February 05, 2018 14 min read 8 Comments
Growing up in Canada, watercolorist Anne Abgott’s mother was friends with Alexandra Luke of Canada's Painters 11 group. Abgott was able to take advantage of oil painting lessons from Luke. She also found encouragement by a beloved art teacher in school. But when Abgott married, she put her brushes aside. For several decades those paints and papers lay dormant but when Abgott and her husband moved to Florida, she rediscovered her love for art, this time in the form of watercolor. Since her return to art she has achieved signature status in both AWS and NWS and has written a best selling book, Daring Color. Creative Catalyst currently carries two of Abgott's wonderful watercolor workshops.
When you first got back into painting with watercolor in 1992 what were the first obstacles you faced in painting and how did you work to overcome them?
When I began to take a watercolor class in Florida in 1992 I had my past experiences with watercolor in mind. I was never happy with the muddy colors that I was getting or the difficulty with the different papers: hot press, cold press, 140 lb, 300 lb. I found it all very confusing. I realized I wanted to paint but that I had a lot to learn. Sooooo.
I started going to galleries and local art centers here in the Sarasota area and Buffalo, NY where I spent summers at the time. I found that I was drawn to the paintings that left a lot of the white on the paper. And color, clear bright color. Not a lot of greys and beige.
I found a local artist in Florida who I studied with for a while and then this angel from Texas arrived in town...her name was Karen Vernon. She encouraged me to get onto 300 lb Arches paper and after taking some classes from her, my knowledge of color expanded. I still use some of the pigments that she introduced me to today. She was like a chemist. Her encouragement and knowledge was the impetus that made me a better painter.
The 300 lb paper is quite frankly paper that I paint on better than any other. It takes a lot of abuse and I can scrub and attack it with almost anything. Even using sandpaper on occasion.
I painted lots, lots and lots. I was obsessed. Still am today when I am working on an image. The obstacles that I faced were overcome by testing, failing, failing again and again, until I had a palette of colors that I was comfortable with and produced a few passable paintings. Winning the first ribbon was the fan for the fire for me!
I’ve seen you mention goal setting a few times in interviews and in your book. How important is goal setting for you? Do you set big general goals (for example: get better at painting) or specific ones (for example: enter 10 shows)? How do you use goal setting to get better at painting?
I set goals for myself in different ways. I have always wanted to achieve status in certain prestigious watercolor societies both local and international. So those were set early on.
There are a lot of local art competitions so I entered every one that I could that helped a lot in keeping me focused that first ribbon was better than diamonds. I enter several international shows a year and it took me about seven years to get my AWS and NWS.
I also look at each week of the month and try to carve out uninterrupted time to paint.
To get better at painting the only way to do this is to paint LOTS. If I have a day that I can stay home and paint all day it is like a gift to me. I schedule the lunch with the girls, doctors appointments hair etc etc all on the same day if I can. I found out a long time ago that painting a little here and there does not work for me. So, I find 2 or 3 days a week that I can stay home and just paint. Nine to 5 works well just like when I wrote my book Daring Color. I look at it like a job. A fun job where I am never bored. I always have something to do. I listen to books on tape when I paint and that glass of wine at the end of the day is my reward.
I also have a group of girls that get together to paint often, sometimes once a week, and I make time for that. We do have a lot to talk about and that interaction is important mostly about art with a lot of good food and wine involved!
I didn't realize until I had to think about this question that I set many many goals for myself. Not just entering and getting into important shows. Here are some additional ways that I see how I set goals.
With each class I teach I start a different painting, so consequently I have dozens of unfinished paintings. Several times a year I go through these paintings and decide which ones to finish. The top of the pile consist of the ones needing the least work. I am very happy and feel very satisfied when at the end of the week I have finished multiple paintings.
I also am in a couple of galleries and have figured out what sells. I became fascinated with the fancy shoes/boots that women are wearing. So I went out and bought some small fancy frames, something that fits on a wall or on a counter top of a one of the new large trendy walk in closets. I do multiple drawings and usually when I am with my friends I finish painting the shoes put them in frames for the local gallery. There again I have set goals for myself. By having the paintings half finished I set a goal to finish some of them, by doing the drawings ahead of time I set a goal to fill the frames. there are many ways to set goals and all of them keep me painting, lots.
You have taught hundreds of watercolor classes. What struggles do you see beginning watercolorists struggle with and what advice do you give them?
I see beginning watercolor artists really struggle with poor paper and poor paint. Usually in the interest of economy they are sold, or buy on their own, paper that is little more than blotting paper. They also buy student grade paints. These paints are loaded with white and make MUD MUD MUD.
I heard someone say once that the only artists that should use poor paper and paint are the Masters as they can paint on anything and with house paint!
Students would be better to buy three or four basic colors from paint manufacturers that go on sale. I found early on that there are wonderful quality paints on the market by several manufacturers, and with testing and time I found the ones that work for me.
I always felt guilty about having new watercolorists spend a fortune to take one of my classes. I found that Holbein makes a quality paint and that there are sales that the students can take advantage of. My personal palette is made up of mostly Holbein, with some Daniel Smith, Sennelier, Horadam Schminke and American Journey. All chosen for different characteristics. Color, transparency, granulation and they all work well together. This is important to me because I do a lot of mingling.
When a student looks at an artists work that they admire, they should be very aware that some of the look or style they are seeing is because of the paper. The results of loose styles and drippy paints are often because of the paper the artist is painting on.
So choose carefully how you want to paint.
How do artists find their style? How important is it to have a style? Why?
I used to think that your Signature (AWS, TWS, etc) in important organizations meant that you had been accepted into three or four shows. Not true. What the judges are looking for is a unique look or style that you have developed over the years.
The classic mistake I made was my first attempt at getting Signature in NWS, and because I did not ask anyone I did not get the Signature. I had entered a Firescape, been accepted, then per the rules sent three paintings to go before the committee. I sent a Martini, a Strawberry and a Croquet player. All pretty good paintings but not what they wanted to see. The committee wanted to see that I could paint other Firescapes and that the one painting that was accepted was not a one shot wonder! I did not make that mistake again next chance I got ( which took a few more years) I sent like paintings.
We all learn to walk into a gallery and identify the artists by their unique style, John Salminen, Steven Quiller, Ted Nuttal, Chris Krupinski, Pat Dews. They have developed a look that is their own, they OWN THAT LOOK. That look or style has come from hours of painting. I told you that I would say this over and over!
Be careful the workshops that you take, don’t try to look like someone else. Take elements from different people but try to keep your own identity.
Find the colors that you like, the paper, the design and go for it.
Speaking of styles, you’re in the middle of making a pretty big artistic shift. How did you know it was time? What about it has been exciting? What about it has been scary?
When I got my Signature in AWS I was thrilled as it was a goal I had set for myself. I was painting again but there was no thrill to it, no tickle in the tummy, no drive to get out of bed at 3 am and get a brush in my hand. I sat back realized I was bored with what I was doing and took a hard look at what others were doing. I had long been afraid of the computer and could see that it was being used by very successful artists as a tool in their paintings.
I hired a local artist/computer geek and took lessons in photoshop .Traded in the old flip phone and learned about apps, not an easy thing to do but I did it. I took old failed (or what I thought were failed) photos and found the WOW in them. I loved the ability to simplify a busy busy background, to see one value move into another, shapes move together.
The scary part, and I think I have overcome it is I didn’t want to lose my look, my signature look, and let the computer take over. My dear friend Teresa Kirk assures me that the paintings that I am doing still look like me. Many times you need good friends like this and I love them for it!
The exciting part is that some of those paintings are being accepted into shows and winning awards.
One of those shifts is beginning to work with opaque paints. How has that process evolved?
Along with overcoming my fear of the computer and those words (just play with it), I began painting with some opaque paints. I have long been a mingler of transparent pigments on the paper with very little patience for glazing.
I have taught mingling and my book Daring Color stresses transparency and getting in and getting out with very little glazing for darks. The transparent paints gave my work a glow that I loved and had to give up if I went to opaque paints.
I began experimenting with tube opaques and disliked them immensely. I put Gouache into the pigments, worse, it dried streaky and I didn’t like the fact that the gouache paints dry up in the tubes. I tried tinting some tube greys... not too bad, but hard for some colors.
Then I read an article by Steven Quiller titled "The Case for Cassein." I bought a tube of Titanium white Cassein and started mixing my paints in jars. The paint manufacturers aren't going to be happy about this but I make my own opaque paint by tinting white Cassein with transparent paint.
The only tricky part is that the opaque paints unlike the transparents they dry five times DARKER then when wet. The opposite of my transparent palette. So I make dozens of swatches and patiently (not easy) wait for them to dry for the right values.
I also have found that I can mingle more transparent color into an opaque while it is still damp. Catching a little of the GLOW I like so much.
I am trying right now to use transparent paints with opaque paints it is quite exciting to see how they react to each other. One enhances the other.
Deciding which to use is a challenge, but I love the challenge, and just so you know I have just finished 4 paintings using this method.
You clearly have a deep understanding of your pigments. Why is that important? For someone who is just beginning painting that can be really overwhelming. How do you suggest beginners get on the right path in terms of understanding what their pigments can (and cannot) do? Or should beginning students even worry about this?
Understanding all of the qualities and characteristics of the pigments by all of the manufacturers is a overwhelming task for beginning watercolor students. My advice is to go slowly. Start with the basics. Even go to a limited palette (the three basic colors: red blue and yellow). Take your time to work with the paints and test them for you! I myself never use cadmiums because they make mud and this color "fiend "does not like mud. But maybe they will work for you. Buy the basic colors. Make sure that they are not student grade and have a transparent rating on the tube.
Remember that every teacher has their favorite pigments and you should not have to buy every color that they use. If they are any good as a teacher they will share some of that paint with you. Try it. Don't jump into buying an expensive tube of paint that you will never use again.
Reference photos are an important part of your process. Any advice to people struggling with taking good reference photos? Would it be OK to use photos that aren’t your own?
Always take your own photos. There has been a scandal recently here in Florida with a local artist using stock images off the internet. Take your own photos and always be able to show the original photo resource or drawing when entering competitions.
A few months ago I was complaining to my daughter that I needed more room in my icloud whatever. She suggested that I delete a few photos. My response to her was that "I never met a photo that I wanted to delete."
I have thousands of photos. I kept all of the paper photos that I took with regular cameras, remember them? I have two trunks full sorted by subject matter. Still to this day when I want information I go to those photos.
In the past I never left the house without a camera in my purse. That still holds true today, only it is an ipad and an iphone. When I see something from my car, I wheel around, get out, and take a picture. I am usually motivated by the light and shadows falling on the subject matter. Trust me you will never see it the same way again, so my family and friends are used to me stopping for that one important picture.
I alluded to this previously. You never know with a photo what will happen to it in photoshop or one of the apps available on your phones and ipads. Some of my most recent award winning paintings came from what I thought were failed photos. I spent many hours scanning old photos into my computer, playing with them (there is that phrase again) and being astounded by the results that I got.
There is a lot of work involved here and so take your time, set a goal to scan x number of old photos and work on them once a week. The best part of it all is the excitement that comes from finding something that you can not wait to paint!
Anymore taking good photos is more about the angle that you work the camera from. From above or from below, get really really close. Study ads in magazines and newspapers. Look at what the professionals do to get great photos.
I recently took a workshop from the master of still life Chris Krupinski. I didn't paint and I don't want my paintings to look like hers but I did learn a lot about composition. I have a big desk in a south facing window of my bedroom here in Florida. I set up still lifes, leave them, wait for the sun to come in and move across the subject matter, and take lots of photos. I use my ipad and at night I sort through the resulting photos and apply apps and work on the images.
I have a file of potential paintings, I sort through these images over and over and one of them will call to me! Yes I dream about those images, and they do get into my mind and I wake up wanting to paint them.
So many artists struggle with drawing. In an age of computers and projectors, how worried should students be with learning to draw? Why? (Or Why not?) How much do you worry about drawing?
Drawing. This scares a lot of people off! Let me say I have never been asked how I got my image on the paper. I know how to draw from my years as a plein air oil painter back in Canada where I grew up.
If I had to graph and draw every image I teach in workshops I would be institutionalized. I project most of my images for classes.
I was worried a couple of years back about the use of computers, photoshop, etc etc. and I asked some of my esteemed friends. The feeling is that this is a tool, like the camera was when it came out many years ago.
Every artist should take a drawing class. It is essential to feel the communication between the pencil paper and image. But to quit painting because you are not good at drawing is such a shame. I see so many students just loving art and not all are going to be successful artists by some standards. But the joy that we all get from art whatever it might be, can never be duplicated.
Don't let your drawing skills be the reason you quit painting.
Many students discover art after their kids have left the nest. They may feel that they are starting too late. What advice would you give them?
I just read an article about aging. The Editor had been following several older (Gad I hate that word) people for a few years. The observation made over time was that the people who had lived the longest did not dwell in the past but in the future. They did not moan about the things that they could not do anymore but about what they did get joy from. I posted it on my Facebook page and everyone should read it.
So many students wait until they retire to take art classes that is a good thing. It isn't too late. Lots can be accomplished and even better by having a passion. I have a dear friend Betty Iserman who is 96 years old and is still taking classes and painting. Lunch with her is one of my most stimulating experiences. She wants to know what is new, how to do it, and has signed up for three workshops this winter at a local art center. Two more artists show up regularly for classes at Keetons (where I teach locally) they are 100 and 97 respectively.
I live down here in Florida where many of the retirees have degrees or even better have retired from jobs in graphic design and teaching. They jump right into this fabulous art community that we have down here. This, by the way makes for very tough competition in shows!
If I had waited or been put off by age and time I would have lost the best years of my life. Since I took up watercolor I have never been bored, always challenged, I have worked hard but it was joyous work.
Your life will be better for it, go for it. I am so grateful and happy that I took up watercolor!
To learn more about watercolorist Anne Abgott, visit her website. Also check out her two workshops in the Creative Catalyst shop including Watercolor Techniques for Colorful Shadows and Watercolor Techniques for Daring Color.
February 08, 2018
A great article about a fabulous artist and, fortunately for me, my friend and mentor. There are many wonderful watercolorists, but very few who possess the ability of being able to teach their craft well. Anne is that very rare gem. Kudos to you Anne!
February 07, 2018
Love this article! After some time with “painters Block” I have been inspired. Finishing paintings and starting new. I must get some help on the computer. I need to get back to my love of watercolor which you inspired over twenty years ago. Thanks Anne
February 07, 2018
Great article, so wonderful for you to share your passion. Also enjoyed some of your images that I had never seen before…wet brushes to you. M
February 06, 2018
So glad I saw this . My old painting friend has come a long way. I’m proud of you. Diane
February 06, 2018
Love, love your work. congrats on your success. Took your workshop in IL. Learned lots. Are you writing, teaching working with opaques? Mourn the loss of Lynn at CCP (personal friend) so saw this and found interesting. Photo shop? Yikes, for me.
February 06, 2018
I loved this interview with Anne Abgott. I was lucky enough to have enjoyed a workshop with her and enjoyed her so much. Not only is she an excellent watercolorist, she is a wonderful teacher and I appreciate her knowledge of all aspects of watercolor. I love seeing her newer paintings and how her style is changing. She still keeps her vibrant colors though, and I love that. Thank you Creative Catalyst.
February 06, 2018
What a wonderful and enlightening article, Anne. Thank you!!
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Teresa M Kirk
February 13, 2018
Wonderful interview with an amazing artist who is always willing to give 100%. If you ever get a chance to take a workshop from her do. Read her book on color. Study her work. I am so lucky to have her as a friend and mentor.