In the paintings that June Stratton has selected for her upcoming Robert Lange exhibit Aquamarine, there’s a fascinating mix of hyper-realism and expressionism. Her focus is often on young females adrift in bodies of water or huddled in patches of wild grass, and Stratton’s take on these women’s features is so true to life that they almost seem like photographs. The detail in the fingers, or lips, or feet of these subjects is incredibly intricate.

At the same time, there’s a surreal, almost dreamlike sense of foreboding in many of her works. There’s tension on the women’s faces that depicts a far less blissful state of mind than their posture might otherwise indicate. And the landscapes around the women tend to become more and more blurred as they move further out from their bodies.

Some of the forlorn beauty of these figures comes from Stratton’s choice of models, and some of it is very much the deliberate intention of the artist.

“I happen to have these friends with beautiful daughters,” Stratton says. “And it’s always good to know your material. But in general, I’ve gotten very lucky in finding models who have this lovely, translucent skin. But I don’t like beauty that doesn’t have some kind of tension. That’s why they’re floating. Life is uncertain these days, and all of my figures are in peril of some kind, because they’re floating or misplaced.”

But that tension also exists because her subjects are not surrendering to their situations. “I like them to show strength,” she says. “It’s not like they’re in panic mode. I don’t like models who seem vacuous.”

The works in the Aquamarine exhibit are perhaps more startling because they might never have existed at all. As a student at the College of Fine Arts and Crafts, Oakland, Calif. in the late 1970s, Stratton wasn’t happy with what she was learning.

“I’m old enough that I went to school during a period in American art history when they weren’t teaching realism,” she says. “I wanted to paint like Da Vinci and Michelangelo, and I wasn’t getting that in art school. So I actually more or less quit doing any kind of art, other than some occasional logos, for about 10 years.”

But that was before a move to Seattle in the late ’80s gave her some new inspiration. “There was a thriving local art community, and I was able to just watch other painters paint,” she says. “It made me feel like I wasn’t afraid to try new things. And I eventually taught myself how to paint by copying other master painters.”

That’s not the first time we’ve spoken to an artist who literally copied other paintings as a learning technique. What is it about that method that seems to be so effective? “Little things come to you,” Stratton says. “You notice, ‘Oh, there’s that core shadow on that side of the face that you might not have seen before.’ You learn a lot just having good material to work from, especially if you don’t have a lot of work of your own. It’s really informative to paint what these masters have painted ahead of you.”

But even when she began painting her own work again, Stratton concentrated on landscapes, taking inspiration from the wide-open vistas the American northwest had in spades. It wasn’t until she met her husband and moved with him to Atlanta that figures began to enter her paintings.

“Atlanta is essentially a city surrounded by forests,” she says. “There are a lot of rural landscapes and I wasn’t sure how to paint them. So I took some time off to figure out what I wanted to paint, and I went to kind of figurative works, because figurative painting in a realist fashion wasn’t very popular at the time.”

She began closely studying the work of Gerhard Richter and Francis Bacon, producing a series of what she calls “super soft, blurry realist paintings,” that combined landscapes and figures. Then eventually, she decided to make another change in her approach.

“I decided ‘Well hell, I want to just paint the figures,'” she says with a laugh. “I can still use those techniques but focus on face and hands. Those were the things I loved in art books as a younger person. I would pore over art books looking at how Da Vinci painted hands.”

Still, Stratton says she hasn’t settled on any particular style, which leads to a conflict in her paintings that she enjoys trying to balance.

“I’m constantly struggling between how painterly I want to be and how hyper-realistic I want to be,” she says. “I don’t really feel comfortable in a strictly expressionist or realist way. There’s certain delicacies in the hands or hair or lips or feet that I really wanted to highlight, so there’s a little push and pull there, a balance I’m trying to create in everything I’ve ever painted.”

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