Jan Hoffman spits out words like “quinophothalone yellow” and “pyrrol crimson” the way most of us talk about what to eat for dinner. You ask, hamburgers or hotdogs? Hoffman requests spicy kielbasa or a grass-fed beef patty with comte’ cheese on a poppy seed brioche bun. Her needs are very specific, very intentional. She speaks of color in a way that most of us can’t comprehend, spouting off color combinations that she mixes to replace common hues.
“I never use black, or Payne’s gray,” says Hoffman, explaining that black can appear flat and lifeless. She has mastered the qualities of watercolor paint and has studied the medium to the point that the element of surprise has vanished. Experience allows her to astutely orchestrate the outcome of her palate to meet her specificity.
“Watercolor is like a magical chess match,” says Hoffman. “You have to be two steps ahead of the paint. You have to know the chemical composition of the colors to know how they will mix. If I choose to layer colors and then create the inverse, a completely different result is achieved.”
Hoffman paints in vibrant color. She captures moments of joy and childhood innocence with portraits of young faces, often her own daughter Tori. She preserves fleeting moments of beauty as her brush paints translucent yellow-green leaves that cast abstracted shadows.
“I like to capture light and the reflection of water,” she says. “I like to make people take a second look at my work to determine if it is a photograph or a painting.”
Hoffman began to feel some sense of control over the liquid medium that tends to have a mind of its own after she completed a watercolor class taught by Gwen Gutwein, a collaborative offering from both Artlink and the University of Saint Francis. While she learned much from Gutwein and other helpful instructors, Hoffman is largely a self-taught watercolor painter.
“It’s an individual process,” says Hoffman of her own learning path. “Everyone has a different dialect when working with watercolor.” She enjoys taking classes but the deeper connection to her medium was gained from spending hours alone with her paper, brush and paint.
“I listen to others,” she says. “I hear enough, and then I go experiment.”
Hoffman has rendered countless pages of color studies where she records a wide range of subtle proportion changes between combinations of two or more colors. She methodically studies and labels each experiment and saves the results in a file which she seldom refers to. The color swatches aren’t important to Hoffman. The process is all about discovering and learning the intricacies of her medium.
“I know the language of my colors,” says Hoffman. “By experimenting on my own, I am more open to learning and trying rather than proving myself to someone else in order to earn an MFA. For me, being alone slows down the learning. It makes the learning deeper.”
Hoffman earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Indianapolis in art education for levels kindergarten through grade 12. As a university student, she was required to take every art class the school offered. The wide exposure turned Hoffman into a jack-of-all-trades, a necessary skill for an elementary art teacher who must quickly grab the attention of a room full of squirrely munchkins. Her training prepared her to think on her toes and adapt her classroom lessons to student needs with lightning speed.
She is as methodical and deep-thinking with her students as she is with her paint. In Hoffman’s classroom, students are encouraged to think and act as artists. Directed by the words of children’s book author, Peter H. Reynolds and his book The North Star, Hoffman’s students are challenged to find their own path, their own painting and their own north star. She tells them, “The path may not be clear all the time, but if you focus on your own north star, the way will be made known.”
The message rings true for the patience needed to complete a piece of art, as well as serving as sound advice for navigating through life.
Hoffman does not present her students with directive, step-by-step projects, stating that such teaching methods “are a disservice to students”. She believes that students need to know that mistakes are okay and safe. Furthermore, mistakes are opportunities for learning. She also echoes the familiar words of Picasso: “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” Hoffman repeatedly tells her students, “You are artists now. This is not something you have to become as a grownup.”
Hoffman’s connection to children goes beyond the classroom. She is also an aspiring author and illustrator who currently feels a strong pull to focus on her stories, so much so that she plans to step away from her fine art painting in order to develop her illustrations.
“My stories are calling me,” she says. “I have to draw my pictures for my stories.”
There are more stories swirling in Hoffman’s head than she has time to describe. She has bits and pieces of dozens of plots recorded on paper, along with sketches of characters just waiting to be born. One piece, The Princess Who Wouldn’t Go To Sleep, has been growing and evolving for 11 years.
“The story just fell out of my head one night when my daughter was four weeks old,” she says. “It was a story that filled the air at two in the morning and I’ve carried it with me since.”
She submitted the fully illustrated story to an editor and six months later received a rejection letter, but the letter was legitimate, signed in blue ink. (Most writers collect dozens of impersonal postcard-style rejections – no ink, no signature – before getting close to their first publication.)
Wisely, Hoffman put the manuscript aside and let the blow to her enthusiasm fade before she looked at her own work with a critical eye. When she did, she realized, “I was a master at making beautiful, stiff characters!”
Hoffman continues to seek the advice of editors and art directors as she attends conferences offered by the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, the mother ship for children’s authors. She has learned to look at her own work objectively and eagerly welcomes input from others in the field. By keeping her cross hairs pointed on her north star, Hoffman’s paintings have evolved, and her characters have become energized, not stiff. Hoffman’s work reflects the life energy that bubbles inside of her. Her paintings capture both the intrinsic and external beauty that surrounds us all.
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