Doodlewash and watercolor sketch by Meliessa Garrison Elliott of Carduelis Bird

GUEST ARTIST: “Eclectic or Indecisive?” by Melissa Garrison Elliott

Doodlewash and watercolor sketch by Meliessa Garrison Elliott of Onions

I am Melissa Garrison Elliott, and I live in Los Angeles, in the San Fernando Valley. I was born in Kansas, but have lived in Southern California since the age of five, so I’ve become a native by now! I’m honored to be featured here because, despite the fact that I have been drawing and painting for about 15 years, on and off, I still consider myself a novice and, in fact, have been sitting at a crossroads lately, contemplating where to go next.

To give a little background, in my freshman year of college, I declared a major in art. I’m still not sure why, because I was never one of those kids with a paintbrush or pencil constantly in hand; but for some reason, at age 17, I became determined to be an artist. My determination didn’t last, however, as the college my parents encouraged me to attend didn’t have a good art program, and rather than change schools, I changed majors. I never picked up a paintbrush again for 25 years!

Doodlewash and watercolor sketch by Meliessa Garrison Elliott of Tea and Marmalade

I did end up, almost by accident, in an art field. After taking a calligraphy class from a friend, I decided to go to the local community college to take a graphic arts class and learn how to do artwork for reproduction so that I could make wedding invitations. That lasted a while, and then I got a full-time job as a graphic artist in a small firm, where I also learned typesetting. When that studio failed, my next job was as a typesetter (it paid better than paste-up!), and the letter arts became my long-term career as I moved from graphics to magazines to designing movie titles for major studios. But in all this time, no drawing, no painting. I didn’t even doodle.

When I was 45, a friend of mine invited me to go with her to hear a lecture by an author who had written a book about how to discover your avocation. The author led us all in a guided meditation, in which we were to descend in our minds into a dark basement, and then sit quietly, waiting for a voice to speak to us about what we really wanted.

Doodlewash and watercolor sketch by Meliessa Garrison Elliott of Stones and Water

At the time, I had been pursuing a side career as a writer, so I expected that if I received any kind of message from my subconscious during this exercise, it would be writing-related. Instead, as I sat there in the dark, a little voice piped up inside my mind and said “I want to paint! Please let me paint!” The surprising echoes of this message reverberated inside my head for the next few days, and finally, I threw up my hands and enrolled in an “Introduction to Painting” class at that same community college where I had learned graphic arts 20 years before.

Doodlewash and Watercolor sketch by Melissa Garrison Elliott of Shutters in France

It was a revelation. That first semester, I started out painting in acrylic, but after that I decided to try watercolor. After about a month of banging my head against the wall in frustration, I suddenly got it—the reductive qualities of watercolor—and it has been my medium ever since.

Doodlewash and watercolor sketch by Meliessa Garrison Elliott of Book Cafe

Three years later, I decided to make a bold career change, and at age 48, I was accepted at UCLA to obtain my masters in Library Information Science. Needless to say, achieving a masters degree in two years and then embarking on a brand-new career as a teen librarian at a public library didn’t leave a lot of spare time, but I still managed to draw and paint, and to take an occasional class.

Doodlewash and watercolor sketch by Meliessa Garrison Elliott of Story Time Teens read to tots

When I say that I am at a crossroads, the issue is that I have discovered an affinity for several different methods and styles, and I feel that I want to focus more on one of them—any one of them—in order to significantly improve. I am torn between “fine art” and “illustrator” styles, and between still life, which comes fairly easy, versus such branching-out areas as urban sketching or landscape. I guess that the answer, while I am still working a more-than-full-time job, is to just keep doing whatever appeals on a daily basis until I get to a place of quiet and time into which I can expand.

Doodlewash and watercolor sketch by Meliessa Garrison Elliott of Teen Book Meetup in Burbank

For now, I  use my art for work by doing illustrations for Burbank Public Library’s summer reading club programs, and books for the teen blog. I occasionally teach a class for the teens at the library—Chinese brush painting, or contour drawing—and last summer led 25 teens on a sketch crawl around town. And I make paintings as gifts, fill my sketchbook with “Every Day in [this month]” themes, and generally doodle around.

Doodlewash and watercolor sketch by Meliessa Garrison Elliott of Craft and Art Supplies

I’m not much of a snob when it comes to art supplies, although I do believe in investing in good paints. I use a variety of brands, but mostly either M. Graham or Daniel Smith. They’re expensive, but watercolor paints last for a while, so I buy a few tubes here and there and add to my palette gradually. I experiment with different brushes, but mostly gravitate towards Escoda.

For my casual sketches and illustrations, I buy the Bee Paper Company “The Only Sketch Book You Will Ever Need,” which is 93-lb. heavyweight drawing paper for use with wet and dry media. It takes watercolor pretty well, and is great for illustrations done with micron pen and watercolor, but if I’m going to do a major painting, I use “real” watercolor paper—a recent favorite is Fluid 140-lb. I know people who swear by heavier, more expensive papers, but as I said, I haven’t yet become that particular.

Doodlewash and watercolor sketch by Meliessa Garrison Elliott of Bandouille Window

I learned contour drawing from Pasadena artist Brenda Swenson, and it completely changed the way I draw, and in fact the way I see things. I recommend contour drawing to everyone I talk to, especially those people who say “I can’t draw.” I was hung up for years on things like proportion and perspective (and these are still challenging for me, which is why I won’t be showing architectural drawings here, although I have done some!), but when you simply look at something and draw around its form by following its contours, you get a whole new feel for drawing. You find out that it doesn’t really matter if a line is perfect, so long as it is expressive. In fact, wonky lines bring charm to everything!

Doodlewash and Watercolor sketch by Melissa Garrison Elliott of Steampunk Still Life

People are often amazed by watercolors in which there is an intensity of color. They are used to thinking of watercolor as the pallid monochromatic landscapes of the English countryside they see in museums. And when you show them the work of contemporary artists with splashes of crimson and yellow and turquoise, they almost doubt it could be watercolor. This is what I love about the medium—its intensity in combination with its transparency.

Doodlewash and watercolor sketch by Meliessa Garrison Elliott of Lake Union Boat

You can’t have good color without infusing it with light, and watercolor does that like no other medium. As I said earlier, getting the knack of reductive painting can be challenging: With acrylics and oils, you add layers and paint your highlights in white on top of everything else; but when you work in watercolor, you have to decide before you begin where your highlights will be, and then paint around them, because your highlights are created by leaving the pristine white of the paper to show through. But once you get that down, it becomes a game of which you never tire.

Melissa Garrison Elliott
Blog – Slipcover

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28 thoughts on “GUEST ARTIST: “Eclectic or Indecisive?” by Melissa Garrison Elliott

  1. I experience the same issue of dabbling in a lot of related areas (but textile crafts in my case) and not picking one to delve into deeply. I am thinking that with your varied background, and your writing skills, maybe you could write a book to help people experiment with media and techniques, especially when they are starting out and don’t know where they want to go. A sort of investment prospectus to see where they would like to invest their time and art supply budget? Or just to help them make that leap into creativity.
    Just think of yourself as a well-rounded Renaissance artist, instead of thinking you have to pick a specialty. 🙂

  2. I was so happy to read of your journey as I feel that I’m in a very similar place – I dropped art for several years and picked up a camera instead. I’ve always loved the idea of making a living as an artist, but I know that’s like working crazy hard AND winning the lottery. I’ve recently picked up watercolors and I’m so happy and I love what I’m doing, but I’m torn between Extremely Realistic, Very Loose and Sketchy. I guess mostly I feel so lucky to have rediscovered my craft. Thanks for your story!
    p.s. I also love the Bee Paper Company The Only Sketchbook I’ll Ever Need! I just ordered a second one for my 7 year-old. 🙂

    1. Oh, I wish I were better with photography. I take barely adequate reference photos, and that’s about it. I know what you mean, vacillating between verisimilitude and spontaneous lines–I so admire some of the people out there who slap on a wash, add some dry brush, and have a beautiful work of art. Thanks for checking in!

    1. It’s really fun. I actually went to library school planning to be an archivist, but I got the public library bug and I so empathize with teenagers that I wanted to be an advocate for them in library world. It’s worked out great. I get to be creative and give them programs I would have liked when I was a teen, and they give so much back.

  3. Eclectic is great – don’t get boxed in to a certain style or subject matter – that’s my approach and that’s what I believe. Your drawings are great by the way – and a very impressive career change!

  4. I think you would like Cézanne. I’ve just finished reading an illustrated book on him by Frank Elgar, published by Abrams Books NYC. Especially his watercolour still lifes — the light in them was astonishing and, yes, they look like oil paintings due to the great depth he achieved. I like your work too. I may investigate contour drawing, but not as a watercolourist, simple graphite work (still to find local classes, as I wish to be with others and have a teacher right there). Thanks for that tip!

  5. Melissa. your story resonates with me. Like you, I tried to major in art but had to change when, in my case, I realized I couldn’t afford the expensive supplies. I also live in SoCal, in Orange County, where I found the community colleges offered wonderful art classes with caring teachers. I took many classes but never watercolor. So now I’m looking into watercolor classes as it’s a medium I love.
    Your art is exuberant, and I see how the contour drawing gets you to the sensuality of your subject. Thank you for sharing your journey – very inspiring.

  6. Melissa, I love your work. I was wondering why it appealed to me so much, then I read your statement ‘ …wonky lines bring charm to everything’ I had just said almost the exact same thing to someone else in this group earlier today. So now I know why I enjoy your work so much – it’s sympatico for mr!

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