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Catherine Hillis: “Fresh, Moving Color”

The Renegade, watercolor, by Catherine Hillis. Winner of the Sid Platt Watercolor Award.
The Renegade, watercolor, by Catherine Hillis. Winner of the Sid Platt Watercolor Award.

Painter Catherine Hillis loves to capture a good story, so it’s not surprising that an exhibit like “Op-Ed” garnered her an award.

For “Op-Ed” — a show about strong opinions — Hillis captured a strident statement of opposition in the form of a lone protester: the titular Renegade. Juror Dave Bellard selected the painting for the Sid Platt Watercolor Award.

We asked the artist what makes this figure stand out in her oeuvre’s cast of characters:

Who is The Renegade? What made him worthy of a painting?
Catherine Hillis: Let me explain the background of this character first. I’ve been selected for nearly a dozen plein air competitions across the country this year and I’ve traveled our country a lot. My most recent event was Paint the Peninsula in Port Angeles, Washington in August.

Part of my work as a plein air painter is to absorb and understand not only the landscape, but the people, the social climate and what makes each area unique and I try to put some of that knowledge into my work. I experienced the Olympic Peninsula to be a rather politically charged environment.

The gentleman in my painting was on a Port Angeles corner with his anti-Harley signs every single day: all day. He was forceful with his presence and tenacious and consistent. Although I was in Port Angeles for a week, I could not pass this particular corner without seeing this man. He was making an unfashionable statement and doing it with a lot of courage. He was, in short, a character and I knew I would need to paint him once I returned home and to my studio.

Dublin at Christmas, watercolor, by Catherine Hillis
Dublin at Christmas, watercolor, by Catherine Hillis

What was your goal with this painting?
I love to tell stories with my work. I enjoy painting figures in a contemporary America and when I can include a humorous statement, I’m satisfied.

Why are you a watercolorist?
I paint in all mediums but I love watercolors. I paint with my work upright on an easel, so I believe part of the attraction to me is the uncontrolled danger of watching watercolor paint merge and allowing one color to combine with another. I like fresh, moving color.

What is your creative process like, from an idea to a finished painting?
This is a great question. I’m very impulsive, both in the field and in the studio. Whenever I see great light, or a story, I have to paint. I’m forcing myself to slow down, however, and pay more attention to composition and design.

Havana Afternoon, watercolor, by Catherine Hillis
Havana Afternoon, watercolor, by Catherine Hillis

When I work in the studio, I go to my resource material first, which in this case was a series of photographs. After selecting my resource material, I begin a series of sketches. I prefer the simplest form of sketching and I’m constantly trying to simplify my design into just a few shapes and two or three values. I also like to make black and white copies of my photograph and I might simplify my shapes with white and gray inks, again resorting to simplifying shape and value.

Is this typical subject matter for you? What’s your favorite thing to paint?
While I do paint a lot of figures, I don’t care what the subject matter is. I’m interested in painting light. If I see a landscape or a figure or a still life that tells a story and has a tremendous sense of light and atmosphere, I’m going to paint it.

A Forgotten Hero, watercolor, by Catherine Hillis
A Forgotten Hero, watercolor, by Catherine Hillis

How long have you been a professional artist? What was involved in making that decision?
Eleven years ago, my husband and I sold our home in the Washington, DC suburbs and moved out to Western Loudoun County to a little village called Round Hill. I live in a remote rural area surrounded by mountains, history and solitary beauty. For the past 11 years, I’ve been able to completely focus on my career as a professional artist. Many difficult personal events led us to make this move and it was time for a change, which has been very good for my career.

What are you working on now?
I’m currently working on a full sheet watercolor of strong light and shadow reflecting off of a line of parked bicycles in Seattle, Washington. The scene is very complex. I’m painting color into color and working with soft edges versus hard edges. And, of course, I’m always working on curriculum for my classes, trying to present new materials to my student base.

“Op-Ed” is on view through Sunday, November 6. Catherine Hillis teaches Watercolor From Start to Finish four times a year at The Art League.

Business or Pleasure, watercolor, by Catherine Hillis. (To be featured in SPLASH: The Best of Watercolor in Spring, 2017.)
Business or Pleasure, watercolor, by Catherine Hillis. (To be featured in SPLASH: The Best of Watercolor in Spring, 2017.)

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