Watercolor: Rolling on the Color

North Carolina artist Kate Worm uses rollers to apply watercolor and gouache to create breathtakingly bold paintings.

by Christopher Willard

Brushes are overrated, at least according to Kate Worm. The North Carolina artist frequently uses no brush at all, choosing instead to apply watercolor and gouache to paper with printmaking rollers. Although her approach is a radical departure from the techniques associated with traditional watercolor, Worm finds it allows her to create breathtakingly bold paintings.

Figure Study
2003, watercolor and gouache,
24 x 19. Collection
the artist.

Worm, who holds a bachelor's degree from Michigan State University, in East Lansing, and a master's degree from Teachers College at Columbia University, in New York City, has always been interested in art, minoring in visual arts at both institutions. It was not until her son began demonstrating artistic talent, however, that art started to take center stage. "I wondered where he got the ability," she says. "I found a book on drawing and discovered I could draw really well, so I decided I wanted to become an illustrator of children's books. This, in turn, led me to fine art."

Worm diligently pursued painting and drawing at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro from 1986 to 1990, studying under the renowned painter and teacher Andrew Martin. "We worked from a nude," she recalls. "I did drawings and oil paintings." Worm approached her work seriously and with passion, and soon she had developed a reputation for her loose, painterly still lifes and landscapes.

It was Worm's expertise in special education, however, that circuitously led her to discover the unique working methods behind the art she produces today. While employed in 2003 as an art consultant with disabled adults at Signature Studio XI, in Morganton, North Carolina, she came across some art that sparked her interest in watermedia. "I work in the studio/gallery, and the participants are very gifted artists," she explains. "One disabled woman in the program had made a name for herself working in gouache. Her art looked like so much fun that I decided to give water-based media a try. I put together a small group, and we hired a model. I started fooling around with watercolor, splashing it and trying to work in a nontraditional way. I had some printmaking experience, and one day I picked up a roller and rolled the watercolor onto my paper."

Leaning on Ottoman 2004, watercolor and gouache, 30 x 22. Collection the artist. by Kate Worm.
Leaning on Ottoman
2004, watercolor and gouache,
30 x 22. Collection
the artist.

Three years later Worm continues to roll her paint, starting with a full sheet of Rives BFK printmaking paper in gray or tan, a 20"-x-20" sheet of Plexiglas, and three hard rubber rollers, called brayers. "I begin by rolling out one color onto a sheet of Plexiglas," the artist says. "I then roll large shapes of the color onto the paper, as well as a few long, gestural lines that run off the page." She relies upon watercolors made by American Journey and Winsor & Newton, treating them like oils, not preserving the white of the paper. To obtain whites, yellows, and lighter oranges, she applies touches of gouache over the dry watercolor.

The artist considers her work at this stage to be more abstract than figurative, with blocks of color establishing an overall design. Her next step is to roll second-and even third-layers of color onto the paper. "I often apply a second layer before the first has fully dried," she says. "My goal is to keep the process impulsive, without setting rules. Then I use a 1" brush to lay in smaller areas of color upon the rolled colors. These include highlights, midtones, and the darks of the figure. Although this is a more exact placement of color mass against color mass, the figure really emerges from the environment and the paper when I come back in with the edge of a roller, or with an eyedropper of drippy paint, and draw."

Seated in Blue 2005, watercolor and gouache, 30 x 22. Private collection. by Kate Worm
Seated in Blue 2005,
watercolor and gouache,
30 x 22. Private collection.

From applying slabs of color at the start of the painting, to making careful adjustments of light and shadow, the key to Worm's paintings is her deep understanding of the necessary balance between warm and cool colors. It's a talent she's acquired from years of diligent observation. "All my paintings evolve from careful observation of the figure," she says. "I spend less time painting and more time looking. Mine is not a linear way of thinking but a gathering of visual information. As I study the model, my eyes start to tire from the steady vision, and peripheral colors begin to change. I might see elements loom or minimize, or I might see colors intensify in a way that they don't when I look directly at them. I trust the way the colors appear in my peripheral vision. For example, if I see a green drape and want to paint it, I will look instead at a nearby red cushion or the body of the model, and I'll think about how the green drape appears in my peripheral vision. It will begin to shift. It might appear lighter and bluer near a warm, dark violet. It might get lighter and brighter near a true red. Contrasts of warm and cool colors develop from this intense looking. Andrew Martin really stressed this, that color is quite relative. I asked him if there was a guideline for these color shifts, and he told me I didn't need a list of rules-but to just keep looking."

Worm believes it's good to have more warm or cool colors in a painting so that the finished work is clearly warm or cool, rather than hovering between the two temperatures. "My work tends to be warm," she observes. "I do like some cool colors, but I don't want all the color areas to be the same size. So if I put in a warm, bright area, I will use an opposite cool color in a smaller amount." Worm also points out that traditionally cool colors, such as blue, can appear warm when placed next to those even cooler. She finds, for instance, that Prussian, indigo, and turquoise blues are easily pushed into appearing warm; she cites the purple leg of the model in Taking a Break as a good example of a shifting color. "The model's left leg is purple," she says, "and when it is compared to the brown leg it appears cool. When it is compared to the gray at the bottom of the painting, however, it appears warm, and the back of the chair makes the leg appear really warm. In other words, the warmth and coolness of a color can change."

Taking a Break 2004,
watercolor and gouache, 30 x 22.
Private collection.

Worm employed rollers and a brush to create Taking a Break. "The black lines were done with the edge of a roller," she explains. "The green was applied with a brush. The bright pink near the figure was done with a brush, but the other pink came from a roller. You can see where I rolled orange on top of the background shadow to create the skin tone on the figure's right arm." Worm credits her economical use of color to Matisse; she spent time at The Barnes Foundation, in Merion, Pennsylvania, studying his smaller nudes. "Matisse's figures have an internal glow," she explains, "which I've determined comes from the way he unites color opposites. Each figure is built with neutral tones contrasted by only a few notes of bright color. Neutrals are dull colors I create with browns, grays made from white and black, or color complements that I mix together. I look for and use the same idea in my work, but I don't consciously plan it. The pink in Taking a Break wasn't really there, but it developed from a purplish haze I saw in that area, which I exaggerated. Then I added the dull olive green next to it to unite complementary colors and to make the painting look really snappy."

Worm structured Blue Mood  on an X-shaped color composition. The purples and greens are set on one diagonal and the blue and orange on another. "Originally the purple on the figure was part of the same purple that is in the background," the artist remarks, "and some of that color is visible at the far left. The dark viridian to the left of the body, however, is a nice foil to the sunlit torso of the model." Worm trimmed the raised foot of the model when she realized it was out of place and repainted the area with thick gouache and watercolor, using the same greens and purples that make up a large part of the background.

2005, watercolor and gouache,
22 x 30. Private collection.

The freedom Worm allows herself in terms of techniques and color usage is also demonstrated in Relaxed. To make the red lines on the lower left of the painting, she gently squeezed a tube of red watercolor; similar lines were applied along the leg, in this case as light orange upon mauve. The result: marks that look almost like those of pastels.

The loose, gestural drawing that sometimes moves on top of, as well as within, Worm's color blocks yields spontaneity to her work without robbing it of its seriousness. There is, at times, something almost sculptural about the artist's paintings. In such works as Leaning on Ottoman, Seated in Blue, and Figure Study, the touch, the hand of the artist is very keenly felt. It will also not escape the viewer's notice that Worm's attention rests decidedly upon the figures that people her work. Amid the pale shades that make up their bodies, more vibrant colors collect too, reflecting the geometric blocks, as well as the drips, that surround them. Actively united with the figures, the popping colors of the props, furniture, and backgrounds are never distracting; instead they support and enhance the compositions in their entirety.

Blue Mood 2005, watercolor and gouache, 30 x 22. Private collection. by Kate Worm.
Blue Mood
2005, watercolor and gouache,
30 x 22. Private collection.

About the Artist
Since 1994 Kate Worm has worked as a drawing and painting instructor at the Hickory Museum of Art, in Hickory, North Carolina. In 2001 the museum presented a solo exhibition of Worm's paintings, and since then she has exhibited in one- and two-person shows in galleries throughout her state. Her paintings hang in major public collections, including those of the Hickory Museum of Art; Bank of America, in Charlotte, North Carolina; City of Winston-Salem; RJR Nabisco; and Sara Lee. Worm serves on the exhibition committee of the Caldwell Arts Council, in Lenoir, North Carolina. She is represented by five galleries in North Carolina: Gallery Minerva, in Asheville; Carlton Gallery at Creekside, in Banner Elk; Somerhill Gallery, in Chapel Hill; ArtSource, in Raleigh; and City Art Gallery, in Greenville. For more information on Worm, or to see additional examples of the artist's work, visit her website at www.kateworm.com.

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7 thoughts on “Watercolor: Rolling on the Color

  1. More than a comment, this is a question: how to go about sending you an article with my watercolours? Do you actually receive unsolicited contributions?
    If you do, what do you require?
    I will appreciate you to answer me privately to my e-mail address. In advance, thanks.
    German Villegas.

  2. Hi worm
    I am waiting for your reply.
    Please let me know about hard robber rollers too.
    Please advise / help to me for start to painting on leaning on ottoman as soon as posible by retern.

  3. Hi Kate Worm

    Please let me know more and more about your painting ” leaning on ottoman “, but with use of watercolor and acrilic ; and also
    tell me that ,how do I can use hard robber rollers too.
    Please reply to me soon.

    Thank you very much indeed.
    vahed/ mehdi

  4. Just wanted to say this–
    Mich. State does not even teach watercolor in their BFA, BA and MFA programs. Wayne St. U. in Detroit does. I know this because I have a BFA from MSU and have noticed that many Spartans end up producing truly original work in media not covered (though definitely allowed) in course work. I think that says a lot about the energy and inspiration in MSU’s art department.
    Congratulations to Ms. Worm! I really like the work presented here!
    Metta Anderson

  5. I am so thankful for your articles and helpful essays online. I use them to fuel my creative process and inspire me. As well as to learn how much I have to learn.
    Lena Francis

  6. Hi kate worm
    Would you please let me know step by step of your methods for figures painting ?I love your painting ,that is fine and beautiful