Art by Archen: Original, emotional, descriptive art 

Interview with Archen by Catherine Poley

1) What started you painting?

I have painted all of my life - ever since I can remember. My mother has the first drawing I did as a child. Instead of just scribbling or trying to write letters, I drew a girl in a dress with a bow in her hair. So from day one I have expressed myself through drawing - through every medium I could get my hands on.

When I was about 5 or 6 years old, I could not yet make the drawings I did look like what was in my head, but I could cut paper fairly well. There was one morning in particular where Mom came into my room at 3 o'clock in the morning asking me what I was doing. I was pasting paper together to make my pictures. I said, "I can't go to bed yet. I need to finish my picture." So, I have always created art.

2) What sort of media do you work in?

My main medium at the moment is oil paints. I love what you can do with oil paints - all of the different textures and details that you can get with them. It's just a wonderful and versatile medium. It's what most of the old masters used for most of their works. And there's a reason for it. It's an excellent medium and it lasts through time very well.

I also use acrylics, cut-paper collages, and lots of pastels. I love pastels, particularly for capturing the softness of things. I also use pencil, graphite, watercolor - pretty much anything. But oil is my favorite at the moment.

3) Do you usually have a medium in mind when you come up with an idea for a piece? Do certain ideas align themselves with certain mediums, or do you get the idea and then decide how best to attack it?

It depends one what idea I am following. The basic answer to your question is: Yes, the idea chooses the medium.

For, example, if you are going to do a portrait, you can do it in black and white, you can do it in pastels, you can do it in oil paints, you can do it in acrylics …

For me, it depends on the personality of the person I am painting. If they are a very hard-edged person that sees the world in black and white, that always wears suits or something, then I might choose to do the portrait in graphite - very hard-edged, black and white.

If it is a little girl who is very light-hearted and is out in a garden with soft colors and soft lighting, and she is a warm, soft, little girl, then I might choose to do it in pastels to convey that.

If it's a lady my age who is confident in herself but still has those soft feminine edges, then I might chose oil paints to show both her strength and softness.

It depends on what I am trying to show; it definitely does.

4) Your name is Lisa Duncan, but most of your art and your brochures say "Art by Archen." Can you tell us about the name and where that came from and what you associate with it?

Archen is my pen name. It was a lot more common in old times that it is now to have a pen name for an artist. It's still fairly common for writers who are starting out. Occasionally artists will have them

El Greco is the classic example. El Greco, "The Greek," was a Spanish painter. They called him El Greco because he was born in Greece, so that was how he decided to sign his paintings.

Archen has been my pen name in both my writing and my painting for a very long time - at least since I was 12. I think that was when it first started showing up. For me it was a name I associated completely and totally with myself - my creative being.

Being a woman in America it is almost expected, especially in the South, that when you marry you take your husband's name. There are so many name changes in this particular society.

I really wanted and needed a name that would be mine - a name that, when others saw it, would always mean: That's Archen's. I needed a name that people could associate with my painting and my writing and not get confused if socially my name changed -- the name on my art and my writing would stay the same and would always mean "This Person". So, Archen is my art self.

5) You mentioned writing, and you do a lot of writing. Can you tell me how your writing and your visual art relate? Is there any interplay between the two?

There certainly is. For me a lot of my art is expressing lessons I have learned or ideas that have sprung into my head. That of course excludes portraits that I have been hired to do for people or reproductions of old masters' works.

But the works that I really love to do and come out of my head they express my ideas. Sometimes those ideas are strictly visual -snapshots of things, sometimes those ideas come out as poems and only as poems, and sometimes they come out as both an image and a poem or saying.

Sometimes both the image and the poem are necessary to understand the complete idea that is being expressed. Ninety percent of the time, the works will stand alone - you can have just the painting or just the poem - and it would express what it is suppose to express. But together, it is a more complete idea.

6) You have mentioned that you do commissions and you do recreations. How do you approach these works, and do you approach them differently from an original work?

Yes, I approach them differently. There is a different though process that goes into the work.

For a reproduction, for example, most of the artistic questions have already been answered as far as composition, what colors to use - they have already been answered by the original artist.

If I do a reproduction for my own edification as opposed to being hired because someone wants one - If I do it for myself, and I do that frequently, it is because I want to learn something from that painting. It is because I think it is beautiful and I think it is capturing something that I have not succeeded in capturing yet.

So I will reproduce a painting in an attempt to learn what that artist had already learned. If you look at a Da Vinci painting, he was a master at so many different things, and I don't have him here to go and apprentice under. The best I can do to learn what he knew is to try to reproduce what he did.


In a portrait, the whole point is to capture a person. It's not taking a photograph. Tremendous photographers, such as Annie Leowitz, are attempting the same thing in photography that I am attempting in portraits - capturing the actual person, something about the person and their personality.

The first step in a portrait is getting to know the person. Whether it is a child or an adult, I want to spend at least a little bit of time with them getting to know who they are, how they respond, and what their typical features and mannerisms are.

Then there is a photo shoot. Whether I am behind the camera or another professional photographer, we'll do a photo shoot attempting to capture what I have seen. I want to have the person at ease. If I'm painting an incredibly formal person, never seen in public without perfectly coiffed hair and make-up, dressed to the nines, that's the way the portrait is going to be done, because that is who they are. But if they are a more casual person at home sitting in their backyard in blue jeans and a T-shirt, that's what I want to capture. I want to capture the vibrancy of the actual person.

I use the photos to develop studies, keeping in mind the style of art that that person likes as well, since I do such a wide variety of styles. If they like very abstract or expressionist art, then I am not going to do a very 17th-century-style portrait for them. I am trying to capture the personality of the person, which includes their taste in art. Once the client approves the studies, I begin the final piece.


With my originals, it's a different process entirely. There are two different things that I tend to paint when I am painting for myself.

One is individual things that strike me as beautiful. I love to paint clouds, waves, flowers. Specifically things that in the final painting tend to look abstract, but are actually fairly realistic, like waves and clouds and that sort of thing. These are things that are beautiful to me. I love to paint beautiful things.

I will also choose to paint different people because I think they are beautiful and I want to capture that. Sometimes the beauty I see is physical, but often it is more etherial - the person's personality or the things they've triumphed over.

The other thing I love to paint is images that express specific ideas. Those are often, I would say about 80 percent of the time, attached to poems or sayings. And those I approach completely differently, because they are completely different things. The ideas tend to leap into my head fully done. The image just kind of congeals in my head, and it's there. I can't sleep until I get up and sketch it out - get it on paper and out of my head because it's vibrant and it expresses something that I've learned.

When you learn something in life, you don't learn it immediately; it's a process that happens. You'll go through two or three months thinking about something, struggling with something, coming to terms with something, coming to conclusions and moving on.

For me, that culmination often comes out in an image that I can take with me through life. I can look at that image and think, "Ok, this is what I learned. I need to remember this lesson." That what my original paintings are to me. They are the lessons I have learned in my life.

For me, the process of painting these lessons onto canvas relates to the myths and legends that society used to use - sitting around the campfire telling stories, the same stories, over and over again. So they would be passed down from generation to generation. Those stories were used as psychologial blueprints to help people through things.

For example, fairy tales often start with a child being an orphan, or one of the parents being dead. It was a fairly common occurrence before medicine became as strong as it is now. Today, we often have divorce in the place of death. The parent is still removed. So, children today still love to hear those stories over and over, because they provide psychic maps to help them though what they are experiencing.

You may not be a princess with a king for a father and a evil queen who replaced your mother, who is a witch who can do potions and make poisoned apples. There may not be dwarfs running around in the woods. Those things may not relate specifically case by case, but the situations answer something in our minds.

They answer to feelings in our subconscious that are very important for us to recognize. Because our subconscious mind does not talk to us the way that our conscious mind does, and most of our mind is our subconscious mind, it is very important for to listen to what that mind says and how it expresses itself. Those fairy tales and myths are a very important way that our mind talks to us.

We don't tell those stories anymore. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves has been replaced by Dr. Seuss. Children love Dr. Seuss. There is no reason not to read them Dr. Seuss because his stories answers other things that our subconscious needs. But at the same time, people have thrown out Snow white and Cinderella. Cinderella comes from Chinese myths in the 500s and it has traveled all around the world. The reason it has been told so many times is that it answers something in us.

I am hoping that my art will also answer that something, because a lot of the lessons I am learning are archetypal lessons that have been in the fairytales, that have been in the stories that keep being told over and over. So for me, they are snapshots of these feminine archetypes. They help me through difficult times and I hope they can help others as well.

7) Is a piece ever finished for you? Is there ever a point where you can take a piece and put it down and say, "This is done."

I think as an artist, there is always a part of you going, "Oh, I could do this better, oh I could touch up this" but one lesson you have to learn in life as well as in art is when you have to let it go. You have to be done. For some things it takes years to be done and for other things, it's done in 30 minutes. I've had to learn when to back away.

There are times when I will think something is done, hang it up on my wall, and then change my mind. A lot of my canvases hang on my wall without frames around them because I might pull one down in two years or so and add something else to it. So I wait to sell a piece until my subconscious is happy with it. The pieces I do for myself I tend to keep for years and keep pushing them until they are so good that I am completely happy with them.

There is always something else that could be done, but there is a point where I can say, "Ok, this is good enough to sell," or " This is good enough at capturing the portrait," or, "On this reproduction, I feel that I have learned what I can learn from this." Then I can move on to something else.

8) Who are your influences, both in art and in life?

I have already mentioned Leonardo Da Vinci several times. In many different ways he is a very strong influence for me. Not just in art, but the way he approached his life. Mostly because I relate to the fact that he did not do one thing, he did 50 trillion things. He did not just paint. He painted, he drew, he designed machines - he did so many various and sundry things. He also had a hard time finishing things and I can very strongly relate to that.

He has quite a few unfinished works where he would get to a certain point and the questions that he wanted to solve had been answered, so the work no longer interested him and he put it away. He wouldn't finish it. I have taken that to heart and realized that it's not a crime to put something aside. But at the same time I realize - wouldn't it be cool if Da Vinci had pushed this painting to the limit and finished it?

So I have tried to push myself to find that finished place. He has influenced me very strongly. His self-portrait is on my wall in fact. It's just amazing to me the amount of expression he could capture. He is absolutely fabulous.

La Brun is another artist who's work is very well known. She is one of the foremost portrait painters of the 1800s. As she gained a reputation for painting people in her social circle, she was asked to paint more famous people. She even painted kings and queens. I did a very large reproduction of one of her works for a client. One of the things I like about her painting is that it is realistic, but soft at the same time. She captures in the poses and portraits something of the interrelation between the people. That fascinates me with her portraiture.

Waterhouse is probably one of my all time favorite painters. Waterhouse is a storyteller. He can capture not only the relation between the people and the personalities involved, but also the landscapes, the colors, the phenomenal beauty of the scene.

I like Sargent for many of the same reasons. His paintings again have that combination of realism and impressionism. You can look at something and think, "Man, that lady could be sitting right here." Sargent has one of painting of a mother and daughter. You can look at it and think it's perfect. When you look closer at one of the lady's hands, you notice that it's just barely suggested by two strokes of paint. It's not even there - because it's not the important part of the painting. The important part is the mother and daughter. The way Sargent is able to focus on what is important and what isn't and to cause the viewer's eye is just fabulous.