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The History of Water Color in Texas

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The History of Water Color in Texas

It’s a stretch, but if one thinks about the first watercolor paintings in Texas, one may consider it to be the cave art (petroglyphs) along the cliff walls of the Rio Grande River in Val Verde County and other parts of Texas; it is estimated this art dates between 3000 to 1000 BC, with the last done in the 1880s. Imagine the first Paleolithic human accidently sticks his hand in red mud, slaps it against the cliff wall, leaving his handprint. Hence, the first watercolor…ground minerals mixed with water.

Watercolor medium slipped quietly into Texas under the wings of several well-known artists in the early 19th century. The dried cakes of premixed watercolor were a “convenient” art form easily carried on location to paint studies of Texas scenery. These studies would be brought back to the artists’ studios to be used as a reference to paint their oil masterpieces. Today, some of these studies are valuable jewels.

That was especially true of San Antonio native Julian Onderdonk (1882-1922), who is known as the best landscape artist in Texas and the father of bluebonnet paintings. Some were painted on location in oil, but most of his masterpieces were oils painted in his studio from watercolor images. His studio, which was in a log cabin, now resides on the grounds of the Witte Museum. Today those watercolor sketches, along with a few of Onderdonk’s watercolor paintings are in collections. He died at the peak of his success of acute appendicitis.

A young Georgia O’Keeffe moved from New York City to live in Canyon, Texas, where she was the chair of the art department at the West Texas State Normal College from 1916 to 1918. Most of her works during these years were en plein air (in the open air) and were watercolor sketches of scenery around the area. Unfortunately, very few of the almost 200 sketches survived her move back to New York. They were shipped to her in a barrel and when they arrived, she threw them in the trash outside her apartment. A few blew out of the trash and were picked up down the street…eventually finding their way into museums.

In 1949, two watercolor painters living in San Antonio decided to advance the popularity of painting in watercolor. Margaret Pace Willson and Amy Freeman Lee, along with a few others, formed the Texas Watercolor Society. They created an annual exhibition for Texas watercolor artists that was juried by nationally recognized artists and offered $100 for first place. The exhibitions were held at the Witte Memorial Museum for the next 20 years. Now the exhibitions are held in venues around Texas, open to all watercolor artists over 18 years of age and the first-place winner receives $2,000. The Texas Watercolor Society is the oldest watercolor society in Texas and is a non-profit organization with a membership of over 300.

Edgar A. Whitney (1891-1987), a watercolor artist and teacher from the New York area, came to Dallas in the early 1960s to conduct watercolor workshops. From his students, came two enthusiastic watercolor painters, Harwood K. Smith (1913-2002) and Naomi Brotherton (1920- ), who established the Southwestern Watercolor Society, which still thrives today with over 400 active members. Harwood Smith became a well-known architect in Dallas. Naomi Brotherton continued her career in watercolor becoming a Signature member in twelve different societies in eight states, teaching workshops and co-authoring “Variations in Watercolor”.  Naomi is still celebrating her birthdays.

Other watercolor societies around Texas include the Watercolor Society of South Texas, founded in 1970; the Society of Watercolor Artists, based in Fort Worth; the Watercolor Art Society-Houston, founded in1975 with over 700 members and has a year-round gallery in the Museum District; and the Central Texas Watercolor Society, Waco, founded in 1985. Organized in 1977 for the advancement of water media, the Waterloo Watercolor Group is a non-profit group in Austin with almost 400 members.

These organizations have contributed to more artists learning to paint in watercolor and the acceptance of their paintings in galleries and museums. Although John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) never spent time in Texas, we won’t hold that against him because he loved watercolor. He painted more than 2,000 watercolor paintings, most plein air, compared to 900 oils and his techniques are still used today. In 2014, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston honored Sargent with a special showing of 90 of his watercolor paintings. A group of us made the trip and were mesmerized.

The ebb and flow of watercolor’s popularity in the marketplace continues to flow in the 21st century. Proof of that is the upswing of watercolor artists entering Plein Air Competitions, which are popping up all over the state. In 2006, I painted in the first plein air competition in Marble Falls, which was in conjunction with the Bluebonnet Music Festival. Two years later, that event became “Paint the Town”. I’ve participated every year as the only watercolor artist, until about five years ago. In 2018, Lee Ricks from Pleasanton won First Place with a watercolor!

(Above: “Artist in Action” watercolor by Betty from photo she took during the 2018 En Plein Air Texas in San Angelo. Artist Thomas Jefferson Kitts was painting a demo using Betty’s husband Ken Rousch as his subject.)

Competing in plein air competitions has become the latest in career opportunities for professional artists. During the season, they stay “on the road” going from one plein air event to another around the country, selling their paintings and hopefully winning award money.  One of the top five plein air competitions in the country is San Angelo’s EnPlein Air Texas.  Abiding with Covid-19 regulations, the 2020 competition was held October 24-31and four watercolor paintings won awards, one being the Grand Prize winner, “Peace on the River” by Susan Lynn. Oh, happy days for her and all watercolor artists!

There are too many wonderful present day watercolor artists around Texas to name them for fear of leaving out one of my favorites. Just know most watercolorists thank God every day for the opportunity to share our passion with others.

(Right): Betty during the Burnet Plain Air Festival. |Courtesy Debbie Slangal


Title Image: “Front Porch in Art, Texas” by Betty Bielser | Courtesy Betty Bielser

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