The Illustration Friday word of the week is water.
A shiny black enamel box of flat, dry paint and a cheap brush was my first introduction to watercolors. With an old jelly jar full of water and some equally cheap paper, I was probably painting horses. Wasn’t every young girl? My sister, the only one I had at that point (much later, another one came along) was in bed with chicken pox, or maybe tonsilitis. I looked at my very purple rinse water in that jelly jar and thought, just for a joke, I’d give it to her and tell her it was Welch’s grape juice. To my horror, I discovered later that she’d drunk the whole thing. I didn’t tell her until years later. I know so much more about Health & Safety relative to Art Materials now, and I do hope that there is forgiveness for that crime wherever artists go when they die…
Time lessens guilt and self-recrimination, and so I renewed my relationship with watercolors in high school. My twelfth grade art teacher was a short, energetic, balding man with a bushy mustache. Mr. Crocker put us through lots of interesting and creative mind-expanding exercises. We transferred magazine photographs with lighter fluid (probably illegal now) and turned them into collages, we drew portraits on paper and crumpled them up with staining inks to look vintage, we drew each other without once looking at the paper…and we painted trees outside on the quad with tiny watercolor palettes and cups of water. Watercolor and I didn’t hit it off. I was so bad, and my friend Kirk was so good, just naturally. I just couldn’t get the concept of “put the paint down and leave it alone.” I fussed and scrubbed, trying to make it look good, and it always dried looking like mud. Alas. Fortunately for my artistic self-esteem, most of my classmates also sucked at watercolor. And I was much better, I told myself, at other mediums.
Several years later watercolor made another appearance. I was on my honeymoon, complete with newly acquired, long-haired husband and vintage VW bus, cruising the first leg of our weeks-long trip up the coast of California to Canada. We had stopped at a garage for river-rafting inner tubes, and a hitchhiking hippie wanted to know if we’d take him along to Canada. My new husband immediately said yes. I should have immediately put my thumb out for the opposite direction on that freeway, but it took me seven long years and much more of the same difference of opinion about privacy to disengage. But I did buy my very first set of professional watercolors in an art supply store on that ‘honeymoon.’ A big splurge. I don’t actually remember using them, but I must have because a tiny tube of Ivory Black is the only one left, pinned to my studio wall, reminding me of that honeymoon and that Monterey, California art supply store.
Fast forward many, many more years to a two-year Energy Healing class. (Yes, still California.) We’re sitting in meditation, asking for a word or a symbol for what our True Work is to be. I am a fully fledged artist by now, with years of fine art and commercial art experience (and sales) under my belt. Though I’m not aware of it, a Mid-Life Crisis is about to descend upon me, and my parents are about to descend into their twilight years. I will spend most of the next two years wrestling with old and infirm parents, state medical forms, doctor’s visits, hospitals and airplane flights. And spending much of the rest of the time in a tiny room, late at night, with a new watercolor palette and a stack of Arizona library books about watercolor. But in that meditating moment in California, I seem to be a relatively secure oil painter, following my artistic nose to success. I don’t see any of that other stuff coming at all.
The mediation turns out to be a wake-up call, though it will take me years to respond fully to the message. The answer to the query, “What is my True Work?” is the no-nonsense reply, “Your success will not come from oil paints,” accompanied by a clear symbol that could only be interpreted to mean watercolor. Mind you, I had periodically dabbled in watercolor over the years, as a break from low-level dissatisfactions with oil paint’s ‘muscular’ feel and snail-slow drying time, and my very favorite artistic heroine was a watercolorist…but I had never seriously considered watercolor as my main medium. It was a shocking, unexpected message. In retrospect, perhaps some part of me was looking for a change: I took that message quite seriously.
When all the dust had settled with my parents, I realized that a watercolor palette (and a library) had been my lifeline to sanity. To be honest, I have looked back quite a few times since then and oil paint still sends out its siren call when the watercolors are being particularly obstinate, or I am reminded that oil painters get much more respect than watercolorists. But in my artistic maturity, I realize that I am, first and foremost, a Colorist…color is my joy, my main focus, my barometer of success or failure. And for a Colorist, there is no better medium than watercolor for clarity, immediacy and the intricate relationships of one pigment mix to another. There is no better medium for depicting light and atmosphere either.
Which brings me back to that friend who had a natural talent for watercolor in my high school art class. I received the sad news that Kirk had died recently. A few emails over the past two years had renewed our friendship, and I knew that he had parlayed his natural talents into a successful graphic design career in the new digital world. He was a proud father, a homeowner and husband, had many friends and an active lifestyle. But Life was beating him up (as it will), and a more creative life was calling him. I reminded him of his natural talent, and my admiration for his innate skill with watercolor. He blessed me with his opinion that I “had far surpassed him now.” It was one of the last things he wrote to me. I wish I could have communicated to him the simple joy, the immediacy, of color and water on paper…despite whatever else is going on in one’s life. Perhaps if he had known, it would have been enough.
On the subject of water, and all things related, I close with this powerful quote by the ancient Chinese philosopher, Lao Tsu,
Man, born tender and yielding,
Stiffens and hardens in death.
All living growth is pliant
Until death makes it rigid.
So those people who have hardened are kin of death.
The people who stay gentle are kin of life. . .
How can a person’s life keep its course
If you will not let it flow?
Those who flow as life flows know
They need no other force:
They feel no wear, they feel no tear,
They need no mending, no repair.
“Running on Water” (watercolor, pen & ink, colored pencil)
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