Photography by Kathy Tran

Helen Lary’s art is a bit of a paradox. Her paintings on canvas and with watercolor can feel ethereal, soothing and tranquil, or fun, vibrant and whimsical— it all depends on where the piece takes her.

“I start a painting with a vision, and after it dries and I come back to it. I’m like, ‘I think I’m going this way today,’ then go in a totally different direction,” Lary says of her artistic process. “Day-to-day moods change and you feel some- thing different, so then the paint- ing takes on a whole new life.”

A self-taught painter, Lary’s transition to full-time artistry began unexpectedly. She studied marketing at Baylor University and worked in advertising after graduation. Later, after her three children were born, she dabbled in photography but “knew it wasn’t quite the creative outlet I needed.”

“Once I started painting, I realized how much I loved it. I’ve never taken a class before. I’ve never YouTubed anything before. Honestly, I just started,” she says. “We needed a piece of art for our first home, and my husband didn’t want to commission a piece because he didn’t know what it was going to look like. So one day, I (decided) to buy a canvas and paint something, (figuring) if I didn’t like it in three months I’d toss it. After that, I could not put the paintbrush down.”

Today, Lary paints from her home in Lake Highlands, in a studio over her garage. She typically works in pairs or groups, painting multiple pieces at a time; she says it helps her creatively. Smaller paper pieces or mini canvases generally take a few days to complete, while larger paintings can take weeks.

“I just kind of go at my own pace and let the movement and the colors tell me where to go,” Lary says. “I love being in color every day. It’s a great way for me to use all of my senses and put them into painting.

I usually start with an idea and almost 99% of the time I end up somewhere totally different than I was envisioning, but it’s usually always better.”

The bulk of Lary’s work is commissions, and she says she loves collaborating with clients. In addition to initial brainstorming and direction from a client about their custom piece, Lary gathers feedback as the piece progresses.

“With commissions, you have their story that you kind of paint into the canvas. It’s definitely a work that they’ve had some say in, and feel like it’s really, truly theirs,” she says. “I want everybody to be 100% happy with their pieces. I’m so honored when someone asks me to create something for them.”

Lary gathers inspiration from a bevy of sources — travel, nature, interior design or her everyday life and familial roots.

“My mom is from Mexico, so I grew up spending a lot of time there. That’s my happy place, so a lot of inspiration comes from the feeling of being there — the bright, vibrant colors, the textures, the smells, and just the warmth that comes from being in Mexico,” she says. “(I draw inspiration from) everyday life, too. It’s usually just a little snippet of something, seeing something as I pass by. Then I’ll mull that over in my head, marinate that, and it usually comes out as some kind of art.”

Despite her success, Lary says she has struggled with finding her footing in the art world and feeling validated as an artist.

“I definitely still get hung up on the word ‘artist.’ Sometimes I don’t feel like I can call myself a real, true artist,” she says. “But that’s just in my head and something I struggle with. Being creative is being an artist.”

Over time, Lary learned to embrace the process and transform her self-doubt and “mistakes” into part of the finished product.

“Being a painter, you are going to be critical. But you learn to be less critical, to just go with the flow and see what you come up with,” she says. “And if a piece doesn’t sell, that’s fine. I can paint over it, or create something different. All those little mistakes, they’re not really mistakes. They’re in there and it tells a story.”