“In the beginning, you have these nice ideas, but it’s hard to put them on paper because you don’t have the skills to do it,” says artist Dawn Mill, who recalls starting to paint at age 12.
Mill earned a bachelor’s degree in art and art education from the University of Central Florida and had also taken art classes at Rollins College, but says she later found that studying with independent artists is the best way for her to learn.
“As I progressed as an artist, studying under well-known, fine artists and learning from them, their techniques really helped,” she says.
Early on, Mill primarily concentrated on commercial art through her Orlando-based business, Graphics by Dawn, where she worked on consignment, designing business cards, calendars, logos and Christmas cards. To hone her skills, she eventually “went back to the drawing board” to earn a drafting certificate.
“Technical skills are really nice. The best thing I ever did was do architectural drafting, because that refined my pen and drawing skills tremendously,” says Mill, referencing her ability to capture reality.
Eventually, Mill decided to turn her focus away from commercial art.
“I wanted to do fine art. I haven’t looked back since,” says Mill, who began by dabbling in watercolor.
“Watercolor is easier than most people think because there are so many ways to change things. It’s very forgiving. The secret is to have really good paper and really good paints.
Brushes don’t matter because you can always use your fingers.”
She recently illustrated a children’s book set on Sanibel Island, “Cara the Cracked Conk,” by local author Brittany Lindsay, which allowed her to revive those watercolor skills.
When she began painting landscapes, Mill switched to utilizing acrylics. Between the wide range of scenery in Florida and her love of flowers, she says landscapes are both challenging and satisfying to tackle. For instance, she has found that the temperature of a color can be changed by adding purple, which is especially helpful when trying to capture the myriad of greens found in Florida landscapes.
“There is a medium for everything,” explains Mill, adding that she especially prefers to use acrylics when painting en plein air because it dries quickly. On the other hand, oil is Mill’s medium of choice for portraits because “you need that smushiness and ability to blend.”
After joining a plein air group, Mill says she looked at things differently and was more observant of small details.
“I found landscapes just flowed easily. I liked seeing the light reflecting on the leaves and on the water, the way water moves, ripples and shines; even the way hanging moss changes colors as it hangs in the light. Painting the light is by far the hardest thing to capture,” she explains.
When working in the studio, she often makes sketches first, before spending a great deal of time painting. However, when it’s a race against the changing light, that’s not possible.
“When you’re out in plein air, you can’t do that. You’ve got to get it down. You can’t think about it. You just have to do it. That was a challenge, but that really helped my painting. I became a little bit looser and a little bit faster, and I actually looked at things from a different perspective,” she says.
Mill has also always enjoyed teaching a variety of art classes.
“I’ve been teaching art for a long time. I’ve taught every age from 4 to 94, and I really enjoy the young and the old,” says Mill.
“The little ones do wonderful things because there are no expectations. They just have so much fun doing it.”
She explains that many of her older students “get bogged down in how their painting is progressing. I tell them to walk away. Bring it back out after a few months and look at it with fresh eyes.”
Likewise, over the course of her own career, Mill says that early on, she had an abundance of creativity but lacked skills. As she mastered her technique, she lost some of that boundless creativeness that comes with youth.
Today, though, she is at a point where she is confident enough in her painting ability to free up that creative side and she has begun hiding flights of fantasy within her works.
Mill is currently developing a series of giant flowers that, while quite realistic, will have some fanciful details hidden within them, such as fairies.
Mill is one of 12 artist partners at the Artists Guild Gallery, and she has exhibited her work at numerous galleries and shows. Among them, the Vero Beach Art Club’s Under the Oaks Fine Arts and Crafts Show, and the VBAC Annex, the Winter Park Art Festival, Lake Mary Art Society, Lakeland Art Festival and the Banana Tree Gallery. She has earned a number of awards, including Best in Show at the Orlando Museum of Art, and Third Place in the nation for a piece on the Lewis and Clark Trail for the Daughters of the American Revolution.
Working with fellow Vero Beach Art Club members Judy Burgarella and Christine Thomas, Mill was the project manager for a mural at the Vero Beach Community Center that captures the area’s iconic scenes, such as the historic downtown area, Indian River Lagoon, our famed beaches, pine flatwoods, hammocks and Cypress swamps.
Looking back, Mill says she would paint more if she were to do it all over again.
“Paint, paint and paint some more. Just do it, and don’t worry about what it looks like,” she recommends.
Photos by Joshua Kodis