Taking the Artistic Road Less Traveled
Updated: Aug 13, 2022
Accomplished Fort Bend County-area watercolor artists make
the journey from traditional to abstract painting
by Mara Soloway
First published October 2018 in Lifestyles & Homes Magazine
In 2012, Fort Bend County area artist Gerry Finch published her book, 5 Chosen Objects for 14 Selected Artists, which showcased her challenge to colleagues to paint five objects in still life form. For Gerry and her artist friends Dale Schmidt and Kim Granhaug, their paintings in the book are a snapshot in time of the realistic, representational watercolor style they had mastered — Gerry over her lifetime, Dale and Kim over 20 years each. In some, though, you can see abstracted elements such as the outlines in Gerry’s Degas Revisited, the reflections in Dale’s Ova, the lavender elements in Kim’s. This was a sign of things to come.
The three are well-regarded area watercolor artists who have each painted countless still lifes, portraits, landscapes and other works described as realistic. Gerry, Dale and Kim have each shown their work in the competitive and demanding world of national and international shows.
Each artist is a member of the National Watercolor Society (NWS) and Watercolor Art Society of Houston (WAS-H) and has earned prestigious recognitions: Gerry and Dale are signature elite members of WAS-H and Kim is a signature member, meaning that she needs one more acceptance into the WAS-H international show to earn elite status. And Gerry is a signature member of the NWS; Dale and Kim are associate members.
The three women met in the late 1990s at Gerry’s traditional watercolor continuing education classes at the University of Houston West Campus. When Gerry stopped teaching the classes in 2000, she invited a few selected artists to form a group that met in her home. Two years ago, the three women began to explore more intensely a different genre — abstract art in watercolor and acrylic medium. They meet once a month at Gerry’s home for critique. With Gerry as mentor, they also continued to explore topics such as color theory, texture and composition.
“It’s very free, not really restricted by a drawing. You're just focused on composition and color and shape. ...”
Why move from traditional watercolor painting, which is appreciated by art lovers and had earned them prestigious recognitions, to explore abstract art, which many judges and laypeople unfortunately don’t understand? They agree that it was for the creative challenge of exploring new things. It was a struggle at first to make the transition from painting things they saw to “go to other side of your brain,” as Gerry says. They actually find it harder to be an abstract painter than a realistic painter, and that they couldn’t do it as well without the experience in composition, color theory, and setting mood and tone in realism they’ve had.
“Abstract art is more expressive — it has to come strictly out of your imagination. We started out having to make our brains go the other direction,” Gerry said. “You're trying to be intuitive. It’s hard to do.”
“It’s very free, not really restricted by a drawing. You're just focused on composition and color and shape,” Dale says.
Kim was more reluctant to make the switch at first than Gerry and Dale. “But when you make a change, it really does invigorate you,” she says. “When you just keep interpreting still lifes or florals, it can feel limiting or stagnating. Abstract art takes more creativity.”
At juried shows the women are finding that judges are more appreciative of abstract art in the mixed media competitions than in traditional. Like any judging, it’s difficult to say one genre holds more merit than another and biases of the jurors make a big difference as well.
Kim, who recently was juried into the NWS membership show in Los Angeles, says that as an artist you still seek validation and recognition. She has won Best of Show in a number of mixed media juried exhibitions and competitions.
“We know our quality of work and how we feel about it and what it brings to us, but would still appreciate that validation out in the world,” she says.
While they all are experimenting with different color palettes and techniques, their styles are very different. The geometry and colors of Dale’s work can show the influence of Mondrian such as in Chaos and Shattered. “It’s a matter of knowing colors that will go together so you don’t end up with mud. You have to have some kind of design,” she says. “Sometimes it just happens as you're doing it. Otherwise you have to have something in your mind, a center point, a focal point.”
Gerry thinks her style is more defined. “My works have shapes but they’re very abstract, not recognizable. I just start out putting paint on paper. I let what I put down tell me the next thing to do. It can take me days and days — sometimes weeks and weeks — to finish a painting. The painting tells you what to do next.” Her palette varies as shown in Somber Moments and Dangerous Cliffs.
Kim is inspired by color and nature such as shown in her Southwest Serenity and the Diptych Kite pieces. “Color is where I start when I’m thinking of painting. I put down a basic color. Then I think about how to create the mood and atmosphere that has inspired me in the first place.” She finds painting brings her to a different place. “Once I get started I am so absorbed in the process and creativity that it is like meditation. It’s just so positive to be free from other distractions that life has to offer.”