Originally from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Carolyn is currently based in Greater Boston area, Massachusetts. Having graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Art Education from Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, Carolyn started painting as a child, gradually specializing in watercolors as her medium. Carolyn also teaches adult watercolor classes at her gallery and studio at 500 West Cummings Park, Woburn MA, and we have invited Carolyn to share with us the art tools that she uses, as well as offer some tips for fellow watercolor artists.
Qn: Tell us more about your journey as an artist?
Though I don’t recall a “magical moment” in my youth when I realized that I wanted to be a painter, my mother was an artist and art teacher, and she nurtured my artistic expression. Like many children, I drew and painted and the rest of my life became an extension of those early experiences. Painting was what I wanted most.
Growing up within blocks of the Bethlehem (Pennsylvania) Steel Company, I absorbed the power of its massive industrial structure and its pounding energy. Its vitality informed my visual interest in the geometry of architecture and planes of light. I am also drawn to the life and energy of “the city”, to the urban contrasts and colors, and to the historic landscapes of my New England home. I never tire of painting people, their interaction, and the occasionally whimsical insights I find.
Fortunately, painting what I love to observe and internalize has translated into success as an artist.
Qn: That's a pretty large palette-tray you've got above to paint with, where did you get it from? Do you use any other palettes?
The large tray is an old enameled metal deli tray. They are no longer used in the trade but some art providers carry new ones. One just has to be careful that they are absolutely flat and not convex or concave. The stacked round individual palettes to the left are ceramic. I often use them when I mix colors that I’ll be using immediately. The ceramic palette to the left with the wells has colors in it that I frequently use for skin tones. That one is always sitting around. Additionally, I have white plastic picnic plates that serve as auxiliary palettes to isolate colors, and I collect small jars for washes that I will use over days’ time.
Qn: I see that you've got quite a number of rulers above too, what do you usually use them for in your painting sessions?
Some of them are scale rulers that I use occasionally when I’m drawing architectural subjects; others are yardsticks used mostly by my students when they have to scale up a study to a larger sheet of paper; and the others are normal rulers that I use for simple measurements, and those mostly when I’m working on architectural subjects. I like the clear plastic rulers because I can see through them.
Qn: Can you share with us more about the brushes you use in the picture above? (Are they good? compared to the ones you used previously?)
Most of the brushes I use are Simmons 785 series rounds. I love their series 278 W Skyflow wash brushes, especially the one inch size. If I were to be marooned on a desert island and could have only one brush, this would be the one. Additionally, I like the DaVinci Cosmotop Spin brushes, but they’re a little softer and so I use them selectively according to the subject matter. Very early on, I had used sable brushes, but found that they wear out at the same rate as the synthetic ones. I recommend the Simmons brushes to my students, too, and they really seem to like them.
Qn: What type/brand of watercolor paints and paper do you use?
For the basic colors, I use Winsor Newton. For more unusual colors I use Daniel Smith. I have also come to enjoy using M. Graham and Co. paint after winning some. I recommend their China White to all of my students because it remains forever workable on the palette as all of their colors are formulated with honey.
I am very aware of which colors are pigment colors and which are dye/stain colors. Mixing more than one pigment color together with another is a recipe for mud. But many pigments have very interesting granulation patterns and I frequently capitalize on them. For the most part, I use non-pigmented colors for clarity and an ability to overlay.
Qn: Tell us more about your favorite watercolor painting/s? (How long did it take you to complete painting that? And what was/were your inspirations?)
Manhattan Bistro (picture above) has always been one of my favorites. It was exhibited in NYC and purchased by an international law firm in a World Trade Tower not long after I painted it. When the Towers went down the painting was lost, of course. By a stroke of luck I had made giclee prints for the first time and that was one of the paintings. With some trepidation I contacted the law firm, knowing they had all successfully evacuated, and they bought the print. The owner of Manhattan Bistro also bought a print.
I stood across the street from that location and took a number of photos as people moved around in the opened front. When I did the painting, which took probably 45 hours, I used the various people in my photos in edited positions in order to create a sort of tableau. It was a 21” x 29” image.
Qn: It's very important to wait till the paper is completely dry before applying another layer of watercolor paint over a previous layer – So while it can be obvious to discern if the top surface of the paper is dried out, why is it also important to check that the bottom of the paper is dried out as well? What can happen if a fresh layer of paint is applied when the bottom of the paper hasn't dried out? If a beginner artist makes that mistake, how will you advise him/her to salvage the situation?
I work with a hairdryer by my side. I tell my students to do the same. I use the backs of my fingers or the heel of my hand to check paper temperature. (The tips of fingers aren’t as sensitive.) It has to be room temperature, front and back, to proceed. If a wash is applied too soon, it will pick up the previous layer. On the occasions when that may happen I will try to wet and smooth out the pigmentation of the previous layer, then dry once again. If worse comes to worse, I will take a natural silk sponge, wet and wrung out, and gently remove paint. It usually works.
If one is working on reasonably good paper, the bottom shouldn’t be wet, but the interior of the paper will be. If successive washes are anticipated, my advice is to work on 300 lb. paper. I never tape, tack, or stretch, or staple my paper so that I can move it freely. The 300 lb. paper withstands plenty of water and doesn’t buckle.
Qn: Do you have any advice/tips to offer on watercolor painting?
As I tell my students, watercolor is a whole lot of negative learning. One has to be willing to stick it out. The rewards are wonderful. There is a myth that there is no way to “fix” mistakes, but there are, in fact, many ways to do so. Some are done deliberately and studiously and some are done on the fly while working with wet paint. I began working with oil paint when I was 13, but just never enjoyed it the way I do watercolor because the paint just sits where one puts it. Watercolor is always up to tricks depending on one’s mood, the temperature, the amount of moisture in the air, and other variable factors. I find the difficulty of the medium is what makes it so fun and challenging.
I wish galleries would educate their buyers about the value of watercolor paintings. Any painter will tell you that watercolor painting is more difficult than oil painting but the general public sees oil painting as the “real” paint. Watercolor is also the most archival medium provided it is done on neutral pH paper.
Qn: Have you read any art-book/s that you can share with us?
It is worthwhile to read some of the older editions of watercolor books with information about colors and materials, and basic washes, rather than how-to books. As I had always worked with watercolor, I didn’t read very much that was specific, but find it is better to experiment with the medium and learn the properties of the various colors and one’s own way of applying paint to paper. Just as everyone’s handwriting differs, so will your results with this medium.
Qn: Lastly, which other artist/s do you think we should feature next?
Paul Sullivan - He does some very nice work with figures and makes beautiful detailed studies beforehand.
We are thankful to Carolyn Latanision for sharing her art tools, paintings and experiences in this insightful interview. For more about Carolyn and her artworks, you may visit her website or her Facebook page.