Mark Stewart | Practical Magic

Middleton Fall, watercolor, 27 x 21.

By Stephen Rebello

Mark Stewart’s watercolors turn the ordinary into the extraordinary

Mark Stewart is as plainspoken as his work is direct. The Houston-based watercolorist, who fittingly describes himself as “basic” and “fundamental, in many ways,” paints deceptively simple subjects that convey, on closer inspection, mysteries and deeper emotions. Subtle magic is at work here. One of the painter’s special skills is his ability to precisely render the stuff of everyday, workaday American small-town life—a basketful of newly folded eyelet pillowcases on a quilt-covered bed in deep afternoon shadow, a roadside junk shop with samplers hanging on a line on the front porch. But Stewart tackles these scenes with such delicacy, sense of moment, and abiding respect that they achieve transcendent dignity.

With a color palette that is earthy, moody, and marvelously controlled, and with a strong sense of composition and the interplay of light and shadow, Stewart conveys an aesthetic appeal that lies beyond the ken of a regionalist painter. The soft-spoken, diffident artist, now 54, follows in the tradition of such masters of watercolor as Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, and Andrew Wyeth. “I would call myself a realist,” he says, “and most people would see me as that. The only caveat I would put on that is that most composition is abstract. Even in a pencil sketch I’m working on right now, I’m more concerned about the dynamic of the shadow going across the page than anything. That is an abstract quality, but it just so happens that I’m going to be using a real-life element as the subject of the painting, as I always do. My subjects aren’t far afield but right there in front of me, like the morning sun on wild roses growing against a fence in the vacant lot next door to our home. It surprises people who see my paintings to realize, ‘That’s right outside this house.’ It’s not some grand image; it’s real. And once I find a basic subject that I am captured by emotionally, then I can play with the dynamics of the composition. That’s where the fun is for me.”

Copper Teapot, watercolor, 15 x 21 1/2.The fun began for this native Texan in childhood. He spent the first 10 years of his life in Dallas, then relocated to Houston with his salesman father, homemaker mother, and a younger sister and brother. All the while, he recalls, “I can’t even remember a time when I didn’t carry a chalkboard around with me. When my parents would take us on vacation, I would draw trains or whatever image was before me.” Stewart’s alma mater is Texas A&M University in College Station, where he earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in architecture. He remembers, “I had a professor who taught freehand drawing, and I did extra coursework under his guidance. Although he wanted to get me into painting, his method of doing watercolor was not at all appealing to me. I wanted to do still life or whatever—put a pencil in my hand, and that’s what I like to do. But I wanted to study architecture because I thought that was a way to use whatever talent I had and make a living at it. My concept of architecture was that you did houses. Steel and glass didn’t seem to fit my mode of what architecture was about. To me, it was about wood and brick.”

With this practical frame of mind, he worked summers at Houston architectural offices and, when he graduated in 1975 during the fuel oil crisis, was one of the lucky few in his graduating class to find employment. A year later, he bought a book on Andrew Wyeth. “At the time, I didn’t know Wyeth from third base, really,” he admits. “But the book had doodles, the beginnings of watercolors, a lot of studies, and it was like looking over a designer’s shoulder and seeing how he brought a project to light. It was terribly compelling stuff.” Working on architectural projects in East Coast cities widened Stewart’s vistas as he spent free weekends hitting museums and galleries, where he became further inspired by the works of such masters as Winslow Homer and Edward Hopper. When he went to work for a smaller architectural firm run by a supportive friend, art eventually became a second career. “Back then,” he says, “I thought that maybe I could scratch an itch with an avocation that satisfied me in more ways than doing a drawing, so I went to doing wash drawings—where you draw in charcoal, crayon, or pen and ink, then put a wash over it. I took some into a local frame shop, just to do some ‘market research,’ and they said, ‘We could put this on the wall and sell it for $125, that for $75.’ I wasn’t interested in doing that, but at least it gave me some feedback.”

He began to experiment more with watercolors, he says, “getting fascinated with working with the raw paint on paper, not using much water at all. It was much different from the direction the professor at Texas A&M had tried to push me. I just took off on my own, learning, reading, researching, and going to galleries and museum shows of Wyeth and Hopper to see how these guys used watercolors.” Entering juried exhibits, he began winning prizes and selling pieces, then got into Meinhard Gallery in Houston. The gallery, which is no longer in operation, sold four of his paintings within six weeks and launched his first show in 1980. From there, Stewart’s art career has grown exponentially, as has his gallery base. He’s also maintained a thriving architecture career, having designed such commissions as the Clayton Genealogical Research Library in Houston and a number of historical restorations. He reasons, “Architecture tends to be more time-consuming and time-demanding in the sense that you have a set start and finish time. Art doesn’t flow along those same lines, so it can fill the interstitial spaces between architectural work.”

Stewart and his wife, Sue, married in 1998, three years after the devastating loss of his first wife, Glenda, who died of breast cancer and with whom he had three young children. Sue, also widowed, had three children of her own. Today, the Stewart family offspring range from ages 13 to 21. On marrying, the couple built a new home with a 750-square-foot art studio located over a two-car detached garage and linked by a bridge to the second floor of the house. The studio features a sofa, lounge chair, resource material, a worktable spread with reference photographs, and several flat tables which are the stock in trade of the watercolor painter.

“It’s quiet here,” says Stewart. “There’s a big oak tree right outside. I love the light here, and I don’t usually work after six o’clock in the evening when the sun gets too low because I don’t like working under artificial light. This is such pretty country here. I’ve traveled all around the eastern seaboard and to California, but I keep coming back. My first wife’s family is here, my family is here, and my current wife’s family is in San Antonio. There are subjects and light here that are closer to my heart than anything. Texas is home.”

Stewart, who calls himself “not a people person,” is instinctively drawn to the painterly life. He says, “I love pencil and watercolor, and I’m going to stay in that range. There’s just something I appreciate about watercolor being a dry media—aside from the fact that it really doesn’t smell like oil does. It dries very quickly and, if something isn’t working, I have my own way of abusing the paper, doing whatever I need to do to rework the area. As for subjects, I think that, in a spiritual way, places, items, objects kind of have a life and value just by virtue of their existence. When I’m in a location, I get a sense of that spirit. Not to sound corny, but if my wife places one of her teapots on the mantel and the December afternoon sun comes along and hits it just right, it catches my eye. I know that my wife put that teapot there, and that adds to the setting. It’s part of life. The reflections that come off it are also part of existence. I’m captivated and intrigued by that essence.”

Not that he exists in a void. Of his peers, Stewart remarks, “I really respect the work of a watercolor artist who lives in Florida named Dean Mitchell and another artist, Stephen Scott Young. I always want to look at their compositions, subjects, color, palette—what they seem to be trying to express through their work. Out of the corner of your eye, there’s a little vision of your competition. A lot of artists in Texas find their niche, like bluebonnet painting, and that’s what they base their reputation on. I want to be able to do the full spectrum of stuff—landscapes, still lifes. I’d like to spend more time working with figures—I’m really not interested in portraiture so much as the human figure in the landscape. If I can do that, if I can tell a story and express what I’m thinking and feeling, I’ll feel satisfaction.”

Stewart is represented by Morris & Whiteside Galleries, Hilton Head Island, SC; Riverbend Fine Art, Marble Falls, TX; and Uptown Gallery, New York, NY.

Featured in April 2005