About Harrisburg Artist Nicole Simmons—20 Questions Answered
What kind of artist are you?
I’m a painter!! I love painting abstracts and portraits—in that order. However, you’ll catch me doing some landscapes and other miscellaneous themes as well. I love incorporating flowers or floral themes into my work too, so you’ll often catch that as well.
Acrylics or oils?
Well, I paint in both, but if you’re asking which I like more, then it’s acrylics hands down. There are so many things you can do with acrylics! They’re so versatile and I feel the most free when I use them. That being said, I’ve been working with them the longest. I’ve only started working with oils in 2021.
Do you enjoy drawing?
Haaaa no. I actually despise drawing. I think it’s because I’ve hardly ever drawn for fun. I’ve only ever done drills or seen drawing as a “skill” rather than something that’s fun on its own. I wouldn’t mind breaking down this barrier, but I have so much resistance to drawing that I think it’ll be really difficult.
Fascinating! How do you work around that?
I draw when I have to. I just see it as a means to an end with painting. Very Machiavellian in my approach, I know.
What’s your background in art? Were you an artsy child?
HA! Absolutely NOT! I was creative in other ways—writing and “inventing” things. At one point I wanted to briefly become an inventor because I loved taking things apart and reimagining them into something new. It felt so freeing to break what things were supposed to be and put them back together in a new way—much to the consternation of my parents when I would rip apart brand new toys… The only type of “art” that I was really drawn to was pottery in middle school. I was actually kind of good at it, but completely shifted focus in high school when I was encouraged to be more serious about academics and college.
What about college? What’s your education background?
I majored in Political Science at Gettysburg College. We were required to take an arts class and I chose music. I was horrible at it.
I picked up a brush for the first time in 2014, 5 years after I graduated college. I was looking for a hobby and at the time “paint n sips” were starting to become very popular. I was really curious, but I was with someone romantically who would’ve perceived me going to one of those events as cheating or a threat to the relationship. Instead I decided to create my own paint n sip at home with one of those cheap Michael’s art sets and some canvas board. As soon as my brush hit the canvas it was like a lightbulb went on in a room I didn’t know was dark. I knew I had found my passion immediately.
Wow! So you are entirely self-taught?
Not entirely. In 2021 I started taking the Milan Art Institute’s Online Mastery Program, which is a [non-accredited] certificate program. It’s a year-long program and it takes you from beginner to professional in that amount of time. I’ll be finished with the program in March 2022. I highly recommend it for those who are interested in becoming an artist. It’s an aggressive program, but I’ve learned so much. It’s been one of the most transformational parts of my art journey to date.
That’s amazing! Do you do art full-time now?
Nope! I have a whole other full-time career as well. I consider myself really lucky to have 2 careers at this point in my life. Both of them use different parts of my brain, which I think is really unique. As an artist there’s this whole creative side I get to utilize, but in my other venture I’m a researcher and data person, so I get to use my analytical skills too.
I bet that’s hard. How do you manage?
Easier than you think! I really believe they complement each other well. I need so many of those analytical skills for the business side of my art career and I need the creative side when I’m trying to interpret data or come up with solutions. I like that I have so many options in my day. Some days my brain is wired to be more analytical and others it just wants to be creative as hell, and I get to lean into those respective sides. Like I said, I feel really lucky that I get to have these well-rounded experiences.
You said you love to paint abstracts and portraits. What draws you to those themes?
Abstracts just come really natural for me. They are the most freeing and I get to experiment with whatever I want. I can’t imagine not creating them. I remember as a kid, maybe 7 or 8, being in an art class and my teacher introduced the concept of abstracts to the class. I literally remember having the thought, “Wait, so there’s a type of art for me?!” I was so excited. I was instantly bought in. So it’s no surprise to me that I would migrate towards them now.
As for portraits, that was another natural theme for me. When I started painting and getting into art, I really wanted to try my hand at manga. I learned quickly that you should probably know how to draw a realistic portrait before you draw cartoons, so I switched gears. I found it really fulfilling and each time I complete a portrait, I just get this overwhelming sense of accomplishment that I don’t necessarily get with other themes, even abstracts.
So you don’t feel accomplished when you finish an abstract?
Hmmm…not really. I always feel like it’s a stepping stone to the next one, like they are one page in this never ending story towards “perfection”. Abstracts are by far about the journey/creative process for me and not the finished piece. I’m rarely satisfied with what I complete, and I’m 100% OK with that. If I was always satisfied, there’d be no reason for me to keep practicing and trying. I feel called to this path and I see it as such—a path.
How would you describe your creative process in three words?
Playful, impermanent, experimental
Why those three?
I’d choose playful because it’s really important to me that my creative process be as fun as possible. In fact, if something about a piece isn’t fun, especially at the beginning, I seize up and abandon the project. Without the freedom of “play” in my art, there really is no point in doing it. I’d rather go find something else that’s fun, haha.
I chose impermanent because I don’t have a set “system” or methodology. In fact play is probably the only thing that has been permanent. Every painting is different and is based on how I’m feeling. I might try one technique for 3-4 pieces and then I’ll get bored and move on or incorporate it in some other fashion. I might also revisit it later. Regardless, my creative process is always changing.
As for experimental, I’m always looking for and trying new techniques. It’s not necessarily about “mastery” for me. It’s about seeing what looks cool and feels free and fun. If there’s a mastery component, it’s how to exercise and ride the wave of pure emotional freedom while creating. That’s really what I’m working toward.
So if you could choose one word for your creative process, would it be “free”?
Hmm…no. That’s really the goal. When I think about my creative process and even the imagery I use, it’s all about this emotional freedom—to be your best, most free self. Sometimes it looks like confidence. Sometimes it looks soulful. Sometimes it looks like a flower blooming in the sun. It’s always what I’m working toward both for myself as an artist and a person, and so I’m drawn toward images and colors that show this unapologetic boldness and authenticity.
How would you describe that “free” feeling?
For me, definitely bold and completely unapologetic because as a person who is free, why do you need to apologize for who you are? It’s confident and strong, almost unwavering. There’s this bright openness to it. There’s also this groundedness in a way, though, that says, “I am who I am, and that’s never going to change. The end.” If it comes down to three words, I’d choose open, colorful, and confident.
What are you focusing on in your work right now—other than that free feeling?
I really want to focus on more complicated subject matter. I’m interested in narrative artwork and wouldn’t mind dabbling in that a bit this year. I also want to lean into oils some more, get more comfortable and loose with them. I could see myself doing a couple of series of work in just oils to really play. I still hold a lot of fear and anxiety around oils and want to break through that.
What are your long term goals around your artwork?
Honestly, I’m still working that out. I really just enjoy creating. If I had to pick one, though, it’s probably to have my art shown as often as possible.
Who are three of your favorite artists (living)?
Hmm…all of these are lesser known, but:
Sallie O Art. I LOVE every one of her abstracts. Literally obsessed.
Kayla Devin Art. I’ve been drawn to her art for such a long time. The colors she uses and her technique is just so beautiful.
Steven Amoxes. I own a couple of his pieces. I love so much of what he does. He has such a clear aesthetic and theme throughout his work. Every time I look at it, I’m transported to a cigar jazz bar in New Orleans, and I just want to be there.
Which piece is your favorite that you’ve done within the last year?
Tough one, but I’d have to say either Tropical Onyx or Dreamer’s City. Tropical Onyx was such a breakthrough piece for me and it paid off. Dreamer’s City just makes me melt every time I see it, and I just love it.
What advice do you have for anyone looking to become a professional artist?
Commit. Last year I painted nearly 150 paintings and this year I’d love to paint closer to 200. You can’t be a professional if you are waiting for inspiration to just come to you. You have to paint whether you are motivated or not. Decide whether you are a hobbyist or you really want to be a professional. There’s nothing wrong with being a hobbyist! But don’t put in hobby hours and expect pro results.