My name is Rebecca Fish Ewan and I grew up in Berkeley, California, but have lived in Tempe, Arizona for the past 30 years. Even though I’ve been drawing my whole life and as a child declared I was going to be an artist when I grew up, I didn’t fall in love with watercolor until graduate school. Coincidently, also where I met and fell in love with my husband. We were both at Cal Berkeley, studying landscape architecture. It was the late 1980s. He had a mullet and I still wore leg warmers.
My first and favorite professor, Chip Sullivan, was both a watercolorist and cartoonist. He used Winsor & Newton paints, so I bought a Cotman student kit of Winsor & Newton pan paints. I loved the immediacy of watercolor and the portability of this field box when I traveled. This little kit became my constant color companion.
For the next thirty years, while the rest of my life changed in all the transformative ways a life can change—beginning with a move from my home state of California to the deserts of Arizona, then a professorship, new house, marriage, kids, first book, a degree in creative writing—I kept the same small kit of twelve paint pans. Sure, I swapped out the Veridian Hue for Payne’s Gray, but I had made that change at Professor Sullivan’s recommendation while still in grad school.
When a person is ready for change, what sparks the shift can seem a tiny thing. I’m a firm believer in the butterfly effect, how small actions like the flutter of a Monarch’s wing can catalyze tremendous revolution. The key is being receptive, so when a wing flaps you can follow the ripple of its action, even if you don’t yet realize how urgent it is that you follow.
My urge for a new palette emerged by seeming happenstance. I didn’t realize my colors had run their course until February 2018, when I was back in Berkeley with my husband who was attending a planting design conference at Cal. I wandered into an old grad school haunt, the art store Inkstone, and bought a little Koi kit of pan paints. I didn’t notice the butterfly fluttering from my palm when I tucked this purchase into my bag.
And so began the complete transformation of my watercolor palette, which in turn led to a totally new way of drawing and painting. I made a page of swatches of the Koi palette in my sketchbook. The colors were terrifyingly bright. Using them felt like a betrayal of my long relationship with the twelve safe Winsor & Newton pigments.
A month later, I inadvertently skipped pages in my sketchbook while taking notes at a writer’s conference and decided to, as I noted, “fill them with random watercolor doodles.” I used my Koi paints. Again, I missed the butterflies that flitted from these pages as I painted.
The brightness of these colors still intimidated me. I had established my graphic voice in muted tones. I lived my life on mute. My closet was full of gray clothing. Still, in late March, I wrote: “I’m considering doing the sketch crawl with my new Koi paints, curious if it will bring out a kind of magic landscape because they are so different from landscape colors, or perhaps it will all seem ridiculous.”
Despite my apprehension of the ridiculous, I decided to bring them, not noticing the butterflies fluttering out from this decision. The sketch crawl was organized by the students in the landscape program where I’d been teaching for 25 years. Virginia Hein was the visiting sketch crawl leader. She talked about ink and watercolor dancing on the page. She used big brushes filled with vibrant colors. She said things like: “Let line do part of the story. Let color do part of the story.” Her hands waving through the air like a pair of butterflies as she spoke.
Seeing watercolor sketching as an act of storytelling tickled into my bones. I was teaching a new class I’d developed called Hybrid Stories of Place and my hybrid cartoon/poetry memoir, By the Forces of Gravity, was due to release, so I was ripe for this kind of perspective on sketching. I had spent thirty years treating it as a kind of picturesque recording exercise akin to all the 18th-century landscape theorists watercoloring away in the Lakes District of England.
Of course, I figured some of Virginia Hein’s magic was contained in her pigments. After the crawl, I asked her about her palette and she recommended four tube paints made by Daniel Smith: Quinacridone Gold, Lunar Blue, Quinacridone Burnt Scarlet and Undersea Green. I ordered these colors and put them in my Cotman field box. She also recommended DeAtramentis Black Document Ink, with which I started filling my fountain pens.
A few weeks later, I went on a writer’s retreat at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico. Georgia O’Keeffe had been my favorite painter for most of my life, so it was a thrill to spend a weekend in the place where she had painted. I was going to lead a quick watercolor session with writers attending the retreat.
The landscape historian in me demanded I read up on O’Keeffe before I went. I came across this quote:
“I had to create an equivalent for what I felt about what I was looking at – not copy it.”
Cue the butterflies. I had spent years trying only to sketch what I see and O’Keeffe’s words gave me the push I needed to put more on the page, to try to render the emotional response to a place rather than merely draw what it looks like.
My new and brighter color palette, a mix of Koi pans, Daniel Smith tube paints and a few old favorite Winsor & Newton hues, helped me break away from this idea that the goal is always to capture the image as I see it and nothing more. Overtime, I’ve become more enamored with Daniel Smith and my current palette is nearly all this brand. I even have some that sparkle (eg. Duochrome Oceanic and Amethyst).
The most recent development in my watercolor life connects to music. I’m not a musician, but was raised by one and am raising one (“I’m fully raised, Mom!” I can hear my 19-year-old saxophonist holler in my head).
When my son was young, I’d sit in the local jazz club where he was getting lessons and I’d draw. Mostly I sketched the musicians, but I began to draw what I heard as well. I started doing these small ink and watercolor expressions of music as I listened. I did a collection, made while listening to water-themed music, and published them paired with my water writings as a chap book called Water Marks.
When the pandemic hit, I decided to do these music doodles while listening to recordings by musicians who had died of Covid-19. I made a playlist, but couldn’t continue beyond the first one done in Leo Konitz’s memory (listening to him play ‘Body and Soul’), I think because I felt so overwhelmed with fear and sorrow.
Instead I began to seek out small joys in my own ordinary life isolated at home. I hunted for the perfect purple pigment, which just this week added Holbein to the brands of watercolor I’m considering for my palette (Mineral Violet and Lavender).
I finished the cartoons for my Doodling for Writers book (black & white) and hatched a plan to make a color companion for the publication. I make tiny ink and watercolor doodles and post them on Instagram.
What I love about my new relationship with watercolors is how much it encompasses my journey on the page, the vastness of life distilled in these bright and quirky paintings. They are my version of favorite lines from William Blakes’ poem “Auguries of Innocence”:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
To carry my adventure into tininess even further, I just bought a 3×0 brush to test the capacity of watercolor as the brush becomes so small it begins to butt against the physics of water and to feel gravity’s tugs at each grain of pigment.
During this pandemic year, I started to offer online doodle sessions and love sharing my work on social media. And yes, sometimes I paint butterflies.Recommended2 recommendationsPublished in