23 Vanessa Lemen


"Don’t be afraid to tell your own story. In fact, make it a point to tell your own story. Because no one else is going to."

Vanessa Lemen is an amazing artist and illustrator from Carlsbad, California. The wife of artist Ron Lemen, Vanessa exhibits internationally. She's won the Chesley Award for sci-fi illustration, as well as grand prize at the IBA show, and numerous prizes from the Art Renewal Center. Her works have been featured in many books, such as the Spectrum series, Women of Wonder, The Journal and Infected by Art. And she's been in magazines, including American Art Collector, Painter, ImagineFX, and Poets And Artists. She recently painted a series of illustrations for The Left Hand of Darkness, a famous sci-fi novel by Ursula LeGuin. Vanessa is also a teacher, providing online courses at the Los Angeles Atelier of Fine Art (LAAFA) and workshops, and regularly contributes lessons and articles to the blog Muddy Colors.

Vanessa's style is immediately recognizable for the phenomenal textural abstractions she produces and then paints over (see below for process images). But, before showing her paintings, take a moment to see the incredible power of her drawings, simply sketching with ball-point pen. Each of these drawings takes my breath away - it amazes me that any artist could make it to this top 100 list just on the power of her drawing alone, but even if she never lifted a brush, these sketches would earn her a top spot. And then, her paintings take it to the next level.

Vanessa grew up in Fair Oaks, California. She met her husband Ron when they were both in grade school. Vanessa explains in this article she and Ron wrote (Muddy Colors, 2016):

"We met when we were in grade school in Fair Oaks, CA – we were about 10 or 11 yrs old. Ron’s juggling instructor brought his class to our school to do a performance. Fast forward to now – we have been friends for about 35-36 years, and married for 15 years now."

Vanessa credits her father as the best story-teller she's ever known, and she's shared one of his poems in a Muddy Colors article. In another article, Vanessa writes:

"My parents had an interesting collection of art throughout our house when I was growing up, and I’ve no doubt that, as a whole, that body of work left an impression on me. The eclectic nature of the group living in my everyday surroundings definitely shaped what I saw in things."

This included prints of Bruegel's peasant dance and wedding, Toulouse-Lautrec's 'Aristide Bruant',William Blake's 'The Ancient of Days', Monet's 'Poppy Field in Argenteuil', Rousseau's 'Sleeping Gypsy', Robert Venosa's 'Annunciation', and Klimt's 'Tree of Life'. Vanessa says of 'Aristide Bruant', "Toulouse-Lautrec depicted only the basics, and that was all that was needed. I’d always thought of this piece as a perfect example of ‘less is more’."

Vanessa says, "We had small prints (I believe they were actually large coasters) of this [Tree of Life] tryptic. When I was very young, I used to play with small action figures called ‘Adventure People’ with my sister, and we would pretend that these coasters were valuable paintings they owned and showed. We would always be very careful when moving them, and to our little characters, they were sacred works of art. We’d have conversations (in our characters’ voices) about what we observed in the design and symbolism of the work. Many of the characters we played with were artistic or creative in some way, and all of them were nature lovers and outdoorsy, so naturally the Tree of Life paintings were highly regarded by them. Klimt has always been high on my list of favorites, and I’ve no doubt that my admiration for his work started all the way back then."

Vanessa writes about other inspirational artists on Muddy Colors: Vachagan Narazyan, HerakutJames Gleeson, and Mark Green.

Vanessa talks about her work on her website:

"I'd definitely say that I have a responsive and permeable sort of painting process, and I'm fascinated with finding similarities between the familiar and the unknown. There's so much life and grit in both aspects, in the possibility of chance, and in what many might call the mistakes or imperfections. It's what I love about using different tools and materials, and making abstract marks. It affords me the opportunity to explore and discover while becoming familiar with things, to journey into unknown territory. Experimenting with new tools provokes new ways of processing something, and guides me to the possibility of connecting with something on the fringes or beyond. Exploration is absolutely essential to the process for me, and exploring and discovering can happen in all areas of painting, be it in the abstract areas or in the rendering or representational areas. It's different sometimes depending on the area or the stage of the painting I'm working on, but overall, it's a digging deeper and truly getting lost in the best way. Lost in a place of reflection, curiosity, and wonder.

"What's quite amazing to think about is how the exploration pertains to the finished painting too. How the dialogue between artist and surface gets passed along in the form of the painting itself. There's a story there now in the marks, like subtle runes that are left to be deciphered, and it's open to different interpretations. It might even be something that we all can't quite put into words – and that may be one of the biggest motivations for us to keep scratching at the surface. The paintings we create and share can invite someone in to connect, to experience that intangible place, and to communicate with one another in ways that are more universally understood."

Vanessa says in one of her articles for Muddy Colors (2019):

"What I’d begun to do over the many years I’ve been painting, and especially now, is make a pact with myself that at all times I share hope and optimism in the images I create, even if they came from a place that might’ve felt like the opposite. With all of the turmoil we see on a daily basis, it’s important to me that I share the story of good that has come from adversity and from working through it all, and to be clear in that message. On a personal note, coming from a place of thinking that our work is a mirror, I want to create a reflection I am proud to look at and that can help me through my own dark times as well. By doing this, I’ve found a much larger conversation to be had in the sharing of those reflections. I’ve found that by feeling familiar to others, they speak universally, and that I have created a connection on a much larger scale by way of making these personal images. I’ve found that others feel as if I’ve shown them their own reflection in that mirror too."

Vanessa talks about what it's like to be married to another artist (Lemen & Lemen, 2016):

"I actually don’t know anyone who would tell me that being married to an artist can be hell. In comparison to what? And who is that person to say what’s right/wrong or comfortable or not a good fit for another? Maybe there are tough times, sure, but not *because* of being married to an artist – we’re all just human beings with different or similar ways we do stuff. Tough times can happen in any relationship, and between any types of people no matter what their profession. And even more importantly, good times can happen – and they do – a lot more than the bad.

"Art does take skill and hours to produce good work, true, and a lot of what’s really great about being married to another artist is that he is well aware of that. I’ve found that the acquaintances we have who are not artists are usually the ones who tend to think that art is more like magic – an ‘either you have it or you don’t’ type of trade – and I’ve found that it’s tougher to explain the idea to those folks that hard work is involved to 1) attain the skills and 2) to do work in any type of arts.

"Having that 'inner focus' is a great thing. When I see that Ron is ‘there’, I think ‘awesome!’ And try to let him be. And he does the same for me. As far as our schedules being very packed with many things we do – most times, it’s art-related in some way or another. Work time and free time seem to overlap on many occasions. The thing we try to take note of is when we’ve both been working for days straight, that we should take a break and go out and do something – just to get out for a bit. Breaks are good for the ‘inner focus’ too."

". . . Ron might not know how much, but he motivates and inspires me a ton. He is one of the hardest working people I know. Maybe the hardest working person I know. That alone motivates me so much.

'Other Worlds Out Beyond the Stars'

"On a side-note which I think is relevant and important to mention here, Ron did not teach me how to paint. I have actually gotten asked this a lot, and it is one of my biggest pet peeves, I think. It mainly comes across as if because I’m the female in the relationship, that he taught me. It’s a very old-school way of thinking that still finds its way into the minds of people in today’s world. One thing I’ve found that has evolved over time in our marriage is my reaction to that. 1) I worked my butt off and got better (and still am always working towards new levels in many ways). 2) I gained confidence. 3) I stopped staying silent (I stayed silent for fear of sounding defensive) when someone would ask if Ron taught me how to paint. I’ve realized that in order for anyone who may think that he taught me to truly understand that that should not be the automatic assumption, it’s my obligation to inform them that that is not the case – in our relationship, or just in how things work overall."

'So Long As We Waken'

'Harmony in the Ebb & Flow'

'Allegory of Liminality'

'Acquisition of the Sun'

'Wrath of the Tempest'

'I Am The Light'

'Both & One (The Left Hand of Darkness Series)'

'The Seers'


'Sail Through the Changing' 
This work is a tribute Vanessa painted for her father, inspired by the song 'Landslide' by Fleetwood Mac


'A Season of Unknowns'

First Flight