Once a month, we feature local small business owners and artists who are using their creativity to make the homes and businesses of Roanoke beautiful.
This month, our spotlight is on artist Nan Mahone Wellborn. As a “plein air” painter, Nan primarily paints outdoors, her colorful oil paintings depicting the landscapes that she is painting in.
Preserving Landscapes by Canvas & Conservation Efforts: Nan’s Story
Nan Mahone Wellborn is enthralled by the beauty of natural landscapes. A Roanoke native, she grew up appreciating both art and the outdoors.
“My mother was an artist, so I learned how to paint and draw, and it was always an activity growing up,” she said.
Equally as influential as art was the love of the outdoors that was cultivated throughout her childhood. “My mother and father were big gardeners and my uncle had farms and an apple orchard,” she said. “I also attended Nature Camp each summer from 5th grade to high school. All these things helped me develop a great appreciation for the outdoors.”
Growing up, she also assisted those who were teaching art to younger children at Cherry Hill, Roanoke’s predecessor to the Taubman Museum of Art.
All of this led Nan to pursue a degree in Art and Education from Mary Baldwin College. Afterwards, she ran her own batik studio where she worked primarily with silk to dye clothing and other items. “It started out from an arts and crafts standpoint, but it progressed to allow me to learn more about business as I worked with clothing shows and sold to retailers,” Nan said.
This progression compelled her to pursue a new career—interior design. After receiving her degree from VCU, an internship she had had paved the way for a job offer with FAO Schwarz Toy Store in New York City, working with toy designers.
“From there I developed a niche in the design and construction management world, then I eventually got into marketing,” she said. “I moved from Richmond to NYC to Tampa to Chicago to SC—Columbia and Charleston, working for city governments, nonprofits, and for-profits.”
Throughout her extensive career, in a variety of roles and locations, she found that two things stayed consistent—her use of creativity and her pull to views of nature. “Creativity was always at the center of what I was doing, no matter what that was,” Nan said. “I lived in a lot of cities and always found myself gravitating toward spots with a view, whether that was water or the mountains.”
In 1997, when her husband got a job with Carilion, Nan found herself returning to some of her favorite views—the mountains of Roanoke. Shortly thereafter, in 2000, Nan got back into painting after participating in some courses at the Beverly Street Studio School in Staunton. Nan has been a full-time artist since 2008.
Creating an Atmosphere: Nan’s Style and Inspiration
Nan combines her long-held passions for artwork and the outdoors by doing just that — painting outdoors, known as en plein air painting. This type of painting comes with a unique set of challenges. “You’re always dealing with the elements—wind, rain, bugs—but to me that’s part of the fun of it all,” Nan said. “You’re working through extreme conditions at times and idyllic ones at other times. I’ve had deer walk right up to me or trout jump out of the stream in front of me. Weird things can happen too, but for the most part it’s peaceful.”
One of the biggest challenges is the changing light. “Everything can change really fast, so you have to nail down your shadows and colors and sketch it out and denote how you’re going to finish it because you know the light is changing in an hour to an hour and a half,” Nan said. “You know the light is coming, so you capture it as it’s fleeing through.”
Due to these challenges, she sometimes starts a piece outside and finishes it in the studio. But as often as the weather permits, Nan paints landscapes outdoors, through the changing seasons. “Spring is so fleeting, then there’s summer, little bits of winter snow seasons are fun. I like to experience it all, but I gravitate to the wild colors of fall,” she said.
Nan is an observational painter, taking in what she sees and translating that into her style, which she describes as “painterly realism.”
“My paintings are based in realism but as loose as I can get, and somewhat impressionistic,” she said. “But they’re still descriptive. I was trained from an observational standpoint, working into 2-D what I see in 3-D.”
Aside from just painting what she sees in a landscape, Nan’s goal is to evoke certain feelings for the viewers of her artwork. “I want to create atmosphere,” she said. “I try my best to convey the feelings that I’m feeling to other people. I want to create a reaction that draws them to the painting.”
A self-proclaimed “Southerner at heart,” Nan strives to create a tension in her paintings between the casual and the formal elements that define the South.
“I think of ‘Southern’ as being a contrast of extremes—spicy, scruffy, mysterious, colorful, messy—while at the same time being mannerly, tasteful, proper, formal, and elegant,” Nan said. “I think of what I want to convey, and I try to create an atmosphere that people can relate to. I play between those extremes a bit.”
She accomplishes this through her use of certain techniques and colors.
“Some of my paintings are pretty true to what you might see on a summer day, but in a lot of my paintings, I’m pushing the color a little more,” she said. “By manipulating the color a bit instead of using the exact colors I see, I can create the feeling I want you to feel. I can push it forward so you get the feeling more quickly.”
Her techniques, on the other hand, are more on the traditional side. “I’m using fairly formal, tried and true artistic elements such as hue and saturation,” Nan said. “Those are things I’m thinking about when I’m creating, those formal aspects. So I’m trying to balance those with the overgrown, the colorful, and the mysterious that I think of when I think of the South.”
Nan paints locally, and she also travels to paint with a group of other plein air painters, called the Firnew Farm Artists Circle, based in the Madison County area. She also participates in plein air painting events, such as the Queen City Plein Air Festival, put on by the Beverly Street Studio School. Locally, she participates in and helps organize the annual Roanoke Open Studios Tour.
You can view Nan’s artwork at the Market Gallery, LinDor Gallery, Black Dog Salvage, and Halifax Furnishings in Roanoke. Additionally, you can find her work on display at the Cabell Gallery in Lexington and the Fort Lewis Lodge in Bath County.
Nan also does commissions of views. “Because of my landscape work, people know that I appreciate conserved land, and I get asked to paint a view they remember or a place they love,” she said. “I’ll come out and paint on their farm or property if I can. It just helps me to see the space and the depth rather than painting from a photograph.”
She sometimes does commissions of people’s pets too. “I’ve painted horses, dogs, cats, and even a pet hedgehog,” she said with a laugh.
Nan’s love for the outdoors goes beyond painting. She works part-time with Conservation Partners to help preserve the landscapes and views of Virginia that we enjoy for generations to come.
“A view can make us all go ‘ahhh,’ and conserving land is to the betterment of us all. When we see wide open spaces and get a view, that has a calming influence,” Nan said. “In my paintings, I try to convey that sense of serenity, that inspiring and relaxing sense that a view can give you, and if other people can pick up on that, then I feel like I’m giving back.”
When Nan is not painting, she enjoys other outdoor activities including gardening, hiking, traveling, and spending time with her family and dogs. You can also occasionally find her trout fishing, although she finds that the best times for fishing are often the same times that are best for plein air painting.