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Sally Davies, Playing With Water and Dots

Playing With Water, watercolor, by Sally Davies. Winner of The Art League Award for Best in Show in our July Open Exhibit.

The title of this painting raises a question: does “playing with water” refer only to the children in the picture? Or could it also be that the artist is enjoying experimenting with watercolor again, after preparing for an exhibit of acrylic paintings on canvas?

Sally Davies was the winner of this month’s best in show award for Playing With Water. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because she’s also the artist behind this month’s solo exhibit, “Global Views: Light and Shadow.” (Sometimes that’s how blind jurying works out!)

We’ve previously interviewed Davies about a different best-in-show museum scene, so for this Q&A, we dove right into the watercolor:

What was your goal for Playing With Water?
Sally Davies: I wanted to convey the joy of discovery. I loved the joyful expressions on all the children – you can tell that even the boys, with just their hair and no face showing, were very excited about playing with the water.

Playing With Water (detail) by Sally Davies

I positioned the supervising teacher as just a pair of legs, hovering behind the kids. The teacher is such a stark contrast to the curiosity and enthusiasm of her students. To add to this playful concept, I decided to play with the water too, and make the small strip of water into a huge expanse of colorful dots. I was painting a series with dots at the times, so it just evolved from there. I did another similar painting with just the four boys and the teacher, but the addition of the girl adds so much joy with her facial expression.

What made you want to paint this scene?
A few years ago, I was at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, Japan, and they had an exhibit of Leandro Erlich’s artwork. One of his installations is a swimming pool that appears to be deep, but is only a few inches of water with a glass bottom.

The Swimming Pool by Leandro Erlich at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, Japan (view from below)

This glass bottom is the ceiling of the room on the lower level with blue walls. Visitors can walk below the glass pool in the blue room without getting wet, and look up at the people looking into the pool outside. It was a lot of fun to watch the reactions of this group of school children, and I took a lot of photographs. This painting is a composite of a few different images.

I also wanted to push the “realism” a bit towards abstract elements. If you squint your eyes, you can see the dark round shapes of the heads of hair, the pattern of dark school uniforms, the teachers rectangular dark purple legs, and the long bands of color behind the people. I still think the viewer interprets the dots as water – even if it is not “water” that was in my photo reference. But the pattern of colored dots have the spirit of water – echoing that bubbly, playful movement of water.

What inspired the dots motif?
The dot motif was inspired by an art class I taught to elementary students about the American artist, Roy Lichtenstein. His work is huge and has the comic book inspired dots. I had my students make a big posters of their own faces, using dots to add color – like Lichtenstein – with a thought bubble or speech caption of their own words.

Sleeping Girl (detail) by Roy Lichtenstein. 1964.

To make the dots even, I had the students used ribbon with holes in it for the smaller dots and gutter-guard metal strips with circle holes to make larger dots. The kids used markers to color in the dots and then lift up the template when they finished. I did a demo for the kids and also made an example poster for them, and in the process, I was excited about the possibilities using this in my own art.

I made a few watercolor portraits with the dots and then moved on to making a whole series of “rain paintings” using the dots as a background for people rushing through the rain. With the watercolor media, I could let the dots show through the transparent umbrellas, so it made an interesting design.

Is Playing With Water part of a series?
Yes, once I started with the dots, I was really excited about the creative possibilities and spent almost a year doing paintings with some element of dots in them. I even made a template for large dots, and used it as an under-painting on my acrylic canvas paintings.

How would you compare it to your Global Views series?
Well, the most obvious difference is the media. The Global Views series is all on canvas, not watercolor on paper.

Follow the Leader, acrylic on canvas diptych, by Sally Davies

But there are interesting similarities. Both have views looking from unusual vantage points. I did about 20 watercolor ‘dot’ paintings of people running through the rain with umbrellas. The viewer is looking down from an upper story window and the reflection of the people and their umbrellas make a pattern in the wet pavement….so it gives a similar effect to the long cast shadows in the Global Views series, that and the foreshortened figures.

Hurry to Work (detail) by Sally Davies

Another similarity is the dots. If you look at the canvas paintings from the Global Views series, I painted dots in some of the layers in the backgrounds. This is most obvious in the “Hurry to Work” painting of a Yokohama street scene. The pavement has a subtle pattern of big blue dots under the warm, orangey street. It is not as striking as the dots in the watercolor paintings, but the dots are still there!

Do you have any more dot paintings in your future?
Yes, patterns and especially the dots still interest me and it is such a playful element. I’ve been painting mostly canvas artwork for the Global Views series these past two years, so I’m ready to give equal time to watercolor next. I always have lots of ideas for paintings swirling around in my head. I have too many painting ideas and too little time!

The July Open Exhibit — and Sally Davies’s solo exhibit, “Global Views: Light & Shadow” — are on view through Sunday, August 6, 2017.

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