Watercolor flowers are blooming on the walls of the Peninsula Art Guild’s Kenai Fine Art Center — alongside landscapes, portraits (human and animal), and a handful of abstractions — all watercolor.
The Arts Center, in Old Town Kenai next to the Oilers Bingo Hall, will have an opening reception today from 5 p.m to 7 p.m. for its May show dedicated to the popular painting medium.
“We’re happy to have a watercolor show,” said Peninsula Art Guild Vice President Marion Nelson. “People like watercolor, both to paint and to look at. And it’s a good time of year for it — spring and watercolor kind of go together. Plus there’s lots of flowers, so that’s fun.”
Nelson said the Art Guild board of directors dedicated May to watercolors after being approached by a group of local painters. Some of their work — and that of artists who responded to the open invitation — will hang at the Kenai Fine Arts Center until May 25.
Painter Melinda Hershberger, one of the local watercolorists who advocated for the show, said she’d like for it to become an annual event. Though the new exhibit is the first watercolor-dedicated show to hang on the Art Center’s walls in several years, the medium has a large local following, she said.
“Everyone who does it gets hooked,” Hershberger said. “You’re always a student of watercolor. Even though you learn from other people and teachers — and I’ve taught a bit myself — you’ll always be learning something.”
One quartet of local watercolorists call themselves the Aqua Four. They’ve met to paint together on Wednesdays for about five years, according to regular Gwen Thomas.
Thomas started as an oil painter during her formal art study at San Jose State University in California, but took up watercolor in the mid-1990s to paint with her youngest daughter.
“She said ‘gee, mom, if you’d switch to watercolor, we could go to workshops together,’” Thomas said. “And so I switched, and I love watercolor painting. … We did attend a lot of workshops together, going as far as Italy to take workshops. I still do a little bit of oil, but mainly watercolor. I like the challenges it can bring you, because it doesn’t always do exactly what you plan on it doing.”
Though that daughter, Pamela Mersch, has since moved to Arizona, she’s still a part of Thomas’ painting life. Some of the six floral paintings Thomas contributed to the Art Center show are desert flowers, based on photos Mersch sent her — one is an orange cholla cactus flower from her new home’s garden. Others are based on flowers Thomas grew, such as a blue iris.
While Thomas’ flower paintings strive to capture the tiny tangible details of a blossom, other local watercolorists use the medium to see nature through a wider and looser lens. Jan Sherwood, another one of the Aqua Four, also formally studied art and leapt into watercolor from oil painting.
“I love the translucency of watercolor,” Sherwood said. “I love the spontaneity of watercolor. It’s been part of my life for as long as I can remember. It’s closely associated with the principals of music and mathematics, and I think that’s probably what keeps it interesting as a lifelong hobby. … In music you have the sound values, the rhythm, the emotional response. They’re very closely related, because you’re dealing with tonal values in music and you’re dealing with light and shadow in paintings.”
Sherwood’s paintings at the exhibit depict ephemeral events of light more than the tangible objects of the world. One is an abstraction of blue and violet that she said resembles a breaking wave. Another is a loose landscape in which autumn leaves are rendered as an orange, brown, and red haze, with the lines of a birch trunk as dark, contrasting scratches.
Sherwood begin painting in the small town where she grew up in Illinois — a landscape she said was “probably Alaska’s exact opposite.” The change affected the way she sees and paints the natural world.
“It certainly broadened my views as far as composition — it’s totally different,” Sherwood said. “I think being in the mountains, being in Alaska, we have a very heightened sense of angles and shapes, probably the values from light to dark because of our long days in the summer and our dark winters. So Alaska’s geography and climate just heightens the painter’s awareness, I think, of what has to go into the composition.”
Like Thomas, Sherwood and Hershberger started painting in oils before getting into watercolor — a change that requires “turning your brain completely around,” said Hershberger, recently retired from teaching painting as an adjunct at Kenai Peninsula College.
“Oil and acrylic both you start with your darks and work toward your light,” Hershberger said. “In watercolor, you have to leave the white of the paper to get lights. In true transparent watercolor you work from light to dark, exactly opposite.”
Since managing to flip her painting brain, Hershberger said, she’s found the medium relaxing as well as challenging.
“It’s one of the most therapeutic things I do,” Hershberger said. “You just have a little pot of color, a paintbrush and a jar of water. It’s just engaging — almost like a meditative state — you’re plugged into watching that paint move in the puddle of water, trying to control it or just letting it do its own thing, and everything else kind of goes away while you’re painting. It’s just you, the brush, and the paper.”