Artist Profiles

Artist of the Month: Sarah Siltala: Capturing Utter Stillness

Artist of the Month: Sarah Siltala: Capturing Utter Stillness

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This New Mexico artist slowly builds up transparent glazes of oil colors to create still lifes and landscapes with luminous, vibrant, and subtle textures.

Evening Solitude,
2008, oil on board, 15 x 15.
All artwork this
article private collection.

by Naomi Ekperigin

It would seem fitting that Sarah Siltala is now a prolific oil painter, as she was born into a family of professional artists. “I often wonder if I was genetically wired to create art, or if growing up in, Santa Fe, surrounded by art and music, I had no choice but to follow my roots,” she says. “I was always interested in music as a child, and studied it in college, but at that time something in my heart told me I was following the wrong path, and I quit school just short of attaining my degree. Later in life I felt an overwhelming desire to paint even though I had never received formal instruction.” Siltala began painting in oil 10 years ago, and her first few paintings were created with inspiration from art books she’d checked out of the library and some supplies given to her by her artist sister. Any insecurity about her skills quickly dissipated when one of her paintings was sold in a gallery just one month after she began painting. The artist knew she had found the art form for her.

2007, oil on board, 9 x 9.

Siltala primarily paints still lifes and landscapes, although she occasionally draws figures in charcoal to hone her drawing skills. “I am inspired by nature and its bountiful gifts, whether a fruit, a flower, a cloud, a tree, or a bird,” she says. “Seeing beauty everywhere inspires me to paint.” This is not surprising given that the artist grew up surrounded by the picturesque landscape of New Mexico, which has attracted plein air artists from around the world for decades. Sometimes inspiration strikes her instantly, and other times she has to ruminate on a subject before she is moved to paint it. Siltala often relies on a sketchbook in which she keeps various drawings, ideas, and images, to inspire her as she prepares to paint. She spends a considerable amount of time determining the composition, seeking to create a sense of calm and peacefulness in her work. “I’m not attracted to busy compositions,” she says. “Instead I concentrate on one or two main ideas. When setting up my still lifes I rearrange and usually delete objects so that I am sure to catch the optimum light and shadow in the final painting.” When she is satisfied with her arrangement, she takes several photos of her final setup for reference in the studio. She often works on more than one painting at a time, making it infeasible to have every still life set up throughout the painting process.

Precarious Perch, 2007,
oil on board, 12 x 12.

After cutting and sizing her wood panel, she applies gesso and then sketches her composition in charcoal. She begins painting with light washes, slowly building up color. “I paint in the style of the Old Masters, building layer after layer of transparent glazes,” she says, citing Corot, Rembrandt, and Inness as inspirations. Regardless of the size of her surface, Siltala’s pieces take weeks to complete, because each layer must fully dry before the next can be applied– even though she uses an alkyd medium to speed up the drying process. “I often play with each layer as I lay it down, pressing sponges, crumpled fabric, or plastic wrap into them and lifting off some of the wet glaze to reveal the previous layer,” the artist notes. “After playing with several layers in this way, an impressionist color field results, with specks of individual color layers showing through.” Siltala considers this layer-building stage to be meditative, for it requires her to work calmly and slowly, relying on patience as each layer of paint dries. “It is a very nice balance to my hectic lifestyle of raising two young boys,” she says. “Life moves very fast, and I believe in taking time to feed the spirit. I’m always thrilled when patrons recognize a feeling of peace in my paintings, because I am capturing what I truly seek to express in my work: a quiet moment of peace, beauty, and simplicity in an often chaotic world.” Making time for her art was an early challenge for the artist, who says she occasionally felt guilt for taking time away from her children to do something for herself. “However, I know it’s healthier for them and for me if I have something completely my own. I also want to teach them by example that when you have a dream, no matter what your training or background, there is nothing you can’t achieve if you are disciplined and work hard.”

Summers Glory,
2008, oil, 10 x 10.

The artist believes that this mindset should be adopted by all who seek to become painters. She recommends that aspiring artists learn as much as possible about their medium of choice by visiting art galleries and museums, and by reading about various painting techniques.“Don’t worry about being original right away,” she says. “That will come after you gain basic skills and the brush intuitively becomes a tool for creative expression.” However, Siltala notes that a great work of art depends as much on what an artist leaves out as what is put in. “I’ve noticed that many beginners often try to capture every detail in their paintings. I believe that when you allow viewers to fill in the blanks on their own, you appeal to a much wider audience and forge a bond with them. When viewers can fill in the details of a painting with their own personal symbols and experiences, they can connect more deeply to the work.” Siltala’s work often allows viewers to do so through her use of clean, simple compositions and subtle layers of color. There is a sense of quiet and calm that is both inviting and inspiring.

For more information on Siltala, visit her website at

Naomi Ekperigin is the assistant editor of American Artist.

Watch the video: Mystic Stillness (August 2022).