COLUMBIA — Standing in front of her painting of barn swallows, Meridith Gray tilted her head to the right and frowned.
"It's starting to get ugly," the Columbia College art student said as she layered a grayish blue onto the painting.
"That's not right. I need orange and red for the sky instead."
Gray quickly grabbed a cloth and wiped off the blue off the canvas.
"I like it that a lot of the times I don't know what I'm doing," she said. "Spontaneity is an artist's greatest tool."
She stepped back, took a look at her work and finally nodded.
"Now, the swallows can take command."
Gray, a senior, created a group of paintings featuring barn swallows for an art class. Despite the long nights she spent on this collection, she said the effort doesn't match the demanding nebula series she worked on for more than a year.
That series is a collection of seven oil paintings based on Gray's rendering of nebula clouds from photographs. The series is being exhibited this month at Tellers Gallery & Bar, 820 E. Broadway.
A nebula is an interstellar cloud made of dust and ionized gases. Gray said her inspiration came from a general astronomy course she took at Moberly Area Community College.
"The moment that I saw the Orion Nebula picture, I knew it was something I wanted to paint," she said. "They're so big — light years across — they're really fascinating and beautiful to me."
Gray said it took a long time for her to adjust to the level of accuracy and skills she needed to paint the transience and sophistication of the nebula.
"Before this I really had no artistic direction at all," she said. "I'm trying to take it up to the professional level with this series and step out of what I'm used to doing in school that is free form."
The hardest part of the process, Gray said, was the beginning, when she needed to scale the image onto the canvas proportionally. She called it time-consuming and dull at the same time.
The fact that nebulae tend to emerge slowly at night also required her to work late to capture the haziness and depth of the clouds.
"These paintings have density and atmosphere in them," she said. "I feel like their depth is better achieved because the dim light brings out the beauty of the nebulae."
Oil painting is a process of layers that keep emerging and recessing on the canvas, Gray said. To build a three-dimensional effect, she used a technique called sfumato, which required extensive smudging to develop a hazy and obscure finish to the painting.
Sfumato was a Renaissance painting technique used most famously by Leonardo da Vinci in his "Mona Lisa."
Each nebula painting took about two months to complete, yet Gray said the finished drawings encouraged her to continue the series.
"It's so worth it once the painting is done," she said. "I have no reason to stop. I want to show what’s out there for us to be inspired by and in awe of."
Before the showing at Tellers, Angela Speck, associate professor in MU’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, asked Gray to be an artist-in-residence at the Laws Observatory and exhibit her works there.
"We tend to think that art and science are very different things, but I wanted to find ways to bring them together to demonstrate that astronomy goes beyond science," Speck said. "Meridith presented us an opportunity."
Speck said her husband purchased one of the nebula paintings for her birthday.
"I adore it, it's amazing how well Meridith captures the images of the nebula," she said.
Speck also encouraged Gray to reproduce her work as prints, although Gray told her that would be a future step in her career.
"I'm still a student, and I feel like I have to multiply the series by five in order to call myself an artist," she said. "Right now I just want to focus on producing the work and making a name for myself."
Sixteen examples of Gray's art works are available for sale at Tellers until the end of December.
In addition to the nebula collection, an abstract, mixed-media series that involves painting with tissue paper is also included.
"I miss when I was just given supplies and allowed to do whatever I wanted," she said. "I'm trying to go back to things that I did in high school when I was really free-spirited and not held down by any techniques."