Painting with watercolors is challenging. It can be unpredictable, unforgiving. The paint can leak or streak. The water can buckle the paper.

But those are the very things that make you appreciate watercolors all the more when they are done well.

And well-done is exactly what you will see at the Western Federation of Watercolor Societies 2010 Show that opens Friday at the Cultural Celebration Center, says Maura Naughton, president of the Utah Watercolor Society, a member of the federation.

"This is some of the best watercolor in the West — in the country. We're honored that so many great artists continue to enter this regional show," she says.

The annual show rotates among federation members, so it only comes to Utah once every 10 years or so. Or so, because there are now 11 societies in nine Western states that belong to the federation, and each takes a turn hosting the event. So this is a rare chance to see exceptional work, she says.

The juried exhibition will showcase 101 works. Members of the Utah Watercolor Society entered some 1,100 pieces. "Out of those, 10 were accepted into the show. But out of those 10, three are among the award winners," says Naughton. So that says a lot for the quality of work being produced here. "Our society is on the small side, with 300 members."

One of Naughton's pieces, a portrait of her mother, was one of those winners. The other Utah prize winners are Janice Hall and Nancy Maxfield Lund. The juror was Carla O'Connor, from Washington (a state not part of the federation). "I was impressed with how decisive she was," says Naughton.

"She knew just what she wanted. Her focus was on design. She looked for an original perspective, a center-of-interest that was not in the center. The jurying process is always subjective," says Naughton, but she thinks people who come to the show will appreciate both technique and subject matter. Both are very diverse.

Nowadays, says Naughton, people speak of "watermedia" artists. "That includes any water-soluble medium, such as watercolor, but also things like acrylic and gouache. Most artists paint on paper, but now there are some synthetic papers, such as 'Yupo,' where the color sits on top more."

Like the works, the artists are also varied. Naughton has "been an artist all my life," studying at Highland High School and Westminster College. "Then I joined the Army for 25 years and was gone. But the thing about watercolor is that it is so portable. It fit so well with the 'duffle bag drag.' I always liked to keep my paints with me."

Watercolor is the most challenging of all mediums, says Steve Sheffield, a former president of the Utah society, who has also taught watercolor for the past 17 years. He likes to paint on synthetic papers. "They are sealed surfaces that allow for more spontaneity."

Like anything else, some people are better at watercolor than others. "But when it sings, it looks better than any other medium," he says.

The look is one thing that draws people to painting watercolor, but there are a lot of other reasons people do it.

Nancy Lund started to paint "when I was going through a divorce. I could just check out and be happy. I've done oil, collage, jewelry, but watercolor is my favorite. I love the way it looks. I love all the options. I love the wet-on-wet approach."

Besides, she says with a laugh, "it's non-toxic. You can do it on the kitchen table and not worry about poisoning your children."

Sue Martin also loves to paint. "I love the freedom of expression I feel with watercolor. I like to watch what the paint does. There are many happy accidents, I can tell you. The better artists learn to take advantage of them. It is harder to control what the paint can do."

And that's why Martin also loves to see what other people paint. That's the great thing about this show, she says. "I just want to come and sit and stare for hours and hours. It's like an art class in itself. They are all so different — the techniques are so different. It's pretty amazing how versatile they all are."

To cut down on shipping costs, everyone in the show sends in their unframed pieces, and the Utah Watercolor Society frames it all in the same-style frame. "That also makes the art pop off the wall; you don't have to get caught up in the surroundings," Naughton says. "Thousands of volunteer hours go into this show. But it's our way to give back."

There will be an opening dinner and reception for the show on Friday. The public is invited to the reception. "A lot of the prize-winning artists will be here. It gives people a chance to share the excitement with the artists, to appreciate even more the technical excellence the artists have achieved."

To also generate interest, they have named this year's awards after "Utah's nine most-honored watercolor instructors." They are Harold Petersen, Osral Allred, Steve Sheffield, Marian Dunn, Carl Purcell, Willamarie Huelskamp, Joseph Alleman, Lester Lee and Laurel Hart. People in the art community will recognize those names, she says, plus a lot of people have studied with these artists and appreciate their legacy.

The Utah Watercolor Society meets the first Tuesday of the month at Wheeler Farm. "Our season runs from September to June," says Naughton. "And anyone is invited to attend." Or visit the Web site,, for more information.

The society also sponsors two shows during the year. "Our spring show is currently on display at the Shorr Gallery in the West Jordan City Complex. It will be up until May 28, so people have two chances to see great watercolor," says Naughton. "It's rare to see this many watermedia pieces all at once. There's a saying in art that you should paint what you love. So, you'll see a lot of love."

If you go

What: Western Federation of Watercolor Societies 2010 Show

Where: Cultural Celebration Center, 1355 W. 3100 South

When: Monday-Thursday, 9 a.m.-6 p.m.; or by arrangement (call 801-965-5100); through June 28

Admission: Free

Also: Opening reception Friday, 7 p.m