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Romona Youngquist’s paintings evoke a sense of homecoming

This story was featured in the July 2014 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art July 2014 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story!
For landscape painter Romona Youngquist, nothing is cozier than a bright Oregon morning spent painting in her studio surrounded by her six dogs and a cat, with maybe a rescued baby squirrel or two nestled in a pouch across her chest. Outside, birds are twittering and, from the balcony, she can see the lush, vine-covered hills of the Four Graces winery. In these moments, Youngquist knows she is right at the heart of what matters: “Every morning I wake up excited to paint,” she says. “I am so lucky to be able to do so.”
Youngquist’s paintings are vibrant and textured, with surfaces achieved through the creative wielding of both traditional and unconventional tools. Her subject matter tends to be regional, often scenes from within 10 miles of her home, yet they whisper a universal sense of homecoming. Her presentation of historic properties, farmlands, and gardens pulse with impressionistic energy and splashes of bright colors. If a singular theme runs through her work, it is the importance of place in our lives.
Kevin Weaver, director of Art on the Boulevard gallery in Vancouver, WA, has represented Youngquist for just over five years but has long been an admirer of her work. “Romona has a talent for capturing moments that people want to look at over and over again,” he says. “I think viewers don’t just look at her paintings, they experience them in a powerful way. They find a little piece of home or a memory of an area they love in each scene.” He goes on to emphasize Youngquist’s passion for art and how it reveals itself in her paintings. “You look at them and know she loves what she does,” he says. “One of her greatest strengths is that she is constantly pushing her work to the next level, trying to learn more about her craft.”

Youngquist’s reputation for fine craftsmanship is growing rapidly. In 2013, she won the Oil Painters of America’s Salon Show Award for Excellence in Landscape and placed third in the BoldBrush contest; her art has been added to numerous national and international private collections. Still, she continuously strives to expand her skills, to experiment with different effects, and to better herself as an artist. Her studio contains five easels, and she generally has 10 paintings in rotation at a time, working and reworking, adding and subtracting paint until she is satisfied. It’s all trial and error: “Nothing is safe while I’m painting and trying to fulfill a passage,” she says. “I scrape, use ends of brushes, tissues, paper towels, and rags—each is used to edit, alter texture, or distress the painting. I always paint in oil—to me, painting with oil is the most passionate.”

On the advice of renowned artist 
Russell Chatham, Youngquist sticks with a restrained palette consisting of about five colors: ultramarine blue, alizarin crimson, cadmium yellow light, and sometimes Indian yellow or cadmium red light, plus black and white. Mixing every hue from these few and making careful value choices is the foundation of her paintings’ exceptional color harmony.

Choosing a scene and deciding on a composition can be a long and tedious process, she says. “I seek scenes I know and try to stay close to where I live. Luckily, the countryside of Yamhill County is a painter’s dream. Sometimes I’ll drive by a spot for years, and then, suddenly, the light is just right and my attention is captured. My family says I am a ‘drive-by shooter,’ as photographs taken on drives are often my first step in developing a concept.” She paints 
frequently en plein air, using those 
smaller pieces as studies for her larger studio paintings.

Youngquist loves working large, as it gives her plenty of space in which to exercise her signature style. At 30 by 55 inches, for example, DUNDEE FARM IN OCTOBER glows with remarkable color harmony, and its bold, middle-ground swath of bright light accurately captures the drama of a late-summer afternoon. The scene is filled with atmosphere and mood. It’s a deceivingly simple piece arrived at through a complex, multilayered process.

Youngquist begins with a thin wash, not a sketch. She wipes out larger shapes to set the composition and then begins applying layers of paint interspersed with rounds of scraping, scratching, dry brushing, and manipulating. Guided by an inner vision, the artist’s process is intuitive and spontaneous, always distilling, always determined to convey a scene’s vital emotional impact through design and abstraction. Finishing touches include thicker, more textured layers, sometimes applied with palette knives or wide house-painting brushes from the hardware store. Of her ultimate goal, she says, “I’m not choosing to tell a story with my paintings but to express a feeling. I want them to evoke memories of simpler days.”

Youngquist is essentially self-taught, having taken a meandering path to her career. As early as the age of 5, living in rural Oklahoma near Tulsa, she remembers “standing in a field just staring in fascination at the deciduous trees against a dark sky before a storm, then rushing home to draw what I’d seen. I think I was taking in values more than color.” But there were no opportunities then to study art. Growing up in a family of very modest means, shoes were only for school, but the freedom to roam and explore in the woods and creeks was priceless. With her dog Missy at her side, she searched for “orphaned critters to rescue,” an urge that is still strong today. “I had turtles, frogs, squirrels, armadillos—you name it, I had it,” she says. “I raised two baby birds: one named Spiro Agnew and the other 
Grover Cleveland. I learned to love and appreciate the land we live in.”

When her father passed away suddenly when she was only 10, her mother packed up Romona and her two siblings in an old, beat-up Dodge Dart and drove back to Northern California where they could be closer to her own mother. Youngquist’s mother loved to draw, and her grandmother “dabbled in oils,” but other than that, she had “no clue about the world of art,” she says. Later, at California State University in Fresno, she studied art and public relations. But in her third year, she and two girlfriends headed to Alaska with plans to get summer jobs that paid better than those available locally. They flew to Seattle and took the ferry up the Inland Passage to Juneau. In her early 20s, with only $65 in her pocket, no job, and no place to live, what Youngquist had was a thirst for adventure. She walked into town, hired on at the Red Dog Saloon, and stayed in Alaska for 10 years. In her spare time she painted with watercolors and sketched constantly.

In 1994, the Alaska State Council for the Arts awarded her a grant to study with Oregon landscape painter Michael Gibbons, whose work she had long admired. Gibbons proved to be a generous teacher, sharing knowledge unsparingly with his young apprentice. While painting in Oregon, she fell in love with its pastoral beauty and left Alaska behind to relocate there. Later, Youngquist’s love of tonalism drew her to take a workshop from Michael Workman, whom she credits with teaching her the power of mood and quiet drama. She is also inspired by the “great sense of simplicity” in the works of Russell Chatham, Emil Carlsen, and Wolf Kahn.

Image may contain: plant, sky, tree, house and outdoor
 Today Youngquist describes herself as a homebody. Her three daughters grew up on “home-baked bread and everything from scratch,” she says. She sometimes dreams of having a little coffee shop/bakery, although she could never give up her art. When out for an evening’s fun with a girlfriend, she loves karaoke, and although birdsong is all she needs to hear during quiet studio mornings, afternoons may find her turning to her alternative music favorites Foster the People and Arctic Monkey to revive her energy.

Youngquist’s ability to achieve resonance in her paintings, to pull viewers in through strong design and a range of contrasting effects, creates a poetic imprint that’s hard to resist. Her paintings are a reflection of her very personal, impressionistic view of her region. Youngquist believes painting is her calling. “I really don’t know where it comes from except that it’s inside me,” she says. “It’s what I was born to do. My mission has always been to persuade people to stop and see the beauty that surrounds them.”

Selection: SD

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