Trees in the Mist

Trees in the Mist

A Love Affair with Watercolors

When I tell people I am a watercolorist, they often offer condolences, saying “It’s such a difficult and unforgiving medium!” In a way, it is. But this is like saying that Mount Tamalpais (in California’s Marin County) is annoyingly high! The peak is high, but the hike up offers wonderful gifts along the way, and the views at the summit are so rewarding.

I began to tinker with watercolors about a decade ago, as a way to depict stories that emerged from my imagination through a process called guided imagery. At the time I had no idea of the potential of this medium: it was simply a handy way to color things in. Soon, though, I joined an evening watercolor class as an antidote to the long, gray winters of rural New York (where I was living at the time). The teacher, Carolyn Hutchings Edlund, captivated us from the beginning. Clearly, this was no ordinary paint!

 Unlike acrylics or oils or pencil or, well, most other media, which generally are intended to stay where you put them (unless there is a mishap involving food or wine or fire or pets or a natural disaster), watercolor pigments may continue to move and interact as the moist paper dries. The water, too, may wander. You can turn away for a few minutes and come back to discover something new has appeared that you didn’t expect.

One can learn how to control the behavior of pigments and water so there aren't many surprises. On the other hand, relinquishing some control allows this medium to do what few others can: co-create with you!

Watercolors are an invitation to find a balance between controlling and allowing. Seeking that balance, and practicing it, is good training for finding balance in life's journey as well.

Can you find the heart drawn in chalk on this wall?

In the Beginning . . .

When I was young, sketching and coloring and making stuff with yarn, clay, beads, things from nature—you name it—were common ways to entertain ourselves. Art was just a part of life. Resources were humbler than the super huge assortment available today: when the 64-color crayon sets first showed up on the store shelves, our eyes bugged out! For many of us, a big pad of good quality paper was a great gift! (Just how old am I, you ask???)

Nature was a big part of childhood, too. Kids spent a lot of time outdoors year round (thanks to southern California climate), playing in the orange groves, making forts of palm fronds, exploring undeveloped acres at the edge of the neighborhood. Our family went camping, too, where every stream and sand dune and mountain path was an adventure waiting to happen.

As an adult, I studied biology in college and beyond. While immersed in the amazing world of science, artwork as a pastime was nonexistent—who has time? Luckily, visual beauty abounds in the natural world. Even in science lab you may get a chance to depict some astonishing critter dashing through its magical realm of water. In graduate school I discovered histology (the microscopic study of preserved cells and tissues), though I had avoided it vehemently at first. Yuk! I thought, how boring! But then I peered through a microscope at the gorgeous patterns and colors and shapes and surprises of the intimate world of cells. Miniature artworks!

Now I am thrilled to have some time to be exploring the natural world again, often on foot, with watercolor materials stowed in the backpack to record what speaks to me on those journeys. It might be a motionless lizard among desiccated grasses; a dynamic vista of fog encroaching at day’s end; a transparent young newt in a mountain stream; a path at the edge of the woods onto which a bobcat steps as I paint! I use a watercolor sketchbook with pages the size of large postcards, adding notes sometimes to clarify what I‘ve seen. I keep a stash of art materials in the car, too, because there is inspiration everywhere!