For those who still associate watercolors with soft images of landscapes and flower vases, a stroll through a contemporary watercolor show may be an eye opener. Just about every style and theme is likely to be represented, from realistic still lifes to bold abstractions, surrealistic flights of fancy, gritty portraits, collages and all sorts of artistic interpretations defined by personal vision. It’s not your grandmother’s kind of medium anymore.

Since 1996, March has been designated as Watercolor Month (WM) in San Antonio, thanks largely to the efforts of the San Antonio Watercolor Group (SAWG), an organization that promotes the time-honored medium among both artists and the general public. It’s a chance to get acquainted with the work of some 200 local and regional painters who will be exhibiting their work throughout the month in galleries, hotels, restaurants and other businesses around town.

“It’s definitely become a city-wide event,” says artist Janet Paduh, co-chair — with Lynda Apkarian — of this year’s ninth annual Watercolor Month. “Last year we even expanded into Laredo, New Braunfels, Kerrville, Boerne, Hondo and Castroville. More and more people are getting to see and appreciate watercolors. Local people will come down to the River Walk during March because of the art. It gives us an opportunity to focus people’s attention on what we do.”

The activities kick off March 4 with an opening reception for the “Watercolor Month 2004” show, at the Gazebo Restaurant and Gallery at Los Patios, which will feature more than 50 SAWG members. Other special events include the Olmos Park Art Walk on March 13 and several happenings and shows in La Villita March 20.

The Art Walk is similar to First Fridays in Southtown. More than 20 businesses along McCullough Avenue will welcome viewers with open houses that day, but the art will stay up through March 31. “Patrons love it,” says Patricia Johnson of Painted Pony. “It’s good for business and it’s good for the artists.” Other participating businesses include the Textures Gallery, Gavin Metalsmith, the Coppini Academy, Julian Gold and Hearth & Home.

The other center of activity is La Villita, where virtually every gallery supports the month-long effort. But March 20 is a special day. SAWG members will be joined by other groups in a huge show and sale in Maverick Plaza from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. In addition, visitors will be able to observe the “Battle of the Palettes,” as some artists paint outdoors in plain view of passers-by. At 4:30 p.m., observers will bestow the Viewers Choice Awards on their favorite artwork.And that’s not all! More art will be displayed in hotels, restaurants and businesses along the River Walk.

All this burgeoning activity testifies to the growing popularity of watercolor, yet not that long ago the medium was shunned by many “serious” artists, as collectors and museums seemed to prefer oils or acrylics.

“When I went to (art) school in the late ’70s, it seemed to me that if a student mentioned watercolor, the teachers would organize an intervention to save that student from self-destruction,” says Kim Paxson, who taught watercolor painting at the Southwest School of Art & Craft. Why this was so is not entirely clear — tradition, market demands, a bias in academia? — but everyone agrees that there was a perception that watercolors were more susceptible to fading and deterioration than other media. This is no longer the case, say the artists, thanks to improved paint and pigment technology and the use of UV protective glass.

But technology is not the only thing that’s changed.

“Thirty or 40 years ago, watercolorists still tended to work in the same style, the colors were muted and the images more traditional, but that’s no longer the case,” says Paduh. “My mother is a watercolorist, and she paints soft. I paint strong. I think this has finally become a respected art medium.”

There is little danger that anyone would describe Paduh’s colorful, surrealistic images as “soft.” Using vivid, Fiesta-type colors, she creates whimsical images of exotic animals to whom she clearly assigns human attributes. Sharp-eyed monkeys, giraffes and big cats cavort through her paintings, sometimes inviting you to catch them at their mischief, sometimes enmeshed in a visual puzzle that amuses. She is a conceptual artist who doesn’t start to paint until she has the whole piece figured out in her head. During WM, her work will be on display at Casa Salazar, the River Art Group Gallery and the Gazebo.

Like many of her colleagues, Paduh first started painting in oils and acrylics in her youth, then after years of marriage and working, returned to art in earnest, taking up watercolors. This is also the trajectory Julie McCollum, Anne Brennan Vela, Betty Jameson and current SAWG president Geri VanHeuverswyn have followed. They all cite the medium’s unique qualities as the main reason for choosing it.

“I love the transparency and fluidity of the paint,” explains Vela, a former Laredo resident and the founder of the Laredo Center for the Arts. “There is a vibrancy to a watercolor that you don’t get with other media because light goes through the paint and is reflected off the paper. You can see the glow of white showing through the glaze of color.”

The fluidity of the paints also confers an element of unpredictability to the painting process, which artists find exciting. “Once you put that color on paper, you don’t know exactly how it’s going to spread,” says McCollum. “I like that spontaneity, the way the colors puddle. It’s loose, splashy and fun.”

McCollum, who used to do still lifes and flowers years ago, has moved almost entirely to figurative painting and abstractions. Her “News of the Day,” a picture of three men sitting on a bench in front of a store window, won first place in last year’s SAWG juried show. This year she received an honorable mention for her earth-tone abstractions, which combine watercolor with collage.

Author: Jasmina Wellinghoff

Issue: March/April 2004