About a year or so ago, I began to paint with watercolor at the home of my friend Violet. I started with whatever was in front of me on the Formica table–usually a piece of aging fruit. Never a fan of doing still life (I like action! gesture!) I decided to view it as a challenge rather than a bore. Soon I realized that I wasn’t really painting fruit or vegetables, I was just focusing on the color, form, and detail in front of me. And such glorious detail–bruises, dings, decay! After letting the wet-on-wet color settle and dry where it wanted to (with a little help from me), I went in with a smaller brush and meditated on the beauty of imperfection. And aging. At this time in my life, the metaphor is too apt. Recently, I was helping a local landscape artist with her autumn pruning. She pointed to her apple tree and encouraged me to help myself, that they made good apple sauce. I knocked some down and thought, now I know what a real apple looks like. Each one was unique, misshapen to some aesthetics, but charming and unapologetic, and begging for a portrait. So I did, with each and every one. Next I polished them off.
In front of me is my late-in-life splurge, an Arches watercolor block. Next to that, my nearly four decade-old Pelikan pan of paints, my travel set of Windsor Newtons, my cup of tea, and subject matter that never in all my life had any appeal for me. Still life.
Normally possessed of a loose, gestural style, I find myself slowing down to contemplate the pores of a clementine, nicks in a bosc pear, age spots of an over-the-hill banana. The paper is teaching me how to respond, and, at least for now, I am held in a suspension of trepidation and awe. The fibers snag and grasp threads of color, pulling them into eddies and puddles that I navigate as best I can. I use no more than two brushes as oars on these serendipitous outings. Occasionally I drop one.
Perhaps I am taking the path of both least and most resistance. In Violet’s kitchen there is always fruit in the bowl. And in this obscenely-paced world, slowing down to contemplate a single sunflower is an act of not only defiance, but deliverance.
all images copyright Sharon Watts 2013
Watercolors have always made me wary. So wild, so unpredictable to an artist who likes to control her medium. I pretty much have snubbed plein air painting because I’ve never felt the need (or had the ability) to “capture” nature. (And I’ve always preferred the human body as subject matter). But over the years I’ve dabbled a bit.
In the late 90s I invested what seemed like a small fortune in a Windsor & Newton Cotman Watercolors Field Box. My friend Sally and I drove into the olive orchards of the San Ynez Mountains and I officially christened that miraculously designed little box. Until recently, my paints have sat in a drawer collecting dust. Meanwhile, Sally has continued to paint–it comes naturally as breathing, and her effortless output takes my own breath away.
Shirley, my mother, has always painted in oils, pastels, and just now, in her early 80s, is embracing watercolor. While I get my talent genes from her, our interests have gone in different directions. She paints nature, animals, and still life, mostly from photographs, but she’s gone from National Geographic to her own personal photos. Over the years she dutifully captured the still lifes set up by instructors, but now she is on her own and flying. To her utter amazement, her work is in demand at the retirement community she lives in. She so modest that I see where my non-self-promoting genes come from as well.
My friend Meredith is a cantor, professional soprano, and all-around creative soul, so it was only a matter of time (i.e. kids growing up and reclaiming it) before she decided to take painting classes at the 92nd Street Y. Guess what–her first class yielded an award-winning painting! I am in awe of her finding her own style so quickly, doing something she has never done before. The award is nice, but really, the prize is that door opening–desire within the self to keep on growing, painting, creating.
Last year I started painting with my elderly friend Violet, and every Wednesday I take my tote bag to her kitchen, filled with an Arches watercolor block and that travel set of paints. I usually paint what’s around the room. I am tight, because I am older, perhaps, prejudging myself, thinking I should know how to capture something by now. I’ve been drawing far too long in a loosely stylized manner that is deceptive in that it is so very controlled. I want to loosen up, but the tight rendering is what wants to come out. Time will take care of that.
The door is opening, and the plein air is beckoning.
Let’s hope past peak doesn’t refer to me as well!
And here is some of Sally’s prolific output:
For more of Sally, check out her wonderful blog.
And my mom, Shirley:
We are still working on Mom’s blog–to be updated when I visit this summer.
So that’s a little sampling of some important women in my life, working in watercolor. We all have outlets in many other areas, because the one thing I’ve learned in life is that creative expression WILL find a way into the plein air.
All artwork copyrighted.
“She’s a bit shy,” Chris informs me. That’s OK, I am too.
Violet is eighty-six, and recently uprooted from a small English village to live with her son and his wife, both exhaustively busy local business owners here in the Hudson Valley.
I visit Violet two hours a day, three days a week. The list of companion-duties did not include anything I was not qualified for or squeamish about, so I stepped up to the plate. Besides, it’s right up the hill, a five minute walk away.
Her routine is not complicated. She sweeps and dusts her room and the downstairs of the two-story century-old house, and does light laundry for the restaurant. Mostly napkins. “Serviettes,” she calls them. She prepares her own simple meals and bathes without help. In the evening she watches “Jeopardy” and “Wheel of Fortune” with her best friend Lola, the chunky and spoiled tortoise shelter cat. I have endeared myself to Violet if only because I talk to Lola as if she were my own, and scratch her at the sensitive point where her tail and body junction so that guttural moans and ferocious lickings ensue. As if I have some magic touch.
Mondays and Fridays I wash Violet’s hair. She leans over the kitchen sink, her head suspended like a dormant wrecking ball from a crane of stooped shoulders and neck. I test the water temperature and use the vegetable sprayer to wet the snow-white, wispy tufts. Exposed and pink, her skull is as mysterious as a dinosaur egg.
“Rub harder,” she urges, and I comply, scratching gently with my short fingernails. After a final rinse I gather up the towel caped around her sloping shoulders to pat her hair dry, give it a quick comb and side part, and two minutes later it is fluffy as eiderdown.
On Fridays I also paint her nails. “Nail varnish,” she calls the Sally Hanson Champagne Ice from the Dollar Store. Violet has large, handsome hands, and a pinch of pride dovetails with a bit of vanity to lend her a girlish aura that defies the worn and gullied map of her face.
Next she fixes a small pot of tea, and we settle into the day’s hour of recreation. Sometimes we work on a jigsaw puzzle, but we’ve exhausted our patience with the insipid Thomas Kinkaid themes, a 9-pack bought at a church tag sale. For Christmas she received a watercolor set and pad. We gather our supplies and sit at the yellow formica kitchen table in shared silence.
From a stack on her desk, she’s pulled a few country living magazines from the 1970s, and pages through them until something captures her fancy. Intently, she begins to slowly fill the sheet of paper with her line art. The paints sit on the side. “I’m working on shapes,” she explains.
I open my own pan of paint, dry for decades. I look at Violet, her concentration giving the illusion that she is a statue or still life. But she’s not really holding a pose; her head and hands shift and I try to remember how to simultaneously see and draw what is sitting right in front of me. It’s like riding a bicycle I gamely tell myself as my pencil scuttles across the page in fits and starts. But I am wobbly. My hand/eye coordination has not been called upon to work in such tandem in a long while. Developing a visual style upon demand and earning a living at it can molest what was once a pure process. I need a fresh well to draw from, not the dirty, used paint water from my past commercial life. Struggling, I wiggle and squirm, look at my watch and start over. And over. It all feels insincere, as if I have laid a sheet of tracing paper over the artist I once was and am trying to reclaim.
When the sun slants through the blinds to signal the end of the afternoon, I look at Violet’s page. Her pencil line is carefully chosen, tentative yet tenacious. Fresh. Newly hatched. I study my own sketches and know I would trade places in a heartbeat.
“Doesn’t look like much, does it?” she nods toward her efforts.
If she only knew.
Under the formica table
Images and words from last year or so. I still meet and paint with Violet, and will be posting more soon.
She continues to inspire me. And Lola continues to be spoiled.