Jenny Harmon-Scott, the color design manager for Sorel, sits in the third-floor studio of her 1927 home in Portland, Ore., surrounded by her own oil paintings, mostly portraits. A large easel bearing the portrait of a young, redheaded woman, hands clasped demurely on her lap, dominates the space.
Harmon-Scott has painted since the age of 10, when she began taking art classes, and her love of the medium has resonated in her work ever since. She has been at Sorel since November 2010, but her experience as a designer in footwear and apparel extends much further, having worked at Adidas for six years, and then Nike for more than 11 years.
Her skill is evident in the large portrait, “Woman With the Red Hair,” where light catches at the model’s throat and highlights the waves of her upswept locks. The only colors in the large painting are subtle earth tones that complement her copper hair.
“Color is sometimes overrated,” Harmon-Scott said. “It’s insignificant on its own. You have to make it work with the right texture. … When I’m painting, it’s in 2-D; I’m creating an illusion with color and composition. When I’m working in materials, I’m working in 3-D, making the texture and color all work together.”
And Harmon-Scott looks to the style of the old Dutch masters to inspire some of her design materials. “The layering, the glazes, the finish, the shine — I like to think in terms of layers,” she said.
In fact, she sees a link between the old masters and Sorel’s palette. “Their pigments were from the ground, and Sorel has a very organic feel.”
At Sorel, Harmon-Scott sets the seasonal footwear design strategy for color, material and graphics. At sister companies Columbia Sportswear and Montrail, she also works with individual designers on seasonal product sketches and refining design details for the new season.
She begins each season with a presentation to the Sorel footwear team on the firm’s color and material strategy. This includes a narrative for products.
She explained, “The stories evolve from months of gathering inspiration, partially from travel and working with design and trend services, from unique and sometimes strange sources. … We try to figure out how color and material will make the product the most impactful it can be. I always try to keep in mind the context of the product and think of it in motion and always in new surroundings.”
The main point of difference between her art and her job is the media she uses. These days, the computer is a key part of her work at Sorel. It helped her deconstruct the brand’s iconic boot to create a sandal the color of beach pebbles for the spring ’12 season. And again, texture played a part. Designed as a turn-of-the-century-style bathing shoe for the beach, Sorel’s spring plimsole is cut in a crosshatch design — similar to the weaving of a wood picnic basket — and presented in vintage plaids and washed-cotton canvas.
Harmon-Scott returns to her oils to illustrate why textures and layers in painting are so critical to her work in footwear.
“You think about the layers and elements of surface luster and texture,” she said. “You build from the inside out, keeping in mind the way the light reflects back down to the first layer. You think about how best to achieve the illusion of depth and texture to move your eye around the piece. It’s the balance of positive and negative space — you need both to work. It’s how the old European masters painted.”
She explained that classic artists underpainted a canvas with colors that would glow from within. Then they added neutrals and other details, leaving open areas to expose the undercolors.
“That’s how to create the illusion of depth on a flat surface,” Harmon-Scott said, gesturing toward “Woman With the Red Hair.”
Those techniques also show up in the pastel plaids of the plimsole and the sand-colored layers of the boot-turned-sandal.
“What’s exciting to me is taking the design language from the past and taking that to the future,” Harmon-Scott said. “It has to be integrated. It has to be cohesive.”