I can call myself the Nancy Who Drew because (a) my name is Nancy, (b) I draw, and (c) I solved a mystery. Not exactly like my childhood heroine Nancy Drew, but in my own way, through drawing (and painting), and writing about it. The two-volume memoir called The Nancy Who Drew has taken up the last twenty years, but never mind. It’s been worth the effort to paint a picture in the reader’s mind, which opened my own mind to the story my pictures had been telling me all along.
The ones from my imagination anyway. When you have a brush in your hand, you never know what the subconscious will release. But I trusted it because painting, that silent, wordless activity, was my voice when I had no other.
I began with oils, and at first only switched to watercolor when I couldn’t afford a new roll of canvas. Later, I turned to watercolor when the umpteen canvases stacked against the walls began taking up all the floor space. But then something else happened, which I can only describe as a feeling of becoming lighter, and wanting a lighter, less dense medium.
My easel now serves as a clothes rack, and instead of a canvas six feet tall, I’m happy with a six-by-six-inch watercolor sketchbook. When I post an image online no one can tell the difference.
I have three watercolor stories to share with you. One took place at the Art Students League during my first stab at the medium. As I watched the instructor do a demonstration, making it look effortless, I thought he was a magician. I was in despair when he came round to look at my work that day. But he said to me, “Have you done a mile of watercolors yet?”
A mile? I had a flash of watercolor paper stretching into space, on and on for an unimaginable distance. “No,” I said.
He smiled. “Well, wait till you’ve done a mile.”
If that story was about the value of experience, this next one is about power. Power and control. Other than when I was a child and drawing and painting were simply pleasurable activities to engage in, making art has had a lot to do with having some kind of control over my life. In the sense of being in charge of my own interpretation, asserting my own expression. Then, reproducing what was outside of me became a way of taking it in, feeling its energy, connecting me to whatever I happened to be painting.
For those of us who quail at the fleeting nature of time, who miss loved ones before they’ve even left, who find the beauty and pain of existence more easily borne through color and form—because that’s one thing you might have control over—there’s nothing quite like picture-making.
My mile of watercolors picked up speed when I read Burt Silverman’s Breaking the Rules of Watercolor, and realized there was a way to manipulate the medium that put me more in charge, less fearful of making a mistake. With oil, if I didn’t like what I had done, I could come back the next day and paint over it. Or whitewash the whole canvas and start again. Now I learned that I didn’t even have to use watercolor paper! I could use Bristol plate, as long as it was heavy enough, and taped down securely to a board. It buckled, of course, and there were waiting times for it to dry and smooth itself out again, but I used that time for starting another.
I had to buy it by the sheet to get the thick, heavy weight, but I cut it into halves or quarters. The beauty of Silverman’s method was the ability to put color in and take it out again. Take it out with a sponge or a brush, and put it back in to create layers. Or to find that white space you purposely neglected to save because you were encouraged to be reckless and impulsive. I’ve included two examples of this method, the self-portrait and the one of Pegasus, which looks more like a gouache than a watercolor, but it’s not.
The book is out of print, but Amazon has it through third-party sellers. When I went to check its availability and read some of the comments, one man complained there wasn’t enough actual instruction or how-to’s, which came as a surprise to me because wasn’t that the whole point of breaking the rules? To find whatever way works for you and to heck with the rules.
I was off and away then, on paper meant for anything but water. Later, I found certain kinds of paper that could absorb water, yet allow you to lift the color out again. It was all about finding what would give me the result I wanted, whether or not I knew in advance what that would be. It was a dialogue between brush and paper, water and colors, and all I did was watch it unfold.
I began with tubes of Winsor & Newton and have tended to stay with them simply because I knew what I was getting. But if I neglected them too long, the lids sealed themselves shut, and lighting a match under them was the only way to pry them open.
All manner of brushes do the trick for me, because it’s never the brush; it’s the hand that holds it. This is the third story, noticing the importance of touch. At the League, I watched how my drawing instructor used her fountain pen like a divination tool.
How she let it hover a millimeter above the paper before making a mark. Her concentration was fierce, as if her hand was being guided by an unseen force. Or maybe she was just allowing the drawing to direct her next move. She was bent over as if in prayer, oblivious to us, her students, gathered round, watching the dance of her nib with the paper.
You couldn’t help but feel it was more than a drawing class; it was a lesson in Oneness. A lesson in reverence for the medium, letting it do its thing and getting yourself out of the way. I thought about her years later when I had a heavy-handed, beginner student of my own. We were doing a watercolor of tulips. When I saw her charging into the paper like the 1812 Overture, I tried to explain the importance of touch. Strokes can be heavy or light; it’s the sensitivity that counts, much like a violinist applying bow to strings.
My watercolors have become rather miniscule of late, and I doubt that mile will ever be reached. But there was a time when I did watercolors 30×40 or 34×40. The paper was cut from a roll, stretched like a canvas and stapled to wooden stretchers. Thirty years later, they’re still on those stretchers and in pristine condition even without glass and a frame.
Yet how I wrestled to get them on the stretchers. The paper had to be totally immersed in the bath to make it pliable, then taken out to be fastened with staples while it was dripping wet. I was drenched and the floor needed mopping, but the paper dried tight as a drum, and no worrisome buckling to contend with.
Three of the disjointed architectural scenes were painted on stretchers. They were a response to all the ‘normal’ architectural renderings I did throughout most of the 1980s. Before you marvel at my drafting abilities, I confess I took slides as well as prints, and projected the slides onto my paper so I could copy the lines. It was still a lot of work, but I don’t think I would have even attempted it if not for this drafting shortcut.
My rendering business came about through a friend in real estate. One thing led to another, and after a few years I was able to earn my living through commissioned work. (Rents in New York were cheaper in the 1980s—and so were art supplies.) But as others have found, turning your passion into a job has a downside if you end up painting only for other people. I kept my soul intact with work from my imagination, like the bird lady and the figure dancing with the moon. But it was through renderings that I developed the habit of detail.
I prefer working in daylight, but having deadlines caused me to find that special ‘blue-light’ bulb which gave the effect of daylight no matter what time it was. With the onset of scanners at the end of the 80s, commissions became scarce, and with digital photography they dried up completely. Yet my love for painting buildings lived on when I moved to Brooklyn. Thanks to the protection of the Landmarks Preservation Commission of NYC, I live in an area of beautiful historic homes from a bygone age that call out for my pen or pencil or brush.
I take pictures when I’m outside, then do the work indoors. At least in New York City, because the first time I tried sketching on the sidewalk was a spectacular disaster. A story best saved for the memoir as I’m running out of space here. Meanwhile, this January it’s even been too cold for taking pictures, so I’m doing watercolors of food. In the next few months, I’ll have to curtail those as well in order to get Volume Two of The Nancy Who Drew out there. This is the one that tells the whys and wherefores of becoming an artist and how I kept going.
It often comes down to just keeping on, doing the next picture. And the next. That 95% perspiration thing that involves guts more than talent. Or maybe having guts is a talent too. I once found solace in a book called On Not Being Able to Paint, because lying fallow has a purpose too. Robert Henri’s The Art Spirit inspires me.
“What a writer or painter undertakes in each work of art is an experiment whose hoped for outcome is an expanded knowing. Each gesture, each failed or less-than failed attempt to create an experience by language or color and paper, is imagination reaching outward to sieve the world.” ~ Robert Henri
But then social media inspires me too, because having a place to share our work, knowing people will see it, is a great impetus. Thanks Charlie O’Shields, and thanks Doodlewash!
Creator of Doodlewash® and founder of World Watercolor Month™ (July) and World Watercolor Group™. Sharing daily watercolor illustrations and stories while proudly featuring talented artists from all over the world! If you’d like to be a guest artist on Doodlewash.com, contact me!