Watercolor: Carole Hillsbery: Making Time for Thoughtful Art

26 Feb 2008

0612hill6_300x450_1Despite the demands of her busy life, Arizona watercolorist Carole Hillsbery finds time to paint thoughtfully executed watercolors.      

by Linda S. Price

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Puerto Penasco
2006, watercolor, 30 x 22.
All artwork this article
collection the artist
unless otherwise indicated.

Carole Hillsbery’s story is not an uncommon one. She grew up loving art, with her earliest education coming from art-history books in the library. She then discovered how-to books by Charles Reid and Zoltan Szabo. A workshop with Robert E. Wood expanded her vision. “Then kids happened,” she says, and painting was put on hold. “I always assumed I would get back into painting when the children were grown, but I had a baby late and realized I had to start painting immediately. Now I paint any chance I get.”

These days she works around the children—literally. Although she home-schools both her daughter and granddaughter, her studio is in the family room, so she’s always looking at her paintings, snatching a rare 15 minutes or half-hour to work on them. On the one day each week that the girls attend an enrichment school, Hillsbery works on initial drawings for later works. On the other six days, she carves out larger chunks of time very early in the morning or very late at night, accumulating two to three hours of painting time a day. With a chuckle, she describes herself as sitting at her easel, paintbrush in hand like a baton, orchestrating the activities of the household. “The nice thing about being an artist is that it flows with your life,” Hillsbery says. “I like to encourage people who are struggling to find time to paint. You can do it. You can juggle.”

The artist says one of the reasons she switched from oil to watercolor is that she likes the immediate response. Although she completes most of her paintings in a week, she then tweaks them over the next month whenever she has a few minutes to do so. Hillsbery usually has many paintings in progress simultaneously, so when she comes to a point where she doesn’t know what to do next, she doesn’t waste time. She moves on to another painting.

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Simply Michelle
2006, watercolor,
16 x 12.

This is the first figure
painting in which the
artist left the background
white because, as she
explains, “The painting
seems to make a better
statement without any
color at all. Anything
else would have distracted
from the subtle shadows
of the glasses.”

Despite limited painting time—or perhaps because of it—Hillsbery describes her art as compulsive. “If I’m not painting, I’m looking,” she says. “If I’m not looking, then I’m thinking about painting.” To illustrate, the artist recounts a conversation she had with an acquaintance during which she became so fascinated with the way the shadows of the woman’s glasses were falling across her face that she had to stop, get her camera, and take photos. The resulting painting is Simply Michelle.

In fact, Hillsbery takes her digital camera everywhere and confesses to having 9,500 images in her photo file. “Sometimes I know what subject I want to paint. Other times I want to use a specific technique, such as a saturated wash, so I comb through the files for an appropriate subject. When I’m looking for a subject, it’s the play of light and dark that immediately captures my attention. I also look for unusual shapes and combinations of shapes. My work is all about putting beautiful shapes together. I compose first with my camera and then on the computer with Photoshop. With that software, I can play with the image in black and white so I can judge the values and see the movement of light—where it enters the picture and how it travels around. If the photo is not what I want, I make the appropriate changes in the drawing.”

Hillsbery describes herself as a “shapemaker” and asserts that even the smallest areas of color are crucial. According to her, there are no arbitrary or random shapes, colors, or temperatures. Careful not to detract from the focal point or lead the viewer’s eye out of the painting, the artist uses quieter and more neutral colors for edges. And she paints carefully. She may work for only 15 minutes at a time, meticulously adding small shapes, but then she studies the painting for two days to make sure they are the right ones.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom dispensed by most art teachers, Hillsbery cautions against stopping a painting too soon. “At some stage my brain says, ‘Stop, don’t overpaint,’ but I will want to do a little more. Sometimes I destroy a painting this way. Sometimes I push myself and find that creative spark. For example, I had completed The Perfect Spot for a certain show, decided it was an OK painting, and sent it off to the photographer. When I saw the slides I realized it was boring, so I put it back on the board to see what I could do to improve it. I kept the same feel but really pushed the color and contrast. It resulted in The Perfect Spot 1, which became an award-winning painting.”

As the artist’s paintings have become more colorful, she’s been experimenting with new colors and color combinations in her search for those that will stay bright and clean. However, she describes herself as “really disciplined,” in that every time she adds a new color to her palette she takes one away. “I think of colors more in terms of loud and quiet than warm and cool,” says the artist. “And the colors you place next to each other are more important than the colors you mix. For instance, quinacridone violet next to orange makes a popping combination and does a lot to jazz up a painting. Most of my color use is intuitive. I don’t think about it.”

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The Perfect Spot 1
2004, watercolor,
22 x 30.

Instead of mixing on her palette, Hillsbery prefers to glaze one color over another, noting, “If you’re going for bright and colorful, it’s better to glaze. You can keep the colors clean longer.” All her paintings contain “untold layers” of paint, and she has favorite layering combinations. Her favorite greens are based on sap green with a little ultramarine blue and cadmium yellow light. Substituting cobalt blue makes the color calmer and more subtle. Cerulean makes it even quieter. To get lively grays she uses complements such as cobalt blue with a little orange. Because there’s no black on her palette the artist makes her darkest darks with layers of French ultramarine blue, alizarin crimson, and burnt sienna or, alternatively, ultramarine blue, sap green, and alizarin crimson. Burnt sienna, gold ochre, and a touch of blue allow her to get clean browns.

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Jazz Lights
2005, watercolor, 18 x 12.

The artist wasn’t happy
with this painting,
so she went back in
and experimented by painting
the darks in with
black acrylic.

“You have to know your paper as well as you know your paint,” she explains. “Each type of paper gives you a different effect. For years I used Arches 140-lb rough and cold-pressed, then I discovered hot-pressed and loved it. The paint moves around on the slick surface of my 140-lb hot-pressed paper and doesn’t get absorbed. (I have tried Yupo but found it too slick.) At first I wasn’t comfortable with the hard edges I got in my figurative work. Now I even exaggerate them. When I want softer, more subtle paintings, I work on Arches 300-lb hot-pressed paper.”

Hillsbery is not fussy about her brushes. “So many brushes look good in the store, but at home I pick up the old, comfortable ones,” she admits. Her favorites are Raphaël rounds in Nos. 4, 8, and 16; a 2" Robert Simmons Skyflow brush; and a 1" Robert Simmons flat. “If a new watercolorist wants to buy only two brushes, the size 16 and the 1" flat should be the ones. The Raphaël holds lots of water but can also come down to a very fine point. I painted with cheap, synthetic brushes for years, but the good Raphaël brushes have made a huge difference in how I’m able to lay down the paint.”

Hillsbery’s final words of advice are, “Paint, paint, paint.” That’s what her instructors told her. “It may sound too simple,” she admits, “but it’s true.”    

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Down to the Sea in Ships
2004, watercolor, 22 x 30.
Private collection.

To emphasize the early-
morning bustle of this
Mexican port the artist
painted lots of
busy, little shapes.


Grazing on the North Rim

2006, watercolor, 15 x 30.

The artist was looking
for a different view
of the frequently painted
Grand Canyon. As she was
leaving, two deer
appeared at dusk,
making a unique scene.

About the Artist
Carole Hillsbery is a largely self-taught artist who has been painting in watercolor for 25 years. She learned her craft from books, magazines, and workshops—and through a lot of practice. A member of the Arizona Watercolor Association, the Arizona Artists Guild, and the Transparent Watercolor Society of America, she has won numerous awards. Hillsbery and her husband live in Mesa, Arizona.

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