"Watercolors and the Recovering Lawyer"
by Bill Doying
Alexandria, VA
October 18, 2006

Two of Bill's miniatures: "Georgetown Loop Railroad, Colorado" (4"x5") - L, and "Tiger Swallowtail" - R.

When I retired in July 2002 I had a few half-baked plans for the rest of my life: travel, research family history — particularly my mother's mother's early days in the Rocky Mountain West and Alaska, and my father's father's engineering work on the Panama Canal. Maybe some writing, as long as it wasn't the legal and economic stuff that occupied most of my worklife. And . . . well, I'd always sort of enjoyed drawing, doodling, that sort of thing.

We've done (and do) a good bit of traveling, including housesitting for friends and relations for whom the lines happen to have fallen in particularly pleasant places. And I've scratched around a little in family history (I found two cousins from a Vermont regiment who were captured on the Weldon Railroad during Grant's campaign against Petersburg in June 1864 and sent to Andersonville, one of the two dying there but my namesake surviving). And then I thought I'd take a drawing course, and see how that went.

To begin, let me plug the Art League of Alexandria (Virginia) and its school, for the benefit of any of you in the Washington area. The school, with a faculty of 88, offers upwards of 140 courses and over a hundred workshops year-round, in all the traditional two-dimensional media as well as sculpture, ceramics, jewelry, fibers, even bookbinding. It's simply amazing to have such a resource within an easy walk of our home.

I started by taking their basic drawing course, twice; went on to portrait drawing twice; then — because the portrait class I wanted next wasn't offered while the instructor was out of town — looked around for an alternative. An old friend, a watercolorist herself, suggested I try that subject. The first session nearly drove me away: all the new stuff to find and buy — a list of pigments with exotic names like "quinacradone gold" and "viridian" and "phthalo crimson;" brushes from a couple of hairs wide up to an inch-and-a-half; cold-press and hot-press papers (don't ask) in 140 or 300 pound weights; "kneaded" erasers; a red plexiglass filter for judging light and dark; a natural sponge for texture effects; and on and on. Not to mention that once I actually bought the stuff the darned paints wouldn't stay where I wanted them on the paper, or were too dark (or too light), or left ugly blobs in what should have been a smooth wash. Only later did I learn that with enough nerve I could pass off some of these screwups as intentional, even praiseworthy, by claiming a "painterly" style. As near as I can tell, this means that what you've done looks mostly like paint, rather than a picture.

Long story short, learning watercolor and actually making a few pictures that do look like pictures has proven to be hard work. I love it, except when I've just ruined a promising start by getting impatient and putting down the wrong color in the wrong place with too much water in it so it spreads over a line into the great-looking stuff I've just finished. (Yes, watercolorists are prone to violent mood swings.)

So why do I love it? Because it yields a tangible product, unlike my thirty-some years of legal and economic bloviation? Because it allows me to capture an image — of a place, event, or feeling — through a level of effort and personal interpretation that is more satisfying than photography, even though the resulting image is representationally inferior to a photograph? Because that result almost always has elements of surprise? One point at least seems clear to me: it is important that I am choosing to do it, that it is not just another job. (At the practical level, it's a damned good thing that I don't have to earn a living at it, but I'm trying to keep this discussion a little more elevated here.)

But there is a question that unavoidably kicks in when you undertake to commit "art": how to decide if a particular piece is worthwhile? Is it enough to be self-referential — "what pleases me is what pleases me" — or is some kind of external validation needed? Validation in its various forms clearly does matter: I'm sending this stuff in to the website, after all. But what kind of praise, and from whom? You know your friends, family, fellow students will try to make vaguely appreciative noises (okay, my wife can be pretty unsparing, but I'm generalizing). By contrast, admission to juried shows carries some weight, if only because rejection by such shows is a recurrent experience almost regardless of your skill and experience. (Artists regularly turn the air blue with their appraisals of jurors' qualifications and taste, if not ancestry. Why do show sponsors choose sculptors to judge watercolors, abstract painters to judge realism, or — worse — academics or curators who don't paint or sculpt anything? And of course we suspect all commercial gallery owners of wanting to show only Thomas Kinkade, on the one hand, or avant garde stuntmen on the other.)

But as the old cowboy joke says, "It may be a crooked wheel, but it's the only one in town." If we need validation, we're stuck with seeking it from other human beings, fragile vessels as they are. Certainly there is some zone of consensus about the quality of a particular piece of work, at least among people who see (and, better, do) a lot of art. Beyond that, maybe you do just end up with "I know what I like." (A disclaimer here: I'm not even touching on the part of the art world in which recognition depends on some critic's thumbsucking about a work's "meaning," or multi-million dollar sums turn — not on the object itself — but on a scholar's attribution of it. These phenomena seem to occupy the zone in which people with money really don't know what they like, or are looking for investments rather than esthetic experiences.)

I've also talked to quite successful artists who believe that the only form of flattery that means a damn is actual sales, preferably sales to strangers. Mine have been pretty limited so far, but I have observed that unless you can sell some paintings — or make gifts of them — they pile up around the house and create a domestic relations problem. And you can only give so many away before friends stop inviting you to their houses: "We can't have them over until we hang the damned painting, and I can't even find it."

Al suggested that I add a few words about each of the drawings or paintings I've sent him for reproduction here. They're shown in roughly the order in which they were produced.

Essentially everything I do relies at least partly on photographs. I've met many painters who are very proud of not working from photos. For myself, I'm just not fast enough to catch the light, or a pose, as accurately as I want to catch it without the photographic crutch. This bothers me far less than I suppose it should, which may be one benefit of having started late at art - I'm pretty independent!

Click photo to view larger size version

This is of Sean Connery, in conte pencil and crayon, done from a magazine photo. It was the first thing I'd produced in class that I was proud of; and prompted me to take the portrait classes I mentioned. It's the only non-watercolor I've included, though I'm sometimes tempted to go back to the "dry" media.

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