Abby Leon, Paradigm Gallery Director
Artist Avon Waters is an accomplished plein air painter known for capturing the beauty of nature. Not only is his work represented in the Paradigm Gallery, but it’s also on display in FWMoA’s current exhibition Indiana Waterways: The Art of Conservation. In this show Avon (alongside John Kelty, Curt Stanfield, Dan Woodson, and Tom Woodson) pays homage to the 65,000 miles of rivers and streams across the state. Their artwork raises awareness of the environmental health of these inspirational resources. Through this series of 100 paintings, all 5 artists have inspired us to stop and think about how we can be more eco-friendly. In this week’s “Let’s Talk SHOP”, we dive deeper into Avon Waters’ passion for the outdoors and how the landscape inspires him.
I grew up in rural Indiana, on a farm, and became close to nature early by going on fishing trips with my dad and hiking into the surrounding woods. I cannot remember a time when I didn’t make art. The arts, be it literature, theatre, or visual arts, were always included in family discussions, on vacations, trips to used bookstores, antique auctions, and with visits to the house by local artists. My uncle Avon was an artist and writer while my mother painted and became an art instructor at Peru Junior High School. My oldest sister Lana painted and graduated from Herron and our middle sister, Kim, was in theater and eventually went to Hollywood and was on “Days of Our Lives.”
The family story goes that I ran out of paper when I was 3 or 4 and I went into a closet and drew with crayon on the walls. The family never let me run out of paper after that. In fact, those drawings were still there when we sold the farmhouse in 2010.
I tried art school, then ultimately studied fine art photography in university. After college I worked many jobs, I even owned a photography studio at one point. I went on to work as a journalist for 10 years and eventually ended my traditional work life as a communications specialist and political speech writer at the Indiana State House.
No matter the job, many evenings and weekends I continued to paint and draw. Like most artists, my learning experience included painting everything—figurative, portraits, landscapes, and still lives. About 25 years ago I began settling into my genre, landscape. It wasn’t until I was 62 years old, however, that I quit my traditional jobs and began to pursue art full-time. It was also around then that I tried pastel painting for the first time.
I bought a condemned 100-year old building in Amboy, Indiana for $1000— a town of about 250. After gutting it and rebuilding the 1,200 square foot studio space, it’s where I create my work. Oddly enough, I discovered that out of the 250 people in Amboy, there are about 5 full-time artists living and working there; the town will sell anyone a lot for $1.
I primarily paint in a tonalist style, where I try to paint the air around the landscape more than the objects themselves that make up the scene. This allows me to focus on the negative spaces of my paintings more than the details associated with more traditional representational art. I use ghosts to guide my work to a conclusion and they bring an abstract quality to the work. Stay with me here, I don’t mean ghosts in a paranormal sense…but the ghosts help me achieve the moods that mirror my emotional attachment to the land.
In the past 3 years I have experimented with using different liquids to create distinctive effects using a wet pastel process. I have adopted what I call the CDR method of working — first I construct an image, then I destroy it (leaving behind a ghost image), and then I reconstruct it. A kind of “Wash and Repeat” cycle; repeated over and over until a final image emerges.
This repeated construction and destruction leaves ghosts of shapes on the paper or canvas that inform how I proceed when I begin the construction process over each time. The more ghosts that appear, the richer and more interesting the finished surfaces become.
For this demonstration, I started with a 6×6 pastel sketch that was months old (left). It was the memory of a morning drive to the studio when thin fog snuggled up to the tree line and crept over the bean stubble.
I either start with a plein air sketch or a sketch from a photograph; in this case, it was a memory sketch. For the pictured color pastel sketch, I first created thumbnail sketches the morning I arrived at the studio — the impression fresh in my mind from the drive in. Each graphite sketch was changed until I had a variety of them. Next, I picked the one I liked best and began using the selected 2×2 graphite as a guide to try 6×6 pastel studies.
The pastel image selected here was one of three I did from the graphite drawing I selected to use. Each pastel sketch (maybe 15 minutes of time for each) used a different color scheme or color palette. Often, as in this case, these are pinned to a wall and may never get enlarged while others may become inspiration for a larger work months later.
A B C D
Figure A. I apply pastel in large shapes then brush them off with something like pipe insulation. That leaves a ghost of some darks and lights allowing me to see what shapes are left. Again, I apply pastel with more color to these shapes to create what a landscape element might look like. At this stage, I begin to want to use wet pastel techniques.
Figure B. I apply one of several wet mediums over the pastel drawing. (Preferably they are wet enough to make runs and drips in some areas.) This washes away most of the pastel colors I applied. What you don’t see are the splotches left that guide me to even more landscape details (see Figure C).
Figure C. I use the drips and runs to see that maybe this landscape has trees in front of the middle ground and distant trees of A and B. I apply more color to the established background and begin to build a place for the trees to grow from in the foreground. I apply more wet medium in areas that do not have much texture or interest.
Figure D. If I like where the ghosts have led me, and the color and textures, then I apply a fixative that will hold all those shapes in place so that if I wash with a wet medium again the new wash will only react to the new application of pastel and not what the ghosts already gave me. From Figure C you can see some of the tree trunks have almost disappeared, but enough remain that, with a fixative, I can replace them before the finish.
Figures E and F. At some point, after repeated destruction and reconstruction, the areas of no texture or layers become smaller and smaller and eventually the final image appears on the page. One can see how the painting that emerges isn’t even close to the beginning image used as a reference! It wasn’t until I began letting the painting tell me where to go —and me stopping to try force my will on it—that I learned to love the journey more as an artist. By letting the world of nature tell me what to do rather than me try and tell nature where to go I found a balance where I can become one with nature.
Visit us at the Paradigm Gallery (Tuesday-Saturday 10am-6pm, Thursday 10am-8pm, Sunday 12-5pm) to view Avon Waters’ “Trees Waiting by the River” (and more) in person or to purchase and add to your collection! Be sure to also check out Indiana Waterways: The Art of Conservation during it’s last week here at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art, closing March 19th, before it travels to Minnetrista.