Sandy Newhouse on Lines, Shadows, Shapes and Stories

The local painter has been working on bringing out the best in color and content from her canvas for almost 60 years.

The Newhouse triptych, Harbor Morning, 2018.
The Newhouse triptych, Harbor Morning, 2018. Tina McKail, KP News

Painter Sandy Newhouse stood in the studio of her Vaughn Bay home, tapping an unfinished canvas heavy with layers of acrylic paint.

“I’ve reworked this one so much I should sell it by the pound,” she said. “Paintings do talk to you. This one is finally starting to.”

She’d been working on it for three years.

“I usually have several going.”

Her home holds decades of work she has produced, exhibited and sold: landscapes, portraits, abstracts — sometimes a blend of each — ranging from a six-by-six inch acrylic to a triptych watercolor landscape seven feet long.

“That one just flew, it only took a few hours,” Newhouse said of the triptych. “I kept running out of paper and had to keep adding on; that’s why it’s a triptych.” The nearly monochrome panorama looks east across Gig Harbor, early morning color shining on a fishing trawler sliding across still water surrounded by trees like sentinels in the distance. The original sold immediately in 1992, but Newhouse made a lithograph of it first and has sold over 150 prints of the image since.

“I’m very proud of it. I don’t often paint that quietly,” she said, referring to its effect.

Newhouse was introduced to art at an early age.

“Apparently, I scribbled around a lot when I was little, and when I was in fourth grade my teacher told my mom that I should have art lessons,” she said. The Portland Art Museum conducted three-hour Saturday morning art classes and Newhouse took the bus there every weekend for four years.

“They taught us everything,” she said. “We did pottery, we did printmaking, we did sketching, we did oils. It was absolutely wonderful.”

In high school Newhouse took every art class she could, then majored in art at Lewis & Clark College in 1956. “We did art history and the professor made us try things from different styles,” she said. “I was excited by a lot of it, but Impressionism really hit and made me want to paint — but I didn’t want to paint like that. I thought I was going to be a fashion illustrator.”

Newhouse married her husband, Del, during her junior year in 1959. He was in the Navy and stationed in San Diego, where she finished her degree.

“I took my portfolio to various places, but if you’re in the Navy there’s no way because you move around. In fashion, you’ve got to stay someplace, start drawing hats or handbags, and work your way up.”

Newhouse considered going into technical drawing for the Navy, but instead opted to work on oil painting, substitute teaching, and raising two children. 

By 1975, her husband was out of the Navy and flying for United Airlines and California was getting too crowded. They returned to the Pacific Northwest and found 25 acres near Spanaway.

“We had everything — we had a beaver dam, we had mink, and the birds that came were just fantastic,” she said. “But the kids were afraid of the woods. The oldest was 8, the youngest was 4, and they never got used to it.”

Just a few years later, however, the family was invited to visit a friend on Vaughn Bay.

“I looked in the paper for ads every day after that,” Newhouse said. A couple months later, in 1979, they moved into a home overlooking the Vaughn Bay sandspit.

“The kids had a great time here,” she said.

The kids also had a great time getting into her oil paints.

“All I did was oils until the kids could find the oil painting, which they did, and it was always wet.” (An oil painting can take two weeks or longer to dry.) Newhouse began taking classes in acrylic and watercolor painting and learned alongside other painters in local groups.

She was invited to join Gallery Row in Gig Harbor in 1990, which at the time was a studio shared by five artists on the west end of Harborview Drive. It has since moved to the middle of town and displays the work of 16 artists, including paintings, woodwork, sculpture, beading and jewelry.

Newhouse has sold a great deal of her work there, competed in and judged shows, and received a Signature Membership in the prestigious Northwest Watercolor Society.

“I have no idea why I paint what I do. Truly,” she said. “Sometimes it’s the light, sometimes it’s the shadows, sometimes it’s just a feeling that I have. One time I painted a group of five grocery carts out in the parking lot. It was called ‘A Conversation,’ or something like that. And every little piece between every other piece was a different color or hue or something. It was fun.”

Newhouse’s dream-like portrait of her dying mother couldn’t be more different — light and dark shadows and shapes, abstract but telling — and was exhibited at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle. “It was kind of hard to figure out how to get the whole story in. I don’t know why some of this is, it just felt like that’s what I should do,” she said.

“I’m also known for herons.”

And gulls, terns, crows and hermit crabs, all different from everything else she does, her abstract shapes instead transformed into familiar creatures sporting the bright colors of a beach in summertime.

“I’ve heard that you should have a style, that you should have a color palette, so people recognize you. A lot of people who know my work do recognize it even though it’s at the other end of the spectrum from that,” because of the variety.

“I still mix on the palette and on the paper,” she said. “I don’t mix up a bunch of color and then paint it. That’s somewhat unusual and it’s Impressionistic in that colors go together that aren’t solid colors. I seldom paint black: I mix black so that it has various colors in it. But that’s as close to Impressionism as I get.”

Even after decades of work as a professional artist, it can take anywhere from a day to a month to years to get a painting right for Newhouse.

“It can be technically perfect but still wrong,” she said. “It has to say something.”