Behind the Watercolor Painting: A Whiff of Opium (Of the Essence)

Orchids and opium, life’s sweeteners.
Forever, perfumes and pills have been used to sweeten and enhance life: to increase pleasure and diminish pain.Sometimes an artist doesn’t know why she gathers the pieces of a still life together. She just mixes shapes and colors in a way she thinks pleasing, or perhaps collects them like actors on a stage. That alone could explain why the dark brown bottle, an antique which collected opium camphorate sits on a par with the beautiful perfume bottles to the right of it in the watercolor painting “Of the Essence.”
However, that argument might not work, if you’re going for truth. Artists are through-and-through supporters of the intelligence of the intuitive, or right side of the brain, and the artist who painted this picture, Joanna McKethan, believes this side is the most intelligent side of the two. What was known as “woman’s tuition” receives higher marks in the academic world lately. Why the right side is more intelligent finds its base in at least two attributes: on its quick processing of spatial relationships, the activity which uses the most memory in computer chips, and, exactly because it is not always linear or logical, it calculates nuances. These are the nuances that are subtleties of language and experience that so many scientists must spend disproportionate time on, training the brain of a robot—nuances of juxtaposition and association, requiring the dismissal of logical control so that truths working below the surface, surface.Watercolor. Such a delicious medium to work with, one full of right brain decisions and colors of orchids, the opiate of the artist. Watercolor is the medium which tells you whether or not the artist had a good day that day. It is a perfect mood ring.In this full sheet watercolor framed to ca.30” x 38”, Of the Essence, a nearby perfume bottle displays its attached atomizer, dark as the opium bottle, which a hand recently puffed out what we assume is luscious fragrance into the air. In this painting, the slight puff of the atomizer releasing fragrance is seen to cloud the objects around it, suggesting how small an amount can set off a full-blown obsession. This is further validated by the glittering material in the upper right, the richness of the bottles with all the colors of life caught up in their sparkles and the reflective power of both material and glass.Follow your eye around the perfume bottles to the opium bottle on the left, into the dark passage between the edge and the metallic drape behind the bottle, behind the ceramic bottle with multi-colored swirls which could signify euphoric highs from either perfume or pill. Even the cobalt blue light-catcher has its own darkness to it, and multiple, interlocking swirls which trap the eye at every point like life does. If you do, you can hardly miss the message of the darkness the wrong highs suck you into.

Whiff of Opium Watercolor paintingOne might say this is far-fetched, but the artist has found this visual theme in at least three major works of hers; the dark hole behind the innocent girl, another, a dark behind the family, and in this one, behind the bright lights and symbols of the rich life. A friend and colleague of the artist, looking at the painting, likened it to Whitney Houston’s life. Artists and consumers both can actually stay ignorant of subconscious messages, but this exercise, the artist says, “has taught me that is not a good idea. ‘The truth will out,’ as Macbeth says.” The warring message reveals itself whether an artist plans it or not. Although not conceived as a theme, and the painting certainly was not meant as a didactic lesson in life, neither should the integrity of what emerges from the subconscious parts of an artist’s processes be edited or removed just to satisfy someone’s need for neutral visual nourishment, if there is such a thing.

All that plays to the message. Now the artist comments on technique: “All of the rich colors used in the painting are built with many layers. Each surface commands a different technique to actualize the differences in texture. Nothing too dry, too soggy, too tired–and when you layer, leave passages down to the first wash (water + pigment), also known as a glaze. That requires knowing how to start and end the new color and where, and the rest really must be taught,” she says. It has taken the artist years to develop her style and to model effectively with watercolor, bringing an Old Master’s quality into the bright sketchiness of the watercolor medium. Watercolor is much too versatile a medium to limit to only one style, viewpoint, or technique. Call or email Joanna @ or with questions, and she will be quite happy to share insights and sign you up for her next adventure in watercolor.

As for perfumes, the pleasant side of the equation, research is made constantly for new scents. If you begin with the man-made, you can take the process even as far as the Rain Forest in whichever location one wants to search. Those who search earn megabucks for their efforts and require a connoisseur’s nose. Perfume companies send their representatives to look for new fragrances and scents, mostly from orchids. Employees of one company that creates fragrances for perfumeries and other companies, has sent employees to the rain forest in French Guiana and hired rain forest scientists to assist in the search for new fragrances.

Scientists often check out flowers that attract moths since the scents that attract them usually are considered pleasant by humans. To take samples, scientists use “head space” technology—equipment used by beer brewers to analyze the air above the beer head and determine when the fermentation process is complete. In short, they trap the air and scent around a flower. The air is captured in a globe, then directed through a cylinder of absorbent material and then sealed when filled. The cylinders are taken to a lab and the gases captured are analyzed with a mass spectrometer.

And all of this is done just to enjoy the sweet side of life without getting drawn into the dark side. Which owning a Joanna McKethan original helps one do, as well.

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What is Gel Pen Art?

The j’Originals’ 2012 Collection Goes Experimental


What happens when you take flowing gel pens that are metallic and begin to draw on black art paper? Why, fine art, of course.That is, if you have a little Old Masters art training like the owner Joanna McKethan and an inkling of how to superimpose hatch strokes on top of one another to make their three-dimensional nature pop out.

Even so, it isn’t easy. The color in some of the pens looks dark, but used on paper, it shines brightly. So the first issue is a light-dark one, and, as in all new genre–the artist knows of no one else who has done this–experimentation is key.

That will be described in more detail, but first, a description of the whole collection. Each year the artist is projecting a launch of two new collections. A ‘collection’ as conceived of by the artist, has one mat, one glass (u-v-ray screening), one frame chosen to give it that certain “look.” The Fall 2012 Collection is a series of nine (sorry, when the nine are gone, they’re gone) ink drawings rich in pinks, yellows, blues, and whites, but metallic versions of these, and especially in copper, a color which really says ‘fall’ even though it is beautiful year-round.

The ‘look’ is brought together by a metallic copper mat of 3 inches, framed in a black frame with a strong protruding profile and fine work on the frame in, you guessed it, copper. Each picture is a dainty slice of life from yesteryear, old horn-rimmed glasses, butterfly on birch bark, antique ink wells, etc. Thus, its antique emphasis makes the paintings come into their own with the mat and frame chosen. The glass used in these original pieces of artwork is ‘clear,’ meaning all u-v-rays are blocked out to keep the painting as close to its conception as possible. That said, when a customer buys a piece, he/she can change it entirely. If someone wants the whole collection, however, they are ready to hang and show exactly like they are.

But taking the discussion back to the technical side of the process. How do you make shadows on a black background? That requires some reverse engineering. One of the artist’s solutions is to use the pens in the general shape of the shadows, and yes, classical training in art does make it easier to know how to proportion the shape of the shadow to keep it within another plane, one bent out from the object itself. The artist leaves plenty of the black paper beneath showing. One thing to know at the outset is that shadows always have a ‘warp.’

The wonderful thing about these drawings is the sheen and the color of the sheen as they are tipped one way or another or as light hits them from one side. Literally, these drawings will change all through the day with the changes in light, while maintaining the integrity of the whole piece, what you started out with. Since black gel pens are merely soaked up by the black paper, to gain maximum ‘trompe l’oeil’ effect, a little charcoal is used to make the black blacker in the darkest, or the ‘accent’ spots, as for example, in the black parts of the butterfly, underneath the edges, and in the back, behind the blue marble.

In the drawing with the tincture (ink) bottles, the little bit of black charcoal is inside the bottles and on the back side of the stopper–oh, and underneath the leaf at front. It is interesting how much metallic sense is in the aging magnolia leaf, a theme the artist has written on many times.

In the drawing of the grand opening ribbon, the edging with one particular color in the gel pens causes the folds of the ribbon to undulate and flow, as well as defining form and making it ‘pop out.’ The hatching is curved to denote form as well.

Along with the problem of conceiving how to produce the letter on black comes another challenge: making it pastel without making it white, or bright. So in this case, the artist has given it a grain reminiscent of vellum and hand-done papers, with the handwriting super-imposed over the grain and running in a different direction. These solutions may look very obvious once detailed, but they were definitely not obvious to the artist at the outset, and there is no book written on the technique and how it is to be done.

In the picture of the antique white doorknob casting its light reflection onto a table, the rounded cross-hatchings were cross-scored many times over until just the right amount of roundedness emerged. The pink and blue flower was made to resemble cross-stitching with the lighter areas actually looking raised.

In the Egyptian-like brass vase, the figures were brought out and then muted, brought out and muted, the process repeated several times over to achieve the proper muting that would occur with antique vases, and the metallic would lose some of its brightness.

The final piece, the antique bell and leaf is a story all its own in getting shades of grey or black with pens that are meant only for local color and not for modeling.

All in all, Fall Collection 2012 was a break-out process for the artist, and she hopes her collectors will enjoy the ones they adopt for many years to come.

If you have any questions, suggestions, or comments, do not hesitate to write to the artist at: or

See our gel pen collection

Copyright 2012 joanna a. mckethan

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Poetry: What Are Its Springs?

   Poetry—lovely language, brevity of speech, rhythm—probably all of these are qualities we think of when we think of poetry. A lot of us still must add “end rhyme” to the definition, a process which has fallen into disrepute for poets, probably due to the poor quality of rhyming choices and the demise of good English language useage, not to mention the stilting limitation to poetic patterns of speech that using end-rhymes suggests.

Still we all recognize poetry when we hear it, pretty much.

But whence the poetry, what indescribable place in the soul or psyche is the poem pulled from, and what motivates the writer to draw from this secret place?

I haven’t started writing with a pre-defined answer; this is a discovery article. Still, the first thing that pops into my mind is authority. A poem comes from a place of absolute authority—not the ruler-wielding picture that may come to mind, but the place of knowledge. Poetry comes from a place that you know that you know that you know. You have “seen” something that no one has seen as intensely or clearly or transforming as you. The words may be in question, but the kernel, the inchoate mass of discovery, is not.

Let that thread hang for a minute.

Poetry springs from a voice that you hear. Yes, it is your voice, but it is unlike your everyday voice. It is unlike your tentative, insecure voice. This voice streams in the window of your soul with a pronouncement, “The day swept in, in thirty shades of grey.” “No one kills a succulent.” It bears a finality about it, a certainty, but an oddness that requires an explanation, a paradoxical truth that is not a plain truth in any way. It is a secret discovered and shared with the reader in a spirit of confidentiality and urgency.

Leave out the categories—narrative, lyrical, confessional—for a moment.

A narrator lives in that voice. But where does the voice live? Is it a song? And from what do songs spring? Well, from sadness or joy. From grief, loneliness, fellowship. From a moment of time which impinges to such a degree and in such a strong way that it must be expressed. Urgency: I have so much to say. Things need saying, because they will help people. They will connect with people. Things will burst open inside of me if they are not expressed.

Let me share a couple of my own poems, since I know them best. My dream poem started as an argument. Of course the tension was in my own soul, but the challenge came from outside. My aunt concluded that since I expected a baby, I wouldn’t be able to write. Or paint. And this is the poem that emerged from the internal struggle her comment produced:


“Dream are great, you say,

for nighttime—like wispy clouds

that disappear at noon.

But I say dreams

are spit and fiber

spun and thrown

like spider webs—filmy filament

that sticks mid-air

catches and holds tight enough

for you to climb, run, live

(nest your babies on)

and yet,

still make it there.”


Forget the tendentious “where is ‘there?’” Well, wherever your dream takes you, of course. I can’t spell out where your dream will take you. This poem was published in three different venues—in Sanskrit, Vol.20, Spring, 1989, UNC-Charlotte, and in Earth and Soul, an Anthology of North Carolina Poetry (Semlia I Ludsha, Antologia Rossii Severnoi Karolinia), 1st in English, 2nd in Russian, and parts were used for sectional divisions within that book.

Here is a poem that began with poignancy as the well, the springs that pushed the word and thought further…a kind of poignant revelation that I couldn’t stand until I had expressed to some degree of satisfaction. It’s what a poet does instead of crying; it’s an exquisite agony of soul.



When the whippoorwill

begins his evensong,

shadows lengthen, disappear,

as darkness joins them;

the trees turn black:

you want to catch fireflies.


A hundred such evenings

telescope into this one,

gone but here, missing yet

reflected in fragmented

crystals of blinking, cold light,

called, like a cloud of witnesses

to share the sacred moment:

childhood passed on.” Joanna McKethan, The Lyricist, Vo. XXIV, Spring

1990, Campbell University, Buies Creek, NC

Fill This Empty Canvas, A Poetry Chapbook


For me, purity is another spring. I pause with near reverence when I approach something so pure it is almost holy—something you do not want to sully by touching. It is a moment of transcendence when we are lifted higher than our feet can jump. It is a note of a song that haunts us, or a word in a language we knew once, and we must strain to transcribe with any accuracy at all. We struggle, we stutter, we battle words and lines and feelings until we finally hold the best template, the most accurate bowl to the light and fill it with all those marinated moments from the soul. Each one a new dish, an exploding delight, if to no one else, then to the poet who has finally turned her exquisite sadness or joy into words of an otherness not everyday normal. Springs of colder water that refresh. Springs of bitterness expunged. Springs of struggle temporarily resolved.

Authority. Voice. Discovery. Revelation. Extreme emotion. Purity. Something emerges from a deep place and takes you to another deep place with even more precision, even more delight that finally, has a name. A poetic expression is born that lies on a par with the gravity of the moment of revelation. An expression that may sound clever, but was not birthed for cleverness, but for momentous-ness; that really is like slowing down the motion of the ordinary to a delicate dance, or like straining to hear and see the haunting shape notes on a song that suddenly became “more” than you’ve always heard. That’s what poetry is for me. And yes, I think I can say this vaulted expression applies even to humorous poetry. So that’s my story, and for now, I’m sticking to it.


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Leaf A Float


By Joanna A. McKethan

How can I cause you to understand what I see in a leaf? I am quite overwhelmed at the very thought of it, and that is why I painted it instead, but I was challenged by someone I respect to take you there with me and show you me in this leaf.

It all started on one of my ambling walks a mile up from the Cape Fear River around my property. We have always studied the ground, looking for Civil War relics, special rocks, like arrowheads, and of course, leaves.

About ten years ago, when I started painting lush white magnolia blossoms in watercolors, their housing, the magnolia leaves, began fascinating me—the range of their colors back and front, their veins, their backsides…even the texture and material of the leaves. When you feel them, they have a firm, waxy presence, very different from the light, five-fingered sweet gum leaf, for instance. Softer leaves had appealed to me before.

Then I found a magnolia leaf on one of my wanderings which looked metallic in its aging process and as I picked it up, I thought, “Someone used this for Christmas decorations and threw it out.” I turned it around and around, studying its different aspects.

But no, as it turned out, it had not been gilded by a metallic paint; it was just a deep-yet-bright golden color. I started studying the aging process in leaves and wrote many poems about them “more beautiful in life than death.”

And so the one leaf, like the one pictured here, is a portrait of the whole of humanity and the whole of one life in one expression—the form curling in several ways to show the underside which lightened further from salmon colors to lavenders, the veins for all the world like those on an old person’s hands. The coloring aged from a deep green—pretty but rather uninteresting in itself—into the richest burnt sienna’s one could find in her paint pan—radiant, expressive. The form with its curls grew increasingly expressive over time.

And so, it was very easy to lavish on this leaf all the love you would give a person, using paint and the skills taught using them studying the in’s and out’s purely for the appreciation of the individuality of the leaf, showing how it responded to light and to shade.

Of course all the technical expertise you can learn in a lifetime comes to play in this process, equally inspired by spiritual musings as by richness of sensual pleasure in the rolls of light on form. And its title, “Leaf A-Float” is very symbolic of the leaf having been cut loose from its branch and its tree.

We are cynical and say, “yes, so it can die.”

But that very looseness, where it is barely attached to the ground except by one point at its stem, is also a picture of resurrection, and a new life—related, but of another substance. And so the leaf stands alone, its body relaying the whole story.

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