In a softly lit space in Lemont, Jennifer Kane carefully lifts some paint from a color-drenched palette and applies it to canvas.
Using a painter’s knife — her preferred tool — she smooths and blends the colors together before wiping the blade clean again. She stands back, gazing intently, then chooses another color to apply.
She’s working on a commissioned piece, an image of a young father and toddler daughter walking hand in hand in the surf. It’s a charming scene, rich in color and her gentle, nuanced style captures the tenderness of the moment. The muted lines bring to mind the work of impressionist Mary Cassatt.
“I would describe my paintings as modern or contemporary impressionism,” she said. “It’s not exactly impressionism, but my paintings aren’t extremely literal or realistic either.”
But it’s her landscape work, tranquil renderings of local natural areas in danger of being developed, for which she is best known. An avid outdoorsman and naturalist, she finds inspiration outdoors.
“Some of my favorite places are Black Moshannon, Whipple Dam, Rothrock Forest,” she said. “I’ll never run out of subject material.”
For the past four years, Kane has been helping ClearWater Conservancy, a local organization dedicated to preserving area lands from development, by donating artwork to the group’s annual benefit auction. Her 30-by-40 canvases feature a scene from whatever piece of land the conservancy has been focusing its efforts on that year.
Kane had been involved with the group’s benefit auctions on a smaller scale when ClearWater’s Executive Director Jennifer Shuey approached her about doing a large-scale work. The idea appealed to her.
“I really believe in what they’re doing,” Kane said. “I’d been wanting to find a way to donate in a big way, really do it right. And I realized there was a bigger significance in that it’s memorializing their work for the year.”
Her work provides more than just financial gain for the group, Shuey said. “I know it’s really important to try and reach people with a conservancy message through a variety of ways,” she said. “Some people respond to the science of it, for some, art really makes the message.”
Kane spends more than three months, working off and on, completing the project. “Every year I think it’s going to be easy,” she said with a laugh. “I say I’m going to take a week and just focus on that, and it’s never that way.”
A good portion of that time is spent getting to know her subject.
“I have to go on location many times, walk it, get familiar with it, sketching it, creating an image I feel embodies the place,” she said. “That’s really important to me, the concept that any landscape I paint is a portrait of that place.”
In order to capture the essence of a landscape, Kane likes to work onsite. It can be difficult getting materials there, but for Kane, there’s nothing like working outside.“Once you walk into that environment, there’s movement and there’s motion and an awareness of the environment in you that all goes into the energy of creating the painting,” she said.
“Her paintings have so much power and emotion to them, yet she’s so soft-spoken,” Kathleen Chouit, who owns Kane’s “First Light,” said in “Sentinel Canvas,” a locally produced documentary about Kane. “For me, it just captures that moment.”
Kane lives in Boalsburg with her husband, a professor of engineering at Penn State, and a son and a daughter. And although she has a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in painting and a Master of Fine Arts degree in costume design from the University of Illinois, she considers herself a mostly self-taught painter, especially when it comes to her landscape work.
“Ironically, no one ever taught me landscape painting,” she said. Instead, she took some of what she learned at a landscape workshop and tweaked it to suit her own style.
“My style has evolved over the years,” she said. “That’s something I’m really proud of about my work; I developed it myself.”
She begins her sessions by mixing all her colors before applying them to the canvas. The knife is her primary tool, which differentiates her work from that of most artists.
“A lot of people use it for finishing touches, but not the whole painting,” she said. “I use it to get a wide array of effects and texture, blend really delicately, make lines.”Kane, who also teaches yoga three times a week, feels blessed by her ability.
“I really think of it as a gift, because when I paint it’s like something flowing through me,” she said. “It’s kind of spiritual because I take myself and the materials and put them in the right place at the right time and something happens. It’s kind of like a little miracle.”