For Monique Sakellarios, the first step to every painting, even in her new abstract work, is exactly the same. She paints her canvas red.
Not burnt sienna, which is what some of the old masters did. Not brick red, and not pink.
“Red is my color,” Sakellarios said, standing next to her exhibit in the Nashua Public Library last week.
Even if you don’t know Sakellarios’s painting technique, you can see that red is her color; it’s fluttered among all of the paintings on view here, both vibrantly and subtly.
In “In Love with Poppies,” it’s obvious; the scene, inspired by a trip to Provence, France, depicts a lovely red poppy landscape. “Imagine,” a post-impressionistic painting, as she describes it, is also clearly quite red; it looks like an urban cityscape with bold, colorful trees and an angular backdrop. “Abstraction” is, as the name suggests, her most abstract piece on display — it’s striped with red, purple and orange, with just a bit of very light blue and yellow.
In her other paintings, like “On the Loose,” a sunset scene by a New Hampshire pond, the red isn’t as obvious until you look more closely.
“All of the colors will be affected by the red,” Sakellarios said.
She pointed to the sky in this scene, the grass in another. “This color, for instance [she pointed to a patch of grass] — it looks like yellow on the brush, but on the painting, it looks green. And you can see very clearly the red showing through.”
Experimentation led Sakellarios to her red-priming method; she’d known about old art masters who primed their canvases with earth tones before they painted. These were the painters before the Impressionist period, she said; priming it a color other than white provides a medium value and helps a painter better determine the lights and darks of a painting.
“I tried it with burnt sienna, earth tones, and I didn’t like it,” she said.
It made the painting too dull, she said. Red, however, seemed to make the painting illuminate.
“Red, I found, really made it look as if my paintings were lit from the back.”
Most of her impressionistic work has a calming, soothing effect; the majority are beautiful landscape scenes from places all over the world. Some of these images were taken from photos, some on site, some from memory. Every so often, she uses artistic license. If a painting needs more drama, she’ll extend the tree line to the very top. If a beach scene needs more character, she’ll paint a child and dog playing in the distance.
“Like I say, I can move mountains,” Sakellarios said with a smile. “And I do.”
This exhibit at the library includes something viewers have never seen from her before: abstract art. (And she has a good number of regular viewers; she owns Maison de l’Art on Pearl Street in Nashua, and she won “Best in Show” at Greeley Park last month.)
Sakellarios opted for this new style for a challenge; she’s been painting professionally for about 30 years now. She’s been a member of the Nashua Area Artists’ Association and the New Hampshire Art Association since she moved moved to America; she was born overseas and studied at the Leonardo Da Vinci School of Art and the American University, both in Cairo, Egypt.
Painting the abstract pieces, she said, was quite humbling.
“People have a tendency to say that abstract painting is easy. You just throw colors in,” she said. “It isn’t. … The same principles you use for your regular work apply for the abstract as well. You have to find a focal point, you have to have a lead-in, you have to have values.
“But the difficulty is that you have nothing to base it on … no memory, no photo, no scenery you’ve seen, nothing. It really comes from the emptiness of your mind.”
And if it starts to look like something, then you have to change it.
“We always like to explain everything we see as human beings. We don’t like to say, ‘Oh, that’s nothing.’ They try to explain it somehow. And I do the same thing,” she said.