Our family would spend summers at Longport, New Jersey, eight miles long and a few blocks narrow between the Atlantic Ocean and the Great Egg Harbor Bay. One summer, when I was five years old, my mother sat me down at the edge of the Atlantic with a brush and palette of watercolors, plunged a sheet of watercolor paper into the ocean, handed that to me and said, “Here. Practice your strokes.” As she went about her own watercolor sketch, I began my practice.
My mother decorated the walls of our house with a large vellum calligraphed page from a church document, a reproduction of the Chi-Rho from the Book of Kells, a George Biddle watercolor of a rural cuban scene, a large, pre-Raphaelite Madonna and Child bordered with orange fruit, blossoms and leaves. There was a tri-fold, Chinese watercolor scene of birds, bamboo and flowers on black with gold painted sides that stood in the corner of our living room behind which were tucked the bridge tables and chairs. screen By our front door hung a series of early botanical watercolor prints. I think that she must have chosen most of my first books for their watercolor illustrations. She’d make garden designs with watercolor and pencil on tracing paper and I was named for the title character in a children’s book illustrated in pencil and watercolor by the author about a French Canadian girl who (finally) learns to draw in pencil and paint in watercolor on the Gaspé Coast.
With such beginnings, it’s no surprise that I’ve dedicated my life as a painter to drawing and watercolor. In fact, it wasn’t till I started teaching the history of watercolor that I realized how many formative hours I’d spent surrounded by and examining watercolors up close and personal.
Because I had other skills to develop and situations to work out, it took a while for me to focus fully on watercolor. In my mid-20s, after studying with two fabulous teachers at Santa Monica College, I made photorealism portraits of, mostly, musical friends in L.A.; filmy, multi-glazed pieces with loads of pencil work from photos I’d take and then project and then labor over for days and days. I started showing as a watercolor artist and received my first professional commissions for these portraits starting in 1981.
Later, in Sarasota, FL, I turned to architectural portraits for a few years of, mostly, historic residences. Those were all made very early in the morning, plopped down on curbs in front of each building.
During my years of touring as a performing songwriter, I made small vignettes of scenes in Europe, New England and Charleston, SC, wherever I would find myself on days off. All of those paintings were made from a field kit of watercolors with a tiny brush on 4 x 6 blocks that I bought at a fab shop in Alkmaar, Holland. The buildings, travel scenes and subsequent work were all made en plein air, as they say.
Then I moved inside and made a series of large bouquets in Charlottesville, VA, The Age of Flowers. In 2006, I built a studio behind my home in Nashville, TN, where I finally let go of what I then thought was the crutch of pencil, of structure beneath my color and launched into a very long series called Landscape into Art which coincided with my watercolor blogging escapade.
I started teaching drawing and watercolor workshops over 20 years ago when I realized that the touring life as a solo musician was not healthy for me. In 2011, I created an in-depth, online course in drawing and watercolor for beginners. In early November 2016, I made a decision to read deep history and from that decision evolved a rather intensive series of online art history practicums through which we explore, with watercolor, the history of painting through different lenses 8-week courses. It’s been a lot of work and we all have learned a great deal.
Over the last 16 months, I’ve been making watercolor copies of historic paintings from, oh, 26,000 BC to the 1960s, mostly on Stillman & Birn Beta Series hard bound sketchbooks. I like the beta paper for it’s quality and versatility and keeping this project of almost 30 pieces bound together for the sake of order. (I’m a Virgo!)
Although Winsor Newton paints and Arches paper were pretty much the only game in town for pros when I was starting out, I now use a combo of M. Graham and Daniel Smith watercolors (with a few faves from the Lukas and Old Holland lines). I’m quite fond of Lana and Fabriano papers but have done loads of work on what was once upon a time called Indian Village paper that is very heavy and very rough.
My creative process is ultimately intuitive. I have worked diligently for decades developing my technical skills but have never followed formulas or used technique tricks. I have learned to bow to my relationship with watercolor, which I consider to be a living medium, and allow water and color to teach me about my own process and what creative expression is available to us all when we check our egos at the door.
My work is really project driven. So, if I’m illustrating, making a new series of paintings, what have you, I allow the drawing and watercolor to serve the project. Although that being said, there are highly recognizable stylistic elements to whatever I make with watercolor. Some of those, like line and stroke, have always been with me. Other stylistic elements have developed through my practice and relationship with watercolor.
Nature, light and the medium of watercolor itself inspire me. While I have a line-up of interesting new projects in the wings, I’m fond of working on animals, and landscapes come through me intuitively with no model or thought.
I’m grateful that I was introduced to watercolor at the edge of the ocean in fresh air and sunlight. It connected me forever to the living quality of this medium that I love so deeply.
Join me for my next free webinar on a Brief History of Watercolor!