GUEST ARTIST: “How Changing Colors Changed Everything” by Rebecca Fish Ewan

Rebecca Fish Ewan early pandemic watercolor doodle a 3.2020

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.

sample of grad assignment 1991 by Rebecca Fish Ewan

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.

joshua tree watercolor sketch 1991

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.

random watercolor doodles 2018 by Rebecca Fish Ewan
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.

early pandemic watercolor doodle b 3.2020 by Rebecca Fish Ewan_

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.

my palette with 4 new Daniel Smith colors 4.2018

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).

my current palette 2021
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).

water marks book cover 2018When 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.

leo konitz music doodle 4.2020 by Rebecca Fish EwanInstead 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.

Rebecca Fish Ewan
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10 Comments
  1. Sandra Strait 1 month ago

    Rebecca, your work is so beautiful and lively and your artistic journey is inspirational!

  2. Mary Roff 1 month ago

    Wonderful journey and art, Rebecca! Thank you for sharing with us!!

  3. mlaiuppa 1 month ago

    Sometimes it’s hard to move on from old friends. You feel like you are betraying them. Or you simply get stuck in a rut and don’t think about change.

    I started with a set of 24 Pelikan watercolors my Grandfather bought me when I was 12. I still have them. I used them off and on until I was 62. After I retired I got them out and started going to an emeritus watercolor class put on by the local community college. The instructor used Winsor & Newton tube paints. But I was adamant I liked using the pans. I bought a starter set of Winsor & Newton professional pan watercolors. Half pans. Then I started reading artist’s blogs. It was Jane Blundell that started me using Daniel Smith because at the time they were the only ones with Buff Titanium and I wanted to try it. Then I learned I could buy pans and fill them. Eventually I bought pans and palettes and more Daniel Smith colors. I started by recreating my Pelikan set, then experimented with Jane’s different palettes. Now I have a little of a lot. Some Holbein, some Schmincke, some Winsor & Newton, Daler Rowney, an odd Golden or M. Graham. I’ve even acquired some boutique hand made paints from Etsy and a lot of Greenleaf and Blueberry. I find I switch around depending on what it is I’m doing. If I’m out doing field sketching, I tend to take the Greenleaf and Blueberry. At home I use the Daniel Smith. Also when I go to classes. For journaling I tend to use the Daler Rowney small professional artist palette of 18 quarter pans. The Daniel Smith and Daler Rowney tend to be for bright, vibrant subjects. The Greenleaf & Blueberry for plein air when I want something a bit more natural.

    But I shall always keep my Pelikan set and remember how my Grandpa got me started. He used to do pen and ink sketches, nothing with color that I know of. But he bought me professional watercolors and a good sable brush at the little art store around the corner from their apartment. It’s been 55 years but I’d like to go back there one day and see if the little art shop is still there. Perhaps pick up another #6 sable brush.

  4. Brenda Sommerville 1 month ago

    I like this Charlie, has a Peter Max feel to it.

  5. Claire 1 month ago

    What a great read! your enthusiasm shines through and your colour travels are fascinating. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Susan Masters 1 month ago

    Thank you for sharing your journey and your Wonderful works as well

  7. mireya pizarro 1 month ago

    have not read this yet but already the title has me. I mean right now I feel like if I changed color that would make my art pop!

  8. mireya pizarro 1 month ago

    exactly what I want
    try to render the emotional response to a place rather than merely draw what it looks like.

  9. Sharon Bonin-Pratt 1 month ago

    What a joy to read about your art and writing journey, Rebecca. I like the metaphoric butterfly flitting around and guiding you to be curious, maybe courageous. Your whimsical art is a delight to linger over. I’ve never tried Koi watercolors – maybe now I will. “To carry my adventure into tininess even further,” is an inspiring sentence.

  10. travelmol 2 weeks ago

    Hi Rebecca,

    I loved reading about you and your work. We share similar philosophies. I really loved this quote you shared:

    “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.”

    I also was inspired by your sketch that went across the spread and then had text flowing along the lines you drew. I’m looking forward to trying one like that myself.

    My mom’s in Scottsdale so we’re kinda neighbors in that I’m out there usually 4x/year. My grandma lived in Tempe for 40+ years and worked at ASU – small world. 😉

    Take care and be well.
    Molly M. in NorCal

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