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Getting in touch with your inner artist via watercolors

by Lauren Cartwright

Watercolor painting is tough.

It’s one of those things where less is more. The less water the painter users, the more vibrant the painting turns out to be ‘— it’s a delicate balance between conservation and going overboard.

That’s the first lesson I learn in Christine ‘Chris’ Seiler’s watercolor class at the Marshall Gallery last Wednesday afternoon. My colors are out too dull, my painting looks a hundred years old. No vibrant hues like the paintings that surround me on the walls. Yet Chris is encouraging and helpful with my piece.

Chris teaches a watercolor class each Wednesday from 3 to 5 p.m. at the gallery on Eugene Street where she is an artist-in-residence. Trained formally at the University of Illinois and informally by her grandfather who was ‘“wonderful at letting me follow him around,’” Chris has painted with acrylics and oils most of her life.

A few minutes after the class begins, Chris hands me a piece of rough watercolor paper and some watercolor pencils ‘— a new medium she is trying out. I pick a page out of a nature magazine and take on the task of drawing a Luna Moth perched on a bright orange flower. (And I thought this writing assignment was going to be easy.)

The watercolor pencils look like the unassuming ones that children often use to color school projects. But Chris’s are in another league altogether. The artist can color with them and leave them in their pastel-like state or can add a little water with a brush and get the watercolor effect ‘— very magical.

Chris, a spry grandmother with twinkling blue eyes, says she has switched to watercolors only after retiring about eight years ago.

The two-hour afternoon class usually has five students in it. But today Rachel Gardner is the only one who makes it. Gardner has taken six classes so far and completed two paintings. Rachel says she’s proud of the things she accomplished.

‘“My students are happy with their work, but I’m never happy with mine,’” Chris says. Spoken like a true artist.

The session is very low key and individualized. Chris works with Rachel and me at our own levels. For the first class a beginner would need some watercolor paper, paints, brushes, and the $20 class fee. Students choose what they want to paint and often bring a picture from a vacation, of their pets or houses, or they use their imaginations, Chris said.

She has her own section of the Marshall Gallery, filled with vivid paintings depicting a variety of subjects. Among them are parrots, a kneeling purple giraffe and realistic street scenes of New Orleans. ‘“I also do a lot of house portraits,’” she says. And she’ll do commissions of most anything you dream to hang up.

Chris’s use of color would brighten any wall. The breakdown of hues is important in watercolors. She says her grandfather ‘“taught her how to see’… to see the purples in a bush, not just the greens.’” Throughout the session she often encourages me to use some brighter colors. She says to use the complementary purple on the orange flowers, advice that I find a little crazy at first. I suppose I don’t have the sight yet. I try the purple as the shadow on the orange flower and it works. I’m impressed.

‘“The hardest part is drawing. You’re never going to be any better than you are,’” Rachel says. I’m finding this out the hard way myself; my moth isn’t identical to the picture, but Chris reassures me that’s okay. It’s my painting, and creative license is allowed.

Prior to the watercolor classes, Rachel’s taken a drawing class to hone her drawing skills. She asks questions of Chris who explains a technique or which brush to use, and often walks over to the wall and takes one of her own paintings down to illustrate a point.

Watercolor forces the artist to work backward from most other painters. The lightest colors are put down first, and then the shadows and deeper colors are put on last. This is a lesson that Rachel learned from her mistake. In her sea of dark green grass and plant leaves, she forgot to mask off places for the delicate lavender flowers.

Today, she is applying some white paint ‘— usually a forbidden practice in watercolors ‘— which she’ll paint over with the purple. White and black paint are not often used in watercolors, those colors are ‘made’ in other ways. The white you see in watercolor paintings is the paper itself, and mixing other colors together creates black.

Chris says painting is good for the mental health. As I walk to my car from the Marshall Gallery, I find myself smiling over the afternoon.

To comment on this story, e-mail Lauren Cartwright at lauren@yesweekly.com.

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