Interview with Watercolor Artist Kathleen AlexanderPosted October 25 2012
Watercolor artist Kathleen Alexander is a testament to the idea that dedication to art can begin at any age. Alexander discovered art as a teenager but studied other subjects in college. It was while she was painting as a hobby did she realize that her true path lay in watercolor. From there with the encouragement of mentors she began forging her career one day at a time, one brush stroke at a time.
You attended art school but after staying home and raising your kids for 10 years. How did it feel going back to art school, and how did you decide that that was the right route? As opposed to self study or mentors? What was it about art school in particular that felt right to you at that time?
I had been painting in watercolor since I was 17 but majored in science in college. I took one art class in college as a general education requirement, and although the professor encouraged me to take more art classes, I couldn’t fit it into my schedule. I learned to draw in that class; the professor taught the Betty Edward’s “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” method. When I was 25, I began taking a night class at the local community college in watercolor. At the time I was working in a research lab, was married, and had a 9 month old. I had been painting continually, and it started to dawn on me that I had chosen the wrong career path. I hadn’t planned on going back to art school. I was awarded a one- year scholarship to the Academy of Art College (now University) in San Francisco by virtue of a first place award at the county fair. I was thrilled and intimidated at the same time. I can’t say enough positive things about the Academy of Art University. The classes and instructors were extraordinary. I took an incredible life drawing class from Zhaoming Wu, the internationally known oil painter. I also took graphic design classes that have helped me in both my marketing and my painting. I didn’t get a degree, but I earned A’s in all my classes and to be honest it gave me a sense of confidence as an artist that I had been lacking.
You mention on your website that you really enjoy art festivals, but they also must be a lot of work. What is it that you like about them? What role do they play in your marketing?
I started selling my artwork at juried art festivals in 2005. Like most artists, I spend a lot of time creating art alone in the studio. I still sell my artwork in galleries, but having direct contact with the public and getting positive feedback is really exciting. It’s like having my own gallery for a weekend. It’s a lot of work, but there is a great camaraderie amongst the artists. The exposure is great at art festivals. Some of the festivals I participate in draw over 150,000 people. I have collected extensive email and mailing lists from my participation in art festivals, and gained collectors as well as friends.
How important is art marketing? What do you do now, and are there more things you think you should be doing in terms of marketing your art?
Marketing is extremely important if you want to sell your art. I am actively marketing my art, and I am always trying to find marketing opportunities. I recently took an online/conference call marketing class and signed up to have an ad in “Art Guide Maui,” which will come out in February 2012. Having a web presence is very important. People need to be able to find you. I have a website, blog, Facebook, and I use Constant Contact for email marketing. I send out printed postcards to announce my festival schedule. I am also participating in Maui Open Studios, self-guided artist studio tours during the month of February. It’s also important to link your website to other sites such as any watercolor or painting societies you belong to. One area I would like to improve on is marketing to decorators and interior designers. It’s on my list.
One of your mentors was photo-realist Jim Torlakson. Were you trying to be a photo realist when you first started? How did you come to your current style? How long did it take you to feel like you'd come into a style that was uniquely yours?
Jim Torlakson was my instructor at the community college back in the early 1990’s. I didn’t consciously paint as a photo realist. I started by painting magazine clippings and then worked at taking photos that were good enough to paint. What I am most thankful to Jim Torlakson for is that he gave me encouragement; he told me I was good at painting watercolors and that I should pursue it. Chances are I would not have come this far without those kind words from someone I respected. I try to keep that in mind now when I’m teaching my own workshops. You never know what seed you may plant with a few kind words.
I came to my current style by finding a subject I was excited about, tropical flowers, and painting constantly. I have an extensive collection of watercolor books and DVDs, and I have learned from many artists in that way. I started teaching watercolor classes in 2006, and that forced me to analyze my techniques so that I could teach them to others. So I suppose that after painting for 23 years I felt like I had my own style!
How do you approach your paintings? Does it begin with the photography? Do you do thumbnails or studies before jumping in or are you straight into the paint? How long does a painting take to finish?
I use the camera to compose initially. I use Adobe Photoshop to edit and crop the photo, sometimes merging two or three photos, as well as to look at the mirror image or outlines in order to analyze the composition. Those tools have taken the place of thumbnails and studies for me. After I have a line drawing on the paper, I make other freehand corrections and additions. A painting can take anywhere from three days to three weeks to complete, depending on how complex the subject is.
How much time do you spend working on core skills like drawing? Is that still important even to someone who has reached a certain ability in their art?
I don’t consciously spend much time on honing my drawing skills, but I do use my drawing skills in my paintings. I usually bring a sketchbook with me when I travel and enjoy drawing as it’s own end. I don’t feel as though I have anything to prove as far as my drawing skills, and I like to use tools such as Adobe Photoshop and my printer so that I can get an accurate drawing on the paper more quickly.
7. What is your daily schedule like? Is it important to keep a routine or does your day change depending on what you need to accomplish?
I try to keep to a routine, but as you know, life gets in the way. My husband and I split our time between Maui and California. In Maui, I have much more uninterrupted time, and so I paint from about 8AM to 5PM and then pick it back up in the evening for a couple hours. Of course, I have to take a beach break occasionally! During the summer and fall in California my time is split between painting, proofing, and printing giclee prints of my paintings, and framing. I have to fit in marketing and the business end of being an artist as well.
You spend half your year in Hawaii, and many of your florals look like tropical plants. How do you spend your time in Hawaii artistically? Is this where you gather all your reference photos? Do you spend a lot of time thinking about the flora all around you? How do you keep that sense of place when you are painting?
I think most people who visit Hawaii notice that their sense of well-being is increased here; the air is warmer, colors more vivid, and you feel more alive. I am entranced by the natural beauty here in Hawaii and have noticed my paintings becoming more intensely vivid than when I was doing all my painting back in California. I take most of my reference photos here in Hawaii, with the exception of my grapevine and persimmon series. I usually find the best painting subjects at botanical gardens and the grounds of hotels, and I do my photography in early morning or late afternoon in order to capture the best lighting.
You teach watercolor classes. What do you see your students struggling with, and what advice do you give them? What advice would you give to someone just getting started in art who wants to be a professional full time artist?
The biggest problem my students seem to have initially is that they are afraid to use too much of their paint. I tell them that if they want bright juicy paintings, they need to be generous with their paint.
Being a professional full-time artist is difficult financially. I would encourage someone just getting started to get an MFA. Having a graduate degree would give them the option of teaching at the college level to supplement their income as a fine artist. I would also encourage them not to give up on their dreams!