Childhood memories can have a lasting impact on the artistic imagination and even the creative process.
by Carl Dalio
|Along the Oregon Coast
2007, watercolor, 14½ x 21½.
This high view of the Oregon coastline
|In the Streets of Bologna
2007, watercolor, 14½ x 21.
All artwork this article
collection the artist.
Cool, dark foreground
As a young boy, I had the opportunity to spend many wonderful days and nights on the waterways of the Texas Gulf Coast, and those experiences live in my memory today, especially in the way they shape my approach to painting. I can easily recall all that I observed about the interconnectedness of the coastal environment, and my visual memory is full of those qualities of texture, light, and movement that surrounded me.
My grandmother lived in a simple but comfortable fishing cabin on the banks of the San Bernard River, and frequently my parents would head up an arduous packing campaign (kids, food, clothing, dog, fishing equipment) and steer the family station wagon down a highway headed south out of Houston. The trip to the river was always an adventure that I anticipated with excitement, and my grandmother, an avid fisherwoman, always greeted me and my sisters with a smile and her special, one-on-one personal attention.
Once our family settled in on the banks of the San Bernard, my dad and I would gratefully take up the offer of Grandma’s boat, with the mostly reliable Evinrude motor. That small craft would ferry us on short runs to secret fishing spots and on long runs to that faraway, early morning locale called Cow Trap (oyster reefs where schools of large, speckled trout arrived on the incoming tide).
And then there were a few summers when I would stay on my own at Grandma’s for two weeks in the summer. She and I would go downriver for a half-mile or so to places that she thought would yield a catch of reds or flounders. At other times she would encourage me to go out on the river within sight of her cabin in her old rowboat. I would take up the oars and enjoy using my developing muscles to direct a short course and maintain a steady speed. At these times it wasn’t about the fishing destination, but truly about the experience of just rowing and being in the moment on the river.
I loved life on the San Bernard. Everything happened at a slow but sure pace as I observed the determination of the people who carved out their living from the resources provided by the river. My spirit and memory banks were being fed by the visual food and knowledge of a coastal environment as I closely observed the clouds, trees, fish, and birds. And I always appreciated the energy of the water and my connection to it. When any one thing happened on the river, the rest of the environment was always changed in some way.
As it goes in coastal living, so it goes with the concept of thoughtful painting. In any painting I undertake, I visualize a world of subjects bathed in a beautiful, energetic light; a liquid, charged field of color and texture draped over every part of the landscape. That light-infused, liquid blanket logically connects every subject to everything else. Any affectation of any one surface influences every other surface. What I do with, say, color on one shape affects color on every other shape. If I think of any surface on any subject as a mirror, then every surface reflects what is around it. In this way I have a logical way of unifying color in a painting format or repeating a color to connect shapes to one another. I can create a bridge of color connected by liquid light.
With this concept in mind, I create rich mixtures of water and pigments on my palette and combine these separate mixtures wet-in-wet on the paper. I think in terms of loading a large round brush with a lot of juicy color, then I resolve to keep the body of the brush down on the paper as long as possible. I mop and dance with the brush, putting it through its paces but not overmixing. A stream of words and phrases infuses my mind, arm, wrist, hand, and brush: connection, quiet, simple, shape to shape, flow, flowing edges, syrup, honey, icing, liquid sugar glazes, twists and turns, swirls, calm and steady.
This process helps me to establish a stable atmosphere from which to launch my experimental forays into each visual communication. Just as with my past experiences on the river, I search for connections with any subject that capture my attention. I engage an open mind and fresh, innocent eyes. I look and listen for connections to every aspect: to myself, to various parts of the subject, to the surroundings, to an analogy, to an imaginative story. And I continue the search, even if I only detect fuzzy images or slight whispers on first pass. This personal connection-building is so essential. It will be the fuel that will power my engine of inspiration and passion.
With all my experiences, I have gained visual knowledge consciously or subconsciously; it’s all neatly filed in my mental library. Over the years I have mentally recorded the effects of light and color, and my love for the vast array of color fragments along the banks of the river of life keeps growing in amazing proportions. To gain nourishment for my creative soul, I run my eyes over every surface just as surely as I imaginatively run my fingertips over every color and texture in the physical world. Scanning the visual world, I delight in the slightest change in value, saturation, or temperature across any color portion. I notice the presence of warm or cool reflected light and the influential effect on each surface of a variety of subjects.
All my adventures on the San Bernard gave my life a rich layer of wisdom that I call upon often. And I have made a point to remember and remind others of the value of childhood innocence and inquisitiveness. Through painting, we all have been given the means to explore the open shores to our visual stories. With the history of daily observations, an immense collection of color swatches and suggested combinations has been growing inside our imaginations. The first step is to make connections to a new subject by calling upon personal experience, then pack up your creative equipment along with your open mind and enjoy your own cruise down the river of living color.
About the Artist
Colorado-based artist Carl Dalio pursues careers in both fine art and architectural illustration. He earned his bachelor’s degree from the School of Architecture at the University of Texas at Austin. He has won a number of important awards for his watercolor paintings and is a signature member of the American Watercolor Society, the National Watercolor Society, and the Rocky Mountain National Watermedia Society. He conducts national and international painting workshops. Creative Catalyst recently produced an instructional DVD featuring his work and technique. To contact the artist, visit www.carldalio.com or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.