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Q&A with Watercolorist Gwen Bragg

October Dogwood by Gwendolyn Bragg, winner of the Carolyn Zakaski Watercolor Award. (click for a larger image)
October Dogwood by Gwendolyn Bragg, winner of the Carolyn Zakaski Watercolor Award. (click for a larger image)

This dogwood branch started life on the artist’s tree, traveled to the classroom where she teaches, was captured in its autumn glory with colors mixed on the paper, and today it’s in the December All-Media Exhibit.

This painting by Gwendolyn Bragg won the Carolyn Zakaski Watercolor Award — which is named, although the juror didn’t know it, for a student of Bragg’s, whose friends and family created it to honor her commitment to the fine arts. Gwen Bragg told us more about her love of watercolor, her painting techniques, and her student Carolyn Zakaski:

What was your goal with October Dogwood?
Gwendolyn Bragg: This painting was started as a class demonstration. The assignment was to bring to class a small branch of autumn leaves or flowers. Students were first asked to focus on design and composition: Where should the focal point be located? What interesting shapes (both positive and negative) does the branch or flower suggest? How best to “place” them on the paper?

I’ve painted from cuttings off of my dogwood before and liked the results. I demonstrate mixing the colors for the leaves on the paper which results in brighter, more eye-catching color mixes. Once the foreground is complete and dry, the background is tackled painting wet into wet — deliberately making shapes on the paper reminiscent of those in the foreground and therefore suggesting more distant branches with leaves.

What is your creative process like for a piece like this? How does it compare to your other series, like “Stone on Stone”?
The Stone on Stone series is done by applying paint to two sides of a piece of watercolor paper, then flipping it over and over against a nonporous surface (I use a piece of plexiglas), thus creating the overall textures you see in that series. For October Dogwood I used a more standard approach to painting in watercolor. I painted the leaves first, then added the background, working quickly on a very wet surface. Finally, I married the foreground and background with some “in-betweens” creating a sense of depth and space.

October Dogwood (detail) by Gwendolyn Bragg
October Dogwood (detail) by Gwendolyn Bragg

How did you achieve the contrast between the foreground and background?
With bright color, clear edges, and lots of strong value changes, the foreground grabs your attention. The leaves in the background are painted wet into wet with muted color. Because I’m painting on such a wet surface, only soft edges are created, letting them appear to recede into space.

Why watercolor?
I love the surprises and the challenges of the media. I’ve been working in transparent watercolor for some 46 years — I guess I’m too old and stuck in my ways to change!

Beneath the Surface XXXII, watercolor, by Gwendolyn Bragg — from August's ’Scapes exhibit (click for a larger image)
Beneath the Surface XXXII, watercolor, by Gwendolyn Bragg — from August’s ’Scapes exhibit (click for a larger image)

The award you received is named for a student of yours. Do you have any memories of Carolyn Zakaski you’d like to share?
Carolyn was a student who began attending my classes soon after I started teaching at The Art League School in 1989. She was determined, dedicated and passionate about her painting. She went to great lengths to adjust her work schedule so she could attend class each week — starting her “day job” at an ungodly early hour so she could fulfill her work assignments before coming to class.

I particularly remember a series of panda paintings she did from sketches and photos she did on a class plain air painting trip to the National Zoo. These were large paintings using what I call the Lee Weiss technique (the flipping process I use for the Stone on Stone series) — a really beautiful series. Carolyn was a dedicated and talented student. She is missed.

What are you working on now?
I’m between teaching sessions and doing what I usually do — putting finishing touches on other class demonstrations. I also have a show at the Arts Club of Washington coming up in May so I have some “history” or “ruins” paintings to finish and I also need a few more of the “Beneath the Surface” series for that venue. That will keep me occupied until classes begin again in January.

The December 2014 All-Media Exhibit is on view through Monday, January 5. To see a demonstration of Gwen Bragg using the “Lee Weiss technique” for a Stone on Stone painting, check out this video on YouTube.

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