I’m a small town girl living on the beautiful Oregon Coast with my husband Nick in a new home we recently built with a tremendous amount of help from family and friends. Our house overlooks tidal waters, so we always know when it’s high or low tide. I consider myself a full-time artist and a part-time beachcomber, and on a good day, I get to do both!
People often ask me how long I’ve been an artist. I remember when I was very young sitting on our farmhouse porch during a house-painting session. I was too young to be of any help so my Mom gave me a bucket of water and a paintbrush and I “painted” our cement steps with water. I’ve been officially painting since 2002, but I’ve always been intrigued by the creative process.
Growing up I was interested in making things – crafts, baking, sewing, and drawing. As I’m sure many of you can relate, I believed that real artists came with inherent skills. One of the neighbor boys was excellent at drawing and even at that young age, I compared my work to his and knew he was much more skilled. It never occurred to me that he had learned how to draw — and that he too was once a beginner.
Beginning in Watercolor
As an adult, I continued to pursue creative outlets whenever possible. But it wasn’t until I was 32 that I made the brave step to attend a beginning watercolor class. Like many mothers, my family came first, and any spare time I had after work was devoted to home and family. It felt very bold to sign up for a class and spend money on art supplies that would be my very own!
That class was a pivotal point in my life mostly because I was instantly hooked on watercolor painting. The teacher was kind and patient and provided the perfect atmosphere for complete beginners. She had us start out with a split primary palette, and even though at that time I didn’t understand warm/cool colors, I quickly became entranced with mixing color. I remember showing Nick that I could make the color brown! He congratulated me and supportively accepted my new found interest.
Around that time, I also mustered up the courage to call a neighbor of mine who was one of those ‘real artists.’ He had work in galleries and juried shows, so I felt awkward telling him that I had started painting in watercolor. But he graciously invited me to visit his studio. This started a trend; I would call and ask if I could come by with my list of painting questions. He, in turn, would send me home with some art books and magazine articles to read. It was terrific to get an insight from a professional artist, and I learned so much, from brush recommendations to color mixing to framing techniques.
Meanwhile, in my beginning watercolor class, the instructor continued to teach us the basic concepts. I have to laugh now because looking back, I wasn’t the best student! The teacher was insistent on cleanliness. Our palettes should stay clean, we should have two containers of water and change them out as soon as they get dirty, and above all, we should never mix more than three colors together at once, or we would get the dreaded mud. I tried to behave and respect her rules in class. But on my own, I was intrigued by the messy palette — so many lovely, subtle colors existed in that complexity. Why would I wipe that all away with a paper towel?
The next several years were a period of development of skill and art knowledge. Have you ever planted a small tree? The growth occurs slowly, so you never see much happening, but one day you look at the tree and notice that it’s had a growth spurt. That’s what it was like for me at that time in my art. I watched videos and took classes and workshops. I read every art book I could get my hands on. Above all, I painted. And painted. I made lots of mistakes. And I painted some more. Skill is learned and developed, and there are no shortcuts for that.
“You make good work by (among other things) making lots of work that isn’t very good, and gradually weeding out the parts that aren’t good, the parts that aren’t yours. It’s called feedback, and it’s the most direct route to learning about your own vision. It’s also called doing your work. After all, someone has to do your work, and you’re the closest person around.”
~David Bayles, Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking
During this beginning phase of my artistic journey, I realized an urge within to express myself beyond the act of rendering something in paint. I had this desire to paint with emotion and mood. To reach that level of expression, I knew I had to develop my skills to a point where they became second nature. If art is a language, you cannot tell a compelling story unless you are fluent.
Art that is infused with emotion can magnify the experience, both for the artist and the viewer. This concept is evident when we think of music. The most accomplished musician’s performance will seem dull if played with no emotion. And yet, when a musician can infuse skill with emotion, the song will touch our heart and transport us to a new space.
As Elizabeth Gilbert says in Big Magic, “A creative life is an amplified life. It’s a bigger life, a happier life, an expanded life, and a hell of a lot more interesting life. Living in this manner—continually and stubbornly bringing forth the jewels that are hidden within you—is a fine art, in and of itself.”
For a painter, every brushstroke, failed painting, and new attempt is like another shovelful of dirt lifted, bringing us closer to those strange jewels buried within.
Preschool to Art Class
Even though my teacher in that beginning watercolor class raised her eyebrow more than once at my messy palette, she called on me when health problems kept her from being able to teach. I soon found myself preparing lessons for a small group of watercolor painters. I had been a preschool teacher for several years which made a smooth transition to teaching adult art classes. There are similar traits needed; patience, organization, encouragement, and plenty of snack times!
Since then, my art journey has been propelled by this tandem operation of painting and teaching. I once read that the best way to learn something is to teach it to others. Teaching art has given me the motivation to dig deeper into subjects I may have otherwise skimmed over. As an instructor, I have to understand a concept well enough to be able to explain and demonstrate it. My very favorite moments are when a class member has an ‘aha’ moment in their painting process.
Although I’m best known for my watercolor work, I enjoy experimenting with different styles and mediums including gouache, acrylic and mixed media. My studio needs to be a place where my curiosity can thrive, regardless of the outcome. Some work I do just for fun with no plans to show the results. An artist’s studio should be a place for intense work, focused study, and also pure playfulness.
“Every artist dips his brush in his own soul, and paints his own nature into his pictures.”
~Henry Ward Beecher
My current work reflects the love of my surroundings. Oregon is an amazing place to live. The diverse landscape provides an endless supply of references; beautiful forests, rugged coastlines, peaceful marinas, farmlands, and rivers. I love nature and am more at home in the forest than I am in a city. Plein air painting is a large part of my process. I paint outdoors as much as possible in the good weather and often consider these works to be studies for studio work in the rainy months.
My painting style is mainly dependent on that messy palette that my teacher so long ago disapproved of. I enjoy mixing and using subtle, complex colors and find that these hues describe the mood of the landscape here in Oregon better than pure, clean color. Sometimes a bright, clear pop of color is needed, but often that bright color truly shines when paired with more neutral tones.
I usually start a painting with broad washes of juicy paint, laid down with a mop brush. And then I begin to refine details and place in mid tones. Final touches added with calligraphic brush strokes are my favorite part of the process!
My ultimate reason for being a painter is to be able to tell a story of a scene, expressing its atmosphere, mood, and depth while also leaving enough unspoken so the viewer can add their own personal message.
My Art Supplies
In the past couple of years, I’ve also been using gouache for studio and plein air work. It’s nice to have the option to use opaque paint to make changes in value and color, primarily when working within the time constraints of plein air painting. I also enjoy the added techniques gouache provides. It can be used like traditional watercolor yet you can also layer the paint similar to acrylics. I use M Graham gouache which is very similar to their watercolor, with no chalkiness at all.
My favorite brush is a Da Vinci Maestro Kolinsky Sable Series 35 Size 8. It’s a lovely, pointy brush but is also quite expensive. I also use Escoda Versatil Brushes, which are synthetic and in my opinion, some of the best synthetics I’ve used as far as comparing them to a real kolinsky brush. And then I have a selection of squirrel quill mop brushes that I use for washes and painting large areas.
And that messy palette of mine? It’s a metal tin palette that holds 12 pans. It’s designed for plein air/travel work, but I use it in the studio too.
My Best Advice
If I could give one piece of advice to fellow artists it would be to enjoy the process. We are all on an artistic journey. Art will always keep us striving and learning. Many times I hear students being hard on themselves. I admit I’ve had my fair share of frustration. Painting is hard! Watercolor painting can be very hard! But it also can be magical, playful, and delightfully unpredictable. If we enjoy the process and not take ourselves so seriously, the playful aspect of watercolor painting will show up more often.
Art for me has opened up a whole new way to live, and I couldn’t imagine my life without it. I’m grateful for the beginning watercolor class back in 2002, and I’ve been thrilled with the many opportunities I’ve had so far in my art journey. A few highlights would be working as a gallery director, serving as president of the Watercolor Society of Oregon, having solo exhibits, and winning awards in juried exhibits. I look forward to a lifetime of painting and teaching ahead. What a great journey we are on! I currently teach online painting classes at Messy Palette, and will be teaching a few plein air workshops in 2018.
A big thank you to Charlie O’Shields for providing the opportunity to share this guest post!