Artist Profile: Illya Kagan

Cape Cod Art  /  ART Annual 2019 / ,

Writer: Allyson Plessner

“hither creek” • 30” x 60” • oil on linen

The son of a needleworker and a furniture designer, Illya Kagan always knew he wanted art to be a part of his life. His passion carried him from his home in Manhattan to Skidmore College, and after to Nantucket. “I never expected to be able to do this as a profession,” he says. “When I graduated, I jumped in head first and never looked back. I’m lucky to have such a supportive place like Nantucket where people are enthusiastic about art and local artists.”

As a plein air painter, Kagan finds creativity almost everywhere he goes, but especially in the beautiful landscapes of his home island. “It’s not hard to find inspiration on Nantucket. Everywhere I turn I see a potential composition. The only thing that’s lacking is time to put it all on canvas,” says Kagan with a laugh. He also draws from the mastery of other artists. “When painting Victorian architecture, I can’t help but think Hopper, or when I’m in the Boston Public Garden, I’m thinking about Childe Hassam,” says Kagan. “I think it’s important to take pieces from everyone that inspires you and pull that together into your own style.”

“memorial day flags, figawi” • 24” x 36” • oil on linen

Kagan works in a variety of mediums, masterfully undertaking the fluid yet precise nature of watercolor as well as the more forgiving expressions of ceramic sculpture and oil painting—the medium he turns to most often. “Unlike with watercolor where it’s easy to lose a piece, oil lets you add and subtract from your work—fluctuate between light and dark—and I enjoy finding an image by moving in both directions.” From cityscapes to sand dunes, mountains to beaches, Kagan almost always finds himself with a paintbrush in hand. He relishes challenges like finding a creative way to fit his vision with that of a client, learning and evolving as he paints.

“For me, being out in nature is what it’s all about,” says Kagan. “When you’re working on location, you’re taking in all your senses, and that adds to the feeling of the painting. It may not be about the details so much as it is about the emotion and rhythm.” Sometimes that raw emotion can be fleshed out in just a few hours, “al prima” or “on the first try,” as Kagan explains it. Sometimes it can take weeks or years. “The canvas goes through so many different stages, and each one is valid in its own right,” he says. “Sometimes the simplicity that you create in the first hour is more interesting than the details that you can add in six months. That’s the nature of creativity.” 

“I joke that you have a choice with plein air: wind or bugs,” says Kagan with a grin. “I’ve experienced everything from fly away easels to flies embedded in the canvas. I’ve learned little tricks over the years, like setting up my canvas like a sail against the wind.” Kagan explains that he’s been known to venture out in everything from snow to sleet, but more often enjoys the warm, sunny days, receiving comments and curious glances of passersby. “If I want solitude, I can find solitude, but I love when people enjoy the process with me and get to see how a painting evolves.”

“waves and Cirrus I”  24” x 48” • Oil on Linen

Illya Kagan is self-represented. He has an annual exhibit every August at
the Westmoor Club on Nantucket. To learn more about kagan visit

Allyson Plessner

Allyson Plessner is a former editorial intern for Cape Cod Life and now works for the publication as a staff writer and digital media coordinator. Born in Florida, Allyson has been a lifelong summer resident of the Cape. She is a recent alumna of the College of Charleston, located in Charleston, South Carolina, where she completed bachelor’s degrees in both English and Spanish. In her free time, Allyson is an avid sailor, beach-goer, and—like her fellow Cape Cod Life colleagues—a dog-lover.