Iris Scott: The Fine Art Finger Painter

A Conversation with the Artist

Painting by Iris Scott

In 2009, Iris Scott earned her degree in Bachelor of Fine Arts from Washington State University. But more importantly, she took a decision that affected her entire life. She set her sail about and reached Taiwan to dedicate an entire year to hone her skills at a relatively lower cost of living.

But the universe had an even bigger surprise in store for her.

In this interview, Iris Scott reveals how she came to create the first of the ‘impressionist finger paintings’ series. The soft touches of her fingers started producing magical effects on canvas.

Her fine art finger painting did not escape the notice of her admirers. And, soon, Iris started crisscrossing the globe collecting fragments of images and translating them on the canvas with her waltzing fingers.

Finger painting was an idea that occurred to you accidentally, but it has developed into your passion and profession since. Tell us about the sensations you feel as an artist while you are engaged in developing a piece.

It may be true that laziness, in general, is not a good thing, however, there are exceptions to nearly every rule, and for me, a brief moment of laziness in 2009 led to my discovery of oil finger painting. It happened because I was too engrossed in my painting to bother washing brushes, so I skipped cleaning the brushes and began manipulating the oils with my fingertips.

I felt like a pianist who had just discovered that she could play with more than one digit, it was like stumbling upon a new technology. Tactilely speaking the sensation was superior to brushes, after all, finger painting is perhaps the oldest medium known to man.

The icing on the cake was the immediate discovery that not only did I like these new paintings more, but people agreed with me! They were undeniably my best works, one thing led to another, and now when people ask me what I do for a living I smile and respond, ‘well, I’m the world’s only professional fine art finger painter.’

I happen to believe that the meaning of life is love and creativity. My partner told me once that I have ‘painting-bearing hips’, and it’s sort of true the artworks are like my babies.

The question posed is how I feel while engaged in the development of a new finger painting, to which my answer is ‘high’. I feel high, and depending on the strength of the piece, that high can be so elating that I burst into laughter alone in the studio just giddy with what’s happening to me.

Creativity is mysterious, and sometimes when it flows through me I feel like an observer. My favourite paintings are those which are not recognisable to me as being mine. At times when I really stumble upon something I love deeply the feeling is near panic, my heart nearly pounds out of my chest and my breaths get short.

I carry a camera everywhere I go, missing the opportunity to capture a moment of beauty is a phobia of mine.

Purple Rain, Painting by Iris Scott
Purple Rain

How early did you discover your love for painting? Can you identify the earliest influences that prompted the commencement of your journey as an artist? How much did your formal training contribute to your development?

How early did my love for painting begin is actually more of a question of when did my childhood peers stop pursuing art. Have you not noticed how 99% of youngsters drop out of drawing and painting around 11?

Nearly all adult artists will tell you that it all began getting serious about around 11 with a peer-given label as the ‘class artist’. I ran with the label, embraced it entirely and desired nothing more than to fulfil the prophecy that I was a real artist.

Luckily my elementary teacher Barabara Quirie was an artist herself and trained her students with a degree of seriousness rare to elementary classrooms. As I progressed through elementary, junior and high school grades the gap got bigger and bigger as more and more students gave up while I continued to practice drawing and painting almost daily.

There was no single How-To-Draw / Paint book in the Maple Valley Library which I had not read cover to cover. I taught myself the fundamentals of realistic drawing and traditional painting skills. In fact, I do not actually believe in talent, but I do believe in the desire to be talented. Later in college, I attended a small art school in Florence, Italy.

Miss Gibbons and the Scarf, Painting by Iris Scott
Miss Gibbons and the Scarf

How did your residence in Taiwan and travels to the different parts of the world, including Thailand and Nicaragua, shape your views about the world and also help you as an artist?

Taiwan went so well that it only made sense to combine my two passions, art and travel, into one comprehensive career. I’ve noticed over the past few years that I have a tendency every couple of months in Seattle to become stir-crazy and creativity-blocked.

But the affliction can be easily cured with a plane ticket abroad. Armed with a camera and a sketchbook, I find that a brand new country, culture, cuisine and climate are recipes for rejuvenated creativity and a recharged interest in being alive.

Upon returning to the Seattle studio it’s a thrill to start new paintings inspired by the countries. Along the way I’ve learned just how little stuff I can own too, which frees the brain to pursue what really matters — creativity and  love.

How do you feel about being exposed to the different cultures of the world?

One of my favourite parts of diving into the new places like Taiwan, Thailand or Nicaragua is that when you’re travelling you are in an elevated state of awareness. You’re more awake.

Colours are new, smells are new, language is new, even small things like how people drive is new. Suddenly a car ride isn’t just a car ride from point A to point B, instead, it’s a terrifying high-speed trip on the shoulder of the freeway because the driver doesn’t feel like sitting in traffic.

By the same token, I see ideas for paintings at a much more frequent rate than when I’m at home in Seattle. Ever notice how you have so much to talk about when you return from a trip, stories pour out of your mouth, right?

The same reigns true for painting, upon returning to the studio after a jaunt abroad I’m literally saturated with new ideas. The question isn’t what to paint, the question is which one gets to be painted first?

You challenged yourself of being out of the comfort zone when you took a decision to move your base from your hometown in the US to Southern Taiwan. Do you believe this to be one of the turning points of your career? Did it cause much trepidation before an actual commitment was made?

Moving to Asia as a recent college graduate was exactly the moment that headed me towards becoming a professional painter. But how did I know it would turn out that way? It’s hard to say why I knew I needed to go to Taiwan that year, it was a little scary, random, all I had was a small backpack and the address of a hostel.

I knew nobody and didn’t care; it was just time to fly away for a year. I remember coming out of the subway and breathing the Taiwanese air for the first time, it was a cross between the car exhaust and palm trees. Emerged from their underground transit up into the centre of Kaohisung’s mid-morning hustle and bustle was exhilarating.

It was blazing hot and a thousand scooters flew around a giant roundabout. I didn’t speak Chinese whatsoever, but within one day I had met a local girl named Joo-Lee who insisted I come live with her and her roommates. I jumped on the back of her scooter and within two weeks I had an oceanside studio all to myself for just $100/month.

Later I bought paint, canvas and an easel and got to work painting all day every day. This is the only way to improve — major practice hours! It was while living in the inexpensive Taiwanese city of Kaohsiung that I sold my first finger painting over Facebook to a couple in Washington State.

I quickly realised that frugality plus the internet would be the key to entering my dream profession, but first I would need to practice every day for a year.

Thai Floating Market, Painting by Iris Scott
Thai Floating Market

While developing an idea is there any specific element you particularly look forward to? Now that your fingertips dance on the canvas to create these fascinating works of art are they more intimate now in comparison to the past when you opted for brushes?

I wear purple nitrile gloves when I paint and I reuse them day after day. They’re thin enough that I can feel even the tiniest imperfection in the paint, like a lump, before it ever dares touches the canvas.

Yes, it is more intimate, also I can paint literally five times faster with 5 fingertips because I have five times the contact points.

One of my absolute favourite aspects of painting with gloves is cleaning up, it requires no more than 3 seconds with a paper towel. I can jump from bright yellows to dark staining blues immensely faster than I ever did while using brushes. But what I absolutely find to be the most important advantage of finger painting is ironically its limitations.

Finger painting cannot accomplish fine details — so I don’t do the fine details! Ha! Impressionism is finger painting’s strength so that’s what I run with. In many ways I’m just the observer, the experimenter, carefully collecting my notes on what finger painting is good at naturally and then utilising all those strengths to create a painting whose natural style is merely a side effect of gracefully collected limitations.

Your paintings are also vividly colourful. Is that how you love to see the world?

I see the world through finger-painted glasses… When I was little I used to stand in the paint aisle of the Daniel Smith Art Supply store in Seattle, WA. I would hold the tubes of paint like they were made of gold and for a high school kid with no income, they were, in a way, made of gold.

Thirty dollars a tube was a small fortune at the time. I would fantasise about owning the entire paint displays someday if I won the lottery. That dream has nearly come true! Somehow I now own nearly every colour the brand offers.

Did you know oils lose a slight degree of potency the moment their particles mix together? The less touched the better, so rather than mix paint on a palette, I slap paint straight onto my fingertips from the tubes and let all mixing occur when colours collide on the canvas. I’m glutinous, it’s a guilty pleasure.

Colleen, Painting by Iris Scott

Is there a particular piece or project that you loved executing which also posed you the biggest of the challenges? From or beyond the world of art has there been any defining moment or memorable experience that you would want to share with our readers?

Yes. I was recently approached by Microsoft to execute an enormous custom finger painting for their ‘Home of The Future’ living room space at their Executive Briefing Center in Redmond, WA. Rather than finger paint onto a traditional canvas, I painted on a giant touchscreen using a proprietary oil paint simulator called FreshPaint. The completed artwork now exists as a digitally projected 110˝ x 40˝ image of Koi swimming beneath impressionistic water lilies.

After my experience with Microsoft’s emergent painting simulation technology, I predict there will be a major shift in the way painting is learned. While I do not predict digital oil painting will replace the tactile oils on canvas, I do believe that the technology will revolutionise art education in the same way that flight simulators revolutionized pilot schools. More projects with Microsoft are in the pipeline, so stay tuned…

How would you like to summarise your journey thus far as an artist and human being?

If someone had asked me 5 years ago before all this happened, ‘Iris, if you could do anything and if money didn’t matter, what would you do with your life?’ I would have answered that my ideal would be to paint nearly every day and travel the globe.

Shockingly it has happened. Now the new question is how far can I take it? How much of the world can I see and how deeply can I go with painting? In other words, how deeply head-over-heels in love with my work and with the world can I fall?

Portrait of Iris Scott

Iris Scott enjoys…

Iris loves experiencing the vibrant hues of saltwater reefs anywhere near the equator and it comes as no surprise that the colour of shimmering squids captivates her. Whenever she finds time she gladly turns the pages of The Cosmic Serpent by Jeremy Narby in deep ‘contemplation of the mystery’. Her favourite film is Paper Moon. She also loves relaxing with the music of Bonobo playing in the background.

Find more of her work at her website.

Image Courtesy: Iris Scott