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Q&A with Award Winner Leigh Culver

"Picnic Treasures" by Leigh Culver
"Picnic Treasures" by Leigh Culver

This month’s unofficial theme in the Gallery seems to be the treasure of the everyday, including Noah Williams’ “One Man’s Trash” exhibit and the watercolor below, Picnic Treasure. The painting was selected for the Amelia T. Clemente Family Award for Best in Show in the May 2013 All-Media Exhibit, with juror Lauren Dickens praising its “amazing” color.

The artist, Leigh Culver — “a color person” and a watercolorist — told us about the accidents of watercolor, skipping the planning stage, and her teachers and inspiration. Read our Q&A below!

Picnic Treasure by Leigh Culver.
Picnic Treasure by Leigh Culver.

How did Picnic Treasure come to be?
Leigh Culver: It originated from one of Deborah Ellis’ fabulous still life set-ups in her Tuesday Art League class. I had been looking at Sargent’s watercolors of friends lounging in the Alps — the tilting picture planes, bright light, and tumbling fabrics against brilliant green grounds. I thought maybe this could be an incidental napkin of picnic treasures that could have been of or in that world.

What’s your goal with a still life, and with Picnic Treasure in particular?
Still life painting is a wonderful way to practice and explore formal elements of color, composition, surface texture, and technique, while implying human presence and narrative. In this painting, in particular, I was interested in edges — edges just touching, barely touching, almost touching, and the frisson that can create. I was also just enjoying what watercolor can do to suggest different surfaces — from the backwash accidents in the green ground shadows to the tight skin of the grape like shapes. One primary goal is to make the image satisfying not only as a representation but also as simply paint on a flat surface. I’m surprised, given the directions of contemporary art, how attached I am to the process of intently observing and directly translating from nature—there’s something very therapeutic and spiritually meditative about that act, which of course, many artists have long recognized. Painting is my yoga or centering prayer, and it’s icing on the cake if the results are pleasing.

The accidents of watercolor—the drips, splatters, blooms, bleeds, sedimentations—are central to my paintings and my love of the medium.

What’s your artistic process like?
It varies. At the moment, I’m intent on trying to paint without a fully conceived composition or plan, which is particularly challenging with watercolor because it’s much harder to erase or rework bad decisions with watercolor than with other 2-D mediums. It’s usually considered wisest to do preliminary sketches and value studies, and map out the full composition before picking up a paintbrush. But I’ve sometimes felt bogged down or trapped in by that process, so I’ve been experimenting with just starting in with the paint, without any preliminary drawing, and trusting in the more organic process of making decisions as I go along. Shirley Trevena has been my recent inspiration for this, as has a movie I recently saw on Gerhard Richter (I know, strange coupling). This way of creating feels more precarious and fraught — but it forces me into an intense mental alertness about every stroke, and that feels good. Right now, though, I’ve got a lot of unfinished paintings as a result!

I also almost never mix paint on a palette—all my mixing happens on the paper itself, which enables rich, intense color where you can still see the individual colors that create the mix. Art League teacher Jackie Saunders taught me the practice of direct painting—trying to get each stroke right, in color and value, the first time. And I’ve learned from Jackie and Deborah Ellis that the look of freshness and immediacy does not come from quick painting, but from the absolutely deliberate, mentally strenuous, and often ironically slow placement of every stroke.

I have a room in my house I use as a studio, and I paint one day a week in the “Ellis Salon,” as one colleague coined Deborah Ellis’s Art League class. The community of talented, smart, articulate, supportive painters in that class always inspires and invigorates me. I feel very lucky.

Detail from Picnic Treasure.
Detail from Picnic Treasure.

Why watercolor? How is watercolor an integral part of your work?
Originally, I decided to focus on watercolor for pragmatic reasons. I had young kids and I was squeezing painting in between mom-ing and teaching. I liked that it was easily transportable, relatively non-toxic, and easy to clean up. But then I absolutely fell in love with watercolor’s unique properties—the alchemies of pigment and water that happen depending on how much pigment, what kind, how much water, when, on what paper. The accidents of watercolor — the drips, splatters, blooms, bleeds, sedimentations — are central to my paintings and my love of the medium.

I’m a color person. I adore exploring, imbibing in color. I’ll take Mark Rothko over Franz Kline any day.

How did you get started as an artist?
I majored in studio art as an undergraduate, but I was intimidated by the concept of being an artist once I graduated. The process seemed too isolating and amorphous, not to mention financially insecure. So I went into museum work and academia, became an art historian and taught American art to undergraduates. I returned to painting about 7 years ago, taking classes at The Art League. Having a large memory bank of images from my art history education has been invaluable in making me feel less intimidated about making aesthetic choices, and in mid-life, I now prize the “alone” time needed to create and luckily don’t have to rely on my art for financial security!

Is one technical element most important in your work? Color, composition, line, etc.?
I’m a color person. I adore exploring, imbibing in color. I’ll take Mark Rothko over Franz Kline any day. Color challenges always feel exciting and intuitive to me. But of course, one can’t really separate one formal element from another — color, line, composition, mass, variety, scale — they are all integral to one another in an image. But while I’m sometimes willing to sacrifice draftsmanship or volume for the sake of an idea, color considerations are always primary in my work.

What are you working on now?
A number of things. A commissioned series of fruits and vegetables for a patron’s new kitchen. I’ve also been painting aging plants — I’m interested in the resilience and poignant beauty of living things still standing in their final phase. And I’ve just rediscovered a box of fabulous Ken Fassatt and batik fabrics I’d love to use with some of my kids’ loppy hand-made ceramics for still life paintings that hopefully will harness riots of patterns and textures and confound rational 3-D space in interesting ways. Maybe I’ll get inspiration from the new Georges Braque exhibit at the Phillips Collection.

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