Roadside Steam, Paradise Divide, CO

Watercolor painting of roadside stream in the Paradise Divide near Crested Butte, CO, Don West, Artist
6-1/4”x7-13/16”, Watercolor painted in a large LEDA sketchbook with pencil and water brushes.

Almost ten years ago, I accompanied a friend on a trip to Crested Butte, CO. It’s a beautiful little town but doesn’t come close to the beauty surrounding it. That’s true for most towns and cities in Colorado. Adjacent to the town lies a long valley which contains the Slate River, a shallow mountain river strewn with millions of rocks, boulders flora and fauna. There is a road, Slate River road appropriately, which winds its way alongside the waters and past several places where streams cross the road. This is a dirt road but it was in pretty good shape ten years ago. We were in an old Ford Focus wagon and had no problems.

While it’s always a smart idea to take someone along on such excursions in the wilderness, there is a caveat if you love to sketch and observe nature. The other poor soul, or souls, have to wait on you to do your sketching and observing. The more souls present, the more the pressure mounts to answer yes to the inevitable question, “You done yet?”. Being sensitive to this, I have learned to sketch pretty fast, and if I have to, I’ll take a photo to reference later. Though I would prefer to rely on these field sketches, notes and memory. Interestingly, because I sketched this scene, I still remember it like I was there yesterday. The location, the river, the sounds of the stream, the cloudy weather, the mystery of where that stream started way beyond the heavy flora by the road, the arrangement of the boulders, shadows and light, they are all still with me in my mind because I sketched and observed the scene instead of hanging my phone out the window for a drive-by snapshot.

So I took my sketch as reference (see below) and set about painting it in watercolor. I thought it would be a great opportunity to see what I learned in all this studying of John Singer Sargent’s watercolors I’ve been doing. You see, we can copy the works of the Masters, but if we learn nothing in the process other than the skill of copying, what have we achieved? One has to observe and ask questions about how the original was executed for sure. But the real value in copying is noticing and feeling how the Master chose to interpret a scene. You know, the artistic license to create an impression of what one sees with value, color and composition. Impressionism. That is the true test. Can one INTERPRET a scene in the Master’s style such that the viewer gets the same feeling they would if they saw one of the Master’s paintings? If yes, then the learning by copying has been deep, useful and validated. Of course it requires practice and intent.

If you think about it, in any scene Sargent decided to paint, he was not presented with the stunning colors, composition or light he depicted in his paintings. What was actually in front of him was very similar to what a photograph would record. Beauty certainly, but nothing out of the ordinary in terms of colors, light and shadow except on the rarest of occasions. Everyday stuff. It was the subject that interested him. He had to make up, or interpret, how to create the painting in his simple, bold, minimalist, colorful, impressionistic style, such that the viewer could see the scene as Sargent’s mind, emotions, and eyes saw the scene. In other words, he improved upon the scene in such a way that the viewer FELT something…was moved…while they took in the painting. And that is why so many people love Sargent’s watercolors, drawings and portraits. The same is true with Winslow Homer’s work, Velázquez, Turner, the Hudson River School painters, you name it. Artists paint what they see, which is an interpretation of reality as they feel it is best represented to satisfy their vision. So whether working from a pencil sketch, photo, or real life, the painting is always going to be a representation of what the artist feels, envisions and desires to convey in their work.

I am no John Singer Sargent. But I can adapt some of what he did into my own style, just as he did with what he learned from Carolus Duran early in his career as a portrait painter. Impressionism he adapted from being with Monet and others during the period it came into being. His handling of color, composition and value was all acquired and incorporated into his own vision of how he interpreted a scene. At some point he found his mojo, his groove, and he took off with it without much concern of how to emulate this or that artist. It became automatic as it were, to be John Singer Sargent.

It is the same for any of us. Amateur or professional, we are influenced. And what and how we paint eventually becomes who we are on the inside and how we see the world.🙂 Paint and sketch and study every day my friends.👍👍👍 It is truly good for you and your soul.

Pencil field sketch of roadside stream in the Paradise Valley near Crested Butte, CO, Don West, Artist
5”x4”, Aquarelle graphite pencil field sketch on Arches 90lb. watercolor paper used as the reference for the watercolor painting.