Federation of Watercolor Societies Show: Painting with watercolors is challenging and unpredictable

Published: Sunday, May 9 2010 12:00 a.m. MDT

Watercolor of boxers was painted by Anata Mandal of Utah.

Jason Olson, Deseret News

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."

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