When the Land Moves Like Water

We were stunned and saddened to learn of the death of Patricia Tobacco Forrester, a brilliant artist who served as a juror for our annual competition and whom I was lucky enough to work with on several articles for The Artist’s Magazine and Watercolor Artist. Forrester was as serious as her work was singular. Nothing she did was trivial or tidy. She worked big, on giant sheets of paper; she worked on site, sitting on the actual ground, in California or Costa Rica, or in Washington, D.C.’s botanical gardens. She wanted nothing less than to convey what the poet Dylan Thomas described as “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower.” Forrester’s watercolors are landscapes in motion. In an act of sympathetic magic, she portrayed the movement that is, to most of us, invisible. She saw through the carapace to the turbulence of waters—within the stem of plants, within a body of water, within the body itself. “As I work on a piece over days,” she said, “the process becomes increasingly abstract. I’m looking for and making movements that echo or elaborate existing energies on the paper.” Forrester’s works have something in common with Joseph Raffael’s, in that the simplicity of the medium—pigment and water—serves even as it belies the hectic complexity of the vision. Forrester disdained pretty in favor of what is vast, dynamic and ultimately transcendent. She herself said it simply: “I paint things that grow.” —Maureen Bloomfield

In the January 2005 issue of The Artist’s Magazine, Forrester wrote an article titled “When the Land Moves Like Water.” We’ve posted it here for you to read and enjoy.

When the Land Moves Like Water

In love with landscape and with watercolor? Get close to both by sitting on the ground with a 40×60 sheet of watercolor paper on your lap.

By Patricia Tobacco Forrester

Currents of land and air -- I like to sit with the landscape arrayed around me. This immediacy finds its way into my work, including Beech/Birch (watercolor 60x120). Along with the title of the work, I usually list the place where I painted it: This is a further way to record my emotional reaction to a real place.

Outside is where I find my subjects. Sometimes I snap reference photos or sketch designs, and other times I start right in by spreading a giant sheet of paper on my lap and painting in watercolor. I love the medium because it moves on paper the way nature moves—in currents of water, light and air. When I’m outside for the days it takes me to complete a 40×60 watercolor, all the landscape elements—not only the colors and the light—influence me.

I make no preliminary drawing, and the painting develops in a skewed, unforeseen way. Often I transpose an element from one scene to another. Sometimes I start with shorthand passages of color only to find that the real subject isn’t a tree but a path of light.

What has excited me for 30 years in working with watercolor is the explosiveness of thick pigment as it bleeds into a light wash. The result is what I can only call an organic puddling of color. It’s as if what’s happening on the page is a natural phenomenon—not a rendering but an actual act of nature. The challenge is to balance observation (the real world that I see) with painterliness (the abstraction). The accidental nature of watercolor—the fact that paint moves across the paper—is my partner in the work.

All painting is abstract

Fresh color -- In Falling Pollen (watercolor, 40x60), the passage of light made by the yellow of the pollen is as important as the peonies. Their vibrant color is attained by the immediacy of their rendering. I never create preliminary drawings.

Because I stare for so many hours at a tree trunk, for instance, or a leaf or a rock, I begin to see colors that are contained within the browns and grays of my first impression. By actually sitting within the landscape while I’m painting it, I also get a good view of the middle ground. The result is a close-up of changing forms because my emphasis is always on nature’s dynamism. For that reason I work with contours that are fluid and not necessarily filled in. The effect is to admit light into the painting, but also air.

I respond to a landscape, yet I don’t feel that I have to represent all its elements faithfully. When I find a subject, I often realize that the area around the subject isn’t as interesting and will therefore require me to imagine or make up a fitting ambience. Painting for me is an open-ended process: The primary figure (for instance, a ficus or sycamore) asserts its presence on the page and then demands a resolution for which I often have to find another site. Essentially I’m an abstract painter.

How I work

Over the years I’ve established certain requirements: The sunlight that strikes the subject has to be dramatic; there has to be, within the subject, a force, a pulse, an active quality; and, finally, to make the painting process easier there has to be adequate light falling on my paper. Not only will adequate light help me see, but it will also speed up the paint’s drying time.

Natural instinct -- A lot of painters paint en plein air but I go to the extreme of working on the ground, as I did while painting Red Oak (60x40). The surroundings are a vital part of my technique —humidity after a fresh rain makes the paints roll and blend easily into one another. The experience, and therefore the result, is wholly organic.

I sit in the field and place a 40×60 sheet of Arches cold-pressed watercolor paper on a low cardboard box with the near edge resting on my lap. Because I’m so close to the paper and the paper is so large, I know that distortions will occur; those distortions will be apparent only when I hang the painting in the studio at the end of my working day. In the studio I can see whether I’ll need to scrub out an area and repaint it. On the other hand, in watercolor there are always accidents. Some accidents have a kind of grace; they’re welcome.

I use a great deal of pigment. I sometimes bead threads of paint onto a thin wash in order to produce that explosion of paint that I so enjoy. Ideally, all my paintings would be alla prima and not require any reworking, but that just doesn’t happen, given the element of chance involved in the way I work and in the watercolor medium.

As I work on a piece over days, the process becomes increasingly abstract. I’m looking for and making movements that echo or elaborate existing energies on the paper. I’ll feel an intuitive desire for a color and/or a tone that will enhance a painterly gesture that is, at the moment, tentative. The same kind of creative intuition prods me toward finding the secondary elements—trees, flowers, plants, etc. Although I start the painting by responding to something I’ve found at an exact location, I end the painting by finding what I need from what I’ve seen before or what I can imagine. My task as a painter is to respond to and create the configuration the painting itself requires.

Coping with the weather

The effect of my commitment to painting outside, along with my preference for watercolor, is that I’m affected more than most painters are by the weather. If it’s raining, I obviously can’t paint outside, but if the air is saturated with water, my paints move beautifully on the paper. If the air is still and humid, the pigment in areas I’ve previously painted may absorb water from the

Traveling landscape Isabel’s Garden (watercolor, 40x60) was painted in Rochefort, France, and incorporates at least four different sites.

atmo­sphere. Touching those areas even lightly will result in smears. But if the day is dry and windy, I know I’ll have difficulty manipulating the paint. In dry air, the paper becomes brittle and resists taking washes. The water lies on the surface, since there’s no liquid in the paper and thus no capillary attraction to draw the wash into the paper’s fibers. Under those conditions, the strokes that would normally articulate an area move around, instead, in puddles. Without extensive coaxing with my brush, those strokes would dry in a configuration that I don’t want. Needless to say, painting on those days is hard going; the progress is slow. Still, despite the frustrations and logistics, I relish working en plein air; perhaps the challenges make the painting tougher.


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