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After a long career in advertising, this Tampa Bay artist started painting full-time

Amy Feil Phillips worked her entire career in graphic arts. Recently, she was named “Emerging Artist’ ‘in the Gasparilla Festival of the Arts.
Amy Phillips in studio, 2021. Photo: courtesy of Michael V. Phillips
Amy Phillips in studio, 2021. Photo: courtesy of Michael V. Phillips [ courtesy of Michael V. Phillips ]
Published Mar. 27
Updated Mar. 27

Times Correspondent

Deciding early that “I didn’t want to be a struggling artist,’' Amy Feil Phillips became a commercial artist and spent a career serving as art director, creative director and senior designer at advertising agencies in Tampa and Connecticut. She has won national, district and local ADDY awards, the world’s largest advertising competition.

This year she fulfilled a longtime dream and started working full-time creating and exhibiting her own paintings. She was one of the “Emerging Artist’' in the Gasparilla Festival of the Arts earlier this month. This year it was a virtual show because of the pandemic. Though she didn’t win the top spot in the competition, she said she was thrilled to be a finalist.

Phillips, 62, works mostly in modern impressionism and photorealism, painting landscapes, still life and figures. She talked about painting and commercial art with the Tampa Bay Times. Paintings mentioned can be found at https://amyfeilphillips.wixsite.com/artist and https://www.eventeny.com/company/?c=14647.

How did you develop your skills as an artist, and when did you realize you had a talent for art?

When I was a kid, I loved art classes in school. And I do remember vividly that I loved coloring books and Etch A Sketch, especially Spirographs. I would spend hours and hours trying to make perfect designs. …

And I had a wonderful high school art teacher. ... I don’t know if you’re familiar with Rapidograph pens, but they were popular among the artsy kids, so I had to get one and… we were all drawing these simple black and white illustrations. … (The pen) releases the ink, it flows out very evenly and very controlled, so you can do little tiny simple drawings, simple black and white illustrations with them. It’s almost like impressionism but it’s in drawing. With little dots you create shadow areas, and you can create forms through the density of the dots. …

They did a contest (in high school), a call for entries in this art magazine. It could be any kind of art, and I submitted this simple black and white illustration of a troll napping under a tree. … It was accepted. I don’t know what kind of award it won but it was published, and that was really exciting.

One of your early paintings shows flowers in a glass vase. How do you make glass look real?

It’s really about learning how to paint what you see, and it’s hard to really see when it’s in the context of what you’re used to seeing. So a little trick I do is I will take the rough draft and turn it upside down, and turn my painting upside down. It’s nothing I made up, I heard this along the way. …

What happens is you start to realize – instead of seeing a flower in a glass vase... and being almost intimidated by those reflections, you turn it upside down and suddenly it’s abstract. It doesn’t look like reality. It’s something out of the normal context, and that really helps. … Then, really examining and looking and seeing, okay, so this highlight is next to this dark area and then there’s a mid-tone there.

And in photorealism, such as that painting, the original drawing is vital, you say.

It’s really important to have the drawings be exactly correct. Otherwise it just looks off, it will look amateurish. I’ve taken so much figure drawing and life drawing and still-life drawing and courses at the Art Institute of Chicago and throughout at Wesleyan (University). ...

And to really get the photorealism, having the exact color is incredibly important. … I spend almost more time mixing colors than I do painting. It’s that important. And the more complex the color, the more realistic it probably looks, usually.

Man On Nature, 2020.
Man On Nature, 2020. [ Amy Feil Phillips ]

You work a lot in impressionism. What drew you to it?

At Wesleyan… I had to take several years of art history. … I just loved French impressionism, to the point where I spent a year abroad in France in college my junior year. ...

I know it’s dated, it’s been done, but there is such a thing as modern impressionism. So I guess I consider myself a modern impressionist.

Would an example of that be the fruit and flowers?

The squash blossoms. There’s a looseness that I’m trying to achieve, which is a technique I learned in high school, actually. … (The art teacher) would call them holidays, and these would be areas of the ground or the blank white canvas that you don’t cover. Paint quickly, cover the canvas quickly and don’t get too hung up on one area, and don’t worry about covering the entire canvas. And that kind of leaves a looseness that breathes life into a painting.

How did you become a commercial artist?

Tree Studios (in Chicago) is where I met my husband, (Michael Phillips), where they have live drawing classes. It’s funny, the artists that were going there, a lot of them were commercial artists. They were art directors, creative directors at ad agencies, and they were going there for fun, to do figure drawing at night. …

My husband was an art director at the time and had a very, very good job. He had been quite successful. So he actually became my mentor, and I started taking night courses at the American Academy of Art in advertising and design, and wow, I loved it. …

I started out as a production artist. ... Print preparation, that was my first job in commercial work. …

I was looking at my husband; he seemed to be having more fun. He was making drawings all day – he was a “wrist.’' They called it a wrist back then. … He could draw really well and he just did layouts all day. He did beautiful– they were art, in my mind. You could make a good living being a wrist, being an artist as an art director. So I set my sights on that. … I knew that this was a way to use my art, apply my art, and make a good living.

Rachel, 1989. Portrait by Amy Phillips.
Rachel, 1989. Portrait by Amy Phillips. [ Photo: Courtesy of Ellen and Michael Winner ]

How often do you paint?

I find that I tend to paint in spurts. Once I get a painting going, I have a hard time stopping. And that includes, like, at night.

You’ll continue painting long into the night?

I will. I love painting. Time disappears. Time lapses. I don’t even realize how long I’m there.