Interview with Watercolorist Peggi Habets

Peggi Habets is a painter of everyday life. Living and working in Pittsburgh, PA, she find inspiration in both the stories and struggles of people and their neighborhoods. Habets most recently won the Anne Williams Glushien Award from the American Watercolor Society's 150th International exhibition and she teaches nationally.


Could you walk us through your painting process? What are the steps you go through in your process? What problems are you trying to work through in each step?

My process is roughly the same for each painting, regardless of the subject, style, or concept. I start with my reference photos, which are either staged with a model or shot candidly.
Step 1: I work in Photoshop to edit the photos. The editing can include cropping, resizing, combining multiple photos, adjusting values, and changing backgrounds and details. This is the stage where I am working out the “why” of the painting. The end painting rarely replicates the original photo.
Step 2 and 3: I create small value sketches and color studies. In these two steps, I am trying to work out the issues I would face in the larger painting, such as value, mood, movement, and color. Not always, but often, if an idea works as a small study, it will generally work as a larger painting.
Step 4: I draw the image onto my paper by enlarging my figures (If there are any) to their actual size. I cut them out, move them around on the paper, and mark the outline with a B pencil. From there I finish the drawing. This hybrid approach allows me to have an accurate drawing without damaging the paper because of too much erasing.
Step 5: The last step is the painting. By following the value sketch and chosen color study, I can paint more freely and spontaneously because I have a roadmap to follow.


In your workshops you have your students do color studies and value studies. How do these improve their work? Why are they so important? (And why do we all try so hard to skip them?)

Value sketches and color studies allow you to try a variety of composition and color options very quickly. By solving those problems early on, you are then free to paint more confidently with less changes. As a result, your painting looks more spontaneous and does not become overworked with adjustments.

I studies them for a long time because I found them difficult to do and I just wanted to get started on my larger painting. It takes practice to understand how to do them, especially the value studies.

You’ve talked about creating story, mood, and emotion in a painting. The strongest paintings have them yet how do you even begin to tackle those kinds of ideas?

It varies from painting to painting. Sometimes I have an idea in mind and it percolates for months or even years before I decide how to approach it.

An example is the painting What Plagues Us? (see above), which is a visual commentary on women’s issues from around the world. The model I photographed was wearing a strange mask. It wasn’t until a few years later that I discovered that it was based on a medieval plague mask.

That led me to think about modern-day plagues, like a lack of women’s rights around the world. Once I had that idea, the painting quickly developed. Other times I am painting for a specific exhibition or series and I want to create a cohesive body of work that has an overall theme. The theme could be a subject, mood, emotion, or story.

Keeping with that idea, specifically for your dancer series: Could you talk about some of those choices in terms of those specific paintings?

My dance series started as a self-curated group exhibition in Pittsburgh. The first group of paintings were realistic and inspired by real life dancers who were hired as models.

After the exhibition was over, I continued to paint dancers because I was having so much fun. As the paintings progressed, they became less descriptive and more focused on a specific mood or element, such as exhaustion, as in the case of Memory (seen above). With each subsequent painting, I found I could say more with less overall detail.


In your portrait workshops you encourage artists to create a work of art rather than a portrait. To you, what is the difference between a work of art and a portrait? Why is that distinction important?

A portrait should be a work of art, meaning that it should be technically proficient but also well designed, have impact, and communicate something to the viewer. The problem is that is not always the case, and a portrait is sometimes just a copy of a photo. I like to encourage my students to think beyond merely copying a photo and adding something more creative to the painting.
Why do you think it is important for watercolorists especially to understand their tools and materials? What is it about watercolor that makes a deep knowledge of tools and materials so important?

So much of what happens in watercolor revolves around the pigment, paper and water and how they all relate to each other. I don’t like to discourage students from experimenting with new media or materials, but I do remind them that it takes a lot of repetition with the same materials to be able to achieve some level of predictability. I like to think of it as trying to achieve “predictable spontaneity”.

Speaking of materials: Do you use a limited or more expanded palette? Do you lean toward the opaques or the transparents? Why? Any color combinations you’re especially in love with right now?

I use a fairly neutral, limited palette that is made up of mostly transparent to semi-opaque colors, with a few opaques like cadmium red and cobalt turquoise. I like to use the transparent colors for skin tones to give the skin a glow that can’t be achieved with opaque colors.
I like many of the quinacridone colors and how beautifully they mix with other colors like Pthalo blue and Ultramarine blue. I especially like combining Permanent Rose with Pthalo Blue for a fresh-looking violet.


For paper, do you generally tend toward hot press or cold press? How does your paper handle that’s important for your process? 

For years, I only used Arches 260 or 300# cold press for its stiffness and durability. However, I started to become unhappy with the inconsistency of the surface sizing of the Arches paper and began a quest to find a substitute.

One paper I like right now is the new 300# Canson L’Aquarelle series. It has a rich, velvety surface and is smoother than the typical cold press. L’Aquarelle is great for smooth washes and layering but it is harder to scrub or lift paint from, so I still use the Arches paper if I think I will do a lot of scrubbing or lifting,
You go to a figure painting session each week. Why is it important to do something like this weekly? Is this unique, you think, to painting and drawing the human form? Once you’ve mastered the skills, don’t you just have them?

Ha! I wish that once you’ve mastered the skills, you always have them but, nope, it’s not like riding a bike. An artist once said (I can’t remember who it was), “I draw every day to keep from getting worse.” There’s truth in that. I believe that no matter what subject you paint, it is important to practice without complacency. There really is no shortcut to gaining and maintaining your skills.
Figure drawing from a live model forces me to use a different set of skills than I would working from a photo. Because of a time limit and the model’s slight movements, I have to work faster and more accurately. Drawing from life also lets you see more subtleties than a photo and less distortions.


You talk about editing a painting. What do you mean by that? What sorts of things are you editing (objects? color? value?) and why is it important? What are the common editing mistakes you see your students making? What advice do you give them?

When I talk about editing, I am referring to using an editing eye to spot problem areas, such as unnecessary details, unintentional focal points, awkward tangents (tangents are shared edges of objects), and disharmonious color.

To edit, I look at the painting in a different way by turning it upside down, taking a photo of it on my phone, looking at it in a mirror, or looking at it from a distance. This allows me to see the painting as a whole and not get distracted by detail. All of us, students and experienced painters alike, can fall in love with areas of a painting that have beautiful brushstrokes or a well-painted figure and fail to see problems in other parts of the painting.


These are just a few questions I ask myself when editing:
• Where is the focal point?
• Is this painting interesting? In other words, If I saw this painting on a gallery wall, would it stop me in my tracks?
• Does the painting have a variety of value shapes and good color harmony?
• Am I excited when I look at this painting? Why or why not?


Learn more about watercolorist Peggi Habets by visiting her website, Facebook or Instagram.