Mahomet woman explains creative painting process
MAHOMET – As she first starts working on a Smoky Mountain landscape, watercolor artist Cindy Carlson lightly sketches, using a No. 2 pencil, the trees, rocks and stream.
Her work, though, began much earlier as she took hundreds of digital photographs of scenes in the Smokies that appealed to her.
Of all of those, she finds, once she's back home in Mahomet, maybe one or two photographs that will work as guides, not templates, for a painting.
With one of the photographs positioned just above her sheet of Arches watercolor paper, Carlson sketches a rough outline of nature as depicted in her photograph, editing out some things, like an errant branch.
Once she is satisfied with her composition, she dips her brush into the paint in her white plastic palette, handily at her right.
She covers the brush with a wash of diluted color. She uses that to map out the shapes of things to come, first covering areas that will be dark.
"It's like drawing with a paintbrush," she explains. "If I'm covering a broad area, I'll use a bigger brush."
Unlike some artists, Carlson doesn't have a studio; she once worked at her dining room table. The 53-year-old free-lance graphic designer now does her design work and painting in the living room of her family's home, mostly during the day, when her husband, Mark, a sales representative, is traveling his four-county area.
Watercolors are light, portable and easy to work with, making them ideal for plein-air painting, in which artists create outdoors on the spot, emphasizing light and atmosphere. Carlson avoids that as much as possible.
"I'm terrible at it, just isolating something from that big expanse outside," she says. "Part of it probably is because I got so used to painting from photos."
As she leans over her drawing table at home, the tall, casually dressed woman with short dark hair and rectangular glasses – she looks like a teacher, and she did teach art early in her career – listens to a classic-rock radio station at low volume.
Most of her essential equipment is at her right, on top of a taboret, or small storage cabinet on wheels: The palette pans full of watercolor paint squeezed from tubes. A small spray bottle of water to wet the paint when it dries and to create speckles or to soften hard edges of paint on the paper. A small scrub brush with hard bristles that also does that.
To keep her brushes clean, there's a large jar of water that once held dog biscuits. Next to it is blotter paper, used to soak up the paint when too much of it lands on the paper or when Carlson wants to lift off excess watercolor.
There's a kneaded eraser, and a small bottle of frisquet, a gray and gummy material that many watercolor artists use in the initial stages of a painting to mask out areas they want to remain light.
She has placed her 14- by 19-inch sheet of paper on a slanted drawing table, a scarred and used wooden one that she bought for $30 from Parkland College, where she studied for several years with master watercolor artist/teacher Don Lake.
As Carlson begins working on the Smoky Mountain landscape, she talks about how tedious she finds the first stages. The sketching, the mapping with washes and the application of frisquet take hours.
"It is a pain, but it's worth it in the end," she says.
She applies the frisquet, using a small brush and drafting tool, to small spaces in the trees through which sunlight flickers, or on brightly illuminated areas of rocks or water.
Once she's applied all of it where she wants it, she begins to apply dark colors. Like most skilled watercolorists, she applies layer after layer, waiting until each has dried. If impatient, she uses a hair dryer.
If an area is still wet and she brushes on more watercolor, the paint runs, creating streaks. "Sometimes you do that on purpose," she says. "Some accidents can be happy ones."
Over several hours over several days, Carlson continues to carefully add layers of paint to give depth and luminosity to the painting. She deepens the colors where the tree meets the stone, and tucks dark colors into the cracks and crevices of the jumble of rocks.
For those and shadows, she does not use black. Instead she uses purples, blues and browns. They result in a richer and more realistic look.
She doesn't use pure white either, unless painting with gouache, another water-based medium. To show bright areas, she uses the white of the paper, sometimes adding hints of yellow or orange.
It's the final stages of painting that she likes best, after she's removed, using rubber cement, the frisquet and begins to add the illusion of depth, or perspective.
She feels as if she could fine-tune her painting for hours, adding yet another layer of color or using her finger or scrub brush to soften the edges of green paint on a faraway tree to create atmospheric perspective.
"This is so distant that you really shouldn't see the dark edges like that," she says.
When she wants texture, on the rocks, for example, she draws squiggly lines with a pencil; later the graphite will "melt" into the painting. She also creates texture by using watercolor paint on a dry, rather than wet, brush.
By now she has put away the photograph.
"I'll look at the painting and see what else I need to do," she says.
These final stages for the mountain landscape take Carlson eight hours.
Most of what she does comes automatically to her. Once in a while, Carlson might have to focus on a technique she hasn't used for a while.
Once she is deep into a work, she falls into a meditative state. "I can sit here for hours and not realize I've been sitting here for hours," she says.
Like Lake, she is a precise painter who prefers doing representational, or realistic, paintings, though she appreciates abstract art. She has control of watercolor, a medium that many artists find difficult, even though up until the 1970s it was considered the province of Sunday painters, not serious artists.
"So many people think of watercolors being really washy florals," Carlson says.
Her paintings contradict that notion, even when they are of wildflowers.
Like the flowers that grow here, her other subjects have personal meaning for her: landscapes and still lifes of places she's visited, or of family heirlooms.
The walls of her ranch-style home are neatly decorated with her framed paintings of those subjects. A large one on the wall, above her drawing table, is a winter landscape of a prairie on the outskirts of Mahomet. In it, a fallen tree, partly covered with snow, slashes across the painting diagonally.
Another smaller painting depicts in sharp detail and shadow the pods of a yucca plant.
The original of one of her best gouache pieces, "New York City in the Rain," is not in her house. Instead, the painting of a wide street with headlights casting shimmering reflections on the wet pavement is in the permanent collection of the Springfield (Mo.) Art Museum.
There it won two major awards in the Watercolor USA 2007 exhibition. Carlson had another painting, one of rusty latches, accepted into the 2008 Watercolor USA, a major exhibition for artists who work in water-based media.
She shows her work locally as well, and in the Drawing/Watercolor Illinois Biennial Art Show at Eastern Illinois University, her alma mater.
In March, Carlson tested out whether she wants to do outdoor shows as she participated in the Winter Park Sidewalk Arts Festival in Florida. She decided she likely will not go in that direction.
Twelve artists applied to that festival's emerging artist category; Carlson and only one other were accepted.
Lake, who admires her work, says Carlson is well along her way to being a professional artist. He calls her dedicated and industrious. She has a slightly different take.
"Watercolor and gouache painting is about the only thing I can get totally lost in because I feel so passionate about it," she says.