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In the Studio with Shirley Novak

In the Studio with Shirley Novak

Shirley Novak lives and paints in the center of a garden oasis surrounded by the grandeur of snow capped Colorado mountains.

She and her husband Ralph are both painters and have separate studios on the same property. In addition to painting in oils, acrylics and watercolors, Shirley designs and maintains beautiful gardens that are a masterpiece themselves!

You are adept at oils and watercolors. How do you choose your medium?

It’s not by my mood. It started with circumstances due to a shoulder injury. I like to work in one or the other for a period of months. While doing watercolors I may do sketches for an oil. Oil is home. I still feel like I have so much to learn with watercolor. And now I’m just barely learning how to use acrylic. I want to figure out how to layer the colors.



How did you come to be a painter?

My daughter was grown and I was ready to devote my life to painting. I decided I had to leave one life to start another and paint full time. I moved to Denver and took classes and started to paint all the time. I lived in a little apartment in an old mercantile building near Boulder and learned from great teachers at the Art Student’s League of Denver. At the same time I gained a mentor and took care of his garden and chickens in exchange. That worked for quite awhile. Then I took a workshop in Aspen and met my husband, Ralph. We began to travel the west and paint en plein air together. We got married a year and a half later in 1997.



Talk About Your Love of Gardening and Artistry

I love the process of putting a seed in the ground and watching it grow. Then to paint what you grow is a special thing. The problem is that both disciplines, gardening and painting, are full time jobs. Right now I’m in the studio more than the garden. Having a garden is a great way to get out of the studio and get fresh air, hear the birds and the breeze in the leaves. It’s a great way to get connected to the world.


In the fall of 1998 Ralph and I moved into a house we designed an built on a pasture in western Colorado. We planted flower garden by flower garden and seedling by seedling and now it’s like a park out there. The deer owned the property before we knew it. Our early years of gardening were hard. Now we have a high fence and gate around the perimeter to keep the deer out. They demolish a garden if they can get in for a minute.



The moment of discovering poppies

Poppies have been in my life forever. When I was a little child my grandmother had poppies and I sprinkled poppy seeds all over her yard. She didn’t know they were planted by me!  I’m sure it upset her to have them coming up everywhere.Growing up we lived 10 miles from Disneyland. The gardens there are gorgeous. We went in my teens and I saw Iceland poppies in their perfection. I like how the shadows fall within the flower of a poppy depending on the direction of the light. There was a reverend in England named Rev Shirley who hybridized the red field poppies seen all over the world. We now know them as Shirley poppies. Sometimes when you are named something, it may persuade what you like.


You have a special connection to French culture and design. What first got you interested in France?

My father’s family origin is French so I have something in me that draws me to everything French. Many painters are drawn to Paris … the art  and the history. So many works of the impressionists are of gardens so I wanted to walk the streets and feel it. Monet’s life as a painter and gardener has always interested me and I love to see how other artists paint flowers.


What is a typical morning routine in the studio?

I get my tea and my lemon biscotti and review what I did the day before then I make a plan for the day. I might see where corrections are needed, start something new or look at references for a new project and gather what I need. The most important thing to do is to just keep connected to the thread of creativity.


If you could get in an airplane in an hour where to?

Paris. I’ve wanted to spend a month there for a long time. Last year I was there in late April and it rained every day for days and days. I’d love to go in July when it is warm and dry so I can really walk those streets like I want to.


Do other art forms inspire you?

Music certainly … I can listen to music while I paint. Andrea Bocelli — he really moves me and I listen to it a lot lately when I’m painting. Sting. Some Classical music, but I don’t tend to paint to it. For me it has to be pretty music. Rock music doesn’t seem to help me!

Shirley and I enjoy a break during our visit together in Colorado. What an amazing trip!


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Sue Schlabach

Sue Schlabach

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