The Richmond Watercolor Society celebrates its favorite artistic medium. 

It's a Wash

Talk to many of the 315 members of the Richmond Watercolor Society and they will tell you that watercolors changed their life.

Ann Berry Davenport painted with oil paints for 15 years before she saw a watercolor demonstration. "The artist painted a checked tablecloth in five strokes," she recalls. "You could never do that with oils. I came home and said, 'I'm done with oil!' and I threw my oil paints away."

Bonnie Nelms started painting with watercolors eight years ago after taking an introductory art class. "I was in a very grueling graduate program in clinical psychology, and I was burned out," she says. "I just got hooked on watercolors." Today, she paints full-time as a professional artist. So much for her graduate degree.

Eleanor Cox, an art teacher, began painting with watercolors 20 years ago, after she had children. She loved the spontaneity and transparency of the medium and was especially attracted to the fact that, unlike oil paints, you can set watercolors aside and come back to them — a big perk when you're a busy mom running after your kids. Today, she paints exclusively with watercolors.

This month, the Richmond Watercolor Society is celebrating watercolor painting with an exhibition in the James Center Atrium, Omni Lobby, through March 17. The society also held its ninth annual Watercolor Week last week, with workshops conducted by internationally known artist Arne Westerman of Portland, Ore.

About 30 watercolor painters gathered at the Bon Air Community Center last week for Westerman's workshop on figure painting. As the artists quietly worked on studies, Westerman made rounds to check on his students' progress.

"This artist, who is a good artist, is not showing me what I want to see," he says as the class gathers around a small, unfinished painting. Westerman grabs a brush and fills it with ochre paint which he washes over the canvas in broad strokes. Over this goes a wash of green. The transformation is startling — with a few quick strokes, Westerman has instantly added a new dimension of light and life to the painting. It is a simple lesson in the unique quality of the watercolors, a concrete example of the medium's speed, clarity and transparency — all those things that make these artists so fond of watercolors.

"You don't know when you put the paint on the paper how its going to behave," Nelms says. "You never know what its going to be."

After watching these artists work, it soon becomes apparent that watercolor is a challenging medium. "I started it because I thought it would be easier than oil," says Beverly Perdue, who has been a watercolorist for 20 years. "I love the challenge of it. You have to learn to paint intuitively with watercolors — it is very unforgiving."

Westerman, whose vibrant, vaguely impressionistic figure paintings have been exhibited nationwide, has also been painting for 20 years. And while he has been successful in his art career, he says watercolorists sometimes do not receive the recognition they deserve.

"Oil paintings usually sell for more than watercolors," she says. "The paintings people are familiar with — the Rubens, Rembrandts and Impressionists, are painted with oils. ... It is the public impression that oils are the paint of choice."

But to the 30 or so assembled artists, and the 315 members of the Richmond Watercolor Society, watercolors are the way to go.


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