Meet Ali Cavanaugh

Essence by Ali Cavanaugh, watercolor art painting.
Essence by Ali Cavanaugh, watercolor art painting.

The Eighth in an Artist Daily Exclusive Series:

Masters of American Watercolor

How did you become interested in watercolor?
I painted mostly in oil from 1995—2005. Around 2005 we were having some construction work done on our house and one of the carpenters showed interest in my art. He wanted to barter a family portrait for a courtyard that we wanted. He told me that his wife loved watercolor. I hadn’t painted in watercolor but didn’t hesitate to commit to the barter. I thought to myself, “I’ll figure it out!”. I have been drawing and painting portraits since I was about 15 years old, so the idea of a family portrait (of seven people) didn’t intimidate me.

I purchased the paper and when I started the portrait I noticed that the art supply store accidentally gave me two sheets of paper. Once I finished the family portrait, I decided to tear that extra sheet of paper into three pieces and play around with painting a monochromatic figure series. I framed the pieces and at the last minute decided to include them in a show that I was having with a series of my oil paintings.

At that show, I sold a few oil paintings, but to my surprise everyone wanted to talk about the watercolor paintings. They weren’t even “serious” works of art in my opinion. I felt that they were just fun little sketches, but so many people responded to them in a positive way that I decided to take my artistic journey into watercolor. I’ve never had any formal training or classes with the medium. Watercolor found me and that is how I became interested.

The Assistant (Milly) by Ali Cavanaugh, watercolor art painting.
The Assistant (Milly) by Ali Cavanaugh, watercolor art painting.

Who were the watercolor artists who influenced you most?
Because my journey into watercolor was a little bit different than most, I didn’t have any influences with watercolor painters specifically. Early on I was influenced by Andy Warhol. I loved his fearless compositions and unique spirit. John Singer Sargent has always been a favorite with his genius in realism and also the way he captured the seen and unseen in the people he painted.

You’ve said you have a fascination with both the seen and the unseen.
Can you tell us more of your thoughts on this?
The dichotomy of the seen and unseen in human existence has been a conceptual corner stone for most of my career as a figurative artist. I am inspired by the external person; the compositions in movement, the textures of hair, skin and fabric—the elements of design and external visual structure, but I am also just as inspired by one’s spirit. There is an internal unique presence that I am always striving to capture. It comes through in very subtle external expression. There is a duality to our existence that keeps me wildly interested in painting the figure.

I understand that you work from photos. Do you take them yourself?
I take all of my own photos. The only exception would be if I am asked to paint a commission of someone that is not able to model for me. I can make exceptions for that situation.

Forshadow by Ali Cavanaugh, watercolor art painting.
Forshadow by Ali Cavanaugh, watercolor art painting.

The flowing-color look of your “Immerse” series is different from your ultra-realistic work. Does it demand a different way of working or thinking?
The two styles are completely different in working and thinking. The hyper realism requires working from photos in a way that is very literal. My brushstrokes are deliberate, labored, and meticulous. The creativity comes in the photo shoot and planning phase. Once I have my photo and I’m working, it’s mainly just skill and endurance needed to finish the painting. With my Immerse series, I pour paint, let it dry, and then it speaks to me. I respond by adding or subtracting paint. It is more like a conversation. I have a general idea of what I’m going for when I start the painting, but I’m never sure where it’s going to end up. With the hyper realism, I can have kids playing around me and all sorts of distractions, but with the Immerse work, I need to focus and to paint in silence. The painting and I are going back and forth, so it commands my undivided attention. It seems like it would be the opposite, but when I’m painting realism, I am on auto-pilot.

Would you say that gesture and body language are key considerations in your compositions?
The gestures and compositions of the figures in my paintings are absolutely my first (and the key) consideration. I need to establish a powerful visual as the foundation. If I don’t have a strong composition then I’ve started off on the wrong foot.

Do you make small color sketches or value studies before painting?
Sometimes I make little studies, especially if I’m painting a new model with new skin tones. I’d say 90% of the time I just jump right in and figure it out as I go, no studies needed.

Listening Without Hearing by Ali Cavanaugh, watercolor art painting.
Listening Without Hearing by Ali Cavanaugh, watercolor art painting.

Do you make a detailed drawing before beginning to paint?
I draw directly onto the panel with a line drawing. I draw very minimally, preferring to just get the paint going. The surface is workable so it’s very easy to make corrections as I go.

I’ve read that you are a very prolific painter. How many paintings do you usually produce in a year?
There have been years (pre-2010) that I have painted over 60 paintings per year. In 2010, I gave birth to our third child. It was at that point, I cut my painting hours back from 12 hour days to four hour days. For the past six years I have slowly cut back and am now painting from 25 to 30 paintings a year. It works out well because administrative work takes about four hours a day. There is more balance now.

Your ultra-realistic work is known for both depth of color and subtlety. Do you build the color and detail with layers?
I build the color carefully with many layers, very much like egg tempera. I use thin overlapping strokes, carefully preserving the white of the panel. This is what creates the luminosity. The careful stacking of color is how I achieve subtlety and this is also how I build intense depth.

Girl With a Pineapple Earring (Milly) by Ali Cavanaugh, watercolor art painting.
Girl With a Pineapple Earring (Milly) by Ali Cavanaugh, watercolor art painting.

Are there some tube colors that you rely on more than others—and some you try to avoid?
I absolutely have favorites. When I first started painting in watercolor my palette was extremely limited— Payne’s Gray, Burnt Umber and Burnt Sienna. My current love is anything in the emerald and turquoise family. I used Daniel Smith watercolor for years, but have recently started using QoR watercolors by Golden. I avoid anything that isn’t light fast.

In most cases you paint on Aquabord, a clay-coated surface. What are the advantages of Aquabord when compared to paper?
I painted on paper for about a year before I discovered Aquabord. They really are two different animals. The Aquabord is clay, but has some polymers in it to give it a non stick property. You can completely remove paint from the surface and take it right back to white. It’s workable and forgiving. I do not want to mislead anyone either. Although it is forgiving, it is very hard to master. The non stick properties also make building layers difficult at times. One can build up many layers and then accidentally lift back down to white. It takes years of practice. The advantage of paper is—permanence when layering.

I understand your paintings are not conventionally framed. How are they protected?
The panels come with a box frame. I use Krylon UV archival spray (matte) as my isolation coat. I follow this up with three coats of Golden polymer varnish (matte) with UVLS over the painting. The sides of the panels are finished with stain and polycrylic varnish. D-rings and wire are placed on the back and the paintings are gallery ready.

What is the best advise you can offer an aspiring watercolor artist?
The best advice I have for an artist just starting out in watercolor is to remember that it takes time to build up your skills. You need to have fun and take baby steps. Paint everyday. Play with different surfaces, paints, and tools. Don’t limit yourself with perfectionist thinking that there is a “right” or “wrong” way to paint. I always say to artists—remember that you are on a journey. Don’t look at your paintings as individual masterpieces, putting that kind of pressure on yourself is creative suicide. Look at each piece as a stepping stone to the next painting. Each painting is a learning experience that builds wisdom and endurance on the journey. You never “arrive”. You grow and change, your art will grow and change. Enjoy the day to day experience in creating art.


watercolor_art_cavanaughAli Cavanaugh is an internationally represented fine artist. Her paintings have been the subject of numerous national and international solo and group exhibitions. Ali’s work has been featured on book covers, countless internet features such as the Huffington Post, Fine Art ConnoisseurHi-Fructose and in numerous print publications including The New York Times Magazine, American Art Collector and American Artist Watercolor. She has painted portraits for TIME magazine and The New York Times. Ali’s work is featured in more than 400 private and corporate collections throughout North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia. She currently lives in St Louis, Missouri with her husband and their four children. Visit her website for more information.



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After a long career in advertising art, Paul Sullivan is now a full-time watercolor artist. A graduate of the University of Toledo and the Toledo Museum School of Design, Paul has a BA in Fine Art. He is a Silver Signature Member of the Arizona Watercolor Association and a Signature Member of both the Pennsylvania Watercolor Society and the Watercolor Society of Alabama. Paul's work has been featured in exhibitions throughout the U.S. and in China. Visit his website → View all posts by Paul Sullivan →