An interview with Kathy Gustafson, animal artist

Kathy Gustafson
Kathy is an Alaskan-born artist, with more than 30 years experience in the industry. She works with a variety of media, including acrylics, pastels, watercolors, collage, relief printing, and papercutting. She also creates welded metal sculpture.
Kathy mainly creates paintings of animals. 

Hi Kathy, Thank you for agreeing to answer my questions!

How did you first find out you could paint?

I was encouraged to do art as a child, so I just always drew, colored, and painted for my own enjoyment. Along the way I found that I had a talent for creating art work with animals as the subject — most likely because I loved (and still love) animals.They held my attention and I enjoyed learning everything I could about them.

After my school years, I took some of my drawings to the county fair, and won some ribbons. This encouraged me to enter some art fairs, and begin selling my work. Since I was self-taught, I had a lot to learn about matting and framing, and presenting my work. Fortunately there was an art group in town which I joined, and learned a lot from the members — many of whom became my good friends. When I started out, I only did graphite drawings. This helped me with my understanding of values, and how small details effect the composition. Later, I started using pastels, and spent several years doing pastel paintings. Now, I also do acrylic / mixed media paintings, as I find it challenges me and I learn new things with every painting I do.

 I learn new things with every painting I do.

What is your favourite painting you have ever done?

I can’t say I have a favorite — usually my latest painting that I do from the heart is my favorite for a while, until I do another one, and so it goes. When I say ‘a painting from the heart’ it is one that I have been thinking about for a while, and the concept and subject really capture my attention. When I finally get around to doing those paintings, they always seem to be special.

     “Hidden Treasure” by Kathy Gustafson

What do you find yourself thinking about as you paint? Does it relax you?

I get totally immersed in what I am doing when I paint. I lose track of time and just exist in the moment, thinking about what is happening on the canvas and responding to it with my next stroke. It is relaxing, and yet can be exhausting as well. I can be really tired after a day in the studio!

I lose track of time and just exist in the moment

What is your pet hate about other peoples paintings?

I think I would have to say, it is when the artist has blatantly copied another artists work. I think they should come up with their own compositions and style and not just copy. This does not mean students who are just learning and are heavily influenced by their teacher, but even they should not exhibit and try to sell work that is an exact copy of another artist’s work.

What are the colours you could not do without?

I make use of many natural colors such as the siennas, umbers, and ochres. I also like Payne’s gray alone and in mixes for giving me darker values that still have color in them. Brighter colors such as blues, reds and yellows are nice for contrast with the animals I paint. And, it is always fun to experiment with new colors that I may not have tried before. I don’t have a set palette of colors that I always use like some artists do.

It is always fun to experiment with new colors that I may not have tried before.

What job did you have before you took to painting full time?
How did you make the transition between the two?

I did not work at a “paid” job — my main job for many years was raising my four children, including homeschooling off and on for several years. I was, during that time, also teaching art at a private school in exchange for tuition credit for my kids, and a member of a co-op gallery, where I shared work days and exhibited my art. As they grew up I had more time to spend on my art, and have slowly transitioned to being a full-time artist. I still teach art lessons, both at my studio and in the community. I have done art fairs and juried shows over the years to build my resume and reach different audiences for my work. I also accept commission work (usually pet portraits).

Any tips of the trade to new artists starting out?

First, I would encourage new artists to focus on developing their own style, one that a viewer can pick out in a room full of paintings. Then think about who is your main audience — who wants to buy your work, who really connects with what you are creating? Think of ways to reach those people. For example, I if like to paint dog portraits, I could arrange to have a booth at a dog show, and be there to talk to people who attend, with great examples of my art to show them.

It is also good to look for ways to create multiple income streams if it is your goal to make a living with your art. So you may also teach art classes, make and sell note cards with your art on them, do a booth at an art fair, and look for a gallery to represent your work in your own community or in other cities. The other thing that is helpful is the internet. Once you have a web presence of any kind (website, blog, virtual portfolio etc. ) you can have it on your business cards and give people another way to connect with your art.

How did you get your name heard?

Becoming known for your art is a long-haul job, and you have to keep at it your whole career.

Becoming known for your art is a long-haul job, and you have to keep at it your whole career. The internet has changed things in many ways, but you still need to be active in showing your work, networking with other artists, and being involved in your community. I live in a smaller community myself, so if you are involved in public events, teaching, and exhibiting, people do find our about you and your art. (But I still meet people who never heard of me, or talk to people I have known for years that don’t know I am an artist!)

What is a quirky fact about yourself that not many people know?

I don’t know if it is quirky, but I like to train dogs and do agility with them.
Some people think that is a little weird. 🙂

Thank you! 

Find Kathys blog at: 

An odd sort of day.

Sundays are notoriously boring. But I was prepared for that.

I was looking forward to painting all day in front of the TV while watching various repeats of “The Xfactor”.
I was looking forward to being a bit of a recluse after a tiring week at work.

I spent the morning on a painting that I had started a few months ago and abandoned during final exams.

At lunch time, I decided to peel a sweet potato, to make crisps by frying it in coconut oil. Yummy huh?
Unfortunately, I didn’t make it that far as I managed to peel off my knuckle down to the bone.
Which proceded to bleed EVERYWHERE.

3 hours in Accident and Emergency, 1 glue gun and some bandage later,
I now have a human claw.   (I exaggerate slightly…)
One rule. Don’t get it wet or it will not heal. 

My dad and I then drove to see my granny in the nursing home.

“Hi Granny, How are you? I managed to peel off my knuckle” 
“…hello dear… that doesn’t sound appealing.”

Despite being very frail, she still had a bit of wit in her.

“Help me.”
“How can I help you?”
“Talk to me.”

So I talked for a while about paintings I had recently done, one for a colleague, one for my boyfriend, one just for me.

“I cannot work out what you are saying. I think you must be talking Dutch.”
“I can’t speak Dutch granny.”
“Egyptian maybe.”
I am an eighth German though, and you are half. I think the German part is the humorous part.”
“You do need a certain humour to cope with being German.”

I watched as my dad cut her nails, filed them, and held her thin hands.
I watched the amount of care he put into it.
I watched as he managed to stay upbeat despite the elephant in the room.

“Help me.”
“What can I help you with?”

“I want a cup of tea. Is there any more tea?”
“Yes, here.”
“Good. I don’t want it. I need to go to sleep.”

I giggled. but it isn’t funny.
Like so many of those things, the giggle reflex came out so that I could cope with an overwhelmingly sad moment.

So we made to leave. I kissed her on her cheek.

“Where are you going?”
“You wanted to sleep.”
“I do not want sleep. Sleep wants me.”  

I then went home, had dinner and my mum found a plastic bag and an elastic band for my hand so I could shower.
I laughed because it looked like it should be kept in the freezer on ice.

An odd sort of day.

Why I love painting more than I love writing.

I love painting more than writing because when I show it off to the world,
they can instantly see that it is good.
You can’t instantly tell if a book is good by looking at a manuscript.
No, its the pretty art on the cover that tempts you in.

I love painting more than writing because I do not get performance anxiety.
Committing words to paper is somehow harder, more stressful.
I don’t know a technique in which to do it properly, without coming across like I am trying too hard.
I have never worried about painting.
It is something I have.
Each time my paintings get better as my skills and accuracy improve.

I love painting more than writing because you can visibly build up layers.
You never delete anything, you are always adding to a painting.
Yes you can paint over parts, but they are always still there, telling the story of their own creation.
With writing, constant drafts and redrafts end up baring little similarity to the original.
Once it is deleted, that’s it.
No-one will ever know the route it took to reach the finished piece.

I love painting more than writing because it is not difficult to start,
and is is difficult to get distracted from.
My mind constantly fidgets when I write, which was tricky during my degree.
I check my phone, I fiddle with my locket and my earrings.
Art I can get truly engrossed in.
I can start one day and stay up late because I do not want to stop.

I love painting more than writing because you can tell what is wrong by stepping back from it.
I need other people to proof-read my writing.
I cant do it myself. I cant look at writing for too long.
And no matter how many times writing is checked,
there will always be something not quite right.

Painting, only you can tell what isn’t right. what isn’t quite there.
Nobody else can tell you it isn’t perfect. Its your baby.
No-one swoops in and touches up the painting once you are done with it.
Authors have editors. Artists don’t.

I love painting more than writing because I strive for perfection.
I never think “oh that will do.”
If it doesn’t look right to me, I will change it.
I put in that effort so that I am really genuinely pleased with it.
Writing is much more tempting to give up on when it is good enough.
I accept my best when I paint. Nothing less.

I love painting more than writing because it brings joy to others.
It isn’t as selfish as my writing can be. Not as self indulgent.
I paint what people want me to paint. I paint beautiful things.
I think “would I want this on my wall?”
I care what other people think about it. 

I love painting more than writing because it doesn’t need an explanation.
Sometimes my paintings tell my story. Not on purpose, they just have a scatter of emotions behind them.
Sometimes they don’t. And that’s fine. 
Paintings don’t need an agenda. They can exist context free.
They dont have to mean anything.

I love painting more than writing because instead of requiring me to think more,
I can think less.
I don’t need to “discuss” or “examine”.
I don’t need to craft together a carefully thought out argument.
I just let my hands do the talking while my brain quietens down.
I don’t get brain ache, I get brain break!


Hey, Imogen.
You just spent 2 hours writing this that you could have spent painting. 

How to… paint a lemur

A niche market, I know. 

But I thought you might like to know how I did it!!

You will need:

  • Paint: I used System 3 acrylic paint in the following colours.
    Mars Black, Titanium White, Flesh Tint, Buff Titanium,
    Velvet Purple, Cadminium Red, Burnt Sienna, Rich Gold, Copper.
  • A variety of paintbrushes
  • A couple of cocktail sticks (!)
  • Masking tape
  • Water
  • Play mat

There is less of a defined way to do this.
But I will talk you through the steps I followed.

  1. Start with the dark areas first: I created a colour wash of greys and purples over the lemurs head and down his shoulders.

    Here you can see a variety of greys and purples down the shoulders.

  2. Pick out areas of dark and light: using a cocktail stick and a repetitive motion. This is great for adding texture and making the lemur really fluffy.

    Here you can see I am starting to pick out detail and texture on the lemurs head.

  3. Block in key areas: First in a plain colour before adding detail.

    Here you can see I blocked out the eye area.

  4. Use your cocktail stick to add detail and fine lines: Using copper paint in the eyes, and don’t forget to add a little white glint to bring them to life.

    Here you can see I have used a copper colour to paint in the eyes

  5. Start capturing areas of shadow and light: Use your white paint to create fluffy legs and texture, scratch into the paint to create individual hairs.

    Here you can see I am starting to put the lighter areas in on its body

  6. Continue to add detail: Using greys, purples, whites, flesh colours, capture areas of light and dark, build up layers to make it look more cuddly and fluffy .

    Here you can see I am starting to shade in purples and greys to add shadow.

  7. start on the tummy: The tummy looks softer and smoother, so put down the cocktail stick, building up layers with your paintbrush instead.

    Here you can see I am continuing to shade and add detail

  8. The feet: Block in the main shape in a pale colour before being tempted to add detail. I found the feet really difficult to do to make them look three dimensional and realistic.

    Here you can see I am starting to paint in the hands

  9. Finish off the hand detail: Again, using your cocktail stick, draw on individual hairs on the feet, using greys and purples. 
  10. Don’t be afraid to redo bits: I ended up repainting in the whole log, using more shading and toning to make it really stick out from the page. I then painted in the tail using black white and purple.

    Here you can see I have painted in the tail

  11. Add texture and dimension to the tail: I felt the tail looked a bit flat so I added shades of blue and a lot more texture into it. VOILA!!

    Here you can see my finished painting!!

    So, after 2 weeks of painting and preparing every day after work…
    Mounting up to about 30 hours…
    It is finished!! 

    I give it to the girl at work next Monday when she is back from holiday and I am really excited.

    Stay tuned for reactions!! 

How to… paint in a jungle background

This should really be called a “How I…” instead of a “How to…”.
I am sure that there are many ways to successfully paint a jungle background.

However, this guide shows you how I have achieved the background
on my current project,
along with some hints and tips to achieve a really professional finish.

You will need:

  • Your marked up canvas
  • Your photograph (with gridlines drawn on)
  • Lots of colours of acrylic paint
    (Blog to come about my favourite staple colours that every art box needs.)
  • A palette (I use empty foil dishes from quiches. My parents are quiche fans!)
  • Water
  • Masking tape
  • A variety of sizes of paintbrushes
  • A playmat!
    Before the existance of my playmat (a 2m squared wipable table cloth) I was not popular with my mum as my painting studio of choice is the lounge floor.
    Hello paint on the carpets!
  1. Masking tape along major outlines. Masking tape is a great way to contain your colour. I use it in copious amounts on nearly every painting I do.

    Here you can see I have masking taped along the logs before I paint the background

  2. Create a colour wash over the whole background. This is a thin layer of background colour which is spread across the whole background. Try holding the picture up to the light and see for the areas you can see through which need more colour.

    Here you can see I have painted in dark greens and purpley blacks around the lemur.

  3. Make sure you paint the sides of the canvas. It is a pet HATE of mine when I see beautiful paintings with scruffy sides. It completely detracts from the painting and it is just plain lazy. It takes two minutes more to paint the sides. DO IT!!

    Here you can see I am extending my colour wash around the sides of the painting.

  4. Start with the out of focus details first. Using a small round brush and referring back to your grid, sponge in splatters of varying yellows, greens browns and deep purples. My favourite to use are emerald green, raw sienna brown and burgandy.

    Here you can see the yellow and green smudges I am starting in the jungle background.

  5. Continue with the soft focus areas, using a variety of colours and shades. Don’t mind if your hands get messy or it doesn’t look perfect, this is the impressionist part.

    Here you can see I have copied the photograph using a variety of colours

  6. Use a variety of different paintbrushes… or fingers and sponges.  I always use my fingers to achieve a really smooth finish by rubbing paint into my canvas.

    Here you can see that I use my fingers to rub paint into the canvas.

  7. On areas of more detail, refer back to your grids in detail. If necessary, masking tape lines back in to make sure that leaves etc are in the right areas to get a truly photographic image. Use a thinner paintbrush with a round edge to paint in detailed lines.

    Here you can see I have used greens, purples, white and black to create leaves.

  8. To paint a log… Re-masking tape the area, slightly overlapping the jungle background to avoid any white lines. Mix up a range of different browns and creams, and don’t be afraid to use purples, pinks and blues in the mix. Use your fingers to really massage the paint in to allow for seamless shading around the log.

    Here you can see I re-masking taped the area, to avoid paint leaking.

  9. Remove masking tape to check on your progress, and paint on details.
    A trick I use is to use the opposite end of the paintbrush to scratch into the canvas to create a wood texture.

    Here you can see that I have finished the background.

    And now for the difficult part. The lemur.
    Although hopefully, for me, that is the easiest part.
    Leaves took me out of my comfort zone, but I think I did a good job.

    I should have a lot of time this weekend to create my lemur,
    so that the painting is ready for my colleague upon her return from holiday.

    Stay Tuned! 🙂

How to… mark up a canvas

You will need:

  • A print out of your photograph
  • A canvas with similar dimensions
  • A ruler
  • A calculator
  • A sharp pencil
  • Space to spread out!
  1. Choose your canvas:The size I use is typically 30x40cm, and I manage to buy them quite cheaply. Check to see if there are any deals on, but you should be able to get one of this size under £5. For me they are a perfect size as I can get in the right amount of detail to do a painting justice.

    I use these canvases which are very affordable.

  2. Measure your photograph: Ideally I try to print the photo at about 21x26cm, as it is simply 2/3 the size of the canvas, meaning no complicated calculations to scale it up. Every 2cm squared of photo results in 3cm squared of painting.
    A bit of fiddling around with a calculator (or in your head if you are good with numbers) will help with this stage.

    If possible, try to keep your scaling to a whole or .5 of a number.
    It’s all very well knowing that your canvas is 2.63x larger than your photo, but try marking it up with a regular ruler!

  3. Edit the photo if it is not a suitable size: If the photograph is not initially at a suitable size on one or both dimensions, which this one wasn’t, try cutting the photograph smaller or extending the background. I also chose to grid up a smaller area on the canvas, and scaled up to 30x39cm (instead of 30x40cm) choosing to extend the background by 1cm at the top.

    Important point: although it may sound obvious, make sure that you are scaling up both height and width by the same amount, ie 1.5x larger in both directions. Otherwise you will end up with a very squashed or stretched painting… Unless that is your intention of course.

    Here you can see that I have trimmed the photo at the top and bottom to make it easier to scale up.

  4. Grid up: Once you have worked out how much you need to scale up your photograph by, work out a suitable measurement to draw in your grid. I don’t like pencilling in smaller than 2cm squares on my photographs as I find you can lose the detail a bit. So for every 2cm square on your photo draw out a 3cm (or 4cm if scaling up by 2x) square on your canvas. This will result in exactly the same numbers of squares on canvas and photo.

    Here you can see how I have drawn a 3cm squared grid on my canvas and a 2cm squared grid on my photograph.

  5. Draw out the outlines using your grid: You can now use your grid as a reference for the exact point on the page various features will be. Start with the vague outlines, and make sure you are drawing into the corresponding box – I have made the mistake before and ended up rubbing out my whole drawing.
    For my picture, I pencilled in the tree trunk and the outline of the lemur first.

    Here you can see just a vague outline taking place, following my grid to get it accurate.

  6. Draw in some of the detail: At this stage it doesn’t matter if things aren’t perfect. As long as they are in the right place. I had to move the lemur’s hand from where I had originally put it, by smudging and drawing on top.

    Here you can see I have marked out all the main parts of the image – with less focus on the background at this point.

    Now the canvas is ready for the background to be painted in, which I will do on Sunday and write a post about.

    Hope you are all well and happy! I am this week 🙂

    Stay tuned!