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Florence Setzer and the Beauty of the Commute

Homeward Bound, watercolor, by Florence Setzer. Winner of the Potomac Valley Watercolorists Award.
Homeward Bound, watercolor, by Florence Setzer. Winner of the Potomac Valley Watercolorists Award.

It’s a familiar scene: red lights on the right, white lights on the left. A gentle curve, following the sun home at the end of a long day.

What’s unfamiliar is the sense of calm. An unexpected subject for a watercolor painting, rush hour finds peace in a cool palette — and a quiet moment plucked from a stressful routine. Homeward Bound by Florence Setzer won the Potomac Valley Watercolorists Award, and we asked the artist to tell us about its origins, and her process as a watercolor artist.

What was your goal with Homeward Bound?
Florence Setzer: Heading home after work brings an element of relief and anticipation. I wanted to convey a sense of the serenity and beauty that can sometimes arise at dusk, even during the hassles of commuting.

What road is depicted? What made you want to paint it?
The road is the beltway, seen from a pedestrian bridge I frequently cross. The painting was a response to a challenge by Gwen Bragg to do a painting on the subject “return.” What came to mind was returning home from work, and this image of rush hour traffic suggested itself.

Cape Town by Florence Setzer, part of her "Distant Cities" series.
Cape Town by Florence Setzer, part of her “Distant Cities” series.

Why do you work in watercolor? What does it offer that other media don’t?
I first fell in love with watercolor just because I liked the way it looks. The subtle gradations that naturally occur in wet-in-wet watercolor can create striking effects that are hard to achieve in other media. These effects work particularly well in landscape features like sky and water.

The white paper and transparent paints can provide a wonderful sense of light. The convenience of a medium that requires little preparation or cleanup, and thus lends itself to spontaneity, was a bonus. Watercolor is also extremely portable for plein air work.

Florence Setzer - Homeward Bound (detail)

What is your creative process like, from finding an idea to declaring a piece finished?
I’m not particularly introspective about my painting. I paint more or less realistically, and I think what I try to do is to capture and convey the beauty of the world around me.

I like to begin with some striking visual image that I’ve experienced. My paintings are predominantly landscapes. When I paint indoors, I work from photographs. I crop them and do value studies until I come up with a satisfying composition and a format that suits the subject. Then I sketch the image on the paper.

I usually use fairly traditional watercolor techniques, with a succession of transparent washes. When the painting is close to being finished, I set it on an easel by my breakfast table and contemplate it over breakfast and lunch. Sometimes I spend a long time deciding whether a painting is finished or not. Then I photograph and frame my paintings. While those aren’t particularly creative activities, they seem to me to be a part of the job of producing the finished work of art.

Across the Golden Gate by Florence Setzer
Across the Golden Gate by Florence Setzer

What are you working on now?
Lately I’ve been thinking of series of plein air paintings of a single place under different conditions. I just returned form Maine, where I did plein air paintings of the shore at high and low tide. Also, I’ve done a couple of paintings of cities seen from a distance, which I’m thinking of turning into a series.

“Landschap” is on view through Sunday, September 4.

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