Watercolor: Shanna Kunz: Tonalism and Contemporary Design in Watercolor

6 Jun 2008

0706kunz9_600x450An elegant combination of traditional tonalism and contemporary design allows Utah artist Shanna Kunz to speak to her viewers in a gently alluring voice.    

by Jennifer King

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Christmas Meadows
2003, watercolor, 20 x 24.
Private collection.

“All of your paintings speak to me in some way,” a collector recently wrote in a letter to landscape artist Shanna Kunz. “The choice and combination of colors, the progressively diminished focus, the presence of physical atmosphere and the diffusion of light—they are all truly beautiful. And every bit of it rendered by the human hand!” These sentiments sent Kunz’s heart soaring because, as she says, “there’s nothing better than knowing you’ve touched someone by successfully speaking in your own voice.”

Kunz’s voice combines concepts found in both traditional and contemporary artwork as she paints the Western landscape that is so dear to her. The subtle tonal gradations hark back to the Tonalists of the late 19th century, while her strong horizon lines and interesting cropping keep her paintings looking equally modern. “The one thing I worry about in doing traditional tonal work is being trite,” she explains, “so I try to bring some contemporary qualities into my pieces so that they don’t look overly grand.”

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Ballade
2004, watercolor,
14 x 16. Private collection.

Staying true to her voice—to her uniquely personal interpretations of her subjects and her emotional response to them—is one of Kunz’s highest priorities. From the moment she first picked up a watercolor brush at age 29, she says she knew painting would be her best means of communicating her love of nature fostered in childhood during family outings and camping trips. In fact, Kunz guards her voice so completely that she took great care in choosing whom she studied with to learn the art of watercolor painting. “So many artists take workshops and come out painting in the teacher’s style,” she cautions. “I wanted to find my own style. It’s so important for an artist to find his or her own voice.”

Although she did take formal classes at Utah State and studied under a variety of regionally known artists, including Adrian Van Suchtelen, Carl Purcell, Osral Allred, Dave Dornan, and Paul Davis, Kunz has repeatedly turned to the great American landscape artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries to further her education and understanding of art. “Studying artists from a time period different from our own is like taking the most valuable workshop,” she says, with a tone of awe and wonder in her voice. Some of her favorites include big names such as Winslow Homer, James McNeill Whistler, John Singer Sargent, George Inness, and John Henry Twachtman, as well as lesser-known artists such as Hudson River School artist Sanford R. Gifford and California watercolorist Percy Gray.

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Early Spring
2005, watercolor,
12 x 16. Private collection.

Kunz believes that studying her favorite artists of the past allows her to get inside their minds and discover the source of their greatest achievement—an authentic expression of emotion. “The most important thing,” she explains, “is to understand what each artist’s passion was. Of course, it’s also a great way to learn technical skills, but those should take second place to the heart found in great paintings.”

As an example of how she learns from historical masters, Kunz describes her experience in going to the Freer Gallery, in Washington, DC, to personally observe the museum’s collection of originals by one of her heroes, Dwight W. Tryon. “What I learned from looking at his work is how to organize a painting in order to develop depth and spatial relationships,” she says. “The ‘realness’ of his painting is quite obscure, so I also began to see how he achieves that realism without all the technical detail or correctness. Plus, he breaks all the rules and still makes his paintings work. Most of all, I discovered how he employs the subtlety of color, value, and light to add an emotional aspect to his paintings. That was valuable because that emotion is the thing I most want to achieve in my paintings.”

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Laguna Mountains
2006, watercolor, 8 x 10.
Courtesy Kneeland Gallery,
Ketchum, Idaho.

To begin one of these emotionally charged watercolor landscapes, Kunz staples a sheet of Arches 140-lb cold-pressed paper to her board. Using staples without tape allows her to restretch the paper if needed later in the process, which is often the case because she applies so many wet, juicy washes and glazes throughout the first 90 percent of the execution of her paintings. On the clean, white paper, she then creates a very light graphite drawing, just to position the main elements of the composition.

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Weber Valley Abundance
2006, watercolor, 8 x 10.
Courtesy Meyer Gallery, Park City, Utah.
Poplars in High Key
2004, watercolor, 14 x 16.
Private collection.
Millcreek Pines
2003, watercolor, 9 x 14.
Private collection.

A lot is happening in Kunz’s mind as she embarks upon this preliminary stage. “I plan out the composition, generally organize the color palette, and plan the logistics of how I’m going to complete the painting before I begin,” she explains. “With the technical stuff planned in advance, I can be quiet and remain open to what the painting is saying to me, to how it’s directing me as I go along. I can see the surprises coming, and with watercolor there are always surprises.”

Over the gestural line drawing, Kunz lays down a light- to-medium-value wash. “This wash is important,” notes the artist, “because it begins to establish my general overall temperature, indicates my color palette, and starts developing my sense of space right off the bat.”

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Aria in Watercolor
2004, watercolor, 8 x 10.
Private collection.

Just as the glisten of this first wash leaves the paper, Kunz begins to charge in more local color, which will also help to build up the values for which she’s aiming. It will be the first in a long series of layers, which is a process that requires expert timing. It’s essential for her to know exactly how wet the paper is so she can control her edges and avoid making mud.

Adds Kunz, “As a watercolorist, you absolutely must know your tools intimately, including the water itself. You have to know your paper, and you have to be able to recognize the look of every degree of wetness on that paper. That’s why I use the same type of paper every time—it’s so familiar that I know exactly how it will respond in every situation. And the same holds true of your pigments. You have to know which are transparent and which are opaque, which are staining and which will lift, and which have a lot of sediment.” Mastering her tools and being able to predict how they’ll work together, Kunz believes, eliminates some of the struggle with the technical aspects of painting so she can put more energy into conveying emotional qualities in her work.

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Mountain Meadow
2005, watercolor, 12 x 16.
Private collection.

From this point until nearly the end of the painting, Kunz keeps her attention on the literal “big picture,” how all of the elements are working together as a whole to express her emotional response to the scene she’s painting. Spatial relationships are especially important, and she often uses value changes and progressively softer edges to indicate the depth of the various planes and the sense of atmosphere found in her subjects. A delicate balance of warms and cools, along with an exquisitely harmonious sense of color, are equally important to creating the various moods inhabiting her work.

Kunz builds and fine-tunes all of these qualities through layers upon layers of glazes, often applied in specific areas rather than to the whole surface. In some cases, she charges color into a still-damp layer, while in others she allows the previous application to dry completely. At various points, she’ll stop to lift off some of the paint with clean water wherever something has become too dark or heavy. Throughout it all, however, she works at keeping all of her edges soft, and she constantly evaluates how the different elements of the painting are relating to one another.

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Pine Meadows
2005, watercolor, 8 x 10.
Private collection.

As the painting starts to materialize before her eyes, Kunz begins to think about orchestrating the painting. She explains, “I want to direct your eye through the painting from the focal area around to the foreground planes and all the way into the distance, then back again, as if I’m saying, ‘Look here, look here, now look here.’”

With later glazes, Kunz injects more value contrast and a few harder edges in the focal area to attract the viewer’s attention, but she has several other techniques for guiding the eye there as well. One is to apply heavier opaque pigments to the objects in and around the focal area. “Earth colors, such as ochre or raw sienna, tend to come forward because of their weight, so I use them to bring some of the important elements forward.” Strategically placed groupings of subtle, short, small strokes also set up a rhythmic flow of accents throughout each painting.

Only when she’s into the last 10 percent of the painting does Kunz begin to consider the finer details of her subject and the finishing touches that will serve to enhance the emotional qualities she’s already established with value, color, texture, and the like. “Ultra-realism doesn’t interest me,” she says, “so the less I say, the better. I want to strike that happy medium of making it feel real with as little detail as possible.” Even still, Kunz does profess to have a passion for drawing, so in the very final stages, she often uses a rigger or fine brush, quite dry, to add some linear detail. It’s something of a paradox that the same line drawing that adds a degree of realistic detail also serves to accentuate the fact that what we’re seeing is a painted interpretation of nature, not a photographic reproduction of it.

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Mexican Skyline
2006, watercolor, 12 x 16.
Courtesy Meyer Gallery,
Park City, Utah.

From the first glance, it’s evident that Kunz is inspired specifically by nature, by the land surrounding her Utah home. But more than that, she is motivated by a desire to speak in an artistic voice as eloquent as the turn-of-the-century artists she so admires. “I know that if I just work hard enough, I might be able to do something substantial that equals those works,” she says. “When I see those paintings, I know I need to step it up both mentally and emotionally. Great works humble me while making me as gung ho and ready as I’ve ever been.”

And yet, at the same time, Kunz wants to make sure her voice isn’t “so loud and clear that people can’t bring their own interpretations to the paintings.” Her greatest hope is that her understated, subtle landscapes will speak to viewers in a whisper, gently touching their hearts in a quiet way.

About the Artist
Shanna Kunz, of Roy, Utah, attended Utah State University, in Logan, in 2000. Her work has been included in many group exhibitions, including the recent Artists of the New Century invitational show at the Bennington Center for the Arts, in Bennington, Vermont, as well as in solo exhibitions, such as those this spring at Meyer Gallery, in Park City, Utah, and Kneeland Gallery, in Ketchum, Idaho. Kunz is also represented by Mountain Trails Gallery, in Palm Desert, California; Meyer-Milagros Gallery, in Jackson, Wyoming; Principle Gallery, in Alexandria, Virginia; and Tucker Gallery, in Evanston, Illinois. For more information on this award-winning artist, visit her website at www.shannakunz.com.

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Comments

Marilyn Melton wrote
on 12 Jun 2008 5:09 PM
These paintings are lovely. I am also a watercolor artist. Rarely do I so enjoy another artist's work. Thanks. Marilyn
Scott Sullivan wrote
on 19 Jul 2008 6:23 PM
From time to time I hear the call ... and when I do, I can't resist searching the web to see Shanna Kunz's recent work. I was doing just that today when I came across the above article, Shanna Kunz: Tonalism and Contemporary Design in Watercolor. As I read the first paragraph, it rang familiar. I went to my art file and pulled a letter I wrote to Ms. Kunz the first time I came across her website ... but only after I'd spent more than an hour appreciating the images of her oils and watercolors. The third paragraph of my letter begins ... "All of your paintings speak to me in some way ..." That paragraph ends, "... and every bit of it rendered by the human hand!" I am thrilled to know that my words sent Ms. Kunz heart soaring because her art does the same for me each and every time I look into one of her paintings. Thank you, Ms. Kunz. Sincerely, Scott Sullivan Berkeley, California