Katie Musolff @ The Pfister Hotel

Apr. 3, 2010
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K..K...K...Katie….Katie Musolff%u23AFthe name rings familiar in the city as a Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design alumna and a portrait painter. Numerous art awards have honored this name the past several years, which now continues and will travel with Katie when she moves to the Pfister Hotel to claim the 2010 Artist in Residence at her new studio that she hopes to name “The Fish Bowl." Why? Because Katie loves to catch fish in a small rural Wisconsin River town where she lives part time. Musolff mentioned that if she hadn’t become a painter, she’d be an entomologist and study insects. While enjoying the fish she catches and then paints, she hopes to someday paint insects. But today Katie speaks to the hows and whys of her artistic specialty, painting portraits.

Q: How did you decide to do portrait painting?

A: I chose portraits because I don’t’ like being alone. There’s an energy you bounce off of in a portrait and then you get to create something from that. My strength is painting a person, where you learn something about them, and how they always defy your perceived notion. You can’t make generalizations. Then I get to know their family, and I like these connections…in fact I’m making breakfast Saturday for one of my first models from the nursing home. I keep in touch with a lot of my former models.

Q: Do you paint from photographs or live sittings and how long does it take?

A: A portrait is usually 30 hours of pure sitting and I’m making a vow to use no photography with anything I paint. I’m taking this as a personal challenge, you have it [the subject] right in front of you. Your brain works harder. This makes a huge difference. I’m much more in tune to painting their presence, not their likeness. So it feels like a full person. So the painting embodies them. A painting may look like them, but it doesn’t feel like them. I want the viewer to feel the painting, not just see the likeness.

Q: How do you decide on a setting?

A: When I paint a person in their surroundings, I see all their possessions. So I ask a lot of questions and have people tell me there stories…I talk the whole time I paint, and we have our silences, but it’s a comfortable silence because we’re staring at each other. But I always want good energy. The setting is very elusive…The lighting has to be right because I’m drawn to natural lighting. I usually try different things, the person has to be comfortable, the light has to be good, well-lit, and there has to be room for my easel. It has to look like them, say something about the person. And I try and paint the same time every day, and the dog curls on the floor behind me and sleeps while I paint.

Q: Do you use any favorite brushes, paints, or palettes?
A: I make and stretch all my own canvases, and even reuse old stretcher bars. I need to feel the brushes, how they handle, so I always buy them at the store. But because I scrub the paintings and use my paint very thin, I go through brushes very fast, so I usually will buy something more inexpensive. I use ultramarine blue and burnt sienna all the time. I could make a whole painting with those two colors and white, they go from cool to warm, complementary. I’m starting to use black more sensitively. You can lose nuance if you use too much black.

Q: What else makes portrait painting so pleasurable?

A: I like putting other people together. If I paint a person, and then show them in a show, and they know each other only through the paintings. Then they all come and meet each other at an exhibit, and then the public meets the people in the paintings. They all get together! It’s all these people that would have never met otherwise, and sometime I put people together that I think should meet. The people are all important.


The U.S. Supreme Court announced that it will hear the case to determine if Wisconsin Republicans’ redistricting maps are too partisan. Do you believe the U.S. Supreme Court will order Wisconsin to redraw our legislative maps so the majority of legislative districts are competitive and voters will actually have a real choice between a Democrat and Republican?

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