Watercolor Society of North Carolina Presents at CCA, Kinston

Exhibits at the Arts Center

Hampton Gallery, From the Director

Watercolor Society of North Carolina
Special Exhibition for Signature Members
The Arts Center (400 North Queen Street, Kinston) is eager to announce this exhibition! The Watercolor Society of North Carolina’s Signature Members are celebrated as the “best of the best.” With this showing, they hope to encourage more watercolorists to join the organization so they too can reach this level of achievement. The WSNC has approximately 100 Signature Members, all of whom have been invited to participate in this exhibition. They have placed no restriction on the year of execution, but have restricted the work to be of water media only. The WSNC is a non-profit art organization whose purpose is to promote watercolor throughout the state and to elevate the standards of excellence in this medium.

What is a “signature member”?  Signature membership is a status which painting organizations award certain members who excel in one way or another, which then allows that member to use the initials after their name in all advertisements of their painting credentials.

For WSNC, from their brochure, “WSNC Signature Membership is merited by members who win two first through fifth place awards in two, separate annual statewide WSNC exhibitions after February 1999.  Effective July 2002, a second method of obtaining Signature Membership is acceptance of an artist’s entry into three separate annual statewide WSNC exhibitions.  Once an artist has begun qualification under either method, membership in WSNC and payment of annual dues must be continuous to be eligible for and retain Signature Membership status.  Only Signature Members are entitled to use the initials “WSNC” after their names on any painting in water media.

Joanna McKethan, SW, WSNC, has two paintings hanging in the Kinston show, the “WSNC Signature Members Exhibit.”

Her first painting, full sheet, is “Paper Trail,” which gathers poignant letters from loved ones in the past and assembles them in random style among hand-made papers with holes in them, and other still-life memorabilia. The written words are only partially readable, some showing through the holes; some unhindered.

Fallen leaves and seedpods are strewn through the other leaves randomly, with as much influence of chiaroscuro as possible to make the fallen leaves lifelike, as though you could pick them up. Some of her artist friend’s tiny paper booklets were used as a model for painting, as well. She met this friend who, like her, spent time at the artist’s retreat at Mt. St. Francis in Indiana, for two weeks several summers, completing works of art. The symbolism of leaf on leaf is patently obvious, so it will not be labored. This painting was shown in Southern Watercolor Society’s show, of which Ms. McKethan is also a signature member.

The rivulets of color represent the passage of life, the seasons; the stamped letters are destinations reached and people find each other who became bearers of my life, the pages overlapping indicate the links in generational chains. The leaves are scarred by their journey, with ragged edges like the edges of handmade (deckled) paper, holes, stains, folded in strange ways when the holder, perhaps in a hurry, creased the paper to fit in a book to save. Though it bears the marks of rough handling, it is intact, sturdy, and still pliable.

The randomness is part of the one-hundred-percent transparent watercolor, collage style look in Ms. McKethan’s work, represented in her second piece as well, “A Rose Is a Rose,” which has a photograph of her mother, and a single rose laid over old, stained, handwritten letters. Although they look like collages, the effect is created entirely with paint. This painting is a sad one, a poetic work on the artist’s mother before she was married. Again, a connection is sought after in this painting of overlapping life elements.

Many of the elements are disguised enough to make the pieces anyone’s story. I have been criticized for that, but I have been criticized for the specificity of the information of others. One of my good friends Sandra Mowery owns a full sheet painting with my ancestry clearly designated in it, right down to my great grandfather’s framed photograph holding the bayoneted rifle in his hand.

“In a sense my history becomes yours when you acquire the painting,” she says, “and the threads of history are passed on.”

Ms. McKethan uses layering as a favorite technique. Layering is a difficult art, she says, since you must leave portions of the paper free of color, all the way down to the very first washes. For vibrancy, she avoids the flushing of the paper with all three primaries as a way to make an all-over grey tone. She prefers to leave the light side only for gold-toned colors (leaving one of the triad out) and a dark side which must contain the blue (and less of any yellow, except for making green. This sharpens contrast when the two meet.

“People forget that grey forms immediately when you have all three colors,” she confides a teaching secret with us. “Used well, one avoids mixing mud, but used poorly, all the colors look alike or end up tired and muddy.”

“Weak, tired and muddy are the only types of bad watercolors,” my Polish watercolor teacher in Munich, Germany, taught me at the outset.

And I agree with him whole-heartedly. I would add, “mud is what you get when you were trying to mix something else.” And I would add, “when you mix the right colors together, if you mix all three, you get a neutral—either a warm neutral or a cold neutral—brown or black, tan or grey. And if I see your mud, I can tell you what color to add right away to pull it back from the mud-puddle and take it any direction you want it to go. If you stick with me a bit longer, I’ll teach you enough about my system of color that you can find the right color yourself.”

She smiled and laid her brush down.

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The Making of : “OF THE ESSENCE”

Watercolor Painting: “OF THE ESSENCE”


Whiff of Opium Watercolor paintingPerfumes and Pills

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.

One 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 rainforest in French Guiana and hired rainforest 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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“A Father’s Blessing”


          Painting emotionally: how much can an artist afford to invest of herself in each commission? That was the subject under discussion in the high school art class I taught one Thursday afternoon at Art on Broad Atelier. Since one of my students was painting a watercolor, another an oil, I wanted to teach things that bridge both media.


I think I had just explained what a mood sensitive medium watercolor is: in fact, if you’re not feeling appropriately sassy, just don’t begin a new watercolor that day. Even in painting oils, how you are feeling about yourself transmits when you paint. That is a separate issue from, yet connected with, another emotional factor. How do you transfer emotion to the painting you are working on?


Then my first commission sprang to mind: a portrait of my grandmother for my daddy. Daddy had always talked to me about learning to paint oils, and wanted me to buy transparent oils to tint photographs, in case, as he said, “I would ever have to make a living for myself.” Now my dad was very forward thinking, especially if you consider he was born in 1891. He referred to a man he knew in Toast, North Carolina, where my father was born, Bob Watson. Bob Watson evidently was highly in demand as a photographic portrait colorist, the profession my father envisioned for me.


My artistic talent had been enough to receive some notice through the years, and so my mom and dad had bought me a correspondence art course. I had made something like a “95” on a picture I drew for “Draw Me” ads put out by Art Instruction Schools in Minneapolis. I had studied a concentration of foundational fine art courses at Queens University (then College) and sculpture at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Anyhow, all that evidently gave Dad enough confidence to commission me one day on a visit home from abroad to paint a portrait of his mother.


He approached me very seriously, a small, framed photograph in his hands. “My mother was very beautiful,” he said. I stared at the photograph and for the life of me could not see the ‘beautiful’ part, but I listened attentively. “Yes, I want you to paint her portrait. Take your time; I want it to be good. I will pay you one hundred dollars, and I’ll give it to you up front.” He handed me the hundred dollars.


One hundred dollars might not sound like a lot, but for me, on my first commission, it was a princely sum, and it felt like magic, conjuring up a face with paint and getting hard cash for it. I was living in Germany at the time, but had not yet taken the Old Masters courses I would later. So I began carrying out the commission, getting paint, brushes, canvas, and setting up the painting spot.


“Beautiful, beautiful,” the words rang in my head as I proceeded to paint her face, her bust. I kept at it, adding tones demanded by the photograph, faithfully. Finally, I had something, but, alas, it was not her. What I had was someone dollish, pretty in a frothy sort of way. That was not my grandmother. Her lineage was fine, but she was mountain stock, and had lived a hard life which showed in her face. ‘Handsome’ might express her appearance better. I tried again.


I took another tack and changed angles, colors, whatnot, all the right technical things to produce the right end. Yet once again, this attempt failed. Now I was frustrated, knocked down, and finally, angry. Yes, I got angry with the paint, the brushes, the canvas, myself. “She’s not that sort of fussy pretty,” I told myself. “She is beautiful in character, a strong woman. I’ll have to paint her that way.”


Setting the canvas paper up on board, I drew the face first. Then I mixed grayed blues, near-blacks of her hair, beige skin color, and slung paint onto the canvas. Back and forth in the most energetic strokes I had ever used, I threw the strokes down, not waiting to re-think and second guess myself into tight technical precision.


Precision, perfection. My dad always spoke of his mother with near reverence. It made me nervous, but still I pushed ahead. First, the face emerged, the hair, the body. As if by magic, this woman appeared in the painting, strong, regal, a woman tempered by life and hard times, but yes, “beautiful.” Daddy would be proud. He would love the portrait of his mother.


Unfortunately, that was never to be. Before I was able to mat and frame the picture and bring it to him, he died while I was overseas. I was devastated, capsized. My father was my rock, even though admittedly, a somewhat volcanic rock. He was an emotional man who felt and loved intensely and deposited his love of painting and of poetry in me, quoting poems in French, and telling me stories about his people. And I felt that I had failed him in not getting him the finished portrait he had paid me for, not so much for the ‘hard, cold cash’ he gave me up front, but for the emotional investment it was for him.


Years later, my own children grown, I know that I was wrong to feel that way. We parents are always happy when our attempts to help launch our children succeed, even, I believe, from beyond the grave.


And so my father launched me into portrait painting with that first commission. Some days I am better than others. Still now I remember thinking, “Lord, I won’t paint long if I must get this emotional about every painting I do.” And yet, my first commission proved that emotional input harvests a better product and response from the viewer, because when it comes from the heart, it speaks to the heart.


That is why with every commission, I get to know my subjects. The better I engage them, the better the result. Yes, technical specifics convey differing emotions, but the non-technical must is the feeling and passion to portray the truth of one particular person. How can an artist NOT invest emotionally in every portrait, as though a first commission?



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