painting.”

Knutson’s acrylic painting on the cover of this magazine is a good example of these design elements. A warm orange is the dominant color. There are dominant horizontal and vertical lines. The shapes are simple. There’s a connection between the light values.

“If you squint your eyes, you’ll see that all of the light values are linked. See the light in the upper left-hand corner, it goes right through her body and across to the other side,” she says. “Things are connected – it’s very simple.”

The painting is based on a photograph of a woman Knutson took while traveling. “She’s very casual, natural and not posed. She’s looking down the road.”

“Friends”. Karen Knutson

A teacher once told Knutson that it was important to title paintings about three-quarter’s of the way into the process because it allows you to put your soul into it.

“That was really important to me,” she says. Knutson titles her paintings based on what she sees happening in them. “The painting sometimes talks to you, and you have to go with it.”

The cover painting is titled “Waiting for Mr. Right.”

30 paintings in 30 days

Knutson takes December off from her artwork, but come January first she’s committed to painting every day. Three years ago she joined in an artist challenge called “30 Paintings in 30 Days,” started by artist/blogger Leslie Saeta.

It can be scary, Knutson says, to face that first blank sheet of paper on the first day. But she plans ahead with themes, works with a standard paper size of 11″ by 11″ and gets started. At the end of the month, she has 30 images that could become the basis for full-sheet paintings.

While working on her first painting last January she was aware of the presence of a dear friend who had died of cancer. “My first two paintings were about Connie. She helped me through the painting,” Knutson said. And, as a result, “I’ve got my soul in my paintings more than I ever, ever had.”

In the abstract

Knutson was a stay-at-home mom with two young kids in 1985 when she took her first community education watercolor class where she learned to paint. ” It was fun,” she says. “I was hooked.”

“The Journey” Karen Knutson

She took more classes and learned other techniques. In 1988, she was asked by a friend to substitute teach her painting class. Knutson has been teaching classes and workshops ever since – in Minnesota, regionally (in Wisconsin and the Dakotas), and in western and southern states (California, Texas and Florida). “I scheduled those in the winter months,” she laughs.

Through networking and word-of-mouth, she is booked out for a couple of years for teaching workshops.

She is currently working on a technique book for artists titled, “Adding Wow to Watercolor,” about having good design in your artwork.

Knutson works in mixed media – watercolor, acrylics and collage.

She has painted a lot of landscapes and floral artwork, but her heart and soul is in painting abstracts. “What I love about the abstract is that when you get close to a painting you always see more. It pulls you in,” she says.

A few years ago she discerned that her goal was to follow her heart in her painting process. “What I’ve found is that my abstracts are selling as well as my landscapes and florals. It’s not about the money. It’s about doing what feeds your soul. That was a biggie. The public can see it in your paintings – the ones that are true to your heart versus those made just for selling.”

In 2015, one of her abstract landscapes won first prize at the Minnesota State Fair Fine Arts exhibit.

“I feel my artwork is so much better when I am following my heart,” she says.


Karen Knutson