August 2008

At the Easel:Portrait painter Kaytee Esser shares her unique perspective on people, pets and the good life

Author: Ann DeMart | Photographer: Photography By anne

Step aboard artist Kaytee Esser’s home, a 40-foot trawler docked at Shelter Cove Harbour, and you’ll be greeted by all sorts of appealing characters, including an adorable little girl wearing a sunhat (Archie the bulldog, a direct descendent of the University of Georgia’s famous mascot Uga) and Sophie the West Highland terrier. Those are just a few of the delightful portraits in progress you’ll see around the cabin and deck. Friendly, attractive Esser and her furry pal, Einstein the cat, are quite real.

In the right hands, a portrait captures a subject’s likeness and spirit as well as the artist’s individual style. Just take a look at the art of Esser, who portrays the unique spark of each child, adult or pet in her own exuberant style. “My work reflects the character and personality of the subject no matter if it is a person, dog, cat, or horse,” she said. She paints from life or from photos, which are much easier to keep still than unpredictable or wriggling pups, kitties and kids.

Esser describes her style as colorful and expressionistic. “I prefer painting in oil medium, for its rich colors and texture, but I enjoy working with pastels, watercolor and charcoal, too,” she said. The loose strokes, brilliant hues and strong shapes look as if Renoir, Monet and Cezanne agreed on a merger. Esser names her own favorite artistic influences, Toulouse-Lautrec’s distinctive, vivid colors and lines and John Singer Sargent’s luminous, classic portraits.

As if talent and technique weren’t enough, she also gets plenty of inspiration from her studio on the boat’s top deck, with its ever-changing views of the sparkling water reflecting the sky, gleaming boats and active people. After living in the Raleigh, North Carolina area, Esser and her husband Greg moved to the boat. That was five years ago and they are still enchanted with the life. They spent the first year in Port Royal, South Carolina and the last four on Hilton Head. “I love it here,” she said. “What better place to work?” Truly, are there many people who wouldn’t happily trade a stuffy, florescent-lit office setting for the soft breeze, sunshine and lapping water of Shelter Cove?

Esser can also inspire and help you realize your own artistic aspirations. She gives private classes and conducts workshops. This month, she’s conducting an open oil painting workshop at the Society of Bluffton Artists and a beginning oil painting class at Sun City, and then heading for the hills to teach a class near Yellowstone Park in Bozeman, Montana.

Although she’s been painting portraits and other subjects for most of her life, Esser once depicted less lively—but certainly no less interesting—subjects as an archeological illustrator. She backed up her natural artistic talent and interest in archeology with studies in anthropology followed by a bachelor of fine arts degree in painting from Kutztown University in Pennsylvania. Following her education, she worked as an illustrator at the University of Pennsylvania Field Museum, Temple University and Brown University, and participated in a National Science Foundation-funded cultural impact study of the Lake Powell area in Utah, where she depicted artifacts of southwestern Native Americans.

Where to Find Kaytee Esser

A member of the Portrait Society of America and the Hilton Head Art League, Esser is well-known nationally through her clients, classes and attendance at dog shows and art shows. You can find her work in private homes from Hilton Head Island to New York, Chicago, California and Canada—and find her creating charcoal portraits Tuesday nights at the Nash Gallery in Shelter Cove. Or, you can take a scroll through her online gallery on her Web site, To learn more about commissioning an Esser portrait of a favorite person or pet, call (843) 476-9059 or e-mail her at

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