The Sixth in an Artist Daily Exclusive Series:
Masters of American Watercolor
Stephen, what can you tell us in general about yourself as an artist and your way of working.
First and foremost, I am a water media painter. I may find myself in the high country painting on site, spending the day using solely transparent watercolor. Then I may be in the studio working in a medium or combination of media that is diluted with water including watercolor, gouache, acrylic and casein. I use these media in a “watercolor manner” but find that each has its own visual qualities and handling characteristics that adds to my vocabulary and expression as a water media painter. Over the years, I have worked in most all media including printmaking but find that there is a spiritual quality when working in water media that captivates me. In those moments when the paper is wet and the paint and brush are moving, I listen, observe and react and become part of the process. Of course this all comes with 45 years of painting every day. Yet each new piece of paper brings a new experience and discovery.
How did you become interested in watercolor?
In the early 60s I took some evening watercolor classes where I learned to handle a brush, and the basic fundamentals of the medium. My first instructor was Darrell “Skip” Elliot, who later opened a gallery in Taos, New Mexico. I then studied with Thomas Curry, who introduced me to color theory. These two painters gave me my start.
Who were the watercolor artists who influenced you the most?
I have since developed a passion for studying artists and art history, and I now have a substantial library for reference. Among the many painters that have influenced me, two are at the forefront: Arthur Melville (1855-1904) and Charles Burchfield (1893-1967). I saw my first watercolor by the Scottish painter Melville at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 1984. He had a very painterly approach, applying and lifting watercolor and then adding some translucent and opaque gouache. Since then I have been to many British museums to study his works. My interest in Burchfield is that he delved beneath the surface when painting the landscape. He painted the sounds, smells, movement, wind and energy that bring the subject to life. I witnessed my first Burchfield exhibition at the Kennedy Galleries in New York in the mid 70s. This summer I have been invited to give a talk, demonstration and small exhibition of my works for the 50th anniversary of the Burchfield-Penny Art Center in Buffalo, N.Y.
You have said artists are at their best when they paint what they know. You are a painter of nature. Can you tell us how this applies to your work?
As a painter it is important to find the subjects I am most passionate about and then immerse myself in it. For instance, I am a landscape painter who lives and breathes the high country San Juan Mountains of Colorado. I have a home and studio next to the Rio Grande River with a 360 degree view of these mountains. Any change of light or mood, I see it. Over the years I see these subjects more deeply, knowing the forms intimately. This frees me to express. I am a lucky person to have found the place where my heart is; everything else is based on that. When I am out painting or in the studio I take time to meditate and take in my subject. For me it is not enough to just literally paint the scene. I want to interpret and paint how I feel about what I see. I may rearrange the composition, exaggerate color or halation of these living forms, or hold on to a mood or momentary light even though the day has changed.
What attracts you most when searching for potential subject matter?
I find that the best ideas find me rather than the opposite. Rather than searching for ideas, the best inspiration comes while my mind is in neutral. However, I always carry a sketch book in case something happens. For instance while cross-country skiing in late afternoon I become aware of light and shadow sensations on my face while traversing down a hill. I stop and think “that is what I need to paint.” I retrace my tracks and do some sketches, making some notes that result in an important painting.
You do extensive drawing and painting on-location. Are your studio paintings usually based on your location work?
Most of my studio painting is based on experiences painting and sketching on-site. The studio paintings are usually larger, focusing on color and expression—and experimental water media and composition based on sketches and on-location watercolor paintings.
Do you ever find photos helpful?
More recently I have taken a digital camera with me. I use the camera if my hands are too cold to sketch or I am with friends; I later put the photo on my computer screen and sketch from that.
Your paintings are noted for strong design and color. Do you make small preliminary composition and color roughs?
I take my on-location paintings and sketches, do studies rearranging for composition and make some color notes. This preparation is important for reference but once I begin a painting I let it find its own life, and find myself absorbed in the process. There are times I begin painting, then seemingly moments later it is getting dark and the end of the day. Painting has nothing to do with time but totally the energy and love that goes into it.
You are also known for your development and research on color. What can you tell us about that?
Intermediates—cadmium orange, cadmium red, magenta, ultramarine blue, phthalocyanine turquoise, permanent green light.
Are there some tube colors that you rely on more than others—and any that you avoid?
In addition, I have some extra colors that are important because they granulate or help to define a particular mood. Two of my most used colors are cobalt violet and Naples yellow, both in my signature line and imported and distributed by the Jack Richeson Company. I do not intentionally avoid colors as there can be a time and a place for any one. However, typically I do not use earth or any neutralized color. This is because with my system any of these can be easily mixed with the flexibility of taking the color note more neutral or towards pure hue.
In some cases you use transparent acrylics and transparent watercolor in the same painting. Can this present any technical problems?
As I mentioned earlier, each of the water media have their particular visual qualities and handling characteristics. For instance I may wash acrylic transparently on a rough watercolor paper. When used transparently, acrylic will dry the same intensity and value as when wet (as opposed to watercolor that will dry twice as light). When used in a pure state, acrylic will achieve a beautiful and luminous, rich tone. It also stains the fibers but does not seal the paper. When dry, the color will not lift because of the poly resin binder. Thus, instead of a white piece of watercolor paper I will use a luminous toned piece of paper. I can rewet and apply granulating watercolor on the surface and lift back to the toned acrylic. I can push this even further by then adding translucent and opaque gouache or casein notes to set off the transparent acrylic and watercolor visual qualities.
What paper do you prefer—brand, cold press, hot press, etc?
Depending on the medium, subject and approach I am using, I most often use these three supports. I like a rough 300 lb. watercolor paper with a surface sizing such as Waterford, Lanaquarelle, or Fabriano Artistico; a cold press watercolor board like Crescent #5114 or Canson; Aquabord by Ampersand. I do not prepare the paper in any way before I begin.
What is the best advise you can offer an aspiring watercolor artist?
I have been incredibly fortunate to have made painting my life. It is not a way to make a living but a way of life. It is natural early on in a career to think “Someday I will be able to use color in a more expressive way, or have stronger compositions, or be more technically adept.” Reflecting, there are things I was doing early on in my career that I cannot do today. And there are things that I am doing today that I could not do then. It is important to realize that each stage of the painting career is important and builds to the next. Each moment of the process is significant. I take it in with gratitude and appreciate the ride.