Watercolorist Marsha Reeves had a first full-time career as a special education teacher. In 2011, she retired and turned her full attention to painting watercolor. She lives in Austin, Texas, and is an active member of Waterloo Watercolor Group in Austin. Marsha is also a member of The Texas Watercolor Society, and Watercolor Art Society-Houston. She participates in local and regional art exhibitions.
What is it that you love about watercolor? What does watercolor give you as an artist that other mediums don’t?
I love that watercolor has a life and mind of its own. With other mediums, the pigment just sits there where you put it. Not with watercolor! As long as the paint is wet, suspended molecules of pigment are moving around and doing their own thing. This quality gives a life and charm to watercolor painting that is unique. Instead of tediously mixing colors or values on the palette as I would with oils or acrylics, I simply blob my chosen colors on the working area of my palette, dip my brush in them, and let the colors mix on the paper. The result is freshness and spontaneity.
Could you walk us through your process? What are your goals for each stage?
After picking a subject, I need to decide what story I wish to tell about it. Let me use the painting “Mystic Chords of Memory” (seen at top) to illustrate my process. The tree and benches you see in the painting are part of the “Treue der Union” monument in Comfort, TX. This is the site of the mass grave of a group of local young men who were killed by vigilantes while trying to join the Union Army at the outbreak of the Civil War. Immigrants and children of immigrants, these young men were willing to sacrifice everything for their adopted country. Most still have family in the area, for whom this monument is a sacred place. So I decided that my story was one of sacredness, memory, and continuity, as exemplified by the tree and benches.
The second step of my process is drawing and designing. At this stage I choose my composition, and establish values. I may do a number of thumbnails, looking at the subject from different angles. I chose the benches, set up by family members and guarded by the enormous oak tree, as my focal point. I had a clear initial sense that I wanted to use dramatic backlighting to convey a sense of sacredness. During this stage I consider the type of paper (rough, cold press, or hot press) that I want to use, and what colors might work. I chose 300 lb. rough paper because it was to be a large painting (18x24), warm yellows, oranges, and greens for the sunlight, and cooler browns, blues, and greens with a bit of purple for the shadows.
I did a preliminary drawing on tracing paper, edited it, and used carbon paper to transfer it to the watercolor paper.
I usually do the painting in three stages, starting with the lightest values. In this case, I began with a yellow underglaze for the light coming through the tree. When this dried, I painted the lightest areas. Next, I established the middle values in the tree and grass.
At this stage, I do a lot of backing off and staring at the picture. The darkest values and any detail work go last. It is at this stage that I took a rigger brush and did a lot of calligraphy to convey small branches and twigs. I added spatter to make the leaves look more random. I then lived with the painting for a while before I signed it and called it “finished.”
How has your process changed as you’ve grown as a painter? What has made it stronger and more suited to you?
When I first began painting I did not spend much time considering what my painting was about. I just painted and hoped everything would work out. Spending time understanding how I feel about a subject and defining what the painting will be about have helped me make better choices in composition and color.
An essential catalyst for improvement in my art has been learning from other artists via books, videos, and workshops. No matter how different another artist’s technique may be from my own, I always learn something useful and gain insight.
Where and when do you think about composition? What does that thinking look like? Thumbnails? Sketches?
Some subjects just seem to compose themselves, but MOST of the time I try different thumbnails and sketches. I sometimes do a few 8x10 studies where I try out different compositions and colors before I commit to a large painting. Since I consider these just “studies” I don’t put a lot of pressure on myself to avoid mistakes. The point is to explore and experiment.
What decisions do you make before you begin painting and what do you allow to happen organically in the painting process itself? Why?
Subject, emotional context, values, composition, and color choices usually come before the actual painting begins. This allows me to approach painting in a more joyful and stress-free manner. During the actual painting process, the volatile, active nature of watercolor paint expresses itself in ways I can never totally anticipate. Drips, runs, blooms, and spatter are all part of what makes watercolor alive.
You use both watercolor and gouache. How do you use them? What purposes do they each serve in your process?
I keep a tube of titanium white gouache around “just in case”. Although I sometimes use latex mask to preserve whites, I think it can look harsh and unnatural, so I try to just paint around the white areas. That doesn’t always work, so I can get my whites back with gouache.
Sometimes I like the effect of an opaque, gouache sky. It can be very striking and intense. I planned a teal gouache sky for “Faithful”, another painting I did of the “Treue der Union” Monument in Comfort, TX. Knowing I was going to go in later with gouache allowed me to be freer and looser with the tree and foliage. I could go back and put in sky where I needed it later. All the drips and spatters I made while painting also meant I needed to go in with gouache and recapture the light areas on the marble benches and parts of the grass.
How do you approach color? Do you go in with a plan like complementary or analogous? Where in your process do you make decisions on color?
I have a “standard” palette of about 22 colors that work well for me. Before painting, I usually select 4 or 5 that best fit my vision of the piece, and stick mostly to them. I consider things like color temperature and technical traits like granulation and transparency when picking colors. I have a tendency to go for complementary combinations.
How important is drawing in your work as an artist? Why?
Drawing is the foundation of the painting. You can never practice drawing enough.
Artists take leaps in their learning. When was a time through a concept of a way of working that helped you make one of these leaps?
Most of my leaps have come from other artists—either friends, books, videos, or workshops. I find it useful to go back to a DVD or book from time to time and re-visit it. Also, I take good notes at workshops and go back to them later. As time passes, I am ready to absorb concepts from the same instructor that I did not notice before. I gravitate to artists that use a looser, wetter approach, and over time, my work has moved in that direction.
The other great leap I have made was when I retired from my job as a special education teacher. I had always planned to devote my retirement to developing as an artist. There is no substitute for devoting time to practice and gaining experience.
What’s a piece of advice you’d give to someone just starting to paint watercolor? What do you wish someone had told you?
Get over the myth that watercolor is ‘harder’ to do than other media. Watercolor is fun! Watercolor is joy! Remember to have fun and PLAY with your paint. Keep an art journal (a small size like 6x8 is best) in which you paint something from your environment each day. Do not obsess over what to paint—just paint something. Nobody has to see it, and you will learn a lot.
Join a local watercolor group if you can and take advantage of their workshops and demos. Study the books and videos of other artists.
Most importantly: Talent will only get you so far. I always feel weird when people compliment me on my “talent”. Success as an artist is less dependent on innate talent and far more dependent on passion, openness to learning, and willingness to practice, practice, and practice. What seems like “talent’ is more often the visual result of a lot of dedication, thought, and love.
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