Karen Anne Klein: Nature in Watercolor and Colored Pencil

This article on artist Karen Anne Klein, written by Meredith E. Lewis, first appeared in the January/February 2012 issue of The Artist’s Magazine.

 

Karen Ann Klein Butterflies

In Butterflies (watercolor and colored pencil, 20½x20½), a large, linear green square acts as a boundary for the whole composition. “It’s a structure,” Karen Anne Klein says, “in contrast with a complex jumble of plants and butterflies—a jumble that takes time to sort out and understand.”

 

Butterflies hover inside a square green border, while a pink peony explodes in the center. A riot of sensory experience and kaleidoscopic color, Butterflies (above), by Michigan artist Karen Anne Klein, demonstrates a near scientific fidelity to the specimens portrayed. And yet the overall effect of the work is a far cry from science, realism or photographic mimicry.

 

Framing and Composition

Karen Anne Klein explains that if you look carefully at her drawings, you’ll find that the arrangement of the elements is improvised and that the structure doesn’t adhere to reality. Because she uses multiple perspectives and interior framing, objects aren’t always in the same picture plane. “The works are carefully enough executed to have continuity in terms of lighting and shadows,” she says, “but they’re never completely realistic. People often think they’re looking at something that could conceivably be constructed, but it would always be impossible,” Klein says. “I love making things that can’t exist look real.”

 

Karen Anne Klein Quiet Water

Quiet Water (watercolor and colored pencil, 21½x27) is part of a series involving flora and fauna specific to inland lakes in the Great Lakes region. “The pond featured is unusual,” says Karen Anne Klein, “for being off-center to accommodate the Solomon’s seal, dripping with blue fruit, that arches over the water.” The drawing was composed over a period of several months and includes materials from Wisconsin and Michigan.

 

The white of the paper also serves an important role in Karen Anne Klein’s joyful, vibrant compositions. Frequently using a bordered format suggestive of the illuminated book or Indian miniature, the artist creates an interior composition in the overall drawing, one that’s framed or encapsulated within a strong, bold color. The white of the paper, exterior to this color block, then serves as a secondary framing device around the interior composition. Remarques, or small drawings in the periphery or white space of the painting, often exist in a different plane and relate to the interior composition, resulting in organic associations between the two. “If the negative space isn’t interesting,” Klein says, “the whole thing won’t work.”

 

Karen Anne Klein Tells Stories

Describing her works as “still life drawings that tell small stories,” Karen Anne Klein uses a unique combination of watercolor and colored pencil. She stresses that every work is “intuitive” and develops naturally across the paper. “I start with something that I find exciting,” she says. “Then a narrative develops.”

Karen Anne Klein Raven

“Ravens have an undeniable presence,” says Karen Anne Klein. “Even if you know none of the tales and legends that concern them, you know such fables must exist. In Raven (watercolor and colored pencil, 12½x14¾), red leaves and fruit are equally dramatic and hold their own in concert with the bird.”

 

Raven (above) was inspired by a magnificent specimen Karen Anne Klein located at the University of Michigan Exhibit Museum of Natural History, in Ann Arbor. Harking back to the mythology surrounding the dark and clever bird, Klein worked to suggest a sense of power as well as the ethereal glow of its feathers. Red leaves later allowed for a classical color combination to develop, and the artist eventually added berries and a vermilion background shape to augment the depth, mystery and connectedness of the natural ephemera surrounding the bird. The sharp contrast between the bright reds and the more somber, staid hues of the raven allows for balance in the composition as a whole, permitting the viewer to perceive the piece as much more than simply a natural history painting.

 

Visual Taxonomy

Despite her inclination toward the fantastic, Karen Anne Klein admits to a strong affinity for and appreciation of the study of nature. “I love the way biologists train their eyes to see things that other people miss,” she says. “Walk through the rain forest with my son Barrett, an entomologist, and he’ll show you marvels that you’d never have seen on your own: soldier ants on a twig with their bodies raised and mandibles agape, looking fierce. And yet he won’t see all the birds that an ornithologist has trained his or her eyes to see. I feel that my own eyes see things and combinations in nature that are unusual and worth observing.”

 

Karen Anne Klein Red Carpet

“An oriental rug that had the initial impact of something abstract—an almost homogeneous field of red—was my inspiration for Red Carpet (watercolor and colored pencil, 20×26),” says Karen Anne Klein. Closer viewing revealed a geometric structure composed of many small images. “The drawing repeats that concept, using red subjects I found over the period of one summer.”

 

Karen Anne Klein’s careful arrangements of natural ephemera display the artist’s interest in a kind of personal visual taxonomy. In her works she groups objects, flora or fauna according to a rule set of her own design. She has “classified” objects with stripes, with spots, by color, by season and, loosely, by species or subject. “I’ve used my own kind of taxonomy,” the artist says. “It isn’t science, but it replicates research on a visual level.”

Klein borrows many of her featured subjects and specimens from local museums and institutions, including the University of Michigan. “Since I use a lot of ephemeral subject matter and I prefer to draw from life,” she says, “I have a very limited time to do the work. I use what I can find and what appeals to me. I may work on one drawing over several seasons, so there’s no way to know in advance what will be contained in the drawing; I like the danger of this. I like determining the balance and the color and the density during the process. The result is always a surprise.”

 

Importance of Design

Karen Anne Klein began her artistic career with woodcuts and etchings, and her early training in woodcuts is apparent in the framing and compositional techniques the artist uses today. She began working in watercolor when the demands of young children made her anxious about using toxic materials in her home, and 20 years ago she began adding colored pencil to her pictures.
Working slightly larger than the actual size of her subjects, she begins each picture with a drawing in graphite. She then covers the drawing with watercolor. As the base color, the watercolor keeps her later application of colored pencil from becoming too heavy or overlabored and eases the transition between the white of the paper and the bright hues of the colored pencil. When the watercolor is dry, she enters into the painting with a combination of waxy and hard-lead colored pencils. “The waxy pencils can depict smooth surfaces so nicely, as well as dense color,” she explains. “The hard leads can pick out detail and can also make things look very crisp.”

 

Karen Anne Klein Table-Lunch-for-Julia-Child

Table (Lunch for Julia Child) (watercolor and colored pencil, 22×28) has a “comforting symmetrical structure” with its two plates set on a rectangular white cloth. “After that,” says Karen Anne Klein, “the meal goes wild with objects, representing members of the Klein family, spilling about. The centerpiece is a spring garden still growing in a flower bed.”

 

The combination of watercolor and colored pencil on the paper confuses some viewers who can’t determine the artist’s medium. “The watercolor under the pencil enhances the color intensely and makes colors livelier than what most people achieve with the pencils alone,” Klein explains. “On the other hand, the use of colored pencils can make the image appear far more detailed than it would normally look in watercolor alone. It takes practice to make the combination cohere and not look like two things happening in the same piece. But once the applications have been successfully combined, the result can be vibrant.”

 

Karen Anne Klein Celestial Moths

Hovering over a 17th-century Dutch sky map, Sphingidae hawk moths fly in the early night in Celestial Moths (watercolor and colored pencil, 20½x20½). “In the corners of the composition are four phases of the moon,” says Karen Anne Klein. “The new moon is represented by a black hollyhock, linking earth to sky. This piece is an example of how I work on black, but here I kept white paper underneath the moths so they glow more strongly than if they had black underneath them.”

Real and Imaginary

Working in a scale close to actual size allows Karen Anne Klein to position real objects on top of her compositions to see what might fit and where. Placement of the objects is critical and usually takes her a long time. “Choosing the objects is challenging,” she says, “and I often wind up surrounded by heaps of things that have potential. Forcing an object into a drawing is always a huge mistake. I’ve learned to be very circumspect and not to fall in love with a candidate-object.” Many drawings get to a point where they have to wait for the right element to turn up. Some drawings wait a long time. Others fall together easily, but that’s rare. “When the drawing is finished,” Klein says, “I want it to look inevitable or easy—the way a dancer doesn’t let you know she sweats and hurts.”

 

Karen Anne Klein The Red Meadow

Corn, or field, poppies live as weeds in Europe, but here we buy seeds to grow them. Brilliant red and sometimes wrinkled or ruffled, the poppies fill the composition of The Red Meadow (watercolor and colored pencil, 15½x21½) and are placed in contrast with a large variety of cool blue flowers in the background. “I chose the flicker woodpecker for the foreground because of the red patch—reminiscent of a fallen petal—on the back of its head,” says Karen Anne Klein.

 

Karen Anne Klein prefers for her works to exhibit a natural simplicity or organic harmony—qualities that can’t be forced and usually take time to develop long before making their way to paper. Success in a composition is hard to describe or pinpoint, she admits, and harder still to achieve. “I suppose there has to be something original about the work and maybe something that’s surprising, but having both those qualities doesn’t guarantee success,” she says. “Explaining why a work is successful is like trying to explain why you fall in love.”

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