Is Grandma Holding a Moose Leg?

Brooklyn-based artist Allison Maletz doesn’t want to use watercolor in a traditional way. Although her work is representational and often figure-based, exploring themes of human connection and the quirky, often dysfunctional, “average American family,” she refuses to be bound by any rules about how to handle the paint.

Nana Holding Purse & Leg, 39" x 27.5", 2009, watercolor painting. All works by Allison Maletz.
Nana Holding Purse & Leg,
39″ x 27.5″, 2009, watercolor painting.
All works by Allison Maletz.

“I adore the medium itself because it is so hard to control,” Maletz says. “You mix it with water and it goes where it wants to. You constantly try to gather it all and control it, but you can only do so much. There’s an incredible metaphor there–striving for control and thinking you know where you want it to go, but it never happens exactly that way.” The headstrong fluidity of watercolor is the perfect companion for Maletz, who approaches her process in an equally independent, non-traditional manner.

Mom Learning to Float, watercolor, 24" x 40.5", 2006.
Mom Learning to Float,
watercolor, 24″ x 40.5″, 2006.
Picking Oranges in Grandpa’s Yard, watercolor, 59" x 48", 2008.
Picking Oranges in Grandpa’s Yard,
watercolor, 59″ x 48″, 2008.

The artist typically paints on a large scale. One of her earliest watercolors is 15′ x 5′, and took her nine months to complete. She does not stretch her paper, letting it wrinkle and react naturally to the applied washes. Maletz also paints horizontally, allowing the water to pool and collect where it will. White does not have a place on her palette, as she finds it can turn colors milky and sometimes muddy.

The artist prefers “painting from the past” and instead of painting on location (as many watercolorists often do), she uses old photos of family members and close friends as references. She also contradicts the traditional watercolor practice of working with washes and starting with lighter watered-down pigments and building up successive layers, as well as approaching the entire page at once with no amount of detail built up in a particular area.

“I start with a basic pencil drawing, and then I paint step by step, breaking the composition into sections—clothing, skin, and background. I will complete the background entirely and will have white, untouched areas that make the piece look a bit ‘paint by numbers.’ I do the skin of my figures last and add lots of detail, which is not particularly encouraged in the style.”

But for all her rule-breaking choices when it comes to her own work, Maletz stresses that you have to know the rules in order to break them effectively. “I’ve had an extensive art education, but my style is my own. I choose to paint a different way. For my students, I give them all the traditional approaches and basic knowledge. I want them to know what the paint is capable of doing. It isn’t about me teaching them my philosophy, but for them to find something in the medium that they love and that works for them.”

Cheerleaders, 11.6" x8.7", watercolor, 2008.
11.6″ x8.7″, watercolor, 2008.

Maletz is doing what all great artists have done—she has set her own expectations for a given medium and separated her process from any kind of historical obligation or traditional commitment. Instead, she pursues her art as a bit of a rebel, being true to her artistic eye and seeing where it takes her.

For more watercolor painting inspiration and unique techniques that allow you to explore the exciting world of watercolor with fresh eyes, consider Fearless Watercolor for Beginners. You’ll discover adventurous techniques that you’ll be able to apply again and again in your practice, so that you know all you need about watercolor painting and can take it where you want to, just like Maletz does.

For more information on Allison Maletz’s work and upcoming workshops, visit her website.

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Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.