Watercolorist Carol Carter went to art school and received her MFA from Washington University, St. Louis. She discovered the power of working in series and has continued that practice since school. Today she travels, teaches and shows her work across the globe.
What is it that you love about watercolor?
I love the fluidity and flow of the paint. I love the organic properties that are so soft and fragile.
You have to “work” with the paint and not force it.
I love letting watercolor just be pigment on paper... and do itʼs own thing. I love the softness and brilliance. I love the clarity and transparency.
I love the fact that it lets me have a little control, but not too much, and if Iʼm pretty insightful-- it will behave and give me some results Iʼm looking for.
What is the feeling that painting in watercolor gives you?
Painting in watercolor calms me down and grounds me. The actual process of painting gives me a sense of calm and peace.
I feel that watercolor is my “happy place.” I always feel a sense of wholeness and accomplishment after painting (even on bad days)
How do you choose what youʼll paint?
I choose images that have an emotional connection to. I paint imagery that resonates with how I feel about something, what I want to say, or something I know about. (Unless itʼs a commission.)
I donʼt paint exotic imagery that I have no understanding of.
Why do you choose this over that, especially when you know youʼll be choosing it for a whole body of work?
I paint a whole collection of work so that I can explore a subject fully. One unique painting never seems enough to explore an idea. I tend to work in series and then choose the best of the series to share at an exhibition. I will “over paint” so that there is room to experiment and take chances. I will destroy the mediocre work.
Walk us through your process. What questions are you trying to answer at each stage?
Here are my steps:
Sketch on paper
Paint in segmented cells from background to foreground
Paint from large shapes to small
Build up the background with subtle washes which will then lead to foreground drama and center of interest.
I am always striving to be clear and precise with each stage. However it rarely works out that way. I have become proficient from beginning to middle of paintings, but struggle when I get to the end.
I think itʼs because I am “in love” with what Iʼve already painted. This causes me to be too precious in making final decisions.
So, to help with this-- I put away the mid state painting for a few weeks and bring it out later. This time-distance allows me to see the painting with “fresh eyes” and make stronger, correct, and bolder final decisions. Putting it away allows me to “fall out of love” with what Iʼve already painted and see painting objectively. The new objectivity gives insight to correct finishing touches.
What are you trying to figure out in your color studies?
I am trying to determine which pigments strengthen and reinforce each other. The color studies allow me to figure out how to structure the washes from background to foreground.
The studies also give me a chance to make sweeping, decisive washes that are simplified. These simplified shapes inform the larger shapes for a bigger painting.
What does doing that planning and experimenting here give you when youʼre working on the larger piece?
I am freer and more experimental with the smaller paintings. I work fast and free and am not struggling with too much wash to cover a large sheet. The smaller studies are brief and spontaneous. When I refer to the study while painting the larger painting-- I try to keep the freshness and spontaneity of movement and flow in larger piece.
How do you finish a painting? How did that approach evolve and why is it important to work that way for you?
I finish a painting after Iʼve put it away for several weeks and am no longer “thinking” about it. The distance of time allows me to “detach” from the emotional energy of painting.
With the renewed perspective-- I am afforded more freedom and courage to make the “right” decisions to finish. Frequently it goes in a vastly different direction than I previously considered. I love this.
More often than not, it becomes a stronger painting-- more experimental and bold. Finishing paintings can be tough. I am always hampered in the final act until I take a break.
I think this approach evolved when I was forced to finish a few paintings within a time frame. I saw that they were completed in a stilted way. There was too much “preciousness” to saving all the previous washes.
When I finish a painting I have to have the freedom to make broad decisions that might obliterate previous painting. This bravery and courage only comes (for me) after Iʼve detached emotionally from painting and have an objective perspective on what it needs (regardless of what has been previously painted).
How do you translate a photo into a painting?
When I paint from a photo I keep in mind that I “inform” the photo and not “describe” it.
I rely heavily on the linear aspect of the photo to get me started. When I analyze the imagery- I look for background or distant shapes-- and begin working those first. For example, I’ll look to the sky first.
This allows to paint an environment or atmosphere for my subject to exist in. The background will fade into the picture plane (the distance) and gradually the foreground subjects begin to emerge.
Painting the middle ground can be complex and tedious. But when I finally get to paint the foreground or “closest” shapes-- the whole painting begins to come together and make sense.
I call it: “non gratifying painting” until you get to the very end!
You work in series. Why? What does this give you as an artist?
I think working in a series makes for a stronger statement and better understanding of what youʼre trying to say to your audience. When I explore all aspects of a subject I feel that Iʼm getting closer to the soul or essence of whatʼs intrigued me. Communication of pure idea is the key.
In my graduate work -- we were encouraged to work in series and it made sense.
Having fully developed and rich series makes painting and vision more valid. Thereʼs always another perspective or another point of view to consider!
As someone who creates bodies of work, how do you strive for a more meaningful body of work?
My best work is psychological and tugs at the core of the human spirit. I like to paint figurative, narrative, and autobiographic imagery.
I like to paint the human experience.
The closer I get to my humanity the more I become transparent. With my transparency of soul the more I connect to my audience and the communication becomes universal.
Technique feels so important when weʼre beginning. How do we begin transitioning into the why of what weʼre painting? How do we even begin to think in those terms? Why is it important?
Technique is important and always will be. But whenever you are painting-- you must always askʼ- “Why am I painting this? What am I communicating?” At every level of expression the artist must be challenging himself to “know” why and what he is communicating.
I think the beginning artists and art schools dwell too long on technical aspects at the expense of the bigger picture of art.
It took me years to realize what I was trying to say as an artist. I think it would be better to challenge yourself earlier in the art school process.
You need to ask yourself those questions at every stage of development. It was 10 years before I ever started asking those questions of myself. WAY too late. I should have been doing it all along. I always teach this way too-- even with beginning artists. I ask my students always-- “Why are you painting this? What is important to you?”
Life is so busy and potentially noisy. How important is it to set up the mental space that allows you to do your best work? How do you do this?
I have a wonderful studio (off site) that allows me to be messy and focused.
I have the luxury of painting 10 hours a day --6 days a week. This is only after raising a son and spending small amounts of time in studio however.
I believe itʼs very important to work ALL the time regardless of inspiration. There are many many times I donʼt want to work and life experiences outside studio are too tough.
However, with the discipline of painting-- and showing up to the studio to paint-- Iʼve learned that practice and perseverance are important.
The mental space comes when you discipline yourself to show up to the studio and work. Your best work comes with time and experience. Tenacity, patience and perseverance is what gives you mental space to explore and be creative.