Interview with watercolour artist Rachel Watters

“I’ve been dabbling in watercolours probably since high school, and that was about 15 years ago, so [I’ve been painting for] quite a while. I go to other media like acrylic and oil but I always come back to watercolour – there’s something about the fluidity of it that I just love.” – Rachel Watters



Mark: Welcome, Rachel, to the show.

Rachel: Thank you for having me.

Mark: Rachel – you’re one of the last artists in residence for the summer at the Barracks Artist in Residence program. What is it you’re doing at the Barracks this week?

Rachel: I’m doing watercolours.

Mark: With watercolours, what does that mean, really? I tried watercolours when I was maybe in the very earliest of grades, and that’s all I can think about, but I’ve seen some beautiful work. What does it mean?

Rachel: Well for me it’s about experimenting with the amount of water and the flow of the paint into the water, so I’ll put large amounts of water on the canvas, sort of in a general shape, and then I dot mixed paint in so that it kind of mixes and flows into the water, and you get really neat gradients and sort of blending effects. (Laughing) There’s a lot you can do with watercolour that you didn’t do in elementary school.

Mark: And I think it was a bit more like paint by numbers when the paint was already there in the paper. Do forgive me, I don’t mean to talk down about it, I just don’t really know anything about it. I’m amazed – how much control can you exert over water on a piece of paper?

Rachel: More than you’d think, actually, and if you layer and let the water dry, and put some more colour on top, carefully, you can get quite an interesting effect. So you actually do have quite a bit of control, and of course if you put too much colour in you can always take a dry brush and sort of sop some of it back out.

Mark: Oh, ok. So is your painting sort of a journey of discovery to see what sort of happy accidents happen with the flow of water and your control mixed? Or do you have specific things in mind and you aim at them?

Rachel: This week my focus is using watercolour to look at the identity of self and home and how that changes when you become a mother. I’ve recently become a mother – she’s 10 months old – and I wanted to kind of explore that this week – how it changes who you are and how you define home.

Mark: We actually had to schedule this interview carefully because of that newborn in your life. I’m assuming you’re finding that time is one of those issues?

Rachel: Yes, exactly. You really have to pick and choose exactly what you want to do – it makes you focus on your true passions because you don’t have all the time in the world to do anything you want whenever you want, so those precious hours you do get to yourself, you really want to do something that makes you happy and that’s sort of your passion.

Mark: Now with watercolour, I’ve got to imagine there’s a certain timing element to painting that, isn’t there?

Rachel: Yes. It does take a bit of time, because you have to let the water dry, you need a nice clear space, so little baby hands aren’t so condusive to watercolour, but hopefully when she’s a little older I can do it with her.

Mark: I’m also thinking in terms of a vital period of time. You’ve got to get back to that water before it dries if you want to be able to manipulate it.

Rachel: Exactly, yeah.

Mark: So how long have you been doing watercolours?

Rachel: I’ve been dabbling in watercolours probably since high school, and that was about 15 years ago, so quite a while. I go to other media like acrylic and oil but I always come back to watercolour – there’s something about the fluidity of it that I just love.

Mark: Is that it – is it about the fluid nature – literally – of it? Does it give you softer edges? I imagine watercolours with softer edges for some reason.

Rachel: Yes, I love the blending of it. I just can’t get multiple colours to blend with other mediums like I can with watercolour. Other artists can and hats off – I’m always impressed when they’re able to. Watercolour just seems to be the one that works best for me.

Mark: You mentioned exploring the idea of what changes in your life. What subjects have you been tackling with watercolours this week?

Rachel: What I’ve been painting is mostly the female form, and the pregnant female form, and sort of using colours to express emotions that come along with motherhood – all the conflicting emotions that you go through as a new mom – and that’s why I like the flow of it, too, because it all mixes together when you’re a mom.

Mark: With these paintings, are you looking to get – is it abstract in nature? Or are you looking to get – probably not a photo-realistic effect – that’s different for this medium entirely – but what’s your aim with the actual form of it?

Rachel: It’s somewhere in between. It’s not abstract, but it’s not incredible realistic. You can tell I painted a woman with the shape of it, and some details in there, but then I don’t do the details of the face and I don’t tend to do hands or things like that. That stems from me having a physical disability so I like to put a little bit of myself into each piece. My disability affects those parts of me, so they sort of fade out in my paintings.

Mark: Oh, wow, ok. And how has that informed the painting in general? Is that something that comes up a lot in your work?

Rachel: Yeah. The disability arts movement is a big passion of mine, so putting myself into my work as a disabled artist is very important to me. That’s why I like to – like I said with the arms I’ll fade out so there are no hands, because my disability affects, very visibly, my arms and hands.

Mark: So that’s another complication, I guess.

Rachel: Yeah, another layer.

Mark: How have people been responding to your art this week?

Rachel: Good. I’ve been getting lots of positive comments, everybody seems to really like it. It’s been really nice, actually, to get out and talk to people about it and talk to other moms who come by, and of course non-moms who understand as well.

Mark: I’m wondering if there’s a different depth of reaction, or kind of reaction between moms and non-moms?

Rachel: I find that moms, right away, will go “yeah, of course, we totally get it,” whereas non-moms might have a few more questions about how I feel about it, or why I feel that way.

Mark: Do people wonder about the actual painting itself? Do people have a similar reaction in mind, maybe in the beginning, which is “I don’t really understand it. I never really thought of watercolours”?

Rachel: If they have, they haven’t said it out loud.

Mark: Does the environment in which you’re working happen to make a difference? You happen to have a week where we didn’t have the extreme humidity from the rest of the summer, but I’ve got to wonder if humidity and watercolour makes a difference?

Rachel: It does, yeah. Because it’s more humid, my paper’s more prone to buttling and things like that so I just have to be careful to maybe put a little less water on than I normally would, but for the most part, it’s not too bad.

Mark: Do you bake a watercolour at the end to finalize it at all? Or is it all just air dry and time?

Rachel: It’s all air dry and time, and I think you could, if you wanted to, use a hair dryer, but I don’t want to risk moving the paint around with the force of the hair dryer so I would rather just let time do its thing.

Mark: What other parts of the theme have you explored with this? You mentioned the human form, the female form as one of them – what other things are you looking at?

Rachel: Well a big thing for me since becoming a mom is the conflicting nature of motherhood, how everybody will say in one breath, “you’re doing great, this is what you do, here’s what you do” and then another group of people saying “no, that’s all wrong! Do this!” and then another group of people saying “no that’s all wrong – do this!” so I find that I’m trying to bring that conflict into my work. As a new mom, you’re sort of bombarded with it. Everything you do is right and everything you do is wrong, it seems.

Mark: And you are a new mom, then?

Rachel: Yes, ten months old.

Mark: Was this the kind of thing you thought you would be reflecting upon when you were pregnant? Did you think “this is gonna be a big change and I almost can’t wait to paint about it” or is it something that, after having the child, suddenly you realized the change?

Rachel: It was after I had her. I knew it would be a big change, but until I had her, I didn’t really realize how big a change. I didn’t realize how much it would make me more of who I am, which is what I’ve found, becoming a mom. I haven’t really changed much in my mind – I’ve just become more of who I am.

Mark: Do you find yourself that it’s more of a reaction, that you try to present yourself as more of who you are to your new child or is it just a confirmation in a way?

Rachel: It’s a bit of a confirmation – there’s a comfort now. It’s hard to describe but once I had my daughter I just became much more comfortable. I’ve always been confident and pretty assertive, but I just got more comfortable in my identity and my role and things like that.

Mark: If you don’t mind, tell me a little bit about your disability and how that has affected you as an artist.

Rachel: Sure. It’s called Miller’s Syndrome and it’s a physical disability and what it affects is my arms. My elbow to my wrist is a little shorter, my hands sort of turn out a little bit, my eyes droop a bit and I’m a little hard of hearing. I have a bad ankle… I’m trying to think of all the little details, but that’s the gist of it. The biggest thing is that I don’t even realize a lot of the time that I’m doing things differently because I’ve always had this disability, so I might hold a pencil differently than everyone else, but to me it’s perfectly normal because that’s just the way I hold it. I find in my artwork, it comes out as the erasure of features rather than the brushstrokes or anything like that. I paint just like every other artist, just in a slightly altered way.

Mark: Was there a natural adaptation process of changing the way you held things that people kind of brought to you? Or was it automatic for you?

Rachel: Automatic. Throughout my whole life, especially in my teenage years, there were times where I’d say “oh, not everybody does this this way?”

Mark: Now, you mentioned that this is a project which very much reflects upon your recent changes – what sort of work do you generally do with the watercolour? What sort of art, or targets, do you go for?

Rachel: Usually I like to do very exaggerated female forms. Not necessarily pregnant, but very elongated bodies, or arched backs, or flowing hair – I’ve always been obsessed with long, flowing, multi-coloured hair kind of things. That’s what I’ve always sort of been drawn to, in watercolour.

Mark: What do you think it is about the human form which is so fascinating to artists? You see this a lot of times, where an artist will paint a painting and the people are very intricately detailed, speaking of classical artists, but the background is kind of a wash.

Rachel: Well it’s probably because we live in our bodies every day, so we’re very attune to them and focused on them. They’re our means of existence. I think we’re very focused on bodies in general for that reason. For me, because I have a different body, I’m very attune to the differences in the body and exaggerated features.

Mark: And you’re using yourself as the prime inspiration? Or do you find that you’re looking at other people and going, “you would make a great painting”?

Rachel: I actually use my imagination a lot. I’ve always created characters in my head and then I’ll paint them. I don’t tend to paint from reality as much.

Mark: When you said paper earlier on, is this paper that I would see on an easel in front of you in your spot at the Barracks, or is it paper on a flat desk or table?

Rachel: Because of the amount of water I use, I put it flat on the table, or on a board on the table, and then tape it down so it doesn’t go anywhere.

Mark: I guess water would run if [the paper] wasn’t vertical.

Rachel: Yes.

Mark: What palette of colour do you work with? I normally think of watercolour as a bit of a lighter colour or pastels – is that the colour frame you work from?

Rachel: I use quite bright and bold colours. I really like blue and red together – I like how they contrast and the idea of fire and water and the emotions that they bring out in people, so I do a lot of blues and purples, as well as reds, and like I said – very vibrant and intense colours that I try to get with my watercolours.

Mark: So obviously this major change in your life has impacted your schedule – have you found that you’re going to have to change for quite a while to painting? Or are you finding a new balance?

Rachel: I think from here on I’m going to find a nice balance so that I can do it at home. I was sort of using this week to jump-start myself into doing art more at home and forcing myself to find the time to do it.

Mark: Is time the biggest difficulty or is it literally juggling someone at the same time?

Rachel: I’d say both. Juggling someone and then finding time when I’m not juggling that someone to do the artwork.

Mark: You mentioned at the beginning that you’d been doing this for about fifteen years – that was sort of back in high school. What inspired you to get started in the first place? Was it simply an art class where you were exposed to it, or was it something in particular that inspired you?

Rachel: I don’t know exactly. I’ve always loved art and drawing, and when I took art classes in elementary school and in junior high, I just always seemed to be quite good at it. I got good responses from people and I loved doing it and so I kept doing it, but I can’t think of any definitive moment when I got into art. I’ve just always enjoyed it.

Mark: Have you gone through any formal training or has this been self-training through these years?

Rachel: I got my undergraduate degree from NSCAD (Nova Scotia College of Art and Design) University in Fine Art, and then I got a diploma in Graphic Design from the Craft College here in Fredericton.

Mark: And was your focus watercolour there or did you explore other artwork?

Rachel: No, actually – at the Craft College I did graphic art and design, and at NSCAD I did photography.

Mark: Oh, wow. Do you find that those informed this art, or are they just different enough for different expressions?

Rachel: They’re probably connected because a lot of my photography was people as well as animals, but they sort of were on their own.

Mark: Do you ever paint from a photograph?

Rachel: Oh, yes. I use a lot of my photographs to paint from, especially when I’m using other mediums where I’d like to be a little more detailed.

Mark: And obviously you’re doing watercolour there, now – something you’ve loved for a long time – is that your preferred medium or do you mix around a lot?

Rachel: I would say I prefer watercolour, although I’ve always wanted to get better in oils. I find it’s something that you just need to buckle down and experiment with and play with and try, and I just haven’t gotten into that, so like I said, I keep going back to watercolour.

Mark: Do you anticipate a time when your child is finally old enough and you can say “here’s what you’ve been missing that I’ve been doing all these years and now you can do it too”?

Rachel: Yeah. I’m excited for when she’s old enough that she can walk around and I can lay down a tarp and give her non-toxic paints and let her experiment so that she’ll grow up with art in her life as well.

Mark: That sounds fantastic. I wanna thank you, Rachel, for joining me today. Is there a place online where people can find out more about your artwork and things you’ve done?

Rachel: I do have a Facebook page called StillWatters, but I haven’t been using it lately since I had my daughter, so unfortunately that’s about the only place right now.

Mark: Well they can catch you at the Barracks this week, and I want to thank you very much for joining me on the station today.

Rachel: Great, thank you for having me!


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