Sunday, September 24, 2017


with Debra Ramsay

by Nancy Natale

Debra Ramsay, Apple in 13 Colors, 2014, acrylic on folded polyester film, 6 x 26 inches
(colors collected from an apple hanging in the sun)

I first met Debra Ramsay at the Encaustic Conference in 2009. At the juried show, Debra showed exquisitely painted works that combined encaustic with eggshell mosaic in proportions that she had calculated mathematically. Her work then and subsequently is based on geometry and its logic. She devises systems to carry out her ideas and determine decisions of proportion and interrelationships within her works. Using the systems she creates, she is freed from the minute decisions that artists must make in creating their works such as placement, shape, color, and design of components within paintings. Each material used in her work is carefully considered and selected according to a specifically devised system. Everything in her work matters. While her work may be described as reductive or minimal, her use of color and luminosity feels rich and emotional.

NN: Your statement describes your creative process as developing around repetitive and serial systems. Is this an approach to making art that you have followed in your work for some time?

DR: I’ve used systems in my work for approximately 15 years. Some of my encaustic work started with a conceptual idea, which was then worked through.

NN: What is your object in developing specific systems in advance to guide you in your choice of materials and methods of creating?

DR: The use of systems prevents me from relying on habits of mark making or composition. I find that limitations, restrictions, and rules fuel creative development.

Measuring Parallels 3, 2006, eggshells and wax on wood, 20 x 40 inches
Images courtesy of the artist

NN: Why have you chosen to use acrylic rather than encaustic in your recent work and how do you choose the particular mediums and materials you do use?

DR: I put my encaustic to the side for a while to try acrylic. I was invited in 2013 to attend the Golden Foundation month-long residency in New Berlin, New York. That was when I started using acrylic. Of course, the Golden Foundation residency was a delight of supplies, paints, and mediums.
I like acrylic partially because it has some similarities to how I worked with encaustic. I use all of the same tools--palette knives and various scrapers made of metal-- that I was using with encaustic. Because I don’t need the heat used with encaustic, I’m also able to use a line of silicone spatulas and scrapers. For me, the upside of acrylic is that it takes me less time to cover a surface. I like that it can have a similar luminosity to wax, depending on the way I handle each material.

Color Changes in the Forest, During One Year, 2015; silk, acrylic, monofilament, brass. Installation for exhibition, Generative Processes

Detail below

NN: Did artist residencies affect your work in other ways?

DR: Residencies have been wonderful times for me to develop new bodies of work, based on my surroundings.  I actually didn’t realize that my surroundings influenced me until I did a residency and brought work back. While looking at it all, I realized that the forms and colors of my surroundings had infiltrated my palette and composition aesthetic.

Residencies have also been an opportunity to work with limited supplies, as when I traveled to Italy and did not want to transport a lot of materials. Also, two months of solitude at the Albers Foundation in Bethany, Connecticut allowed me to struggle  through learning to work on a new support, plexiglass. There was nowhere to go and nothing to distract me, so I had day after day to fail and try again.

 Sky, 2016, acrylic on plexiglass, 13 x 30 x 7.5 inches

NN: Would you expand on how you select colors in your work?

DR: My color selection varies and is usually determined by the system that is creating the work. I rarely rely on intuitive color choices, although I’m aware that the making of the system, at times, considers aesthetics and that by association I’m making decisions that might be influencing the color.
An example of a system “at work” came during my residency at the Golden Foundation. It began in early spring. My studio windows there gave me a long-reach view of fields and hills of New Berlin as they began awakening to spring. The colors were changing in that landscape daily. As I watched the view unfold over the course of the month, I decided I wanted to document the full year of color change.

It was important to me to limit the location of the color collection zone. As in a science experiment, I set up with only one variable so that I could measure what was changing.  I selected a trail on the Foundation property and walked it once each season. Starting at the trailhead, I took a photo, then counted 100 steps and took another photo, proceeding on and on, until I reached the end of the trail.  This walk gave me 18 photos.

From Landscape as Time, solo exhibition at 57 W57th Arts
 Top: Yellow Trail Spring and Yellow trail Summer; above: Yellow Trail Fall and Yellow Trail Winter
The series, 2014, acrylic on museum board, each 20 x 30 inches

Once back in the studio I uploaded the images to my computer and selected one color, either the most ubiquitous or the most unusual, from each photo. This gave me 18 distinct colors to define that season. Using the Color Mixer program that Golden Paints developed, I was able to create the specific colors in paint that I had picked from each photo. I created a series of paintings with these colors, often placing the colors next to each other in the order in which I found them on the trail.

NN: Does a viewer have to know about the system you used to have more appreciation of your work?
DR: “The viewer” comes in so many different flavors, I’ve let go of trying to identify what his or her experience will be. Many tell me that knowing about the system opens up the work for them and allows them to more fully appreciate the work; others have made it clear that they are only interested in the visual. However, the system is important to me and I often will hint at it in the title of the work.

Lichen and Snow, 2016, acrylic on polyester film, 20 x 16 inches

NN: Is it possible to show the element of time in your work over a shorter period?

DR: An example of showing time in my work is Memento Mori, a three-part painting in which I observed, collected, and reproduced the colors of a fresh Meyer lemon over a period of time. I began by taking a photo of the fresh lemon, and collected three colors from it. Those colors were recreated in paint. I kept the lemon and repeated the photo and color collection process at four weeks and then at eight weeks.

Three stacked paintings comprising Memento Mori, a Meyer lemon over time, 2015, each acrylic on polyester film, 12 x 40 inches. Top: fresh; middle: four weeks; bottom: eight weeks

I appreciate the thoughts of George Kubler, in his writing, The Shape of Time, Remarks on the History of Things: “Time, like mind, is not knowable as such. We know time only indirectly by what happens in it: by observing change and permanence: by marking the succession of events among stable settings: and by noting the contrast of varying rates of change.”

Debra in her residency studio at the Joseph and Anni Albers Foundation, Bethany, Connecticut, 2016

. . . . . .

Debra Ramsay is an abstract artist working in the disciplines of painting, drawing and installation. She maintains a full-time studio practice in New York City. Debra was awarded a 2016 residency at the Joseph and Anni Albers Foundation in Bethany, Connecticut; a 2013 residency at the Golden Foundation in New Berlin, New York; and a 2012 fellowship at BAU Institute in Otranto, Italy.

In 2017 Debra had four exhibitions, including Saturation Point in Depthford, United Kingdom. Her 2016 exhibitions included two solo New York City exhibitions: at Odetta in Brooklyn, and 57 W 57th Arts Project Space, Manhattan.

In 2015 Debra had a two-person show at Tiger Strikes Asteroid in Brooklyn and a group exhibition at Pentimenti Gallery in Philadelphia. Her 2014 exhibitions included Hansel and Gretel Picture Garden/Pocket Utopia in the Chelsea section of Manhattan and The Visual Arts Center of New Jersey, Summit. In 2013 she had a solo show titled MAT/tam, curated by Lucio Pozzi at Palazzo Costa, in Mantova, Italy.

Ramsay is preparing for a 2018 exhibition at the Brattleboro Museum in Brattleboro, Vermont.


  1. Beautiful work.Very interesting to hear your observations of color in a landscape over time. I relate it to what Monet was doing in his Hay Stack paintings, but of course with a more reductive outcome.

  2. Wonderful work. Her systematic approach is in effect scientific sampling - to make an ecologist (or botanist) proud.