By Bonnie Gangelhoff
Guadalupe, Frio, Brazos, and San Saba—Susu Meyer counts these Texas rivers among her favorite places to paint. The artist’s love affair with water began in her youth when her family took vacations from their home in Houston to the Frio River, which runs through the Texas Hill Country. For the past seven years, she has also returned many times to another Hill Country treasure, the Nueces River. “I’ve seen it change from a thirsty, dry rock bed to a raging monster—flowing with a force that only Mother Nature could create,” Meyer says. The idea that rivers are untamable is part of their allure, she adds. For example, a devastating flood can suddenly carve a new path on the earth’s surface.
Meyer’s moody river renderings begin with a sketch on location as well as notes in a journal about what she is seeing, hearing, smelling, and thinking at the scene. She records everything from the texture of the river grasses to the feeling of the sun rising. For her, painting is about waking up the senses and translating her experiences into a visual adventure for the viewer. She frequently paints large-scale canvases so that people feel as though they are walking into the landscape itself. “If my paintings were small, people would feel more like observers,” Meyer explains.
Even after painting for several decades, the Texas artist still “gets a chill” on a particular kind of day when the rivers offer something new and she senses that the painting she is about to create is destined to be something special. “Natural, untouched beauty has a profound effect on me,” Meyer says. “It stirs my emotions, excites me, bewilders me, and always leaves me in a state of awe.” She is represented by Buchanan Gallery, Galveston, TX, and Davis Gallery, Austin, TX.
One thing that many people take for granted—water—doesn’t exist in Arizona, Paul Davis likes to say. Indeed, water is scarce in the desert terrain where he makes his home. Nonetheless, Davis has long harbored a special interest in the natural resource. As a youngster growing up in Oklahoma, he cherished family vacations to a cabin overlooking Lake Texoma near the Texas-Oklahoma border. Since then he has been drawn to lakes, rivers, and streams as subject matter for his paintings as well as soothing places to enjoy a day of fishing.
These days, Davis frequents Lake Powell, a crystal-clear, man-made body of water surrounded by canyon walls in the high-desert landscape of northern Arizona. He captures such waterscapes with a signature explosion of brilliant color—splashes of cobalt blue, sunflower yellow, and fiery orange to accentuate the drama of the western color scheme. The lush forests of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains are also part of his oeuvre, and he captures the scenes’ various shades of richly tinted greens.
Davis’ works are often abstracted and dotted with people or animals to emphasize the massive vistas of the western landscape and give viewers a sense of perspective. He enjoys the impact of painting monumental works—everything is so open in the West, according to the artist, that large-scale pieces best capture a sense of place. “The visual impact is better for the viewer,” he adds. Davis is represented by Joyce Robins Gallery, Santa Fe, NM; Wilde Meyer Gallery, Scottsdale and Tucson, AZ; and Lucas Gallery, Telluride, CO.
Sharon Burkett Kaiser
Although she may be known for still-life works, Sharon Burkett Kaiser says her real passion is painting water. “I love to solve new problems, and because water is constantly moving, it’s very challenging and tremendously fun to paint,” she explains. A native Californian, Kaiser has lived in picturesque Malibu for the past 27 years and seldom strays farther than a day trip north to Monterey for her painting excursions. The artist has all the inspiration she needs—the endless Pacific Ocean—not far from her front door. Kaiser’s waterscapes often capture a slice of life on the nearby beaches, such as in glorious day, which depicts children skipping along the sand on Malibu’s Westward Beach. The piece displays her exuberant sense of color harmony as well. Color is a key element in her painting technique, Kaiser says, because it allows her to evoke mood and emotion. Her richly colored renderings of the Golden State’s sun-drenched coastline often straddle the boundary between realism and abstraction.
Kaiser, who has painted en plein air for more than 20 years, begins a piece on location but typically finishes it in her studio. She avoids using photographs for reference or painting in artificial light. Although the sunlight outside her studio may change throughout the day, Kaiser has six opaque skylights above her workspace so that the natural light inside remains fairly constant. “My studio approximates what it’s like to work outdoors under an umbrella,” she explains. An influential teacher, Sergei Bongart, helped her with the initial design. “My two years studying with him was a life-changing experience in art,” she says. Kaiser is a signature member of the California Art Club and a member of the Laguna Plein Air Painters Association. She is represented by McLean Gallery, Malibu, CA, and Fortune Fine Art, Torrance, CA.
When it comes to painting water, Ellen Dittebrandt isn’t content to observe her subject matter from a distance. The Oregon painter prefers to thrust herself into nature, whether it’s standing underneath a waterfall or wading up to her knees in icy water. “I like to go places other people won’t go and to places people have gone to a zillion times but may be able to see a new view of through my work,” she says. Dittebrandt begins her creations by snapping photographs from these unusual vantage points—the images help her translate the feel, smell, and sound of rushing rapids and rippling creeks. “I am always getting soaked when I take the pictures, but I want to give people the experience of being there,” she explains.
Water has played a key role in Dittebrandt’s compositions for more than a decade. “I like to paint water because it is transparent, and there are so many layers to capture,” she says. Dittebrandt is the daughter of an artist, and as a child she began painting, in part, to impress her father. Early on, she became a compulsive sketch artist, drawing everything from trees to her feet, hands, and face, she says. Today, landscapes are her genre of artistic expression and pastel is her medium of choice. “I like the fact that you can grab a pastel and stick it right on the canvas. Then you can layer it to create colors,” she says. While Dittebrandt paints in locales across the Southwest such as Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico, her artistic heart belongs to the Northwest with favorite haunts like Trout Lake in Washington. She is represented by Frame Design & Sunbird Gallery, Bend, OR; William Zimmer Gallery, Mendocino, CA; The Real Mother Goose, Portland, OR; and Columbia Art Gallery, Hood River, OR.
There are few plein-air painters who work in acrylic, and Darcie Peet is one of them. “Acrylic gives me the ability to layer paint, and layering paint as well as building a painting jazzes me,” says the artist, who splits her time between Arizona and Colorado. For Peet, painting is all about the process. She relishes creating visible brush strokes and textures—elements that allow viewers to see the hand of the artist “slipping and sliding” across the canvas, she describes. But it’s the reflective quality that draws her to rivers, lakes, and lily ponds as subject matter. “Water allows me to paint color and shapes,” she says. “And there are so many qualities in water. It can be turbulent and windswept, or it can be quiet and smooth as glass. It can evoke feelings of peace, or of danger and foreboding.”
Before moving west, Peet witnessed the many characteristics of water up close while living on Lake Superior in northern Minnesota. Another influence on her artistic vision occurred when she was growing up in Ohio—Peet’s mother enjoyed taking the family on hikes along the edge of lakes, rivers, and waterfalls. Today, the artist paints at the edge of the timberline, an area where the trees gradually stop growing and the landscape changes dramatically. “There is such a serenity and peace at that level,” she says. “And as you break above the timberline there is a sense of vastness and a feeling of being on top of the world.” Peet’s work is on view in a group show February 12-March 7 at El Presidio Gallery in Tucson, AZ. She is also represented by Big Horn Galleries, Tubac, AZ, and Cody, WY; Cogswell Gallery, Vail, CO; and Snowfire Gallery, Estes Park, CO.
Texas artist David Caton lives and works in Utopia, a small town in the Hill Country populated by 300 people. From his home, he travels across the Lone Star State, soaking up the various terrain that includes everything from the beautiful central Texas rivers to the awesome canyons in Big Bend National Park. Caton’s affinity for the drama that exists in nature at every turn leads him to create works that are both monumental in scale and compelling in subject matter. He frequently modulates the color and light in his oil and pastel works so that the final painting is an interpretation of a scene rather than an exact depiction. Some observers point out that Caton’s landscapes evoke a sense of the imaginary, reminiscent of paintings by Martin Johnson Heade [1819-1904] and Caspar David Friedrich [1774-1840].
Caton is as adept at depicting intimate scenes in the Hill County as he is the grander-scale vistas of the Big Bend region, Utah, and Arizona. Whatever scene he chooses to portray, Caton is frequently inspired by the 19th-century landscape painters—artists who infused their works with a “sense of the sublime,” he says. Since moving from Houston to the Hill Country five years ago, bodies of water have appeared more regularly in his paintings. “The dramatic possibilities with elements such as white-water rapids bring motion and excitement to the landscape and my work,” he says. Caton earned a master’s degree in fine art from Yale University, and he has received two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship grants in his career. He is represented by Harris Gallery, Houston, TX.
Colorado artist Ginger Whellock has taught school, worked on a ranch, and spearheaded start-up medical technology companies. But throughout the years she has always kept an easel close at hand. Since her retirement from the business world in 1990, Whellock has finally been able to devote her talents to pursuing a fine-art career full time. She favors capturing picturesque western vistas in her home state and Montana as well as along the Eastern Seaboard, where she masterfully portrays the cool winter light and pale blues of the Atlantic Ocean. “I am fascinated by the beauty found in nature—water, sky, distant mountain vistas, trees with foliage and without, undulating land, atmospheric moods, rain, sunshine, snow, blazing heat, and freezing cold,” she says. Depicting water, including lakes, streams, and creeks, is especially appealing to Whellock because it possesses so many human qualities. “Water moves like a living thing,” she explains. “And then when you catch it in a still moment in summer you can see straight through to the bottom.”
Many of Whellock’s pastels evoke a feeling of distance—far-off horizons and spacious skies that are characteristic of America’s western terrain. The artist works diligently to convey the immense space and layered horizons to the viewer. Her attraction to these panoramic views springs from a 1973 trip to Two Dot, MT, to work on a ranch. Whellock, a young Chicago-based mother at the time, fell in love with the West and has lived in the region ever since. The private moments she experiences outdoors offer her the greatest source of inspiration. “I want to articulate this intimacy with nature to viewers, so they feel drawn into my paintings and take part in the adventure,” she says. Whellock is represented by Fountainside Gallery, Wilmington, NC, and Specialty Accents, Parker, CO.
Roy Vellinga dedicated 30 years to a career in architectural illustration, but when he was laid off in 2003 it didn’t take him long to find a new path in fine art. The Utah artist quickly brought a sampling of his landscape works to Meyer Gallery in Park City, UT—he had been painting in his spare time for years. Much to Vellinga’s delight, the owners liked his works so well that they offered to represent him and give him a show. The same day he sold four paintings to collectors who happened to stop by the gallery.
Vellinga has treasured spending time on the water since the days he and his father took regular fishing trips to Montana’s Madison River. Nowadays, he enjoys getting away to a remote family cabin on a lake with his own children and grandchildren. “If I was philosophical about it, I think water is a draw for most people whether they are artists or not,” he says. “Water seems to refresh people just being around it. I guess I see it as a universal playground.”
The sound of water is a major part of Vellinga’s attraction to depicting the region’s lakes and rivers. Even though he can’t paint sound, the artist can capture the water’s movement, whether it’s rippling, rushing, or gurgling. “For an artist it’s thrilling to see nature at its finest,” he says. “When I’m painting I am completely lost in the light, sounds, and colors. You forget about everything else in your life.” For Vellinga, one of the most exciting parts of his new career is when viewers say they want to travel to the place in the painting—it’s the ultimate compliment, he says. Vellinga is represented by Meyer Gallery, Park City, UT, and Jackson Hole, WY, and Jeanne LaRae Gallery, Laguna Beach, CA.
Featured in “Portfolio: A Way With Water” February 2005