Practical Magic

Artist Sarah Madeira Day likes a black-and-white house, a colorful horizon, and art everyone can afford.

Artist Sarah Mediera Day has been painting since she was a teenager, but it wasn’t until recently that she made the leap into full- time. “One of the most important things for me is to keep learning and keep trying a lot of things,” she says.
Inside Madeira Day's studio. “We built it as an accessory dwelling,” she explains. “Our house is our biggest asset. We need it to be smart. Not everybody wants an art studio. It’s tiny but it’s useful.”
Madeira Day sketching in her studio.
Madeira Day likes to experiment with color and often brings a few unexpected hues into her landscapes.

Although she’s been painting her whole life, it still sort of baffles Sarah Madeira Day when I call her an artist. “I think of other artists as real artists. I’m just a girl who paints out of her house and has hustled her way into making a living off it,” she says. She laughs a little, perhaps recognizing that this sounds ridiculous. After all, prints of her colorful, semi-abstract Maine-inspired landscapes hang in houses around the globe, from London to Japan. She’s just put in a gorgeous new studio (which doubles as a guest quarters) above her garage. She employs two people to help her print and distribute her art. She’s found commercial success selling both original art and wholesale pieces. She’s painted every type of noun: people, places, things. She’s a flexible artist with a large body of work and more than a few fans crowding her Instagram posts.

“I’m still scared that it might all go away suddenly,” she admits. “It’s only in the past four years that I’ve been able to do this as a full-time job. You know the saying, ‘Do something you love and you’ll never work a day in your life?’ That’s not technically true, but . . .” She says it is a little true, at least for her: “I love every part of the business.”

Earning a living as an artist isn’t solely about making art. I’ve spoken to artists at all levels of success, from just starting out to well established, and most of them bemoan the amount of time they’re forced to spend marketing their work, shipping orders, figuring out pricing, and the like. (As a freelance writer, I personally hate invoicing, so I can relate.) But Madeira Day is different. “I was an economics minor in college, and I’ve always loved business,” she says. “I have always enjoyed math.” While she doesn’t go so far as to claim that making spreadsheets is more exciting than mixing paint, she has a natural affinity for numbers. Being this financially minded, it’s somewhat surprising to see the price lists on her website. She could certainly charge more; her work is interesting and joyful yet elegant. But the painter recognizes the importance of appealing to a wide audience—and the importance of accessibility.

“Not everybody can afford a $500 piece. I can’t. I want it to be attainable,” she says. For her, having good art on your walls is just as important as eating good food, listening to good music, or reading good books. It’s a part of life that everyone should be able to access. She purposely makes sure that her prints are available in standard frame sizes, so for under $50, anyone can create a fully framed piece of “adult decor.” She adds, “I’m practical about money too. I want people to spend money on something they really love, that they feel is a smart purchase, that fits into their home.”

Her style is consistent, but over the years, she has allowed her commissions and her customers’ feedback to influence how she creates. When she first tried to sell her work in Maine, “No one wanted to carry it,” she recalls. “I think my work is kind of between abstract and realistic, and not everyone likes that. Plus, I use funky colors sometimes.” While the rejection didn’t feel good, it didn’t stop her from painting or from sharing her progress. By working with clients who found her online, she started to see some patterns, both in what she liked making and what people liked buying. “Commissions helped steer my career in a lot of ways,” she says. “One of the things I always say is, ‘It’s just paint. You don’t like it? We can paint over it.’ Paint loses its preciousness when you see it that way.” Many of her early commissions were portraits, and if a client wasn’t happy with the colors she chose, she would get out her brushes and go at it again. “Honestly, I’m just excited about creating something,” Madeira Day says. “The fact that you want to buy it, that’s what lights me up. It’s so cool. I’ll make you anything.”

That said, she does draw from her own life, particularly her runs. Madeira Day grew up on the “quiet side” of Mount Desert Island, away from the crowds of Bar Harbor. She spent much of her life walking the trails that snake around the island. As an adult, daily exercise is essential to her routine. Like most of us, she takes a phone with her. When she sees something that strikes her, she stops to capture it. Later, in the studio, she pulls back out her recent pictures and moves through them. Sometimes, she can’t wait to get something rendered in acrylics. “I’ll get an idea, and I feel like a champagne bottle about to pop,” she says.

But sometimes it takes a while for that feeling to come. When this happens, Madeira Day makes a point of mixing it up, trying something new, like a new medium (she’s excited about acrylic crayons right now, but has always loved drawing with charcoal) or a more abstracted style of imagery. “I’m a really literal person in a lot of ways,” she explains. Her house is mainly black and white. She wears a white T-shirt and jeans almost every day. But she also likes to “bring the rainbow” into her paintings. “I don’t want to put myself into one category,” she says. “I never want to stop learning.”

One of her best teachers has been the shifting, subtle effect of our northern light. It’s a simple thing, but as Madeira Day points out, “It matters so much.” Recently, she was working on a series of custom works for the Lost Kitchen in Freedom. Restaurant owner Erin French sent her a series of photographs showing the same place at different times. “There was one where it was in the brightest part of the day, and everything was so green. The water looks light-light. And then there was one with a sunset, and everything was transformed. You see these rich blues and purples, and if you catch it at just the right time, it brings out this amazing illumination behind the trees.” She lives for those bright oranges, those strange teals, the colors that appear in the sky and through the leaves. These shades stand out against the sharp vertical pine trees or the bendy birches of her home state. She puts it with characteristic simplicity: “I always say I like a good tree line.”