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Cityscapes in Watercolor: a Q&A with Michele Rea

Windows, watercolor, by Michele Rea. (click for full size)
Windows, watercolor, by Michele Rea. (click for full size)

What’s the best way to capture the feeling of being in New York City? On the sidewalk, looking through a camera lens, like so many famous street photographers? Or is it above the fray, looking down on a seemingly quiet city?

Artist Michele Rea uses both the camera and the paintbrush as tools: capturing her compositions through the viewfinder, and then laying down watercolor to recreate layers of grime and texture. After Windows was chosen as the Best in Show piece for this year’s ’Scapes exhibit, we asked the artist about how watercolor and the city work together.

Where is Windows? What made you want to paint it?
Windows is in New York City. I took the photo from a hotel window in Union Square. I love New York and try to paint as many subjects as I can from there. I also find subjects from the urban landscape of cities across the United States.

How did you first get started with this kind of urban, industrial subject matter? How has your approach to it changed over time?
I first started painting industrial subjects when I visited my son, living in Chicago.

For eight years, I only painted subjects I found there. By doing this I felt a connection to my son. It started with bridges and the elevated subway tracks and gradually led to old buildings. The darkened windows always drew me in. What was going on inside? I love the mystery of what took place in the past and who might have lived or worked there.

Windows by Michele Rea (detail)
Windows by Michele Rea (detail)

Where and how do you find new subjects and compositions?
I create my compositions through my camera lens. By scanning the landscape this way I discover many patterns, shapes and angles. Where the angles converge at a point, an abstract composition is formed. Sometimes I zoom in on a subject and realize it isn’t what I thought. Some of my paintings are close-ups of objects showing their rust, peeling paint, and decay. I am a master painter of rust and textures. Interestingly, my painting Windows doesn’t really have either.

Every Which Way by Michele Rea, from her 2010 solo exhibit at The Art League, “Vantage Point.”
Every Which Way by Michele Rea, from her 2010 solo exhibit at The Art League, “Vantage Point.”

What makes watercolor the right choice for these paintings?
I am meticulous with the perspective of my architectural subjects and spend many hours perfecting the drawings. I choose to work in watercolor because I can capture the mood of a subject by using strong colors in many layers, as well as different textures and fine details. I always want to entice the viewer to come closer, inviting them to imagine what mystery lies hidden beyond the frame.

What’s your favorite thing about being a painter?
My favorite thing about being a painter is expressing my love of a subject for all to see! I am very emotional about my paintings. Each one has my whole heart in it!

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