Watercolorist Karen Heidler has always loved to draw. She majored in fine art and graduated with a Bachelors of Fine Arts. In 2002, she began her focus in watercolor after a friend handed her a flyer for a small art show in their town. Since then, she’s been carving out time to paint and has been excepted into dozens of national watercolor shows.
Could you walk us through your process? What are the problems you want to have solved before you begin your painting? Why?
I work from my own photos so I make sure I start with a good composition that has a strong light source and shadows to give interest to the painting.
I start my paintings the same way as the day I learned how to prepare a watercolor canvas in college. I wet one side of the paper and tape it down with paper tape onto a large board and let it dry. Then I draw a very detailed, yet light, pencil drawing on my 140 lb. Arches watercolor paper, cold pressed.
I draw in shadows and highlights to indicate where they are. I give myself as much information as possible to prevent mistakes, i.e. painting a certain color that doesn’t go there. I use the white of the paper to be the lightest part of the painting. I don’t use any white pigment on top of my colors, so planning ahead is crucial in keeping the “light” in the painting. I start painting all the lightest colors first and then the next level of intensity. Generally, I paint the darkest colors last.
How has your process evolved as you’ve become a better painter? What changes have you made along your career that made a difference in either your enjoyment of the process or in the quality of the final piece? (For example, changes in speed or including studies, etc.)
I think my process of painting has stayed the same over the years. The changes that have occurred were in my thinking, in my learning of how others are successful. It was a change in my mindset. I became intentional in my painting.
It’s not about how you feel that day. We all know how life happens and sometimes we just can’t find the time to create art like we want. We need to decide whether we are going to pursue art full-time or if it’s just going to be a hobby.
I made the decision to take responsibility for this God-given talent and not waste it. It is a gift and I want to nurture it. I decided to make it as full-time as I possibly could while having a graphic design business, a husband and three teenagers. It’s when I carve out time to paint that I see growth.
You paint several different subject matter. How does your approach to design change depending on whether you’re painting florals, portraits or landscapes?
I love to paint so many different subject matters. I just haven’t found one thing that I want to paint exclusively. That idea sounds kind of boring to me. I find it challenging to see if I can paint this or that. I have ideas of series I would like to paint (and the photos to go with them!).
Regardless of the subject matter, the goal I have for my paintings is to have interest, beauty, good composition, and create an emotional response in the viewer.
You’ve always loved to draw. What do you say to artists who are resistant to drawing? What has drawing given your work? Why is drawing important?
I always loved drawing. As a kid I would copy the Sunday comics like Garfield and Beetle Bailey. It was a great learning tool.
Drawing is the foundation of a realistic painting. The skills learned from drawing extend to the act of painting, the eye-hand coordination, what the brain sees and how your hand translates that onto the canvas with paint.
It takes a lot of patience to draw and paint realistically and many, many hours of practice! If an artist is resistant to drawing and doesn’t enjoy it, find something they enjoy and work at it. Many artists start their paintings without drawing.
How important do you think understanding materials is for watercolorists especially? Why? How has learning about paper and pigments affected your work?
There is a wide variety of watercolor papers and surfaces to use, different qualities of paints and brushes too. It’s advantageous to try different things to find out what works best for you.
Recently, I decided to switch over to Daniel Smith watercolors. I soon realized that they behave differently than the Winsor Newton paints that I was so accustomed to. It’s another learning experience to keep me on my toes.
You’ve had paintings accepted into and have won many watercolor society shows. (And you are an FWS signature member and a NWS member.) How is entering shows a part of your growth as an artist? Would you encourage an artist to enter shows? Why?
I had to get to a certain level of painting expertise where I thought I might have a chance to get into a national show. I look at the past exhibitions of a particular show and research who the juror is and hopefully, guess what they may like. Getting into a show is very subjective. One juror (sometimes more) picks what they like.
Getting rejected can be discouraging. But when I realized that to win the game you have to play, I kept playing! Getting rejected also tells me, I have to step up my game. I have to push myself to go beyond my current skills. And to do that, I just need to challenge myself with something harder than I’ve ever done. Applying to shows helps me measure my progress as an artist while keeping me humble!
I got into the Florida Watercolor Society Exhibit the first 3 years I applied to the show. I then became a signature member. I haven’t gotten into that show for the last 3 years. Like I said, it’s very subjective.
I got into the National Watercolor Society’s Member Exhibit 3 times. But that didn’t qualify me to be a signature member. You have to get into their International Exhibit (which I have not accomplished yet) and be invited to be a signature member. Each society has different rules and ways to become a signature member.
You thank many people on your website, teachers, parents, and husband. Could you talk about how having support has helped you become an artist? Have there been points where you think not having support might have kept you from the artist path? Do you think support is especially important to have as an artist? Why?
As I look back over my life as an artist, I see a path with people standing at different junctions, giving me a little push forward, with words of encouragement here and there, my high school teacher helping me to enter shows and giving me paint and assignments over the summer to keep practicing, my parents sending me to college to be an art major.
At one particular junction after college, where I hadn’t painted in a long time, my friend Steve handed me a flyer for an art/craft show. That got me to painting again and I haven’t stopped since.
My husband believes I have what it takes and encourages me to paint. It is so important to have support of friends and family. There is so much self-doubt and little reward as we begin this journey. It would be easy to go a different route, one where you get a consistent paycheck and society looks at you and nods it head. It’s definitely the road less traveled but beautiful nonetheless.
You paint commissions as part of your portfolio. How is working for a client different than working on purely personal work? What do you find most rewarding about commission work? Most challenging?
I take commissions certainly. I mostly have requests for people and pet portraits. I love painting dogs, especially. They are so much fun! People are the most challenging subject to paint and it is a bit stressful because I want it to turn out perfectly and I want my client to be happy. I just give myself pep talks and stay positive. I love to hear when the recipient of the painting has tears of joy. That is success. When I am painting purely for myself (or even an art show) I don’t feel the stress that I have when doing commissions.
Every artist has periods where she sees growth in her abilities. How did you make the leap between beginner and intermediate and then intermediate to advanced artists? Were there particular skills you worked to develop? How?
Practice, practice, practice was the beginning stage. I would say that I was in the intermediate stage when I began doing community art fairs (I still do those by the way).
I can’t say exactly HOW I went from intermediate to advanced but I know WHEN it happened. I was working on a particularly challenging painting of a little girl reading a book. I remember saying a prayer for God to help me because I couldn’t figure out how to paint this light coming through the shawl over her head. I think I stared at that photo more than I actually painted. Eventually, I just started painting and entered a realm where I was unaware of anything except painting. I was in the zone. It was a wonderful turning point that surprised even me.
I work best and have much better results in my paintings when I can work on them in larger chunks of time. I was inspired by watercolorist Mary Whyte when I learned that she would go on a painting retreat for a week with no distractions. I have been doing that for about 4 or 5 years now. It helps me to focus and accomplish a great deal in a short amount of time.
I’ve taken a few watercolor workshops, but I realized that I don’t want to paint like someone else. I want to paint like me. I keep reminding myself of that because I see other amazing watercolorists and think, “I want to paint like that!” But the world doesn’t need another copycat. It needs another original.
Learn more about watercolorist Karen Heidler by visiting her website, Facebook and Instagram page.
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