This Year’s Best Watercolor Paintings
Every winter, we look forward to putting together this article of the best watercolor paintings of the year. Of course, “best” is subjective, but one way a painting earns that distinction is to stand out in competition.
So with that being said, we turn to art societies — from the West Coast to the East Coast, Florida to Canada — to bring our attention to some of North America’s best watercolor paintings of 2017. Enjoy!
Brightness Burning on the Heart Within
Brightness Burning on the Heart Within by Ali Cavanaugh, watercolor on Aquaboard
My oldest daughter, Neve, was the inspiration for this piece. She’s been my graceful muse for many years. Neve is poised and reserved, and in this composition, I was able to catch her in direct profile. A striking diagonal was created with her downcast head and hand placement.
The two primary elements in my work are bold compositions paired with a delicate application of paint. I had hoped to achieve a sense of elegance, beauty, thoughtfulness and intimacy.
—Ali Cavanaugh, Ste. Genevieve, Missouri | Missouri Watercolor Society
I wanted to give an award to this particular piece because it exhibits a broad range of techniques, skillful handling and interesting subject matter: the gesture; the angle or position of the body; powerful, stunning color; and a large area of negative space. A painting like this is hard to forget.
–Dongfeng Li, Juror
Carrie Mae by Dean Mitchell, watercolor on paper
Carrie Mae has been a friend of my family’s since before I was born. She’s a kind, brilliant human being. She’s 97 now, and was born in Boston. She graduated from A&M as valedictorian in 1941 and received her master’s from Columbia in 1945. She got her Ph.D. from Iowa State University in 1958.
Her mother owned a hotel in the Boston area for 35 years called “The Mother’s Lunch.” It was one of the few — if not the only hotel — where African-Americans could stay. The list of people who stayed there is a “Who’s Who” in American culture — Ella Fitzgerald, Etta James, Billie Holiday, Sam Davis, Mary McLeod Bethune and many others. She’s talked about her sister doing Ella Fitzgerald’s hair just before she went on stage to perform.
—Dean Mitchell, Tampa, Florida | Florida Watercolor Society
Carrie Mae is a masterful example of design, foresight and capability possessed by very few contemporary artists. The muted colors are utilized with a delicacy and deftness of brushstrokes that emphasize the sense of dignified tranquility that clearly indicates the subject is a character of strong positive influence in the artist’s life.
The subject’s pose at the edge of her chair and the slight lean of her head suggest a natural listener, reinforced by her face, with its somber expression, and her clasped hands. If the painting could speak to me, it would say “wisdom.”
One thing that caught my attention was the little bit of red nail polish. Once I saw that bit of red, the muted tones of the seat and wooden furniture began to reveal a repetition of the same color placed throughout the image.
–Iain Stewart, Juror
Glass on Glass on Fabric
Glass on Glass on Fabric, Laurie Goldstein-Warren, watercolor on paper
Painting glass in watercolor makes for a unique set of challenges, beginning with the importance of seeing the various reflections and refraction in the glass and drawing them accurately.
When I composed this painting, I wanted to use the taller glass pieces. After setting up the still life, I realized it needed a horizontal element, so I introduced the fabric with its more organic design.
—Laurie Goldstein-Warren, Buckhannon, West Virginia | Califonia Watercolor Association
Glass on Glass on Fabric possesses a fanciful, magical quality. The effects of light on glass are mesmerizing. The sparkling highlights contrast with deep, rich darks. The luminous, complementary color scheme and skillful composition are beautifully orchestrated in this powerful watercolor.
–Donna Zagotta, Juror
Morning in Paris
Morning in Paris by June Webster, watercolor on paper
The view from my hotel balcony in Paris near the Luxembourg Gardens inspired me to paint. The city was so quiet in the morning, and the painted lines on the street created beautifully defined shadows.
I wanted to capture that feeling of calm, as well as the color and value changes created by the shadows.
—June Webster, Cheshire, Connecticut | Transparent Watercolor Society of America
By simplifying the image and illuminating the subject, the basic design and divisions of space are balanced and keep the viewer’s eye moving. It’s a well-designed and evocative image that makes one feel a sense of being alone within a city full of people.
–Jean Pederson, Juror
Insomniacs Dreamboats by Cathy Hegman, acrylic on paper
My paintings are always about my life or some aspect of my life. I work from my imagination, not models or photos.
My inspiration was constant bouts of insomnia. I’ve done a long-running series of paintings called Insomniacs with which I try to convey the feeling of needing to do something but being unable to.
—Cathy Hegman | Holly Bluff, Mississippi | American Watercolor Society
Stars represent the night. There are sheep, ships passing and a fantastical hairpiece, which could represent a cloud or the dark night.
The painting possesses good graphic qualities, strong vertical and horizontal movement, contrasts light and dark values, and has good color and competent technique. Plus, it captures and conveys a message beyond surface appearance that we all can relate to.
–Antonio Masi, Juror
Summer’s Reflection by Sidra Kaluszka, watercolor on paper
Summer’s Reflection depicts a couple of persimmons that I picked in a park while walking with my in-laws, and some purple basil from my mother’s garden. I constantly seek new challenges, like incorporating the mirror behind the fruit. I wanted to capture the interaction between the subjects, the mirror and light.
The viewer doesn’t have a straightforward view of the reflection. I painted the focal point off center, with lines weaving in and out, because it invites the eye to explore.
—Sidra Kaluszka, Radford, Virginia | West Virginia Watercolor Society
This painting is so dynamically strong. Design and composition are important to me as an artist, and this piece displays great composition. There’s a wonderful use of contrasts: value, temperature, shapes, and hard and soft edges. Although it’s a realistic painting, it has a nice abstract feel to it.
–Chris Krupinski, Juror
Backstage Adjustments by Bev Jozwiak, watercolor on paper
My youngest daughter is a professional ballet dancer, and I grew to love the art form. I helped out a lot around her dance studio — everything from designing tutus to making tiaras — and painted four 20- by 40-foot backdrops.
My ballet paintings are always near and dear to my heart. Dancers are extremely close to one another because they spend so much time together, and dance is intimate. I wanted this piece to convey that closeness and willingness to help each other.
—Bev Jozwiak, Vancouver, Washington | Northwest Watercolor Society
This work caught my attention with its bold use of colors and brushwork that’s both unique and evocative. I gave the work a high point in design elements and composition.
While Jozwiak employs a variety of traditional techniques and knowledge of art, it’s also evident she’s not afraid to push the envelope of water media, which I admire immensely. As a result, her work looks pleasing from an academic point of view, but also has an edgy, modern appeal.
–Keiko Tanabe, Juror
Family Walk by Antonia Masi, watercolor on paper
I have about 16 colors in my palette, but I tend to select two that will set the mood. I explore value combinations I can create with my two picks, and use the other colors to augment the purity, warmness and coolness of the original two I’ve chosen. This way, I can control the values in my painting.
Normally I find compositions in real life — texture, chain-link fences, graffiti and figures, like the tiny ones silhouetted under the arch in Family Walk, passing from darkness into light. At first, it appeared as a mass of confusion and excitement, so I exaggerated the smallness of the figures into this massive state of confusion and tried to bring order into it. I was thinking of a colorful quilted blanket; it has many patterns, but, at the same time, it’s still one unit.
—Antonio Masi, Garden City, New York | North East Watercolor Society
609 Main by Ron Thurston, watercolor on paper
The white staircase in 609 Main is one of my dog’s designated stops on our daily walks. The house nearby also made the cut. I couldn’t resist including it, but the real one is white and situated too far away.
Experimenting with value choices, I decided to make the house blue and black as a support to the black dog. Milton Avery was my color muse. It’s his unusual color combinations that inspire me.
—Ron Thurston, Coraopolis, Pennsylvania | Penn State Watercolor Society
Purely Spectral by Brenda Benson, watercolor on paper on matboard
I was preparing paper for another piece using dour color and dark, depressing neutrals in shades of brown and gray. Suddenly I felt the need to cast off that burden and do something bright and joyful. I thumbed through my sketchbooks until I found something that would celebrate the joy that color can bring, and settled on a rough sketch of a quilt. A quilt and an open box of new crayons were my inspiration.
“I cut the paper into rectangles, then scored and folded them into squares. Meanwhile, I painted mat board with acrylics in the design I had worked out in my sketchbook. Taking a folded square of the painted paper, I used scissors or paper punches to cut a random design and then glued it down to its spot on the matboard grid. I chose bright primary and secondary colors for the joy of opening a new box of crayons. Colors transition gently from one to another with analogous hues.”
—Brenda Benson, Monroe City, Missouri | Springfield Art Museum
One of the central reasons that the Springfield Art Museum created Watercolor USA was to recognize innovation in the use of watercolor. I love that this painting uses multiple pieces of paper, instead of the standard two dimensions.
–Laurin McCracken, Juror
What do you think is the best watercolor painting on this list? Do you have any others to add to the lineup? Tell us in the comments!
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