By Jenny Neyman
Convey exhaustion, but with energy. Give the impression of a captured moment in time representing a state of seeming interminability. Re-create a posed tableau with the real-life weight of a candid scene.
James Adcox certainly undertook a challenge in trying to achieve all this in his painting, “Mother and Child,” on display through November as part of the Kenai Watercolor Group show at the Kenai Fine Arts Center.
But a fitting challenge for this style of painting, given watercolor’s dichotomous qualities.
It’s a raw, quick medium, in that paint can’t be globbed on, scraped off, covered over, worked and reworked like oils can. Yet it can be exacting and laborious for that same reason. Since a paint stroke can’t be changed or undone, every one must be thought out. There are rules to follow. Key among them is to plan out and save unpainted areas of canvass, since there is no white paint in watercolor, only the absence of it. Also, start with certain shades and layer other colors overtop, but not too many or the result will be irrevocably muddy. It’s the painting equivalent of “measure twice, cut once” in construction.
“It’s maybe a medium that is more technically difficult, I’m learning. There’s a lot more rules to watercolor as opposed to oils,” Adcox said, remembering something an art teacher once told his students. “He described oil painting as like making love, and watercolor as downhill skiing. One you can do, the other one you have to learn how to do. It’s not easy, it’s technical.”
To add to the challenge, and the conundrum, Adcox is still fairly new to the challenging medium of watercolor, yet took it up because of its ease.
“Being a dad, with two kiddos, I think have more limited time. Oil painting takes time, and watercolor is a much faster medium for me. To complete a painting, I can usually do that much sooner in watercolor. I think it probably deals with dry time with oils, and it’s layer upon layer, and I revisit the same painting and rework the finish. And with watercolor, I don’t. Watercolor, to me, it seems the less you put on, the fresher the look of the painting,” he said.
Adcox is no stranger to myriad forms of art, though. From a young age he and his identical twin brother were drawing and painting. He continued art through high school and college and after moving to Alaska. When living in Nome, before moving to the Kenai Peninsula two years ago, he was commissioned to paint murals in several Bush schools for the Bering Strait School District. He’s sold paintings to the Museum of the North in Fairbanks and the Rasmuson Foundation for the Anchorage Museum. But he only started taking watercolor classes about four years ago in Nome.
He carried his interest in imagery that shows people interacting with their environment to his new medium. For this painting, his immediate environment and the people sharing it captured his interest.
“Mother and Child” shows a heavily pregnant woman resting on a couch. In the background is a “little inkling dot,” as Adcox puts it, of her son in a high chair. More prominent is the child in her eight-months-pregnant belly, stretching out her top printed with a graphic of a Renoir painting of a couple of immaculately dressed kids.
“I’m trying to portray an emotion through this medium, if I can. Not everybody’s been there, but a lot of people have been there and know that this part of life is just exhausting. So maybe because it was a new part of my life I wanted to show that idea of new parents,” he said.
It’s a portrait of his wife and oldest son, but Adcox couldn’t very well expect them to pose long enough for him to paint from life. It was enough of a sell to paint his wife in all her realistic, exhausted glory, rather than the exalted, exaggerated glow of pregnancy.
“I haven’t painted a lot of portraits of my wife, so it was really nice to do that. Though it’s not a glorified image, and that was the point. And she knew that, but she did say, ‘You had to show my bra strap?’” he said.
He took a photo of the scene, sketched out the piece in pencil first and painted from that, balancing the thin brushstroke between his detail-heavy style and not getting overworked.
“I was intentional about trying to keep it fresh, but I was concerned that there’s a difference because it’s very controlled. It’s something I could get carried away with and put too much color on and it would get muddy,” he said.
To the eyes of the juror for the sixth annual Kenai Peninsula Juried Watercolor Exhibition, Don Kolstad, Adcox succeeded, as his painting was selected as Best in Show.
“I like this piece for several reasons. The artist did a good job of applying the colors without getting muddy or overworked. The subject is well rendered along with the background and subordinate elements that worked for a unified painting. The artist also did a good job of capturing the emotion of the sitter. It’s not a happy piece or feeling — almost one of sadness or maybe just tired of being pregnant,” Kolstad wrote in his comments.
Adcox said that was good feedback to hear.
“As somewhat of a new watercolorist I’m still working on developing my colors a little better, so if there’s something I would change — I won’t, but looking at it now there’s a richness I feel I would have been able to capture in a medium I’m more comfortable with, like oils as opposed to watercolor. There’s color limitations that I think I’m still learning,” he said.
He’s learning to compensate for colors fading a bit as they dry, especially with the particularly absorbent type of paper he uses.
“You let a watercolor dry for one day and the colors you loved the day before have changed the next day. When I put on a vibrant red I’m very nervous to do that, but I think I need to break away from that. When I look at this painting I think, ‘Ooh, I could have really popped some colors a little bit more, to be honest, but it was still very fun to do and I’ve very happy with the painting,” he said.
Learning is part of the process, and exploring the medium has been an enjoyable journey. As long as that continues, Adcox expects to continue with watercolors, as well as oils.
“I like that it’s fun, and as long as it remains fun for me I’m going to keep on doing it,” he said.
If that’s the metric by which he will continue, then he’s got a long life of watercolors ahead of him, if one can judge by the career arc of Gwen Thomas. At 86, she’s been painting for as long as she can remember, and doesn’t intend to stop.
“I really love to paint. I have been painting all my life. When I was a tiny child my mother used to take the paper grocery bags, tear them open, sit me down on the kitchen floor with colored crayons and I was busy for hours coloring,” she said.
Thomas was an art major in school, though did primarily oils until her daughter, Pam Mersch, a watercolorist, convinced her to change.
“She called me up said, ‘Mom, if you’d switch to watercolor we could go to workshops together.’ We’ve been to Italy to workshops and you name it, so that’s a lot of fun. I switched for her but I love it,” Thomas said.
Painting in watercolors isn’t harder than oils, but it is less forgiving, she said. But it’s still an expressive medium. Sometimes she’ll paint from a picture or set up a still life, or take a canvass outside to paint a landscape, or just dive in and let the mood direct her.
“Sometimes I just don’t know what I’m going to paint, so I’ll just put a piece of color on a piece of paper and then I’ll start from there and I never know what it’s going to be. Other times I will look at something and paint what I see. It just depends. I’m sort of versatile in that way,” she said.
For her piece, “Peppers, Platters and Patterns,” which was awarded second place, Thomas set up a still life of various peppers sitting on intricately patterned pottery her oldest daughter had brought back from Mexico, arrayed on an orange scarf embellished with more fine, patterned needlework.
“Painting with orange is very difficult in the first place, because the color orange, to get the different shadings of it, it can go wrong,” she said.
That risk was acknowledged by the juror.
“The use of the color orange in this still life is very well done. It could have gone the other way very easily,” Kolstad wrote.
Kolstad also praised her ability to render the peppers in the appearance of being 3-D. That’s something Thomas learned back in college, using shading to give the effect of depth. The biggest challenge of the piece was rendering all the intricate patterns, especially where they intersected, such as the platters sitting on the scarf. She usually chooses paintings that are a little less exacting, but wanted to do this in particular as a gift for her daughter.
“That one I really wanted to do, because I wanted to record those beautiful platters, but then other times I’ll just sit down and paint just for the pleasure of painting, and it’s more loose and easy,” Thomas said.
The rest of the exhibition shows the variety available within the rules of watercolor — impressionist-looking textures, detailed landscapes, lush fruit, delicate flowers. Also placing were Michael Murray, first place, “OPEN;” Brenda Zubeck, third place, “Grapes;” Melinda Hershberger, first honorable mention, “Last Dance;” Thomas, second honorable mention, “Hot Pink Roses;” Donna Schwanke-Cooper, third honorable mention, “Point of View;” and Lynda Reed, People’s Choice, “Hombre de Oaxaca.”
“I would like to compliment all the artists for the level of quality work submitted for this show,” Kolstad wrote. “Each and every piece is well rendered with good watercolor skills. You should be proud as a group to have so many talented artists.”
The Kenai Peninsula Juried 2013 Watercolor Exhibition is on display at the Kenai Fine Arts Center through November.