Blair Updike is a traditional-style painter with a vibrancy that’s reflected in her work and personality. Whether it’s commissioned portraits or Florida landscapes, Updike creates engaging pieces with a thoughtfulness that’s apparent through every brush stroke.
photography by Naomi Lynn Vacaro
In the fifth grade, Blair Updike created her first painting — a horse. She did this while attending a summer art camp. Her first impression of this experience? “Frustrating,” Updike admits. She then recounts a phrase her teacher frequently said to her, though: “When you’re frustrated, it’s because you’re learning, and that makes it a positive experience.” Updike’s journey as an artist has encompassed much of this tension — the process of working hard while reaping the benefits of not only a finished product, but also unexpected lessons learned along the way.
Updike grew up in Lake Wales, and it was during her time as a student at All Saints Academy that she began to craft her skills in oil painting. She then went on to Stetson University to study art. But, as with most college students, this did not go as planned. “My mother convinced me to switch to English because she thought I should be an attorney, and I was getting all As in my English electives because I like poetry and medieval lit,” says Updike. She went on to graduate from Stetson as an English major and then worked for her family’s business, Peterson Industries in Lake Wales. “I sold trash trucks for about a year because this all makes sense,” jokes Updike.
Even though her dedication to painting took a brief hiatus, a resurgence of this passion arose once again whenever she felt inspired to paint a photo of her youngest daughter. “After that, I started painting again,” says Updike. She enrolled in portrait and figure drawing at Polk State College and worked toward perfecting her painting skills. “I thought I would go there and it would just be a refresher, but then I actually learned new stuff every time I attended a class.”
During her time at Stetson, Updike had a professor who once said to her, “You don’t hang around the other artists.” This critique first caught Updike by surprise. However, as years have gone by and as Updike has reacclimated herself into the world of art, she now finds great value from her college professor’s insight. “It’s about feeding off of each other’s energy and ideas,” says Updike.
Last spring, she did just that. Updike traveled to Italy with a group from Boston called Medicine Wheel. She cultivated rich ties with this group and still stays in close contact with them, realizing the great benefits that come with staying in community as an artist. She even sent some of her own work to Boston for one of their events recently.
It was at this event where the stark contrast between frustration and growth presented itself in Updike’s painting process once again. She painted a couple of panels for the Boston event only to find out they were all the wrong dimensions. Updike had to start from scratch. “I got forced into doing it because I used all my other ideas,” she says. However, painting from memory was an area that Updike was striving to grow in, and the misfortune turned into an opportunity to be set free to paint something from nothing. “One of the paintings I did was of Telegraph Street in South Boston, and it was so well liked that they are auctioning it off separately at a different event.”
Updike is a multifaceted artist, and this is certainly revealed throughout her artwork, her content, subject matter, and even in the mediums she works with. When choosing subject matter, “A lot of it is not intentional,” she admits. She might be driving, come across beautiful scenery, and feel inspired to replicate the moment in a painting. “For example, I was stuck in traffic on Dundee Road when I came about all these clouds,” says Updike. “There’s this theory that you should be able to paint whatever is in front of you by making the paint look good.” Updike aims to take whatever is in front of her and make it the best it can be.
Updike’s traditional skill set has made her a well sought-after portrait painter. A good majority of her workload might consist of completing commissions. In contrast to painting a landscape that she may have driven by earlier that day, Updike has more of a clear direction when commissioned to paint a portrait. However, she does still draw inspiration from the same source — the subject. When it comes to projects such as these, Updike would prefer to meet the subjects in person rather than paint from a photo. “If you’re painting a person, I think it’s important to capture a bit of their soul,” she says.
Updike’s medium of choice? “I do primarily oil. I like it best partly because I like to come and go and the paint doesn’t dry too fast. It has different qualities than the other painting mediums where you can do a lot of different things that you can’t really do with acrylic and others.” Her choice in the medium greatly reveals her personality, too. As Updike does not necessarily aim to convey an overall message in her paintings, she says she believes, “Your personality is in the brush stroke.” She does not necessarily go in with an objective goal in mind when setting out to create a new piece of art, but believes that “you make choices all throughout the painting” and that this freeform is what evokes emotions in a painting. “I think of all my paintings as abstracts in terms of composition,” she says. “It needs to work as a big abstract painting first without thinking about all these elements of what it is.” Oil painting leaves the margin necessary for Updike to be intentional with each and every brush stroke.
Updike doesn’t necessarily stick with one genre of paintings; she is frequently drawn to Florida landscapes, with many of her paintings depicting Florida’s vast cultural history. “I’m trying to highlight a more authentic version of Florida instead of what you just see as you’re passing through as a tourist or the more commercial side,” she says. “I think the more traditional side of Florida is interesting.”
Along with nature, Updike is also inspired by poetry. An avid reader, she mentions how writing often feeds into her paintings. The writings of Hilda “H.D.” Doolittle, especially, have been a major source of inspiration as of recent, with a couple of Updike’s paintings based on her poems. “[H.D.] uses a lot of classical stories, but they’re more modern poems with a lot of color in them. So they’re more visual poems. I see the poem as I’m reading it,” Updike says.
When asked what her painting process looks like, Updike laughs and says, “A lot cleaner than what people would expect.” Which is true. Before entering into Updike’s home studio, one might expect to walk into the tangible presence of a stereotypical messy artist. However, Updike’s creativity does not come from a chaotic place. “I’m actually pretty clean, and I think part of the process is laying everything out and keeping it tidy.” Sitting beside one of her working canvases, Updike has laid out all of her paints and brushes in an orderly fashion. “I think that part of the work is getting into the mindset to paint,” she says.
Her studio is filled with remnants of the finest creative expression, from the walls that are filled with detailed oil paintings wrapped in antiqued frames, to the tables covered in palettes, to the crumbled pieces of paper in the fireplace that once held earlier stages of a painter’s process. There is also a massive canvas in the center of the room that holds her most recent piece — a landscape painting that she is creating from memory.
When it comes to the important aspects to a painting, Updike says, “I think whatever it is, it needs to be beautiful. And that doesn’t mean that it needs to be perfect or that it has to be about something beautiful. But I think it needs to be aesthetically beautiful.”