Deb Bays

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The French term “nature morte” means, literally, “nature dead.” These days we say “still life,” but it’s pretty much the same concept: cut flowers, fruit, the occasional skull or skeleton, cups and saucers—you get the idea. Within the realm of this traditional genre of painting there are many truly amazing works of startling beauty, feats of painterly depth and skill that not only dazzle but also document a time in history while reflecting customs and social mores. And yes, they are chockfull of dead stuff. Morte


Enter Deborah Bays, a traditional still life painter, who had a thought one day: “What if I could breathe life into nature morte?”

Bays, who started painting a little more than a decade ago, after leaving her career as a costume designer for the theatre, honed her skills in fine art by arranging and painting still life compositions. In the beginning, still life offered a compliant subject—sure the fruit started to smell after a few days, but it didn’t need a break, didn’t move to scratch an itch, and she could work in her studio without the wind blowing over her easel or the sun constantly changing the scene from moment to moment. At first, she said, even the simplest things were mind-boggling. But soon enough, she began to master her skills and color palette by painting objects from life, so much so that she started to develop the skills to communicate the thoughts in her head. Once that happened, she started to experiment, to challenge herself. Then, she decided to up the ante: she wanted motion.

The painting Lion Dance is a stellar example of Bays’ skill melded with traditional thoughts on design theory. Hardly a sleepy, sedentary work of art, Bays considered this still life for years, attempting it two times before finally making the appropriate tweaks to her still life set-up, and striking gold.

The initial impact of this painting comes from the intensity of the Kabuki doll, the drama of his pose and expression, the sense that he is orchestrating the flight of the origami birds swooping in and around him. The beauty is in the simplicity of it; the checkerboard shoji screen behind the doll, the plain white paper of the neatly folded birds, the clean wooden base and table, and the grand mane of the figure framing his almost comically earnest expression. Why, then, did it take several years to create this particular painting?


Bays explained, My vision of what I wanted to create with this painting was clear to me.  I made preliminary drawings and even a full scale study.  The first attempt at this painting was a disappointment. Something just didn’t feel right.  I turned the painting to the wall and left it for a year.  When I returned to continue work on the painting the outcome still was disappointing.  I knew that whatever was wrong was subtle but enough to cause the feeling that, once again, it just wasn’t right.  My ‘ah-ha’ moment came out of desperation. For Lion Dance, the third time was the charm. I read about the classical division of paintings and how to create a drafted armature to divide the painting into geometric shapes. By placing such an armature over the painting I was able to adjust the placement of the origami birds into a more dynamic composition.”

In the book “Classical Painting Atelier,” Juliette Aristides explains the concept and importance of breaking down the surface of a painting into pleasing geometric shapes: “The combination of the rectangle and its diagonals provide a simple means of determining harmonic divisions, for when fourteen diagonal lines are super-imposed upon a rectangle, a compositional grid is formed; the intersection of these diagonal lines determine the location of the harmonic divisions.”  [IT WOULD BE FABULOUS TO INCLUDE THE IMAGE OF LION DANCE WITH DEB’S GRID PHOTO-SHOPPED ONTO IT]

How far off was Bays from her first two failed attempts? “No far!” she said. “That’s what’s funny. It was a matter of a quarter of an inch in some places.”

Once the harmonious placement of the objects was resolved, Bays turned her attention to the issue of light—the element that ultimately creates the most movement and drama in her work. “We see what’s in the light,” she explained, “but you can flip it, make what’s in the shadows the focal point. With Lion Dance, I played back and forth between these two ideas, wondering if I could simplify the light enough to make what is in the shadows intriguing. Having the Shoji screen behind backlighting everything, the question became technical: how do I silhouette the Kabuki doll without losing him? It led me down a path of light and shadow, with a local tone background. And it raised all these technical issues because it’s lit from the side, too. Giving this painting two light sources became a little torturous.”

Bays, who spent 30 years working as a costume designer for Shakespearian plays off-Broadway as well as theatrical productions, at the Hong Kong Repertory Theatre, brings a unique theatrical sensibility to her paintings, particularly when it comes to lighting. Making still life paintings move and breathe, while giving viewers a story that flows, has become a signature quality in her work. But there is something else at play, a deeper understanding and affection for the objects she paints that resonates out of her paintings and reflects her own journey.

“I do have a personal attachment to that doll. I purchased him in Kyoto years before I started painting.” she said of the Kabuki figure she used in Lion Dance. The props that I use are really chosen by the way they take light. I like painting bisque and china dolls for their reflective properties and because they become actors on my still life stage.”

Initially, Bays worked in oil. Switching to pastel, she said, was a fluke. “I traveled to France and I didn’t want to deal with oil paint and all the other things you need to transport. Working in pastel started as a convenience for traveling. Now, the manufacturers of pastel are making deep, dark colors across the spectrum. It’s like in the theatre, when you enter, all the lights go out, then the lights come up on the stage, and it’s very dramatic. That’s essentially how I see. I want to see what the light reveals. I see the light coming out of darkness. So, actually my subject is light—not a tea cup or a doll—but light and how it’s painted.”

To see more of Deb Bays work, please visit Abend Gallery. For more information, call 303-355-0950.