In this installment of our Inside the Studio series, we sat down with plein air painter, Bri Custer. A New Hampshire native, Bri was raised with a love of the seacoast. Now based in Concord, NH, she travels throughout the region painting in plein air seasonally and in her home studio. Read on to learn more about Bri's process, how she got started as a full-time artist, and more. Or, skip to the bottom to watch our Live studio tour and discussion.
Our Interview with Bri Custer
Where are you from originally and where are you located now?
I grew up in South-Eastern New Hampshire, about 45 minutes North of Boston and a half hour West of the seacoast where my grandparents lived. I spent about ten years in the NH Seacoast area after attending the University of New Hampshire, and just recently moved to Concord, NH in the center of the state. If I’m being honest, I can’t wait to move back when the opportunity presents itself.
Tell us about your artwork and style in general.
In school one of my professors told me I was a “painter’s painter.” I didn’t know what he meant when he said it, but as my identity as a painter solidified I began to understand it in my bones. So much of painting for me is about the physicality of the paint – what it feels like to push it around the canvas and scrape it away. I often experiment with different media like gouache, flashe, and even some acrylic, but I always come back for oils for that reason, for the way it feels to work with it. Secondary to the paint, is the subject, and I’ve found my visual language primarily in landscape painting. Right now I’m considering ideas of place and identity in relation to the landscapes I paint.
How did you get started as an artist?
I was always a creative kid that gravitated towards making things. I was (and still am) a sensitive person and I think even at a young age there I understood that quiet moments of creation felt safe and connected me to myself. In high school I gobbled up every art elective I could, including my first oil painting class, but even then I didn’t know I wanted to be a painter. I think I fought that for a long time, actually. Most of the programs I looked at for school were for interior design and architecture, but UNH made the most sense financially and since they didn’t have a design program, I ended up finding my way bouncing between Psychology and Fine Art. I fell in love with painting at UNH, and when I participated in a plein air painting intensive in Ascoli Piceno, Italy, I fell in love with landscape painting. After graduating I spent a few years doing administrative work, then got my M.Ed. and taught art K-8, before jumping into art full-time in 2020.
Walk us through your artistic process – how do you create a piece or series from start to finish?
Each season tends to come with a shift in my artistic process. During the warmer seasons I’m focused on plein air painting, so I’m often traveling over to the seacoast or up into the White Mountains to work on location. These pieces tend to be faster and more immediate. After months studying one place, just before Fall, I find patterns and connections to the place I’m working. Then it’s a mad dash to keep up the momentum before it gets cold. In the winter I slow down, and I like to take advantage of being in the studio by experimenting and scaling up to larger canvases working from photographs. This season, like the plein air season, also requires a warming up period to find a rhythm. My process feels a lot like just trying to keep up with nature.
What does an average day as an artist look like for you?
I have many different types of days depending on whether I’m painting in the studio or en plein air, or working on administrative tasks. The plein air days are usually the most exciting. If I’m planning on painting en plein air, I’ll start the day by answering emails, pack a lunch and my painting materials, and make the drive to wherever I’m going. This summer I’ve been painting in Franconia Notch, which is about an hour drive North, and then a short hike into wherever I’m painting that day. I work directly onto the canvas, shifting things until I find a composition that feels interesting to me, and I usually manage to get at least two passes of painting in across the surface before it’s time to head home.
Have you always painted en plein air? What do you think that does for your work – either you as an artist or for the piece once it's finished?
Painting en plein air has been my greatest creative love since college. It requires me to relinquish control. I’m at the mercy of the weather and the landscape in front of me, and I thrive in the challenge of processing that experience and making decisions on the canvas. I discover compositions I wouldn’t have otherwise. Color is more nuanced. I have to struggle a little bit more to resolve the composition and color relationships than if I were working from a photograph in the studio. The paintings are about my experience and perceptions happening in real time. I really work for those plein air paintings and they’re better for it.
What is your favorite, or the most rewarding, part of your creative process?
I love painting the first pass of mixed color over an underpainting - that’s got to be my favorite. Color is so relative, so when I take the colors I’ve mixed and connect them together on the canvas, their relationships can be surprising. Some work and some don’t and need to be changed, but I love that trial and error process.
What is the most challenging part of your creative process?
Cleaning my brushes. Just kidding, but I do hate that part. I think the hardest part is trusting my own instincts on the days when self doubt takes over. It’s really easy to fall into worrying about other people’s perceptions of the work, but I’m working on strengthening my own voice. When I’m painting, it’s about what I want.
Where do you tend to find (or look for) inspiration?
I pay attention to what interests me. It might be other artists I find on Instagram, a book I’ve been sucked into, podcasts, relationships, the landscape around me. It’s all informing how I show up in the studio and the way I think about my work. I do a lot of reflecting and journaling to sort it all out and investigate how life is informing my practice.
What is your favorite location you’ve painted in plein air (either that you’ve been to once or that you frequent)?
Abroad, Ascoli Piceno, Italy. Near home, Wagon Hill Farm in Durham, NH.
Are there any particular artists who have inspired you or to whom you feel connected in some way?
This list could be enormous. I have paintings I’ve seen in person, online, or in books constantly floating around in my head. I am thinking very deliberately about influential Maine landscape painters Lois Dodd, Edward Hopper, and favorite Fairfield Porter, as well as painters that find structure and simplification in chaotic compositions: artists like Catherine Kehoe, Edmond Praybe, and Rick Fox (who I studied under at UNH).
From your first painting to those you create now, how would you say you’ve grown as an artist?
Well I hope quite a bit. When I started painting, like many students that start painting, I thought hyperrealism was the gold standard. I quickly learned that I wasn’t actually interested in replicating life, and that my interest in painting is much more process-based. When looking at art, I gravitate to work where I can see evidence of the artist’s process, maybe a peek of an underpainting, really physical brushstrokes, or evidence of compositional changes. So I guess the biggest changes for me are how I’ve come to know my own voice and follow my own tendencies with paint.
If you could give one piece of advice to yourself as a younger artist, what would it be?
Taking a broader view, what is your goal as an artist?
This goal may sound really basic, but I just want to sustain this creative practice. I always want to feel excited about the possibilities in the studio and have the flexibility to pivot when I get bored. I don’t ever want it to feel stagnant.
Tea or coffee?
Coffee... but tea too.
Morning person or night owl?
Books or movies?
Mountains or beach?
Cake or pie?
Finally: What’s your favorite place on earth?
Acadia National Park (so far).
To see all of Bri's artwork, visit her Artist Collection. Or, click below to watch the full studio tour and live Q&A.