Featured Artist: Karen Kluglein

Can you tell us a bit about your background and your practice?

I was born into an artistic household—my mother was a watercolourist, and my father was a woodworker. I spent my childhood surrounded by loud machines in my father’s workshop in our basement and watching my mother soak watercolour paper in the bathtub. Something was always being created in our house. Whether it was making furniture, crafting, painting, or tending to our organic garden, something was always happening. Although my mother never taught me how to paint, she also worked in watercolour and our styles were naturally quite similar. We often asked each other for a constructive critique of what we were working on, which was immensely helpful to us both.

I earned a Master of Fine Arts at the School of Visual Arts in Illustration. I loved illustrating because the projects were always different. I even found the short deadlines exciting! The projects I worked on ranged from food packaging to magazines, and even a billboard. Because my work was photorealistic, I had to look for reference materials which led me down some unusual paths. Reference images I needed for jobs included a lunch box with bullet holes, the handles on a coffin, and many food photos. I had a darkroom in my basement and developed the photos myself. For one job I had to photograph an ice cream sundae—my dad’s lucky day since he got to eat the sundaes as they melted under the hot lights!


A promotional piece I painted in my freelance illustration days. “Fruits and Vegetables”


How did you come to painting botanicals?

My transition into the world of botanical art was a natural one. One day I went to an American Society of Botanical Artists exhibition and realized that the exacting style and natural subjects I had been painting for packaging were similar to botanical painting. I went from painting garlic and basil for Ragu labels to creating more traditional botanicals. And as it turns out, I had also been painting botanicals for myself to hang on my own walls in between my illustration jobs.

One of the early botanical paintings, “Tree Peony, Paeonia suffruticosa


Can you tell us about the most exciting project that you’ve worked on?

A few years ago, I worked on a collaborative effort to create a large, one-of-a-kind book of botanicals. I was fortunate enough to be among the many botanical artists who were commissioned by a private collector to be a part of this undertaking. We each worked on similarly sized vellum to create our own page, which would later be bound together. The hope was that someday the book would be shown in a museum, in a display case where one page would be turned each day.  The paintings were all unique, creative, and very beautiful. Each artist was doing their very best work for this endeavour, but unfortunately the project fell through. I am hopeful that someday it will be completed.


A detail from a special commission.


What do you find exciting about the materials you use?  

I love working with watercolor! The colors are vibrant, and the paint is quick to dry. I appreciate that you can slowly add layers of paint to achieve the value you want, adjusting the colors as you go, and lifting when necessary. I don’t paint with watercolor in a traditional way—I use a hot-pressed plate finish board as opposed to absorbent watercolor paper. For this reason, colors can be lifted from the surface more easily, although I do avoid having to lift. Instead, I slowly build up layers of paint. Because of this I find watercolor to be a forgiving medium to work with. 


Do you have any ‘studio hacks’ that you’d like to share, any items you repurpose? 

I use lots of little saucers or plates as palettes. One recent painting had many different elements, so I had colors on one plate for one type of mushroom, another plate for leaves and moss, etc. I worked on the painting on and off for a year, so I always had the exact mix of paint available to go back to. 

I also collect wild turkey and hawk feathers from the woods so that I can use them to brush off eraser frazzles from a painting. A nice perk is that the feathers are pretty! 


Small white plates used as palettes and turkey feathers.


What is your favourite tool in your studio and how do you use it? 

One of the more unusual tools I like to use is a reducing glass, which does the opposite of a magnifying glass. When you hold it up to your painting, the painting will appear smaller. It is a method of seeing the image in a different way. The effect is like holding the painting up to a mirror, as it allows you to see your work from a different perspective and helps me determine whether something should be added or adjusted.


A reducing glass lets you see your painting in a smaller size.


What inspires you and how do you stay motivated?

I always feel inspired and excited when I begin a new painting, when I first apply paint and see things unfold before my eyes. I usually envision what the image could look like and remind myself that it is a matter of making it happen. The technique used for botanical painting is slow and methodical. You find yourself concentrating and quickly get into a meditative relaxed zone. Hours can go by—I’m sure this process must have some beneficial health benefits!


What’s the best thing about being an artist today? 

Being a professional artist today is a juggling act. You must be creative and explore different avenues to create income. But the ability to create and do what you love is very satisfying. The freedom to make your own schedule is also nice, although the line between work and free time can get blurred. Another advantage artists have today is access to the internet, where we can find inspiration and connect with others that have the same interests.


Do you have one piece of advice for artists just starting out?

This is often said but probably the most important thing when you start out is to draw every day. It may seem like you don’t have time but if you carry a small sketchbook and pencil with you there are many places where you can work. Waiting in your car, in the doctors waiting room or with the tv on at night are  times to consider. What you draw does not have to be elaborate and can be anything around you (a spoon, book, seashell, etc.).

Lots of practice helps eye hand coordination, will make you familiar with proportions and will build confidence.


Are there any current or upcoming projects that you’d like to share?

This past September, my daughter and I went foraging for wild beach plums in Montauk, New York. We had never harvested them before, but we had high hopes of making beach plum jelly. When we found the plums, they were of jewel-like colours, often with a dusty blue bloom. To my surprise they were truly stunning! My first thought was that I have to paint them. I took many photos of the plums and their accompanying branches and leaves, made colour notes, and measured them for future reference since I knew I would not have time to paint them for a while. I expect it will be a complicated composition and a bit of a puzzle to figure out. Luckily, I have my notes since the plums are now out of season (and have been made into jelly!).  I am excited to begin this new project soon!


Beach plums for jam and a future painting.

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