I thought when I was diagnosed with cancer that my life was ending. I didn’t do any work for awhile, mostly because the doctor I had then told me I had only a few months to live (that was six years ago). When I started working again, I let myself be in God’s hands. I started to paint from the heart. The odd thing was that getting noticed, having my work published, winning awards, etc., – all happened after that.
Before I was diagnosed with cancer, I painted conventional watercolors that corresponded, more or less, to real life. When I started working again, I didn’t want to waste anything, so I started experimenting with products that had been collecting dust in my studio: gouache, acrylics and inks. I had no time for details either, so I started doing big, gestural paintings that were filled with intense colors. Today I think of myself as a colorist.
People can identify my work- even abstract paintings- as soon as they walk into a gallery because I have a distinct style. Beginning artists ask me, how do I get my own style? I tell them you have to go through a sequence: studying with a master artist and even producing work that looks like the teacher’s for awhile. Eventually, it’s going to happen: you’ll find your own style, but not until you get over the hurdle of seeking approval. You’ve got to trust your heart. It’s a matter of letting go.
I always start with a sketch. I plan the composition, even if the sketch is just a couple of lines. I plan where I’ll have transparent passages and where I’ll put the opaques. My paintings are usually 60 to 70 percent opaque. I still love watercolor and the spontaneity of working on paper, but right now I’m enjoying painting in acrylics on canvas; the process is similar, but the feel is different. Working on canvas, you can still paint wet-into-wet and have the colors flow; you can still work very transparently, but you have to think. The color theories acquired from painting in watercolor are still applicable. You don’t want to put two or three opaques together because the result will be mud. If you need a yellow, you have to make a conscious decision to choose the right yellow. I always start with transparent paints and use opaque’s sparingly. I go in with big washes of transparent color. I love the quinacridone colors; they have a glow. When you’ve applied glazes, you can see one color glowing through another one. I’ve always like putting shapes against each other, but lately I’m using line as an element, in the way Milford Zornes does. I proceed slowly, adding details with smaller brushes. The opaque’s I save for the end.’
I travel a lot; most recently I painted in the south of France, in Provence. When we were in Arles, we visited the yellow house where Paul Gaugin (1848-1903) and Vincent van Gogh (1853-90) stayed; then we went to Sainte-Remy and saw the asylum where Vincent had been confined. I did sketches of the olive trees that both Gaugin and van Gogh painted. I tell my doctor that’s why I’m still alive: I keep leaving him! There’s a lot of healing in art.’
Colleen Newport Stevens/ Watercolor Magic February 2003