From sun up to sun down, contemporary realist Dale Kennington is in her studio painting.
“I get up in the morning; I have a cup of coffee; I walk back into the studio; and I paint until it gets dark in the afternoon,” Kennington said. “And since the days are longer in the summer, I’m in there longer.”
Kennington, who graduated from The University of Alabama in 1956 with a bachelor’s degree in art history and design, is now 81 years old. And for the first time since her graduation, her work is back on campus. Seventeen of her paintings will be on display from Monday, Feb. 1, to Friday, March 11, at the UA Gallery in the Dinah Washington Cultural Arts Center in downtown Tuscaloosa.
After graduating from the University, Kennington had no intentions of becoming a professional artist.
“I was going to get married and that was the end of it,” she said. But five years into her marriage, she felt she needed something more.
“At the time,” she said, “it was the ‘in’ thing to have someone paint your children. And though I wanted a painting of my children, I couldn’t find anyone I could afford that I thought was good, so I started painting and worked at it until I was satisfied with it.”
Kennington was eventually satisfied enough that she made a business of portraits. She would spend a whole day with her subjects—talking to them, watching them play, and taking pictures to get the right poses.
“The first roll or two of film I took, I knew I was just going to throw out,” she explained. “But by the time I finished, they were relaxed with me, and then I began to get the photographs I wanted.”
For ten years, business thrived, but the monotony of portraits began to drain her.
“I had turned a child every way possible,” she said. “And it was getting repetitive for me.”
Leaving her business behind, Kennington turned to studio work instead—and it is her studio work for which she is most famous.
Kennington began carrying a camera with her everywhere she went and would snap photographs throughout her day. Many of her favorite shots came from the annual two-week trips she took to Paris.
“I wasn’t trying to do a perfect screen in one shot,” she said. “I almost never find a photograph that makes a good painting.” Instead, Kennington captures dozens of perfect moments and then combines them together for a complete painting. The moment might be as simple as a glass of iced tea that has light shining through it at just the right angle, or it might be the face of a stranger that strikes her as she’s passing.
“I have thousands of photographs,” she said. And while most of her paintings are the collection of three or four different pictures, she said that some of her paintings have as many as 25 different photographs put together.
In nearly 35 years, Kennington has painted a little more than 300 works.