Watercolor is perhaps as old as humanity itself, when prehistoric cave dwellers first transformed a barren refuge into a home by painting crude pictographs on the wall with runny dye, long before the advent of oils and acrylics. And there remains a simple purity to the entire conceit behind watercolor and the very human desire to spread color across the world with just a bit of water and a pleasing hue. Unfortunately, by the time the 1800s rolled around, the ancient medium had been largely dismissed by the artistic establishment as the purview of cheap commercial artists and lady hobbyists, who could receive lessons in the home with little mess or cost or fuss. But while the men weren’t watching, the women got good, and when the American Society of Painters in Water Colors was founded in 1866 as one of the first to accept women artists, an explosion of hidden talent erupted onto the American arts scene. Named Ones to Watch by Watercolor Artist magazine, Sarasota artists Jenny Medved and Judy Saltzman let SRQ into their studios to talk craft and inspiration for this undersung medium.


The Explorer


Stepping into Saltzman’s home near Burns Court, it becomes clear that the separation between living space and work space is nominal at best. A work-in-progress surrounded by notes, test papers and supplies dominates the dining table, as does another painting station set up in a nook in the back of the kitchen. And Saltzman’s been busy. She’s just finished a series of 12 nautical paintings for The Sea Escapes, an exhibition by the American Society of Marine Artists, and been accepted as one of 100 artists selected among 1,200 applicants for a show with the American Watercolor Society in New York City. Also applying for a show in California with the National Watercolor Society and a spot in the Transparent Watercolor Society’s annual exhibition, the work-in-progress on the dining room table is for a showing this month, inspired by a trip to the Spirit of Nations Powwow up in Tennessee, and needs to be shipped in a week. “I’m trying to spread a little bit,” Saltzman says with a smile. “Get out of my comfort zone.”

The comfort zone is pure creation, she says. A proponent of the pouring technique, Saltzman begins with a photo or experience she wants to recapture, drawing the image on paper. Painting with a clear liquid glue-like substance, she masks the area she wishes to maintain before using pipettes to pour flowing rivers of paint onto the paper, filling in the gaps. Absent brushstrokes and Saltzman’s direct meddling, the paint flows freely across the paper in a tranquil and smooth gradient, creating a field of unobstructed color. It’s as much an exercise in control as chaos. “They do their own dance,” Saltzman says, watching the colors swirl together. She can control the layering and choose the color, but once on the page the laws of fluid dynamics take the reins. Sometimes Saltzman will use a brush, it depends on the project and she typically has her mind made up by the time she’s finished sketching. For some, a brush enables stark contrasts that make the image pop from the page, but for others the smooth gradients and the depth they provide a painting that can only be achieved by pouring serve best.

“I had this romantic idea that I was going to go off on my sailboat and go port to port and paint,” says Saltzman of the beginning of her love affair with watercolor. But while that didn’t quite happen, the medium sunk its hooks in Saltzman another way—the challenge. Where others said watercolor was too constrained by size, Saltzman experimented with painting on wood with a varnish finish. Where others said watercolor was too delicate, Saltzman got rough with it. “I don’t think you are limited,” she says. “I’m finding you can move beyond those borders people have set.”

The Ethnographer

Hard at work in her home studio, Medved is rarely alone, whether it be the white Husky named Lelu that pads at her heels and posts up in a cushioned chair or the skeleton named Willie that grins from the corner. The walls are full of Medved’s latest obsession—a full immersion in Polynesian culture and the traditional practitioners living in the region. Informally adopted by local Polynesian patriarch Uncle Alex, she learns the traditions, the noble history of the hula and begins to pick up the old language. “It’s their community, their family and their love of each other,” she says, “the way that they dress, the movement, the sound—it’s just engulfing.” Dominating her current artistic output, paintings of hula dancers in grass skirts sit on one side while a firedancer named Matuni roars from his place on the wall. And on the drafting table, a vintage piece previously used by a 1950s architect, a half-finished portrait of a Polynesian woman named Atalina.

The series will eventually number more than 30 pieces, set for an exhibition in the Kellogg Gallery at Art Center Manatee in October. Working in watercolor, Medved appreciates the challenge, trying to wrangle the mercurial dye into shape. “Watercolor has a mind of its own,” she says. But she also likes that the medium allows her to move quickly. Unlike Saltzman’s pouring, Medved heads in the opposite direction, opting for the dry brush technique. Not technically dry, the brush is left damp, allowing for more control over the paint for detail work, but less fluidity. Eschewing expensive paints, Medved prefers student-grade sets, with more muted colors and limited options. “You can get lost,” she says of the fancy sets some prefer. For herself, she has two indulgences: an antique green from Holbein with an earthy touch she loves and a particular thick and pebbled paper that painter John Miller, who used to teach with Norman Rockwell, introduced to her as a senior at Ringling College. That was 13 years ago and Medved still uses the same paper today, which is tough enough to withstand scrubbing and rubbing as she works. “A lot of watercolor artists are very light and loose,” she says. “It can handle a lot of me.”

Looking forward, Medved hopes to get more work out there and show aspiring artists what watercolor is capable of. “I want women—anyone—to know that watercolor is a legit medium,” she says. “It gets a bad reputation, but there are a lot of awesome people pioneering watercolor right now. I want to be a part of that.”