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

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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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