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Letter from Skunk Hollow: Watercolors, and life, as artworks in progress

Perhaps it’s like malaria, this watercolor business, an affliction that blooms and fades and blooms again on a cycle. But a good thing, as there is always more to see.

Raspberry Island lighthouse and keepers' duplex in the Apostle Islands
Photo (and painting) by Ron Meador

My father’s birthday was this week, his 97th. If I could send him a card I would, but he died back in 1982, barely 64 years old.

Because I am nearing 62, his death and his life have been on my mind more than usual lately. Especially when I apply watercolor to paper, as I have been trying to do every day since early summer.

I think he would be pleased to know that, and I hope he could see, too, that I am following an example he set, although in an opposite direction.

Where Dad put off painting and other passions for the retirement he didn’t live to see, I have decided to be happy, right now, by doing the things I love without waiting for times that may never come.

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So sailing has been a prime pursuit this summer, again, and vegetable gardening, and guitar, but now watercolor has risen to the top of the list, without warning and without a clear reason why.

It’s not because it’s fun, although it surely is at times. It’s not because it’s easy; it’s never that. It’s not because I’m any good at it, or turning out work suitable for framing; I’ve yet to come up with one of those pictures.

In fact I’ve yet to complete a single piece, and I don’t know what that experience will be like, but from here it has the whiff of letdown. For now the excitement — the reward, too — are in pushing a picture until it fails, then looking back to find out why. I keep finding new mistakes to make; no need to repeat old ones.

An even larger reward is in the daily experience of seeing this world as if returning from a long absence. On a good painting day, or even some of the bad ones, I move down the road, across the yard, through my rooms seeing color where I’d never noticed it before, everyday objects broken or gathered into shapes, clouds as value scales, landscapes as composition. It reminds me a bit of my first teen-age encounter with pot.

Looking at my surroundings this way is not always a good thing, should I happen to be driving. Or sailing our little boat in stiff winds on Lake Pepin, under a sky laid masterfully in transparent washes by Winslow Homer, toward a sunset supplied by J.M.W. Turner.

A return engagement

This is not my first bout with watercolor. At the moment I’m working with 180-pound rough-textured paper that, according to the sales slip I found between the sheets, was purchased in December of 1994.

Recently I picked up a half-used block of Arches cold-pressed paper and found the top sheet devoted to capturing mist above the gorge at Niagara Falls, which dates the effort to sometime after a visit I made there with Sallie in 2007.

The picture-in-progress above is from photos I made of the Raspberry Island lighthouse and keepers’ duplex during a kayak trip in the Apostle Islands I had entirely forgotten but that, thanks to the date-stamping feature of digital cameras, I can pinpoint as having occurred in late May 2005, before the restoration work that erased decades of decline but, frankly, some of its charm as well.

Perhaps it’s like malaria, this watercolor business, an affliction that blooms and fades and blooms again on a cycle. But a good thing, as there is always more to see; it wasn’t until the third or fourth run at the Raspberry building that I noticed how the red metal roofs were throwing color up under the eaves.

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There is always more to learn, too. Watercolor is always craft, whether it rises to become art or not, and much of the craft lies in techniques that could fairly be called tricks  — and often are labeled exactly that way in books about method.  

Painting what you want to see

Homer — my favorite of the moment after Turner, whose style is beyond other mortals — is supposed to have said that his secret lay in painting exactly what he saw. You don’t have to put much paint to paper to see the fallacy (and the facetiousness, probably) in that remark.

The actual art of watercolor is not about realism but abstraction — turning three dimensions into two — while subtracting detail, enlarging some things and reducing others, moving stuff around, improving the color balance and the value contrasts …

It’s about painting what you want to see, and it helps to see how the best have solved these problems, in a medium that permits almost nothing to be really hidden.

Anyone who knows the Raspberry Island light will recognize how I’ve nearly doubled its size in relation to the keepers’ quarters — a manipulation permitted under the watercolorists’ license, and even my learner’s permit.

I hope my take won’t be taken as an attempt to imitate Homer, or Hopper, or anyone else — trust me, I don’t want to work that hard.  But I will admit to working more or less from Homer’s palette, because it’s deep and simple, and gravitating toward Hopper’s subjects, because they’re easier for me than Homer’s.

You have to start somewhere.

Work and more work

My father had some gifts as a painter, too, which he applied to a handful of murals in our home, and also as a calligrapher (though he called it lettering), draftsman and cartoonist. He played a little blues piano, a little cowboy guitar.

As a young man he had taken night-school courses in residential architecture and interior design at the University of Buffalo, and he fitted our houses with built-ins and modern furniture that impressed visitors but were just so much background to me until the day I toured Frank Lloyd Wright’s house in Scottsdale, Arizona, and experienced the shock of the familiar.

But Dad was gone by then, leaving behind binders and folders of the pieces he meant to build and the pictures he meant to paint, the alphabets he meant to learn …

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They say that nobody ever dies wishing they had spent more time at the office, but I’m afraid my dad may have been an exception in support of that rule.

It wasn’t that he loved his job, which was to manage purchasing functions at Chevrolet plants, although he seemed to like it well enough; he was good at it and the work certainly was steady.

Bringing the office home

As far as I know, Chevrolet was the only employer he ever had, and this association carried him from a stenographer’s chair and miserable marriage in Charleston, West Virginia, to a comfortably middle-class life in western New York and central Indiana; a 30-year second marriage to my mom; three kids, two of whom reached adulthood.

Coming out of an essentially fatherless childhood himself, he didn’t have much in the way of intimate examples as to what he ought to do or not do for himself.

He didn’t play golf, or fish, or hunt; he bowled indifferently for a while in a league with other guys from the office; he built stuff for the house and most nights he did a little purchasing work from his desk at home —  another Wright-like thing he designed and built for himself, with a special compartment of a dozen trays for all the worksheets and quintuplicate forms.

It was a safe way for a man to live, is the way I see it, with never a need to explain why he was wasting time on some artsy hobby that didn’t make money or enhance his property or improve the lives of his family. Which sounds harsher than I feel about it, because mostly what I feel this week is sadness for a good man, a talented man, who put off so much living until his life was up.

So I wish I could finish up this lighthouse picture and give it to him for his birthday, to thank him for all he did for me, including the gift of his example.

If I finish a version that’s any good by Christmas, perhaps I’ll give it to my son.