Shelby creates dreamy, delicate mountainscapes in every color of the rainbow. Her work illuminates and transports in the most wonderful way possible.
Let's talk to her a little bit.
What’s your background? How did you get started painting?
I loved art as a kid and through junior high I took pottery, photography, and my step father turned our basement bathroom into a darkroom so we could develop film together. I didn't have time to take classes in high school and then I got a degree in linguistics and a masters in teaching English to foreign language speakers. I've taught learners from all over the world online and in person, and I love cultures and languages.
When my kids were born, I became primarily a stay at home mom and after my daughter was born I had chronic pain and a lot of postpartum anxiety. Things were really hard. I remember I had this feeling of inspiration, like I knew I needed to get my own space in our house. So I made a corner in our master bedroom my own. I needed to give myself permission to be my own person - not just whatever the people around me needed. I also needed to take care of me.
I started doing watercolors with my kids and thought there must be a better way to do this. I bought a professional watercolor set, and it was amazing. It was life-giving and so much fun. I really feel like coming back to art was a gift from God. I didn't know who I was or and when I started painting I fell in love with it. Grew up in colorado near the mountains - in Washington state when I started painting.
“Art brings light to dark places and comfort in hard times.”
What inspires you to paint?
I use the name Penn & Light because I think art has a lot of power to do good in the world - it brings light to dark places and comfort in hard times.
I have always drawn to mountains. That's where I found a style that I loved doing and that other people seemed to connect with - these layered mountain paintings. I was at a point where I couldn't get to the mountains and I had two small children and chronic pain. Painting these made me feel like I was in the mountains even though I wasn't.
What mediums do you use?
Watercolor is my main medium and I use gauche and ink to add the night sky and stars. I would love one day to explore more with gauche, acrylic, and oil paintings. or even pottery. I love that watercolor is so accessible. You can get into it very cheap, you don't need much space for it, it's safe around my kids, easy to pull out when they're around, and they can paint along with me. It doesn't require some of the logistics that go into other mediums.
I like the idea of collections, but I find ongoing series work better for my life. I'm hoping to do a collection or two later this year. I've moved around a lot - I was in Colorado for school, then Utah, then Russia and Belarus for a year or two, then we moved to WA for my husband's job, then we moved to Idaho. I'm less than two hours from Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons.
I grew up around the mountains, and I always loved that special, almost sacred feeling when I'm out in nature. Most people relate to this idea that it's really calming, peaceful, empowering, and healing in a way that other things can't really compete with. They're so symbolic too. You can talk about climbing mountains in your own life, the trials, things that are difficult, things that cause grief... As a person of faith, there's so much symbolism and people connect so deeply with mountains.
I don't really worry about realism in color and don't normally paint specific mountain ranges, I like to use interesting colors. It's interesting that you can feel something from a visual experience. A painting can take me back to a camping trip or a hike and not because it looks exactly like the mountains I saw when I was there.
Is it stressful managing the online side of your work?
I was really hesitant at first to try my hand at the business side of things. Art came to me in a really hard (but joyful) time in my life. It was exciting to have my tiny kids and be a new mom and art was so healing and special that I was worried if I tried my hand at the business side it would take away from this calm I had carved out for myself.
I was worried about money, profits, marketing... but my mom owned her own business most of my life and my stepdad was a business owner so I had seen people who had done it and I'd always been interested in it. I thought I would try it and if I hated it, I would stop. Giving myself that permission was really helpful. I was also really curious how it would work. There's lots of headache that comes with it, but it's really interesting too. It parallels creating for me - expanding my learning. It's an empowering process, headaches and all.
I also try and remind myself there's still a lot of time ahead to expand as a business and an artist. My kids are still very small, and I definitely squeeze my art and my business into the cracks in my life. Someday I'll have more energy and resources so even thought it's going slow right now, I'm having fun with where I'm at. I feel like I'm at the beginning of this process and all the possibilities are so exciting and overwhelming.
Do you use reference photos for your work?
I do, not to ‘literally’ paint them, but to capture the atmosphere and light of the scene I’m painting off of. I prefer to paint my own impression of my reference photo and let the mood of the photo guide me. I typically don't use reference photos, and when I do it's for the atmosphere, although I will occasionally paint specific mountains, such as Mount Rainier and the Grand Tetons.
Why these colors?
I typically use these bright and vibrant colors - I've always loved purple, but honestly I've just found specific paints and pigments that mix together well and I like those. I play with colors a lot in my art, but I use quinacridone rose in almost all of my paintings. It mixes great purples and beautiful oranges and makes intense blooms. I like knowing how my paint is going to behave. I've spent time with it and I know it well.
Are there mountains in Idaho you can paint?
It's flatter here than I wish it was, but I live closer to the top of the hill in my city and I can see the top of the Grand Tetons from here and the Sawtooth Mountains. There are mountains all around I can explore.
I moved here in August of 2020. It was a really busy time in my life, so I didn't get to do a lot of exploring.
Do you have something coming up that you're excited about?
I started teaching classes this year - they have been so fun. I'm trying to find a consistent teaching schedule for my family and for my students.
I'm teaching five classes in March and I'm gong to plan some May classes. Plus I have an art market coming up and after the second one I'm going to take some time and go hiking. I'll also spend time planning systems and future growth of my business.
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
I love art and I love the community of art. I had never been on Instagram before I started my art ,and I've had pretty much nothing but good experiences. It's a good learning tool, place to connect with people, and really neat to make connections that way. I like to feel like I'm a part of these online communities, but there is a creative/mental health aspect associated with how much time is spent on social media. That's something I'm very careful with. It's really joyful finding these connections with other people on social media and in person.
Shelby Thayne is a mountainscape watercolor painter living in Idaho. Follow her @penn_and_light or check out her website.