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Donna Watson Overcame Creative Block by Switching Media

This artist broke through an artistic block by switching media — from acrylic to oil mixed with cold wax.

By Maureen Bloomfield

Moment (oil, cold wax, scroll, twine and stone, 10×10) by Donna Watson

“I’d lost my way with acrylic,” says Donna Watson. For the last 10 years she’d created layered surfaces that evoked natural cycles. But the artist began to feel that she was “painting the same painting over and over.” The decision to abandon acrylic for oil and cold wax was perhaps hurried along by bouts of physical pain and the consequent trials of medical care. In any case, Watson felt she “couldn’t paint another acrylic.”

“The question became: What am I going to do now?” she says. This crisis echoed an earlier one. Twenty years ago Watson had experienced a similar block when she turned away from representational watercolor and the landscape genre because she “was repeating the same stuff.” Then and now, change is not without hazard. She says of the earlier time: “Money is seductive; it’s hard not to sell, but I didn’t want to be an artist who based her work on sales.”

Career Paths

Trained as a speech audiologist and pathologist, Watson didn’t start out to be an artist. When she worked with deaf children, she often made a connection by drawing pictures. Once she had children of her own at home, she “looked around for a hobby” and found watercolor. From the early representational landscapes in transparent watercolor she moved to abstracted meditations in acrylic.

The acrylic works, in luminous umbers, grays, and blacks, often incorporated remnants or photocopies of actual bird nests in a process that became more and more speculative and accumulative. With their highly layered, subdued-in-chroma surface, they evinced what the Japanese refer to as wabi-sabi. Wabi-sabi is a concept that honors the beauty of imperfection in both nature and art; it’s an aesthetic that embraces the vagaries of weather and age: more beautiful than youth is the evidence of the passage of time.

Pieces of Memory (cold wax, oil, collage, 18×18) contains fragments of receipts and other old documents in a cruciform as well as drawn geometric forms (circles and arcs) to suggest rational processes.

On Her Own

These new works in oil and cold wax are continuous with that aesthetic. But switching from acrylic to oil is more drastic than switching from watercolor to acrylic. Though she now conducts workshops, Watson has taken very few, preferring to teach herself. It was fortunate that one of her three sons is an artist in New York City. He gave her tips on how to mix the cold wax medium with oil. It turned out to be disarmingly straightforward. Just combine the cold wax medium (white with the consistency of shortening) with oil paint in equal parts.

Cold wax, in addition to providing luminosity (via the wax), slightly alters (slowing) the drying time. This causes the painting surface remains highly workable for a longer time. The wooden surface Watson prepares with layers of acrylic gesso, either black or white. Once privy to the secret, she “got some old boards and started experimenting.”

Memoir (cold wax, oil, collage with scroll, 18×18) has the solemnity of an act of mourning. Most beautiful is the afterimage above the scroll that suggests a document has been taken away.

Texture From Tools

An oddity of Watson’s practice is that she never uses brushes. Instead she lays down the gesso and paint with Catalyst rubber tools made by Princeton Artist Brush Company. The wax medium makes the oil thick enough that she can create texture easily. “When you lay the paint with cold wax medium down, it leaves a mark,” she says.

Working in acrylic she could finish a painting in hours; oil is much more time consuming. At the end of the day she scrapes the surface down. After a night exposed to air, the surface is still tacky; but it has dried enough to allow her to put on another layer. “I’ve discovered I love oil: it has a depth you don’t get with acrylic; you build up thin layers of oil and cold wax, layers that are transparent.” Watson says that the mixture of oil and cold wax could also be layered on top of a layer of oil. “This creates textures and an overall feeling of depth and warmth that I cannot achieve with any other medium.” Rather than use turpentine, Watson avoids fumes by using baby oil to clean her painting tools.

Old Scroll (cold wax, oil, collage with scroll, 12×9) has a scroll reminiscent of a kimono. The gesturally evocative surface is half subtractive, half additive. The message “Tempo” stands for time, keeping pace in music, adhering to rhythm.

Secrets and Symbols

Most of the works in this new series have actual, small scrolls adhered
to the surface. The scroll harks back to ancient times — a roll of papyrus on which was recorded a contract or decree. A scroll thus is a document, representing a covenant (the Torah is a scroll) or a message, equivalent to a letter. The scroll has meaning only if it is received and opened, however. The beauty of Watson’s scrolls is that the scroll remains rolled. The secret within the scroll is the (undisclosed) motive for the work.

Watson makes the scrolls from all kinds of papers. For many years she has collected antique maps at flea markets. “I like the back (side) best,” she says. The patina made by weather makes the outside yellow-ish. This also happens to Japanese papers, which she collects as a way to connect with her heritage (her mother was Japanese). She also often uses old Japanese letters or Japanese rice papers that she has painted. “Scrolls,” she says, “are a big part of marking the passage of time; they reflect the notions of memory and identity.”

The scroll, called kakemono or kakejiku, also has a role in the Japanese tea ceremony, for which it is divided into four sections, each corresponding to a segment of the world: two include the top section representing heaven; the bottom, chi, the earth. The scroll adhered to the surface (by glue) in Watson’s works can thus function as an horizon line.

A Subdued Palette

The Japanese scroll is usually mounted with silk fabric edges on a flexible backing, so that it can be rolled for storage. Some of the subtlety of scrolls we see in museums has to do with age. But Watson found the faded color to be more resonant than a brighter version. “The more I explored my own personal expression, the more subdued my colors and the more limited my palette became — and my surfaces became more textured.”

Indeed, the highly abraded surface suggests old plaster that has been subjected to the elements of weather: storms of wind and fire.

In the formality of the Japanese tea ceremony, a scroll is hung in the alcove of the tea room. The choice of the scroll is determined by the season or theme. What the scroll says is as important as what it looks like. The calligraphic inscription may state the four principles of the Way of Tea: harmony, respect, purity, and tranquility. One of the seductive aspects of Watson’s work is its affinity to calligraphy, which after all is a pictorial language akin to poetry, in which space — emptiness or absence — is a way of slowing the reading and, as a consequence, time. “My approach is driven not by technique but by thoughts,” Watson says. As important as a choice of medium is, more important is the driving need to express complex emotions.

History (cold wax, oil, collage, 12×12) again evinces traces of words and numbers, as if to suggest a compilation of receipts: gifts and losses bound with twine.

Working With Cold Wax

For these recent paintings, Watson starts by preparing the wood support with a layer of acrylic gesso (white or black) that she lets dry overnight. The ratio of cold wax to oil paints is half and half. “The cold wax will turn the oil color from a glossy look to a matte look. It will also thicken the paint mixture,” she says. “I usually use brighter colors like orange, red, and yellow at this early stage to add some warmth to the underlayers.” She lets this first layer dry overnight.

The next day she begins to work with texture, created by the Catalyst combs. On top of the original bright layer are dark paint/cold wax mixtures. The colors are all subdued, mixed with raw umber or black to suppress the brightness of the color before she mixes it with the cold wax.

In the second layer, she tries not to “completely cover the warmer colors of the first paint layer by allowing some of those colors to show through here and there.” To apply the layers of cold wax/oil she uses a brayer or a rubber spreader. “Sometimes I will crumple up a piece of wax paper, open it up and then lay it on top of the oil mixture and use the brayer to lift off some of the paint, a step that will add subtle textures.” This layer dries overnight.

The surface, dark punctuated with lights, is further worked over a succession of days. “I usually end up with many more layers over a week or longer … one layer per day because each layer needs to dry over night before another layer can be applied, so a painting could possibly have seven or more layers. Many of the layers would not show much in terms of a difference between layers.” The final steps increase the complexity of the surface. “Sometimes I will scratch into the layer to create some lines or circles or dots.” To do this she often uses wooden stamping tools.

Donna Watson’s work table filled with stencils, ink sticks, tools, sumi brushes and metal letters.

The Dilemma of Content

In a process that is intuitive with a subject matter that is nonobjective, how does an artist know when the painting is complete? Indeed, shouldn’t a nonobjective painting resist the notion of closure? “I think I struggle most at the end of the painting,” Watson says. “The question is when am I, rather than the painting, finished.”

As a teacher, she conveys lessons on composition — the elements and principles of design. But what she thinks is most important she calls “personal content.” She explains: “As a workshop instructor I’ve come across students who have learned many techniques from many past workshops. And yet, they still do not know how to paint a successful painting. Their works have no content; they have no idea why they are making this particular painting. What I try to do is help them compose their own painting based on their own personal content based on their own memories or experiences, since every artist has his or her own unique history to draw upon.”


As befits an artist who incorporates old papers, relics, receipts, and miscellaneous messages into her work, Watson is a collector whose studio houses an array of rocks, fossils, animal skulls, bird cages, and birds’ nests, along with Japanese objets she bought from flea markets in Kyoto, Japan.

“I think it’s very important that a studio reflect the nature, personality, and loves of the artist: favorite chair, stones, fossils, music, family photos. Because of all my collections (e.g., stone rabbits: in Japan, a rabbit is seen in the moon), added to all my art supplies and works in progress, my studio can look a bit cluttered. And I cover my floor with works in progress! This used to bother me. But then I read a study that found that people who had jumbled desks were more creative than people who had tidy work areas. In the article were pictures of desks of famous people like Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs who were very sloppy. Now I don’t feel bad about my messy studio.”

Meet Donna Watson

A signature member of the American Watercolor Society and the National Watercolor Society, Donna Watson has taught workshops in the United States and Canada. Her works can be found in the books Masters: Collage: Major Works by Leading Artists (Lark Books, 2010); The Pulse of Mixed Media and 100 Artists of the Northwest (Schiffer, 2013). Watson will be the judge for the Abstract/Experimental category of The Artist’s Magazine’s 2016 Annual Art Competition. Learn more about Watson and see her more of her work at donnawatsonart.com.

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