Interview with artist Carolyn Lord - Creative Catalyst Productions

Interview with artist Carolyn Lord

December 10, 2018 12 min read 1 Comment

Artist Carolyn Lord created her own path of artistic study. She combined the liberal arts education of botany and architecture with watercolor workshops with Rex Brandt, George Post, and Robert E Wood (just to name a few). She took advantage of watercolor's portability and road tripped through the Western United States as well as traveled all over the world. Her current work focuses on the vernacular architecture, landscape, and gardens in her home state of California.

After you read the interview, learn more a out the paintings featured in it, here



Your style has been described as a direct approach to painting watercolor. Could you explain what that means? How is it different than other ways to approach watercolor? What does that approach afford you as a painter?

Direct painting is when the artist strives to paint the correct shape, correct value, and the correct color directly onto the raw paper. This is different from the indirect approach of layering multiple glazes that eventually develop to reveal the artist’s final vision.

Direct painting is perfect for direct observation or plein air painting because I’m mixing colors to match what I want to express. By aiming to have the color and value I want, when I mix the next color I need, I am making a relationship to a color already in the painting. I can immediately discern if it works or not, and while that new paint puddle is still wet I can shift the color or the value.


This direct method often creates a graphic effect, with crisp shapes and sometimes a decorative, mosaic effect. Also, since I often paint in areas with low humidity this is my way to circumvent trying to paint large, passages of wet-into-wet or glazing.


The paintings in this interview are all painted in the direct manner. Most of the paintings have areas in the light with one layer of paint on the watercolor paper. The shadows are a second layer of paint across the paler first layer. Occasionally, I’ll treat the shadow shape as a completely separate shape and paint it next to the sunlight shape.


Ideally, I can complete a whole painting in the direct manner, but every once in a while, after the paper is covered, I see that I need to make a color or value adjustment. That’s when I’ll glaze over an area. 

I’ve been using the Robert Simmons Goliath Brush, #36, for forever. Its semi-stiff bristles are perfect for blocking out the painting with the tip of the brush and the size carried lots of paint to the paper. However, the very qualities that make it perfect, sometimes make it difficult. When I lay a second layer of paint, especially if it’s for a subtle color or value shift, I have to be careful to gently apply the second paint layer, or glaze, because the bristle is so stiff that is can dissolve and stir up the first layer of paint. That’s a good reason to see if I can achieve my goal of right color, right shape, right value the first time.


Would you give us an overview of your approach to a painting?

My painting process is systematic.

First, I decide what my motif and point of view will be.

Second, I sketch with my pencil in my sketchbook.

Third, I develop painting with watercolor lines. While I am working on the lines, I am simultaneously considering my painting strategy.

Fourth, I finalize my painting strategy. Sometimes I’ll number my drawing to remind me of the order to paint the shapes. I start with the lightest value, regardless of the lightest values importance to the composition, or their size.

I also consider the final surface effect I want. Transparent pigments have a quiet surface effect. The granulating pigments animate the surface because the eye is attracted to the micro-impressionistic effect of multiple colors or the suggestion of texture.

Fifth, I start painting the shapes that have the lightest and brightest color. Since painting in the field means that I have limited water, this works out perfectly because I start with clean water and a clean palette. As the painting progresses my water gets murky, but that’s okay because my colors get more saturated and darker in value and can override any of diluted pigments in my painting water.

(Carolyn explains how she painted “Narcissus and Lemon” here.)


Backing up a bit. What is important for you to think through before you begin a painting? What are problems you’re trying to solve or the decisions you want to make before you get to the painting itself?

I think about the motivation for the painting and even the possible title. I consider the composition. I decide if it will be vertical or horizontal. I think about the placement and size of the motif on the page. I think through the interlocking light and shadows shapes and about the color relationships I see.

I also develop the drawing. I’ll make at least one thumb-nail sketch in my sketchbook. Sometimes I need to do several thumbnails before I make my final compositional decision.

I take time with the drawing, making sure there is a variety of shapes, interesting line, assuring there are no accidental tangents, inadvertent alignments, static or symmetrical shapes, or perspective errors.

My goal is to think through all of the drawing because once I start painting I don’t want to think about the drawing. An oft-quoted line is that a problem in the painting is always a problem in the drawing.

Invariably, even if I think I’ve thought it all through, unexpected errors in the composition or drawing will reveal itself as I progress through the painting. This can feel annoying at times but I know that each painting presents a unique set of problems so there’s never a standardized process.

After drawing, I block-in the composition on my watercolor paper with a brush, using a very diluted mixture of Aureolin and Cobalt Violet. Then I begin to refine the line with the brush, and if a painted line isn’t correct, it’s easy to lift the line with a damp brush because both Aureolin and Cobalt Violet are non-staining.

I’ll correct my painted lines 2 or 3 times, refining the linear structure that will support value and color. I also start to tint the lines with the colors I’ll eventually paint those shapes. This is also the time where I”ll note with a neutralized Cobalt Blue line where the shadow edges lay across the forms.

This understructure of the painted line is similar to blocking out a drawing with charcoal, an oil painter blocking out their composition with oil: I’m using the same tool that will be used to create the finished art work.

Because my watercolors are substantial in color and value, those painted lines almost always disappear into the watercolor shapes painted over them. Sometimes, I purposely use the lines to create subtle detail or as a template for a step later in the painting process.

This is all before I really start the painting. Talk about delayed gratification!

Sometimes what attracts me to the scene is something that I don’t get to realize until much, much later in the drawing or painting process, only after I have devoted time to build the understructure of composition and drawing that will support what got me going in the first place.

Occasionally, I’ll realize I did not hold back and started painting too soon. Those paintings either take a lot more time in the studio to pull together or they just get abandoned.


When you’re looking at a complex subject like a garden, how do you begin to translate that to the page? How do you begin to simplify?

Garden paintings are infinitely variable! I first consider what caught my attention in the first place:

The first bloom of the season? “Narcissus and Lemon”

Interesting color relationships within a garden and unexpected spots of beauty? “Poppy Patch” was an untended corner of my garden with naturalized annuals and wildflowers

Gardens are a man-made environment so it includes fences and buildings “Sunny Day Sunflowers”, “Mendocino Garden Afternoon”, “Callas and Barrow”

Contrast of large and small “Sunny Day Sunflowers”

Familiarity with the labor of gardening “Callas and Barrow”

Familiarity with some of the history of Utah and the anxiety about the global issue of Bee Colony Collapse Disorder “Beehive State Bees”.

In my garden paintings I’m either close enough to create a portrait of my motif where I describe the stems, leaves and flowers of individual plants “ Narcissus and lemon”, “Poppy Patch” “Sunny Day Sunflowers”, “Beehive State Bees” or, pull back enough to simplify the plant but still retain each genus and species’ characteristic silhouette “Callas and Barrow”, “Mendocino Garden Afternoon”.

Since I paint the lightest and the brightest colors first this means when I paint gardens I paint all of their spots of color regardless if they are in the light or shade. I assess the overall decorative pattern that the flowers make on the paper and determine if I need to add or adjust the flowers. When I am satisfied, I know that I will not paint any more flowers and move to the next step.

How do you use edges in your work? In pieces that are dominantly hard-edged, how do you keep things from feeling cut out and pasted down? How do you keep the piece feeling integrated as a whole?

Most of my paintings are built of hard-edged shapes. That’s the result of several factors including being influenced early in my art education by a workshop with George Post and experience in printmaking. I’ve also had an interest in textile design and paintings that have a shallow sense of space. All hard-edged. Plus painting outside in the dry heat and sun of the western United States means things dry fast.

My paint handling can be quite casual. I paint my light shapes larger than they need to be because I know that when I paint the adjacent shape I will use the new shape to create the specific edge, the defining silhouette that I want. I’m not interested in painting edge to edge, but rather, overlapping to get the edge I want. This often creates a thin warbly, third shape. I liken it to an irregular grout join of pique-assiette.

To keep the painting from feeling fractured, I build up larger value shape with a cluster of small painted shapes that share the same value. My goal is so that when a painting is seen from across the room, the large-scale composition can be seen while up close, the individual shapes are more obvious.

In the past several years I have added the goal of soft edges to my painting strategy. I’ll assess what edges need to be hard and crisp and where is it appropriate to have a soft edge, anticipating wet-into-wet.

You teach a class on perspective: What challenges do students face with perspective? What advice do you give them? What’s important to remember about perspective?

I’m enthused about teaching perspective drawing because this is a fundamental skill regardless of media. This allows me to interact with a wider range of artists, not just those who are interested in painting watercolor. For me, it’s satisfying to have students share that they are now seeing their familiar environment come alive with their newfound understanding of perspective.

I like to think of perspective as a teachable skill. Also, the goal in the class is not to create art, but rather develop this skill to be applied elsewhere. My ideal would be to have a former student take an art class and have that teacher remark to the student ‘thank goodness you already know how to draw,’ because it makes their teaching so much more effective.

The lesson plans include what I call analytical perspective using horizon line and vanishing points, and observational perspective by drawing white boxes in the studio then going outside to draw buildings. My goal is to give my students a way to analyze and draw these forms.

Similar to my own painting process, my goal is to show through drawing a box that there is a hierarchy of steps in a drawing: Where on your paper? How big? Where’s the left and right edge of the box? Lowest and highest edge? Observe proportion, silhouette, angles, and so on. It’s never easy because each situation is new, requiring a new strategy.

I have adapted my lesson plans over the years as I see what works and what doesn’t. Also, the students vary from never-drawn-befores to experienced, so I have to adjust accordingly.

Perspective permeates e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g a painter does. An artist cannot escape it. Often times, artists will assume a style, stylized habit of interpretation, or certain subject matter thinking they can avoid dealing with it, There’s linear perspective, atmospheric perspective, color perspective. It’s not just about drawing buildings, it’s clouds in the sky, the sky itself, rocks, mountains in the distance, trees, plants, the ground we stand on, ripples in the water, still-lives, and of course there’s figure and portraiture!

Color perspective means that certain colors drop out as the eye looks further into the distance. I use the pigments on my palette to convey distance or atmospheric perspective. I’m inclined to use the heavier, the granulating, and warmer colors to paint what’s close to me, and the cooler colors and transparent pigments for the distance. Of course, there are always exceptions!

How do you get a sense of light and shadow in your work? Is that important? Why?

A sense of sunlight comes from two things: The color of the light and the difference in the value between the sunlit area and the adjacent shadow area.

Light’s color is affected by how close I am to the Equator or the Arctic, the time of day, the time of year, and the weather. Color is also affected by atmospheric perspective and the air quality. A very humid day will change the color of the light.

I live in fire-prone California so the amount of smoke in the air also affects the color of the light falling across my motif. All of these factors help to describe when and where I am and adds to the veracity of my artistic expression. It shows that I am paying attention to what I see, not just using preconceived ideas of color and light regardless of what I’m experiencing.

Orange is the warmest color, blue is the coolest color and I use this rule as a guide to help me understand what I am observing, and to help me mix my paints so I can convey that sense of lights and shadow.

Color: How do you decide the colors and palette you’ll use when going into a painting? What are you thinking about in terms of saturation and desaturation for a piece?

Sometimes I am intuitive in my use of color. Other times, I make a conscious decision to create a mono, complimentary, triad, or split complimentary composition. The most important thing is that all of the colors harmonize, creating what Millard Sheets called a “color chord.”

Artists tend to have a personal color bias. “Poppy Patch” is the most obvious version of my bias, the secondary triad with blue-greens, oranges, and lavenders. It also shows up in “L Street at Sunset,” “Shell Beach Opalescence.”

Primary colors of Cobalt Blue, Yellow Ochre, and Permanent Rose dominate in “Playhouse.”

The whole color wheel is present in “Mendocino Garden Afternoon.”

“Narcissus and Lemon” is a painting of complimentary colors; yellow and purple, exemplified by the narcissus. I used yellows to mix the sunlit leaves, Ultramarine Violet was used to mix the neutralized background.

Color is nice but the use of a lot of saturated, strong color can undermine a painting. “Mendocino Garden Afternoon” is approximately divided in half: large areas of light value neutrals to contrast the other half of the painting that is full of small shapes of color. “Poppy Patch” has mostly sun-blanched colors with small proportions of vivid color to represent the shadows.

In “Callas and Barrow,” orange-based neutrals dominate the painting and makes a perfect foil for the lavender-green interpretation of the white callas in the shade. The leaves in the shadow are the most vivid colors and the darkest.

Color describes distance.

“L Street at Sunset” was painted in the winter, when the humidity is high and the sunlight is weak, so the shadows aren’t very dark and the colors of the red post and orange fascia are muted. The far gas station’s awning is edged with vivid blue and orange but with distance they became shades of brown and grey.

“Shell Beach Opalescence” The foreground had the vivid foreground color mixtures that include Yellow Ochre, Cadmium Orange. The distance shifts to lavender but is infused with the warmth of the sunlight.

“Playhouse” the shadows on the left are warm, deep and solid, the shadows on the right are atmospheric: lighter in value and incorporate blues. This shift allowed me to suggest the distance between the red playhouse that is close to me and the barn in the distance.

From a pigments standpoint, are there things that watercolor pigments can do that are unique to the media? What are you looking for in your pigments? What do those unique qualities help you achieve in your washes?

With watercolor, with hardly any effort I can make color transitions. I just need to place a puddle of color next to another puddle of color, have them touch each other and let physics take over. How the pigments mingle depends on the amount of water and the amount of type of pigment, plus the angle of the paper. To quote Millard Sheets “All you have to know about watercolor is that water runs downhill”!

When I paint, I just clip the paper onto my board. I don’t use watercolor blocks nor stretch my paper. As a result, the paper expands and contract as I paint shapes across the paper, creating minor buckling. I am a casual painting and my goal is not a perfectly smooth paint application. I’d rather enjoy the irregularities of how the paint settles on to the paper, with random backwashes, puddling, and blooms, just as long as those random effects don’t compromise the visual effect I’m working towards.

On my palette, I have a variety of pigment qualities: transparent, granulating, to opaque. Some stain the paper, others don’t. I begin blocking in my paintings with the non-staining pigments, and will finalize my lines with staining pigments. With my direct painting process, I like to use the colors that come out of the tube light for the light shapes I paint. Such as the Cadmiums, Yellow Ochre, Cerulean Blue, Permanent Rose. This way there’s more paint on the paper, rather than a tint of a stronger pigment. The strong pigments are invaluable for the darkest values and tend to be transparent and staining such as Winsor Green and Permanent Magenta.

“Callas and Barrow” It was important to get the dark, dark value of the leaves and tire. By comparison or relationship, that dark helps to define that the callas are white flowers and the light, local color of the fence and ground, regardless if it’s in the sunlight or shadow.


Learn more about Carolyn Lord by visiting her at her website and on Facebook


1 Response

Carolyn Baldwin
Carolyn Baldwin

January 02, 2019

What a fascinating read describing Carolyn Lord’s process and approach to watercolor! Her paintings are beautiful, and her articulate and thoughtful discussion here was well worth reading. Thank you.

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