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5 Watercolor Artists Share Their Unique Processes | Part 1

From florals to figures, and from the studio to the streets, this two-part artist series offers a wide-ranging look at the medium.

Clockwise from top left: Next in Line by Ellen Diederich; Sycamore Shadows by Tina Bohlman; Breck’s Mill by William Ressler

By Norman Kolpas

When you think of watercolor, what image first comes to mind? Is it a memory of being a child, holding a small tin with a hinged lid, holding a single row of colors, one tiny brush, and an empty compartment for water? Memories like that give us the false impression that painting with watercolors is simple as can be. But in fact, watercolor artists invest thoughtful time and meticulous effort into the creation of their paintings. From detailed pencil drawings to complex paint applications—the watercolor process is extensive and demands unique skills.

To shed light on watercolor and the steps that they involve, we’ve invited five successful watercolor artists to share some works from their portfolio as well as the processes they use to create them. In Part 1 below, you’ll get to know Ellen Diederich, Tina Bohlman, and William Ressler; these watercolor artists have all mastered the art of capturing rural scenes and small-town life. In Part 2, you’ll learn about Georgia Mansur and Julia Dufault McGrath; these watercolor artists employ detailed and painstaking processes to create healing, meditative floral images, the look of stained glass, and vignettes of people in their element.

Ellen Diederich

In 1979, the summer after Ellen Diederich’s sophomore year studying fine art at Minnesota State University, Moorhead, she attended a workshop led by renowned California watercolorist Robert E. Wood. “I made the most horrible paintings,” she says. “But Wood taught me to just put the shapes together like bricks. I loved the challenge and the transparency and the layering.”

Diederich painted Next in Line during a summer artist residency in Medora, in western North Dakota. She added dynamic interest to the composition by “creating eye contact between the two horses and the girl.”

Fast forward four decades to the present: Diederich, who’s been painting professionally since 1985, is a signature member of the Transparent Watercolor Society of America and a founder of the Red River Watercolor Society, based in Fargo, ND, where she lives, and nearby Moorhead. She is also a respected teacher and the author of Progressive Painting: Your Creative Journey.

Grand Entrance portrays a stately home in the town of Georgetown, MN. The tree branch and a bank of white phlox help direct the eye toward the main subject.

Diederich‘s Process

Her well-disciplined process captures the medium’s joy. “It’s like playing in a puddle. You can’t control the water, but you can splash around in it,” she enthuses. “I love how the color mixes itself on the paper. And when it does, it glows so beautifully.”

Based on her reference photos and journal notes, Diederich roughs out composition ideas for a painting of geese by “just dragging around” a ballpoint pen, “thinking about how the animals overlap as shapes,” before going on to value sketches done with marker.

That’s not to say she hasn’t developed her own detailed methods for bringing order to tranquil watercolors of rural and small-town life in her loosely rendered, “neoimpressionist” style. She’ll work out compositions in flowing, ballpoint-pen drawings in a wirebound sketchbook before progressing to value sketches done with markers or watercolors. “I’ll also do a warm-up painting of just part of the subject,” she says, as well as jotting down her thoughts about the scene. Next, she executes a pencil composition on 300 lb. Winsor & Newton or Arches watercolor paper.

Favorite Tools

Her favorite tool for applying watercolors is a flat 1-inch Winsor & Newton Sceptre brush with a mix of sable and synthetic bristles. “It holds a lot of paint, and I can twist and turn it like a calligraphy pen,” she says, producing distinctively contoured brush strokes. In the later stages of the process, she also does a lot of paint removal. “On one big painting of white peonies,” she recalls, “I erased three-quarters of it to get the layers I wanted. Sometimes, you have to overdo it to know how far you can go.”

Diederich uses a large, lightweight Robert E. Wood Palette, which has 24 deep pigment wells—she fills it fresh for each new painting—and two large mixing wells.
Diederich in her studio, which includes separate areas devoted to painting, framing, and computer work.

To learn more about Ellen Diederich’s artwork and creative process, visit https://www.givinity.com.

Tina Bohlman

“So much of my painting process is plein air,” says Tina Bohlman. “Even the 50 percent of my paintings that I produce inside my studio result directly from work I’ve done outside.” Bohlman is Texas-born, Oklahoma-raised, and has long made her home in the historic little city of Waxahachie, about 30 miles south of Dallas. She is drawn to portraying the small-town and rural scenes she knows and loves so well.

Bohlman painted Saturday Shoppers in historic downtown St. Michael’s, MD, during the 2018 Plein Air Easton competition. The actual shadow in the foreground, she says, “was very square, so I added some organic shapes to it to lead your eye down the street.”

A talented artist since childhood, Bohlman began painting seriously every night as a single mom in her early 30s, more than four decades ago. After taking a weekend watercolor workshop, “I spent the next 10 years teaching myself” the medium, she says. She couldn’t afford a decent camera to take reference photos, so instead, she simply painted outdoors. “I didn’t even know what plein air was back then!” she adds.

Terlingua, a ghost town near Texas’ Big Bend National Park, has provided Bohlman with a wealth of inspiration for sketches just waiting to become watercolor paintings.

Bohlman’s Process

Bohlman’s basics start with “a subject that speaks to me personally.” Using a mechanical pencil and a sketchbook, she produces small “what if?” sketches that “break it down into a workable composition,” she explains, “with a focus that somehow tells a story without getting too wrapped up in details. The entire painting takes place in my mind before I ever pick up a brush.”

“Generally, I allow the white of the paper to be my white in a painting,” says Bohlman of Sycamore Shadows, immortalizing a 150-year-old tree in downtown Waxahachie. “But up there on the tree trunk, I watered down gouache and tints of yellow, and it just seemed to change the whole personality of that bark.”
“I paint upright,” says Bohlman, standing at the easel in her studio. “If you lay the paper flat, the paint goes in all directions. When you’re upright, it only flows down, so you always know where it’s going.”

All About Progression

On 140 lb. Arches oil paper, “which stays flat when wet,” she draws her final composition in light pencil, then “lifts a lot of those lines with a kneaded eraser so they’re just ghosts,” she says. Finally she paints, starting with the sky and other background elements and working forward to finer details. Her paints follow a related progression. “I start wet into wet. Gradually the puddles in my palette go from watery to creamy to sticky,” she adds. Explaining the logic behind her process, she emphasizes that “watercolor has a mind of its own. You’ve got to be willing to embrace where it wants to go. As long as you stick to the basics, you’ll come out with a painting you’ll like.”

“My style is not as tight as realism, but it’s not real loose either,” says Bohlman. “I’m kind of in the middle, keeping the sharp focus on my area of interest and leaving everything else around it softer and lighter.” Waitin’ for the Crew expresses that approach eloquently.

To learn more about Tina Bohlman’s artwork and creative process, visit https://www.tinabohlman.com.

William Ressler

Growing up in rural Lancaster County, PA, during the Great Depression, William Ressler “had a lot of time to myself to draw,” he says. After high school and service in the Philippines with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, he entered the Philadelphia College of Art, earning an illustration degree. One of his professors there, W. Emerton Heitland, was “an exceptional watercolorist who took us out on field trips to paint, which got me interested in plein-air work.” He also developed a skill for drawing architecture in perfect perspective. “If you get that right,” he says, “it gives the building a feeling of solidity and reality.”

About five years ago, Ressler sat down to paint an 1813 brick millhouse along Brandywine Creek in Wilmington, DE, during an annual home tour in the area. “I like painting in the open air because I have my details right in front of me. And I like the interaction with people who wander buy and watch me paint, because being an artist can be a lonely profession,” he says.
The resulting watercolor, Breck’s Mill, is a singular example of Ressler’s plein-air watercolor work. “I’m drawn to anything that has structure and is picturesque,” he says.

After graduation in 1951, while working as a freelance illustrator in Philadelphia’s Center City, Ressler relied on watercolor. “You can start one in the morning, finish it in the afternoon, and deliver it to the client the next morning,” he says. In his spare time, while raising a family, he painted fine-art watercolors, too. His works were accepted for exhibition by the American Watercolor Society.

A Knack for Architecture

Architecture—whether charming homes, historic sites, or Philadelphia landmarks—remains a favorite subject. (He is also known for his acrylic paintings of Biblical themes.) Often working on location, he begins by “sitting awhile to absorb the scene. I decide on the center of interest and what will revolve around that.” He may “scribble composition ideas on a piece of paper,” he notes, before sketching his final drawing with a #3 or #4 pencil—“just enough to establish perspective”—on a sheet of Arches watercolor paper that he has wetted and stretched to prevent buckling.

Another year in the same event, Ressler painted John & Kay’s House, a residence converted from a historic schoolhouse. “I attended a one-room schoolhouse the first six years of my school career,” he says. “The quaintness of the restoration appealed to me.”
Ressler prefers to use Pelikan watercolor paints, imported from Germany. “They’re very pure colors. I wet them all first so I can easily get them out, and then I mix them on a pure white palette, for luminosity and vibrancy.”

Ressler’s Process

Ressler first paints the sky, lightly spraying the paper with water. Then he brushes wet into wet “so the color doesn’t gather in tight sections. The sky takes less time than anything else, but it’s crucial to establishing the mood.” Then he works forward, hinting at details. “The viewer will complete something in his mind that satisfies the desire for detail,” he explains, “so you don’t have to draw every clapboard on the house. It’s a mysterious process.”

Several of the giclée prints Ressler sells from his website surround the work area of his home studio.

To learn more about William Ressler’s artwork and creative process, visit https://williamressler.com.

Head over to Part 2 of this series, where you’ll learn about Georgia Mansur and Julia Dufault McGrath. These two watercolor artists employ detailed processes to create meditative floral images, the look of stained glass, and vignettes of people in their element.

All 5 watercolor artists as they appear in this series:

Kolpas is a Los Angeles-based freelancer who writes for Mountain Living and Colorado Homes & Lifestyles as well as Southwest Art. For more inspiring artist profiles, get your subscription to Southwest Art here.

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