Watercolor: Steve Rogers: Inspiration at Higher Levels

0612roge5_441x600_1Steve Rogers can point to the specific time in his career when his watercolors changed from being average to exceptional. That occurred when he met his future wife, found a subject he was passionate about painting, and had a religious experience.   

by M. Stephen Doherty

Vernazza Sunset
2000, watercolor, 28 x 40.
All artwork this article
private collection
unless otherwise indicated.

Florida artist Steve Rogers has risen to the top ranks of American watercolorists in recent years, and he is winning major awards, judging national exhibitions, demonstrating before large audiences, and teaching packed workshops. But 15 years ago he was like many artists who survive by selling acceptable paintings of regionally popular subjects. “I painted more seagulls, lighthouses, and boats than I care to remember,” he says with a chuckle. That experience now helps him motivate his students to make dramatic improvements in their watercolors. “I try to help them improve their skills, but the most important thing I think I can share with them is the importance of painting with passion.”

Rogers found his own passion as a result of several life changes in the 1980s and 1990s, most important of which were meeting his wife, Janet, at a Robert E. Wood workshop in 1984; making his first painting trip to Greece in 1992; and having a religious experience during that first Mediterranean voyage. “Obviously I can’t teach students how to find a spouse, and I don’t want to impose my religious beliefs on them, but I can help them understand how important it is to paint something they really care about,” Rogers says. “I’ve judged a number of watercolor exhibitions, and I see so many well-crafted and well-designed paintings that offer nothing more. The artists don’t speak to viewers from their hearts.”

One of the ways Rogers recommends accomplishing that important task is to spend time thinking about a subject before painting it. “My best ideas linger in my mind for months and years before I actually paint them,” he explains. “But even when I’m traveling and painting, I take time to just sit and think about the location. Those moments spent absorbing a new location while I sit quietly drinking a cup of coffee and taking in all the sights, sounds, and emotions associated with the place will help me respond to the total experience. The paintings turn out so much better than if I just quickly snapped a photograph and moved on to the next place.”

Plaka Steps
1995, watercolor,
28 x 40.

Rogers also encourages his students to paint subjects of personal significance, even ones that might be sensitive or personal. “When I’m teaching a workshop, I don’t proselytize, but I let people know that the inspiration for my work comes from my faith in God,” he explains. “I don’t paint religious subjects, per se, but I believe that ‘God is light.’ I paint from the profound influence Jesus has painted in my heart! I share this with students, not in an effort to convert them but to point out the importance of finding one’s own voice in a way that brings his or her passion to the creative process. Painting is about communicating on the most fundamental and personal level.”

Part of the process of offering this communication is gaining control over the painting process, and Rogers demonstrates his painting methods both to large groups of artists and to participants in his workshops. “I’m a studio painter who works primarily from digital photographs,” he explains, “but I develop preliminary drawings in a way that gets beyond the mechanical record provided by the camera. I usually start by creating an 18"-x-24" contour drawing of a subject in which the shadows areas are well developed. By ‘contour’ I mean a drawing made without lifting the pencil or quill pen from the paper. I prefer that because I want the lines to flow so they aren’t stiff outlines of the shapes. I then take a slide photograph of the drawing and project it onto the surface of the watercolor paper.”

Reflections of the Grand Canal
1998, watercolor, 28 x 40.

Rogers likes to be well prepared before he begins painting so he isn’t interrupted during the process. “It’s important to have the paints flow together and mix on the paper, and that is difficult to accomplish if I have to stop to squeeze out more paint or adjust the drawing,” he explains. “I begin by drawing on a sheet of 300-lb cold-pressed paper. I then soak it and gently remove the excess graphite with a natural sponge. After 10 or 12 minutes, I staple it to a board, allowing it to dry so the paper will ‘stretch.’ I dry the edges of the paper near the staples with a hair dryer to prevent the staples from tearing the paper.

“Because I work with transparent washes of color, I have to make sure the areas of the painting that are going to be left unpainted are clean and white so the shapes really pop when the picture is finished,” Rogers explains. “When helping students with this important aspect of watercolor, I usually advise them to make a preparatory value study so they know exactly where those white shapes will be. I also suggest they think in terms of three fundamental values within a painting—dark, middle, and light—with the lightest value being the white of the paper. As they become more experienced, they can go beyond that simplified structure and work without a preparatory study.

New Smyrna Dock
1991, watercolor, 21 x 29.

“When I’ve finished the preliminary work and have all my painting materials organized, I start painting the darkest shapes in the composition of values,” Rogers explains. “I’m contradicting the advice many other teachers give their students, but in my experience laying in the darks first will give painters the confidence to use stronger middle-value colors rather than painting several tentative layers of pigment.

“I should add a couple of words of caution about painting those initial strokes of dark color,” Rogers quickly adds. “Too often watercolorists make the mistake of assuming that the dark values need to be painted with a heavy application of pigment, but that’s not always true. Too much paint or too many layers of dark pigment can cause the colors to look muddy and pasty. The goal should be to achieve the greatest transparency in the darks. As with any other aspect of painting, the issue is one of relative value, not intensity of paint application. Moreover, the dark values should never be habitually painted with the same mixture of dark colors, such as sepia or ultramarine blue. Dark values can transition between red, blue, and green. In the dark passages I rely on the very transparent, more powerful pigments, such as Prussian blue, permanent alizarin crimson, permanent magenta, burnt sienna, French ultramarine blue, brown madder, aureolin, and even raw sienna (never yellow ochre). I never use staining tube greens or blacks.

Venetian Light
2003, watercolor, 29 x 21.

“Once those darks are established, I build up value in the same way an oil painter would: from the middle values to the highlights,” Rogers describes. “Throughout each stage of developing the composition, I make every effort to keep the paint flowing so the pigments are integrated, not isolated, and there is an integration of warm and cool colors. No one shape is completely cool or warm in color temperature, and the paint should be applied so that there are cool shades within the warm sunlit areas and, conversely, warm colors within the cool shadows.”

In talking about maintaining fluid transitions between shapes and colors, Rogers emphasizes that he uses only one brush during the painting process. “I usually paint an entire painting with a No. 18 Cheap Joe’s Dragon’s Tongue or an Escoda brush. If I were to stop using that large brush and step down to a smaller one, the subsequent strokes of paint would likely become tighter and less flui

Rogers’ brush is not the only important tool in his creative process. He is very specific about the type of palette he uses, the selection of tube colors, and the clothes he wears while working. “I use all Winsor & Newton artist-grade pigments except for three Holbein colors (permanent magenta, brown madder, and cobalt green), and American Journey manganese blue,” the artist reveals. “Within light- and mid-value areas, I prefer such granulating pigments as earth colors, cadmiums, cerulean blue, and manganese blue. I try to be intuitive in the exact selection of pigment for each area of a painting. That’s one of the reasons I always put the pigments into the same wells of the painting palette. I want to just reach for a color in the same way I would hit a key on my computer keyboard, with my mind focused on the painting, not the palette.

Reflections of Morning—Market Boats
2006, watercolor, 28 x 40.
Collection the artist.

“Students usually don’t have enough experience to automatically pick up the right color, so I encourage them to separate the pigments intended for light and middle values from those they will use in the darks,” Rogers continues. “Unlike my wife, Janet, I tend to use more of the opaque and granulating colors rather than the synthetic, staining colors such as the quinacridones and the phthalocyanines, especially in the light- and mid-value areas of the painting. I find it easier to achieve subtle adjustments in values with the palette I’ve come to know, and I can manipulate the color combinations for a longer period of time. I try to apply the perfect color in each situation but, in reality, that seldom happens, and I have to make adjustments. I am more comfortable doing that with my standard selection of tube colors and the same stretched paper. For example, I find that granulating pigments are particularly effective in capturing the sense of light.

“I hold my small Cheap Joe’s lightweight palette in my hand in the same manner as an oil painter. This facilitates my direct painting approach. I have added several ceramic full-pans that belonged to my artist-father as supplements to the 17 deep wells. I use a Holbein folding metal palette when painting on location.Both of these help me to paint in a more direct and immediate way. The palette also keeps the paint moist for an extended period of time if I squeeze out plenty of fresh paint and pat or stir it until it lies flat in the compartments. Students often make the mistake of laying out inadequate amounts of pigment, which makes it difficult to get strong colors and values.

Reflections of Morning—Venice
2004, watercolor, 40 x 28.
Collection the artist.

“I paint in old, neutral-colored clothing,” Rogers explains in discussing the most unexpected aspect of his painting process. “I’ve tried dressing up when I conduct demonstrations for large groups, but I became so self-conscious I couldn’t paint well. The most important thing is to create the best painting possible, even if that means looking like a slob. I wear a bandanna when I paint, and if I am painting a warm painting, it’s a red bandanna. If my painting is intended to be cool, the bandanna is blue. That doesn’t establish a special aura that penetrates my psyche, but it does remind me of my goal.

“I always stand when I paint, whether I’m in the studio or working on location,” Rogers adds. “I position the board on which the paper is attached at a shallow angle because watercolor paint needs to flow with the pull of gravity. At home I paint at a large drafting table located in my well-lit studio. My digital photo is visible on a computer monitor, and I have a few 8"-x-10" prints available for further reference. When working outdoors, I stand at a Jullian French easel.

Venice Peace
2004, watercolor, 40 x 28.

“In painting, as in life, I try to respond to expectations, but God often presents unexpected circumstances,” Rogers says in conclusion. “More often than not, those surprises are valuable. For example, for years I resisted the idea of taking a workshop with Robert E. Wood because I was concerned about him having too much of an influence on the way I painted. But when I finally participated in one of Wood’s workshops, I met my wife, Janet. And a few years later, I got an unexpected invitation to fill in for a teacher who wasn’t going to be able to teach her workshop in Greece. That experience turned out to be one of the most significant events in my professional life. I guess the moral of these stories is that it makes sense to have a plan when beginning a painting or going about one’s daily activities, but one should also be open to whatever happens that might enrich the experience.”    

About the Artist
Steve Rogers attended Rollins College, in Winter Park, Florida, graduated from Monmouth College, in Monmouth, Illinois, and later studied with Harold Stevenson and Robert E. Wood. He is a signature member of the American Watercolor Society, the National Watercolor Society, and the Florida Watercolor Society; and he has received major awards in exhibitions organized by those societies, including the top purchase award in the 2006 National Watercolor Society show. He and his wife, artist Janet Rogers, make their home in Ormond Beach, Florida.


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2 thoughts on “Watercolor: Steve Rogers: Inspiration at Higher Levels

  1. Congratulations Steve Rogers on a very well written article! You have included many details which artists want to know, like brushes, and paints, but I am curious to know your palette of colors. Nice paintings! Now I’ll go to your web site.