Inspired by a love of the golden age of film and media, I originally set out to portray moments that forever captured American nostalgia. And of all the people I would later paint, I was particularly drawn to Jean Harlow.
Jean’s energy and love of life shone through even in the watercolors I painted.
Sketching from black and white photos, I imagined where she could have been dreaming of at the time the picture was taken.
I didn’t envision her on a Hollywood set or driving in a car. When I looked at her, it seemed she belonged in a sunlit forest or hanging out with her girlfriends in a meadow.
It didn’t matter to me that I was new to watercolor or even painting for that matter. And I really didn’t care that my paintings resembled that of Maxfield Parrish. After all, the colors in his palette were amazing and it was the colors and whimsical feel that I would take to heart as well as the influences of Byerly, Hanks and Waterhouse.
All I knew was that I loved how fast the paint dried and how amazing it was to layer the colors over one another to get a more life-like appearance. Often I tell people when asked how I go about my colors that when you look at a leaf in the sunlight, you don’t just see green, brown or orange. It is usually a myriad of colors layered one over the other that gives a painting life. The same could be said of people too and Jean needed to be in color.
I remember when I first decided to take on the difficult challenge of watercolor. My mom was working at a local art gallery that mainly sold limited edition prints from publishing houses. I had recently gotten out of trade school and was toying with the idea of art college. Mom would bring home art brochures from the gallery every week and I’d browse through them and get inspired to do my art. I’d look for hidden images in a Bev Doolittle painting or check out the work of new artists to the scene. But I still remember how astonished I was when I gazed at the work of Steve Hanks and I asked my mom if it really was watercolor that he used. She assured me that it was.
Before then, I always thought that watercolor paintings were washed out or muddy with watermarks everywhere and muted colors unlike the vibrant oil and acrylic paintings I’d seen. Even with most oil paintings the people look like they’re made to look like mannequins because the artist might not take the time to let the paint dry and layer the color and yet Steve’s paintings looked so life-like. Yep…Hanks blew my mind.
And that was it. My artistic ego told me to head to California and attend the Academy of Art. I had no idea how I was going to pay for it or what would happen next. I just loaded up my paintings in my red mini-van with Jimi Hendrix airbrushed on the hood and headed to San Francisco.
Looking back, I know it was a childish and impulsive thing to do but if I hadn’t have followed that instinct, I never would have come face to face with Parrish’s original painting the Pied Piper that hung at a downtown hotel, nor would I have met the Bird Lady of Golden Gate Park (seen below):
One day after experiencing my first earthquake, I remember waking up with the feeling of nostalgia wafting over me. I looked outside my window in Noe Valley at the town houses and felt like I was going to paint Mary Poppins or something like that. It was then that I headed to Golden Gate Park and met the bird lady.
Up until then, the few watercolors I had painted were attempts at photo realism like this painting of Grace Kelly:
Note: this painting is the subject in my youtube video on properly framing an original watercolor. You can see it here <<<
Soon enough, I learned about the difference between the heavily textured cold-press watercolor paper and the smooth, velvety hot-press that was easier to paint on. I fell in love with the hot-press paper. Sure, at $5-$8/sheet it can get expensive but as a watercolor artist, the preliminary work involved means that you should have a goal in mind before you even set the brush to the paper.
Often when I’d paint, I would have scrap pieces of paper next to my palette just for experimenting or to remind me what color combination I used to get the desired outcome.
Combined with my color experiments along with trying out different textured paper, I spent a small fortune over the next several years getting to know the medium of watercolor. And as I continue to paint, I’ll never forget those wonderful influences of my early years who helped me to stay young at heart so I can add a touch of whimsy wherever life may take me.
And as I continue on this voyage, I believe Jean will pop up now and again as she has so often in my earlier work.
Thanks for reading-