#WorldWatercolorGroup - Watercolor by Denise Soden - sea turtle - Doodlewash

GUEST ARTIST: “In Liquid Color” by Denise Soden

The Backstory

Throughout my life, there have always been two interests that stand out among the rest: animals and art. I’m pretty sure I’ve loved animals every single day of my life, and I’ve been drawing for as long as I could hold a pencil. As I grew, my preference in media changed from sketching to photography to sculpting to painting.

#WorldWatercolorGroup - Watercolor by Denise Soden - Red Panda - Doodlewash

During summer before my senior year, I found myself short of the minimum community service hours required for graduation, and as fate would have it, my mother found an ad in the newspaper for teen volunteers for our local zoo’s summer program. And it was that volunteer experience that would end up shaping the rest of my life.

During that summer and the year to follow, I would end up logging nearly 500 hours at the zoo before leaving for college. During college, I studied both zoology and psychology and got my first paid position at another zoo as a camp counselor. Unfortunately, my college days would come to an end earlier than I anticipated when my health started to decline.

#WorldWatercolorGroup - Watercolor by Denise Soden - tiger - Doodlewash

Upon returning to my hometown with two associates degrees in hand and no idea what I was going to do with my life, I began working as an assistant at a photography studio while also returning to my local zoo as an intern with the hopes of joining the staff someday. A couple years later, my dream came true. I got a job as a full time zoo educator at the zoo I had been visiting since my second birthday.

I adored every second of being a zoo educator, even the ones where I was at my wits ends with the kids or covered in animal feces. I eventually rose to the position of managing the department, but unfortunately, I learned the hard way that my INFP personality was not well-equipped with traits that would allow me to enjoy managing people instead of actually educating. With my health once again deteriorating rapidly, I made the impossible decision to leave my zoo after well over a decade of commitment to them. 

Discovering Watercolors

As luck would have it, I found watercolors through the zoo as well. In those last few months I was working there, I was planning a craft for a new program when I came across these little watercolor animal silhouettes and very suddenly, it was like a flip switched in me. I was immediately drawn to the way that watercolors flow and the range of color, texture, and emotion they are able to evoke. I had to learn more about this medium.

So, one thing you might want to know about me is that I have a bit of an obsessive personality. When I latch on to something that I am passionate about, there’s really no turing back. I’m not great with anything technical and my chronic pain makes it difficult for me to remember important dates or what I ate for breakfast yesterday… but it’s been fourteen years since I first learned to handle an opossum and nearly three years since the last time I taught with one, but I could still talk your ear off about all their fascinating adaptions. The same thing happened to me when I found watercolors.

#WorldWatercolorGroup - Watercolor by Denise Soden - leopard - Doodlewash

I had painted with oils and acrylics before, but I’m rather embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know professional watercolors were even a thing. For whatever reason, they weren’t a part of either of the only two art classes I was able to take in school and I hadn’t even seen a set of Crayolas for years.

#WorldWatercolorGroup - Watercolor by Denise Soden - snake - Doodlewash

But after that first spark of curiosity, I spent months researching the ins and outs of watercolor, what colors to chose for a palette, how different pigments reacted with each other… I read blogs and watched videos for hours on end, all to learn as much as I could and teach myself.

And to be entirely honest, after two and half years, I haven’t stopped.

Inspiration from Africa

#WorldWatercolorGroup - Watercolor by Denise Soden - giraffe - Doodlewash

It shouldn’t come to anyone’s surprise that I find my inspiration in wildlife. I have the utmost respect for our planet, and I feel it is our responsibility as a whole to take action and stand up against all the wrong humans have done and are currently doing to the millions of other species we share it with. As cliché as it might sound, I am inspired by a greater desire to help speak up for those who do not have voices, and I hope that my artwork serves as an extension of that passion in some small way.

My ultimate lifelong dream was to visit Africa and after years of saving, I finally took myself on that trip to Botswana and South Africa in 2013. Due to my work schedule, I had to travel during the off season which led to an incredibly interesting adventure in more ways than one. I was traveling by myself to another continent, and the company I booked with changed guides on me at the last minute to someone I had never spoken to and with whom I’d be alone with for the next week and a half. There was plenty of panic, anxiety, mishaps, and rain that trip, but I was standing in Africa and despite all the bad, nothing could compare to the comfort I felt from Africa herself. There aren’t words to express the absolute bliss I felt standing on African soil.

#WorldWatercolorGroup - Watercolor by Denise Soden - rhinoceros - Doodlewash

The experiences I shared there are enough to inspire me for a lifetime. I got to watch a small pride of young lions trying to stay cool under a tree in the hot Kalahari sun. One of which was playing gently with a butterfly like a house cat might. We came quite close, a little too close for comfort, to a herd of bull elephants along the road outside the Makgadikgadi Pans and watched them under a moody grey sky. I was privileged to have an incredibly rare opportunity to watch a couple of adolescent hyenas babysit two cubs while we heard the rest of the pack in the distance, presumably in a hunting party. And among many other experiences, I got to fall asleep to the roar of a rare subtropical storm filled with the beautiful chorus of frogs, insects, and birds as it poured down in Maun. It’s been over four years, but the memories are so vivid still that it brings tears to my eyes thinking about what a breathtaking experience the trip was.

Artistic Process

There’s no secret here. Regardless of medium, be it photography, painting, or sculpting, my love for animals inspires nearly every piece I create. Having been a photographer who loves to paint the same subjects that I photograph, I’m well-stocked (pun intended?) as far as references go. Whenever I’m stumped for a subject, I need only to open up my storage files and take a look for something that calls to me on that given day.

In connection with my desire to help spread conservational messages, I love featuring flagship species (beloved animals that help people to focus on a broader conservation effort) and some of the lesser known beauties in my artwork to help spread awareness. I have a very strong preference for painting animal portraits, and one of the comments I get most consistently in regards to my artwork, whether photography or painting, is that people feel very connected through the eyes of the animals I paint. This is perhaps the greatest compliment anyone could give me, and am still humbled each time I hear it.

Tools of the Trade

My first and greatest love in watercolor paints is Daniel Smith. When I first began researching color selections, I came across the wonderful Jane Blundell’s website and, paired with many other resources, began building my palette of Daniel Smith colors, which I used almost exclusively inside an 18-well Mijello Fusion palette for my first year of painting.

#WorldWatercolorGroup - Watercolor by Denise Soden - honey bee - Doodlewash

I will never be able to say for sure if those paints and that palette are only my favorites because they were my first real watercolor supplies or if they would have ended up there regardless, but I do adore them. My other favorite brands include M. Graham for their vivid pigmentation and eco-friendly business practices and Schmincke for their silky smooth texture and soft coloration.

As far as brushes go, I have several in my arsenal I happily use including a Princeton Elite Size 12, a Silver Black Velvet Size 10, an Escoda Versatil Size 8, the Princeton Neptune Size 4 Quill, and the very convenient Pentel Aquash Water Brushes. Arches 140lb Cold Pressed is my go-to watercolor paper, though also have been using some Strathmore 500 Series lately. I also recently took on the challenge of compiling and testing over 25 types of watercolor paper from different brands and there are some I’m quite eager to add to my collection as well.

Recently I’ve started enjoying other water-based mediums such as gouache and inks, but I owe them a lot more time before reporting any findings.

The Working Artist

A little over a year ago, I decided I wanted to put all of this silly, obsessively-compiled information to good use and started an educational YouTube channel. I primarily focus on product reviews, tutorials, and other geeky mini series like my Color Spotlight series where we focused on a different pigment each week for eight weeks. Last month I also had a ton of fun producing daily time lapse videos for World Watercolor Month!

My chronic pain unfortunately pushed my out of a career I never expected to have to leave. Coming to terms with that has been very difficult, but I have found a renewed joy in sharing both my passion for watercolors and my love for animals with my community. I am diligently working to spread my passion for both watercolors and animals while also making my artistry and educational materials responsible for my livelihood. Thanks to my amazing Patrons and those who support me through my online shops, I get a little closer to that goal every day.

#WorldWatercolorGroup - Watercolor by Denise Soden - water buffalo - Doodlewash

I am very active within my YouTube and Patreon communities and love forging connections with other aspiring artists. I’d be thrilled to see you all around if you’d like to join us! 

Thank you so much to Charlie for sharing my story and my artwork with all of you lovelies on Doodlewash. Happy Painting!

Denise Soden
Doodlewash Gallery

Recommended9 recommendationsPublished in Featured Artists, Tutorials

41 thoughts on “GUEST ARTIST: “In Liquid Color” by Denise Soden

  1. Denise, I am so very sorry that your physical life is defined by pain. You’ve risen above it, however, with remarkable artwork and dedication not only to portraying the animals you love so much, but to helping preserve them – often the same goal many zoos aspire to. Your art is truly beautiful, and it’s a pleasure to meet your animal friends through your watercolor paintings.

  2. What beautiful work! When I was child, long, long ago, my father worked for the Portland Zoo. This was before they had nurseries, so if a mother rejected one of her offspring one of the zoo employees would take them home to raise. So instead of cats and dogs, I had lions and tigers for pets. Your zoo story brought back many fond memories.

  3. thank you for sharing your story and your incredible wildlife paintings. You are an accomplished artist, and don’t you forget it! Your physical pain is not reflected in your beautiful artwork.

  4. I spend hours on your youtube channel…every purchase I made of watercolors was with your help (and Jane Blundell), love every video, just listening what you say it’s so informative, (I might be a little addicted to color pigments now 😬)
    Loved reading about you, your story, you are a big inspiration! Thank you for all you do!

Leave Me A Comment!

%d bloggers like this: