Catherine Anderson | Pastoral Moods

By Bonnie Shrewsbury Arthur

The World I Know [1996], watercolor, 21 x 291⁄2.,painting, Southwest Art.
The World I Know [1996], watercolor, 21 x 291⁄2.

The narrow gravel road leading to Catherine Anderson’s studio is flanked by walnut trees and vineyards. It crosses a plateau overlooking California’s Napa Valley, curves around a green farmhouse, and ends beside a rustic, wood-beamed structure warmed in winter by a potbellied stove and cooled in summer by soft breezes from the San Francisco Bay.

Anderson’s dogs greet studio visitors with joyful barking, then return to nap near the door. Once they’re quiet, the only sound is the steady click-click-click of a field hand pruning the nearby chardonnay and zinfandel grapevines. The studio is surrounded by ranches and farms where horses, cattle, and sheep graze.

Feild of Gold [1994] , wathercolor,  21 x29 1/2,painting, Southwest Art.
Feild of Gold [1994] , wathercolor,  21 x29 1/2

Inside, Anderson [b 1947] leans over a watercolor. She works gradually but with a certain urgency, like a slowly gathering storm, applying a layer of dark, rich shadows to the foreground of a landscape. In the mid-ground is an oak tree obscured by fog, and beyond that are bursts of light breaking through the mist. Is it morning or evening?

Fall or spring? The subtleties and ambiguities of the painting leave the viewer wondering.The piece is similar in style and theme to many of her other landscapes and seascapes. “My paintings are statements about nature and my place in it,” says Anderson. Other favorite subjects are farm animals, particularly cows. “They’re so serene, and their connection to the earth and each other is simple yet dignified. People ought to pay attention to the way they live,” Anderson says with a grin. She points to a photograph of First Step, which attracted many interested buyers at the 1997 Artists of America show and sale in Denver, CO. The early-morning scene of a confident cow waiting for her uncertain calf expresses a basic longing for simplicity.

Catherine Anderson.  Photo by Jerry Mennenga.,painting, Southwest Art.
Catherine Anderson.  Photo by Jerry Mennenga.

Displayed around the large, light-filled room are several samples of more than 20 years’ worth of Anderson’s work—work that she hesitates to categorize. “I think my paintings combine elements of realism, impressionism, and minimalism. I don’t really like labels, except for ‘tonalist,’ which suits me and doesn’t feel confining.”

Anderson believes in creative forces and says that when she encounters them, her subjects seem to suddenly possess her. “There is an inspirational force that draws me to particular scenes,” she says. “I paint the things that insist on my attention.” She usually photographs her subjects, but rarely does she consult the snapshot once she begins painting. Photo-realism is never the goal; instead, her work makes use of light and color to project a powerful mood.

Anderson points out several paintings as ex-amples of her unusual and still-evolving approach to glazes. “I used to apply 50 or more glazes before the tints, textures, and my sense of the haze were just right. Even with extra-wide brushes, it took me forever to finish a painting. But lately I’ve been experimenting with new mediums, and I’ve found that I can get the same effects with far fewer glazes. I’m trying different combinations of gouache, watercolor, and acrylic for the misty pieces, and the results are exciting.”

First Step [1997], watercolor, 11 x 14.,painting, Southwest Art.
First Step [1997], watercolor, 11 x 14.

The “misty” pieces got their start late one night in her previous studio when Anderson shook out her brush and accidentally splattered green paint on the sky of what had been a finished landscape. She began painstakingly working the splotches out of the piece with repeated applications of glazes. During the laborious process, which went on for several weeks, Anderson realized she was creating a beautiful mist. Her blunder was a gift, a technique that would later bring her recognition. Few watercolorists have achieved the mysterious light, depth, and strength of her trademark misty scenes.

A bulletin board by the studio door holds some of Anderson’s awards, including a first-place ribbon from the 1997 Rocky Mountain National Watermedia show. Also tacked up are programs from the Artists of America, Great Artists of America, and American Women Artists shows. Next to these is one of Anderson’s landscapes on the cover of the best-selling cookbook Fields of Greens, and beside that one of her regular columns for Watercolor Magic magazine. There is also a photograph of Anderson signing an author’s contract for the Basic Watercolor Answer Book, scheduled for publication in 1999 by Northlight Books.

Adobe Road [1995], watercolor, 21 x 291⁄2.,painting, Southwest Art.
Adobe Road [1995], watercolor, 21 x 291⁄2.

Some days Anderson still finds it hard to believe her accomplishments. “For a long time I thought I would never become a full-time painter, although that’s what I always wanted,” says the Chicago native. “I dreamed of being an artist from the time I was 6 and my grandfather began taking me to the Art Institute of Chicago. We did the same thing on every visit: He would hold my hand while we stood in front of Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte [1884-86] for what seemed like hours. When I started to fidget, we would go to see the Impressionists. After we got home he would read to me from books on the masters.”

Unlike her grandfather-mentor, Anderson’s parents tried to discourage her interest in painting. “I never had an art class in elementary or high school. My folks wanted me to be practical, and after high school they sent me to business college. I resented it at the time, but I’m grateful for it now because it helped me get where I am.”

After graduation, another obstacle kept Anderson from her painting career: She became pregnant and had to put her newborn son up for adoption. “Back then, I didn’t have the option of keeping him,” she says. The decision haunted her, and every day for the next 20 years she wondered about him. Even while she worked as a secretary, went to art school part time, and painted when she could, he was always in her thoughts.

Ten years ago, Anderson began searching for and eventually located her grown son. Discovering that he was healthy and happy, she felt a sense of relief and finally reached a turning point in her life. “That’s when all the creativity burst forth,” Anderson says. The quality of her work improved, and she was able to devote herself to painting full time. “I didn’t just find my son,” she continues, “I found the missing parts of myself.”

Photos courtesy the artist and Meyer Gallery, Scottsdale, AZ; Howard Portnoy Gallerie, Carmel, CA; and Gallery at Shoal Creek, Austin, TX.

Featured in May 1998