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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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