I have worked all of my life with watercolor, preferring the freedom and unexpectedness of it to other media, even though I do also use oils, acrylic, and casein.
Who were the watercolor artists who inspired you most? It would be easy to name Sargent, but there are many whose work I like for different reasons. I have always appreciated the many ways artists use the medium to achieve their results. Technique alone seems secondary to the expressiveness of the individual artist.
How did you become interested in architectural and urban subjects?
Growing up in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, just blocks from the massive blast furnaces of Bethlehem Steel, large dramatic structures were an everyday fixture in my life. My grandmother lived in Astoria, Queens so we went to NYC one week every year and those skyscrapers, structures built with Bethlehem’s I-beams, added another dimension to the visual imprint on my consciousness of the light, the angles, and the planes of architecture. I didn’t realize that I was visually drawn to architecture until I moved to the Boston area and I discovered Beacon Hill. I taught myself to paint architecture—first with the doorways of Beacon Hill, and then entire buildings and then streets of buildings.
Your Bethlehem Steel series is extensive. How did you become interested in Bethlehem Steel? When you grow up as close to an operation as that there’s no escaping it and there’s no explaining it unless you’ve lived it. It was ever present. It is just a part of you. One generation of men after another in my family lost their lives to it if they worked in the plant rather than in an office. The noise from the foundries never ceased, nor did the odors and the dirt. The black grit would be on your feet when you took off your socks; it crept into the house daily. After college, I thought I couldn’t get away fast enough. However, when a Boston Globe front page article announced its closing in 1995, it struck me emotionally. I was suddenly very aware of its importance historically to me, to my family and to the country. I went through the plant four times after that, painting a place gone quiet, but reflective of its former might.
You’ve said NYC—another favorite subject—has an energy that is unique. Can you elaborate on this?
New York was so big and exciting to me as a child—just as it is to my granddaughters today—I wanted to see it all. Those same planes and angles that I saw every day in Bethlehem were reborn in New York’s skyscrapers. And so many people to watch! Whenever I walked across the bridges spanning the Lehigh River, along which the 4.5 mile Bethlehem Steel plant was built, I could see a panorama of its powerful activity. The train cars, welders and hot coals from the coke works of Bethlehem, found a parallel in the rush of people, subways, smoke and towering buildings of New York.
I understand you usually work from photos. What advise can you offer regarding photos and reference?
When I do my more detailed work, I work from photos rather that sketches done on location. I always compose through the lens, thinking about the way it should be composed as a painting should I choose to paint it. With digital photography, I find I’m not nearly as careful as I was with film, but it does allow me to take multiple shots and additional shots of details. Its sort of like doing thumbnails. It allows me to take many shots of people in a particular area too and later I can pick and choose and rearrange. And I have learned to edit, edit, edit.
Are you usually working with several photos? I often print out a number of photos before beginning my drawing.
Do you usually make a detailed drawing before painting?
I don’t make a detailed drawing normally, because I can visualize where I will be heading. First and most important is seeing the composition as an abstract whole—the shapes and values. After gridding my paper, I draw in the most critical areas and then start painting, stopping to fill in detail as I go as needed. I have a great impatience to actually begin painting.
Do you do any other preliminary work?
Whether I’m working from life or from photos, I establish my palette in advance for each painting. I love color, and use many, but I first pare down my palette for a painting by experimenting with washes and glazes: which color goes down first over a dry color, or should it be vice-versa; which colors should blend wet-in-wet, and so on. For many areas I am inclined to mix less and layer more—but that decision comes only after experimentation.
I understand you work using a glazing method, building the color and detail. Is that correct?
Usually with layering/glazing, I try to use no more than two colors so I don’t get “muddy”. However, when I mix, rather than glaze, I will sometimes use three colors. That said, I typically use very few pigmented colors and therefore there is less chance for dullness to occur. Sometimes I will put down a color and let it dry knowing I’ll take a sponge and gently wipe it off again to leave a soft veil of color worked into the paper that I can work over again. Sometimes I will start with an undercoat glaze of acrylic gouache on a large area so I can work over it again without movement underneath. I usually have to re-apply dark values and bright colors in a detailed painting once the original application is completely dry. One example of dark, but bright color, is a dark red apple. Just using one color makes it too flat. I will first use a bright red for an initial application. When it is dry, I layer over it with a dark red wash. In doing so, the color achieves a beautiful depth.
Do you have some colors you rely on time after time—and others you try to avoid?
As mentioned, I use many more stain colors than I do pigmented colors. I use a long metal palette with my most used colors closest to me in “rainbow” order. The colors I use most frequently have changed over time, and continue to do so. For example, I once used quite a lot of Payne’s Gray. It has been replaced with Neutral Tint to neutralize some colors. I still use Ultramarine Blue, but not if I want to avoid granulation. Other times I use it especially for that property. Phthalocyanine Blue is a dye and technically shouldn’t move much, but it does! I avoid it for skies as it can become patchy.
What paper do you prefer—brand, cold press, hot press, etc.?
I most often use 300 lb. Saunders Waterford Cold Press paper, or Twin Rocker, a handmade paper in one weight only. I do like rough paper, particularly Arches, but I don’t use it for my more detailed work. I do, however, enjoy it for outdoor nature subjects.
Do you prepare your paper in any way—wetting it, stretching it, etc.?
I have tried all sorts of ways of preparing my paper, but then finally found I had so much more flexibility of movement to just let it sit loose on my drawing board. Usually there’s not enough buckling to hinder me. If I need to, I turn it face down, wet the back with a sponge, and weight it down with my drawing board and additional weights for a little while. It returns to me totally flat and on I go. By leaving the paper loose, I can turn it easily as I work, sometimes even upside down, without having to move the whole board it sits on. As unconventional as it may seem, I’ve noticed that most of the people in my classes do that now as well, even though I’ve never asked them to.
You have been teaching for some time. Have you found this a help in your own work? Yes and no. I like to be alone a lot, so being with my classes is a really nice break from myself! I like their enthusiasm and sometimes their own work ethic pushes me out of my feeling lazy space. In other ways, because I have to break everything down to answer their questions, it holds me back a little. I enjoy the spontaneity of watercolor (yes, even with detailed work), but I start thinking too technically at times because my mind is still caught in question and answer mode.
What is the best advise you can offer an aspiring watercolor artist?
I just read a quote attributed to Katherine Johnson, the NASA mathematician who played a key role in sending Apollo 11 to the moon and back. She said, “In math, you’re either right or you’re wrong.” It struck me because in art there is NO right or wrong. Just keep painting and don’t try to emulate another painter’s work. Eventually your work will look like your work and you will have learned many things along way to make your work unique. Technique will naturally start to fall into place. As I tell my students, watercolor is a lot of negative learning. Just remember to have fun doing it. It’s just paper.
Carolyn Latanision Is a native of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and now lives and works in Massachusetts. She works primarily in water media, exploring its unique challenges and possibilities. Carolyn is a signature member of the National Watercolor Society, New England Watercolor Society, Pennsylvania Watercolor Society, Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Art Club in NYC, Hudson Valley Art Association, Philadelphia Water Color Society, Rocky Mountain Water Media, and Whiskey Painters of America. In the Boston area, she is a designated Copley Master in the Copley Society of Art. Her paintings are in many public and private collections.For more information, visit Carolyn’s website.