Watercolor: Kathleen Kolb: Versatility in Vermont

13 Dec 2007

by Linda S. Price

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Anderson Homestead
2002, watercolor, 18½ x 22½.
Private collection.

Kolb looked for diagonals
to create drama in this
composition.

Vermont artist Kathleen Kolb is not a fussy painter. She doesn’t need sunny skies and perfect weather to paint outdoors and actually prefers painting the cold, wintry snow scenes for which her state is known. Although she enjoys painting on-site—working in her car if temperatures are unbearable—Kolb also works indoors, using photographic reference or field studies to start a new painting or add the finishing touches to a work started on location. And when it comes to media, the artist is able to easily switch from oil back to watercolor, the medium she has worked in for 20 years. Yes, Kolb is a versatile artist, one who is willing to adapt to almost anything, as long as she is painting a subject that, as she describes it, has an “emotional ignition, something that’s so startling to me in its beauty that I must paint it.”

 

Kolb finds most of her inspiration within a 30-mile radius of her rural home and claims she never runs out of ideas for painting the landscape that is so meaningful to her. As she drives around with her camera and sketchbook or paints and easel, she seeks out subjects using a cardboard viewfinder of the same basic proportions as the painting support she will be using. When painting in oil, Kolb spends the first hour carefully sketching the scene in graphite on a hardboard panel, then sprays it with fixative. When she’s ready to add color, she starts by establishing the key shadows and areas of direct light that are subject to change. Because she’s a slow painter and wants to finish most of her work before conditions alter, she works on panels that are 9" x 12" or smaller. Still, some paintings will be completed in the studio. By painting on-site, Kolb immerses herself in her environment, making it easier for her to create larger studio versions of a similar scene later on. When making plein air sketches for future studio paintings, Kolb supplements those with lists of the darkest and lightest areas of the painting, rating them from 1 to 5 according to value.

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Mary’s Farmhouse
2002, watercolor, 22 x 30.
Private collection.

Kolb used a 4" hake brush to
lay down a yellow wash
for the large lawn area.
When it was dry, she drybrushed
over it with a large mop,
letting some of the yellow
sparkle through.

Sometimes Kolb’s landscape paintings are done entirely in the studio, using photographic reference, sketches, and notes to recreate that “emotional ignition” she was initially drawn to on location. Key to that connection for the artist is capturing the quality of light, which is why she often uses a camera to remember its exact characteristics. “Light is indistinct over a period of time, but a camera can pinpoint a unique light at a precise moment,” she explains. “I prefer dawn or dusk for warmth and poignancy.” The artist uses slide film because she loves its luminous quality, but, realizing that photos don’t show nearly as much as the human eye can see, she carefully brackets exposures to reveal colors in the shadows and a range of hues in the sky. Because she wants her scenes to ring true and be recognizable, she alters little, and does so only to create stronger, tighter compositions.

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Caspian at Bathtub Rocks
2005, watercolor, 11 x 15.

Private collection.
The large cloud and its reflection in the lake provide enough interest to create an effective composition. The beautiful granite rocks break up the flatness of the scene.
Light Through
the Barn

1999, watercolor,
15 x 22. Private collection.

When the oil painting of this scene was making its debut in the movie What Lies Beneath in California, Kolb decided to capture this local spot again, but in watercolor.

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Bobcat Mountain
2004, watercolor,
11 x 22. Private collection.

This watercolor was completed before Kolb embarked on the larger oil painting of the same scene. It’s cooler, and the snow has less variety in color and brushstrokes than the version done in oil.
Snow Bank
2003, watercolor,
22 x 30. Courtesy Clarke Galleries,
Stowe, Vermont.

Kolb purposely included the power poles in this scene, making the strong vertical shaft the key to the composition. Like the wires on the left, the poles energize the scene, preventing it from appearing static.

When working in oil, Kolb always starts at the top of the canvas and works her way down, “but if there’s water or intricate rocks in the scene I do washes with turpentine to establish the lights and darks,” she says. “I do the whole sky at once and anything that has to blend into the next tier down. I paint in oil as I do in watercolor: very thinly. I’m not in the habit of mixing up large gobs of oil paint. I like glazing and will use it to adjust colors throughout the painting process.” Although she doesn’t mix large amounts of paint, Kolb definitely puts a lot of time and consideration into the mixing of the colors themselves. “Color variation is the key to keeping surfaces interesting,” she says, noting that skies, snow, and foliage all need plenty of variety, whereas the side of a building requires less.

When working in watercolor, Kolb follows a process she’s honed over time. For many years she has been painting on Cheap Joe’s, she’s surprised at how much she actually likes them. Her equipment also includes red sable brushes that she calls “the workhorses of her watercolor kit,” bristle brushes for scrubbing, a fan blender for creating the effects of grass, a dip pen for doing tree branches, and an old mop brush she’s had since she was 13 years old.

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House on Lobster Cove
2000, oil, 12 x 16.
Private collection. 

This well-known house
on Monhegan Island, in
Maine, has been the subject
of several of Kolb’s
paintings, both in oil
and watercolor.

Regardless of what medium she’s working in, one of Kolb’s favorite subjects to paint is snow scenes; and, according to the artist, painting these successfully comes from much looking, experimenting, and struggling. “Snow,” she says, “is a lot like water. It reflects the sky, but taken down a register or two. I discovered I wasn’t putting enough yellow and green in my snow, that there is more warmth and color variation than I was painting.” She finally discovered what works: Prussian blue with some turquoise for the warm areas and, for the cool spots, ultramarine blue with some apricot reflected back into the shadows. After much observation she realized that at night snow looks quite green, and it is these variations of green that make it appear luminous. Sometimes she applies a final yellow glaze to intensify the green effect.

The artist notes that foliage is also tricky and that paintings with too much green are tough to sell. One of the secrets of good greens, she says, is realizing how little blue there actually is in green. Often she mixes cadmium yellow and Prussian blue to create a Kelly green, which she then tones down with burnt umber, burnt sienna, or Van *** brown. Or she will use purple to gray down a combination of ultramarine blue, cadmium yellow, and white. For passages of brilliant light she uses a straight mixture of blue and yellow. Both trees and snow get energy from the tension created by the juxtaposition of warm and cool colors.

Whether she’s painting foliage in spring or wintry snow scenes, some of Kolb’s most striking paintings contain skies at dusk and dawn. To create this luminosity she mixes up at least three variations of sky colors and uses a separate brush for each. She begins painting near the horizon with a mixture of white with cadmium yellow and a touch of cadmium red light. The next band of sky is white with a little turquoise and a small amount of cadmium yellow, followed by a combination of turquoise and white. The cooler upper sky and corners contain Prussian and ultramarine blue with perhaps a little turquoise added to the white. Once she’s painted in these horizontal bands of color with a hog’s hair filbert, she blends them vertically to create a shimmering effect. The sky must be done in one sitting, she warns. “It’s a disaster if I allow it to dry before finishing it.” For clouds she uses warm cadmium red or burnt sienna tints next to a cooler ultramarine/violet gray, a contrast that she says creates visual energy.    

About the Artist
Kathleen Kolb grew up in the Cleveland area and attended art classes from the age of 6. By age 13 she was studying watercolor with a serious professor, who insisted the class do tonal studies for the first six months, and later continued her education at the Rhode Island School of Design, in Providence. Although at school she did mostly figurative work, she discovered the landscape genre after moving to Vermont and has been attached to it for the last 30 years. She’s done several residencies for developing and emerging artists at the Vermont Studio Center, in Johnson, where she learned from excellent visiting artists, including Janet Fish and Wolf Kahn. Kolb is represented by David Findlay Galleries, in New York City (www.davidfindlaygalleries.com), and by Clarke Galleries, in Stowe, Vermont (www.clarkegalleries.com). For more information on Kolb, visit her galleries’ respective websites.

Linda S. Price is an artist, writer, and editor living on Long Island, New York.

 


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