Watercolor Road Warriors…

In addition to my fascination with the medium of watercolor, I have always found the social dynamics of watercolorists unique and interesting. Especially, the origins of the watercolor workshop, plein air expeditions, and the energetic and creative atmosphere found in many of the workshops I have participated in and taught. I don’t mean to imply that the creative and social energy in these settings is the sole property of watercolorists, but since that is where my personal experiences lie, it is all I have as a frame of reference. I sometimes read and think about what it might be like to study painting formally at a reknowned atelier with a master instructor, but following the thought eventually makes my throat tighten up and my legs jittery.

In the watercolor workshops I have been involved with, the participants seem to vacillate between moments of intense focus on the instruction, round-robin vocalizations regarding their struggles with the medium, and fortunately, numerous episodes of humorous asides. Of course, there have been exceptions, but over the years, the majority of my experiences have been fun and fulfilling.

Ed Whitney never discounted the social aspect of what he did. He was admittedly an entertainer in addition to doling out solid information and challenging his students, often in a dramatic manner. Personally, I feel that instructors who do offer a bit of the entertainer flair and are also willing to support the growth of a light-hearted group dynamic, often succeed in reducing many of the tensions and inhibitions that impede the creative process. Anyone who has taught a week-long workshop understands the challenges present amidst the fun.

In a class of twenty participants, there are twenty individual agendas and accompanying levels of anxiety. At one end we have the very serious student who expects to make every minute count, up to the point of their final critique. At the other, we have the socialite who attends primarily to have fun, and if a painting results, so be it. I find it interesting that our modern watercolor workshops accommodate both extremes with relative success most of the time (just ensure that their work stations are as far apart as possible). Advertising preferred skill levels can certainly help, but rarely have I had a homogenous group with regards to experience. I have noticed that my teacher and friend, Cheng Khee Chee, apologizes in advance to participants during the opening session should they feel short-changed from receiving the expected amount of individualized attention they hope for. Something tells me he knows that is bound to occur with at least a few persons.

While I have done my share of instruction over the years, I consider myself unqualified as a road warrior. Being an academic and somewhat of a homebody, the majority of my experiences have taken place within the luxurious confines of the Cheap Joe’s teaching facility, with every painting supply imaginable ten feet away in the adjoining retail space. Most of us are very familiar with the first generation of Whitney followers and the instructors that followed in his footsteps: Webb, Nechis, Rudman, Lawrence, Van Hasselt, and many others, all paving further pathways for us to travel down with their workshops, books, and demos. I do vicariously enjoy the stories of travel via friends like Sterling Edwards, whose continental drifts into Canada and workshopping schedule has at times made my head spin. No one has more successfully chronicled the life of the traveling instructor like Don Andrews, in his enjoyable and humorous book, Rough Sketches. I also enjoy following the travels of Facebook friends like Nicholas Simmons and Mark Mehaffy as they gain recognition globally, push the boundaries of watercolor, and build relationships and followings in places like Nanjing, China, and beyond.

I think about all of these current dynamics in contrast to the early years of O’Hara’s Goose Rocks school on the incredible coast of Maine. Based on O’Hara’s books, instruction was clearly more formalized then and included numerous time-consuming color drills and brush handling practice sessions (64 of them actually!). I cringe to think of the reaction of most participants today should such instructional methods infringe upon their workshops. Yet, in the thoughtful, methodical, and technical approach to teaching watercolor that was Elliot O’Hara, nothing at that time could seem more valid or helpful to a budding artist’s development. What if we could return to that point, slow down, lower our expectations and actually do several days of color and brush drills? We would all likely need to be medicated, but some small part of that approach is still appealing to me.

I also imagine the intensity with which Ed Whitney studied the work of O’Hara and countless others during his own artistic development. A few years back, Whitney’s personal O’Hara book was on the rare book market, complete with scribbled side-notes on almost all of the pages. I am interested but clueless as to where it may have ended up. Then, there proceeded the long string of years where Ed Whitney taught at Pratt, followed by hundreds of workshops and thousands of miles all over the country. He traveled and taught through declining health well into his eighties. In Ron Ranson’s book Watercolor the Ed Whitney Way, we clearly see the impact he had upon the great watercolorists and instructors of the following era. But, think also of the countless others over a fifty-year career that participated in some form of the Ed Whitney watercolor energy, focusing on “the most beautiful thing that exists, light.”

I don’t think it is a major stretch to think that his efforts (and their domino effect) provided significant fuel to a movement that has resulted in a global community of passionate watercolor painters. Of course, there were many other instructors out there crusading in the Whitney era, and he would likely be the first to call them out as equal contributors. However, I do think that his laser-focused passion for watercolor and teaching his design tools and rules during this period would be hard to trump. An interesting question now that we are all globally connected might be: “Who were the Ukrainian, Chinese, Thai, Malaysian, South American, Indian, (and other) Ed Whitneys?” Clearly, from the excellent watercolors posted on a daily basis all over the world, others like Whitney were hard at work proselytizing the medium in other countries. It would be great to someday read about them as well.

We focus on making art, capturing the essence of the subject, learning techniques, demonstrating and teaching. Open to the back of any one of your art magazines and for a few minutes, focus only on the workshops offered. Think of the countless hosts, the travel, the facilities, the logistics, the seasoned instructors and the thousands of diverse participants. One of my favorite professors in graduate school, Dr. Jack Mulgrew, taught Gestalt therapy and reminded our class: “Every group that comes together for a distinct period of time has a beginning and an end, a life and a death. Upon departure, that specific and unique energy will never exist again.” I always think of that every time I do a final critique, and folks begin to pack up their ArtBin Totes for the Friday afternoon journey back from whence they came. It is quite a legacy to be a tiny part of.

(1966 Whitney Station-wagon photo and 1969 Newspaper Ad courtesy of Naomi Brotherton)

3 thoughts on “Watercolor Road Warriors…

  1. Thanks Mike! good to hear from you and glad somebody occasionally stumbles on to the site, ha. It has been neglected for a while, but always hoping to keep it alive with the occasional new material that drifts in.

    Interestingly enough, I am working late tonight preparing to give a presentation & demo to a group this weekend on the Whitney era of watercolor. It has been fun putting it together and we will see how it goes. Maybe I am really a watercolor history professor at heart? Hope to see you at Cheap Joe's sometime. WES

  2. The guy sure does have a history ! Out on the west coast, we don't hear his name very often unless it is from his group of followers, like Barbara Nechis or Frank Webb or others. From his legends, he must have been one hell of a terrific teacher.

    When we witness all the 'watercolor road warriors" of today, you just can't help but be amazed by how many lives Ed Whitney has touched . . . directly or indirectly.

    Thanks, Wes!

    M.E. "Mike" Bailey, NWS

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