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Sharon Pitts paints watercolors in a style that makes the most of the variety of color and shape in the natural world.
By Amy Leibrock
Sharon Pitts paints nature—trees, flowers, nests—in a representational style with abstract qualities. Vivid color draws the viewer into her paintings of nature featuring tangles of branches, petals and leaves that burst of saturated backgrounds.
And while Pitts has always remained true to nature themes, it’s primarily the process of art-making rather than the subject matter itself that has sustained her throughout her career. She approaches each painting as an experiment and rarely has a clear idea of how she wants each to look when it’s completed. “I’ve learned to value the unexpected in the process,“ says Pitts, who teaches watercolor technique classes around the world. “I often tell my students that watercolor is for the adventurous. Don’t be afraid to go out of your comfort zone.”
To Pitts, watercolor is like a partner who pushes her to discover new things. “I watch how watercolor flows, how it merges, how it dries,” she says. “What might have been considered mistakes become opportunities to try something unplanned. In many ways, creativity comes from moving to Plan B.”
Working for Art
After encouragement from art teachers throughout her schooling, Pitts majored in art at the University of Illinois, Chicago, focusing on painting, photography and sculpture. She worked her way through art school by taking temporary office jobs. She was offered permanent jobs along the way, but art remained her top priority. “I remember always being aware of the fact that it would be an extremely big mistake if I didn’t make sure to keep the arts part of my life,” she says.
Finding Subject and Medium
As a student and young artist, Pitts painted primarily in acrylic. After marrying and having her first child, she read that the artist Paul Klee worked in watercolor when his children were young because the medium was more mobile and flexible than acrylic or oil. Pitts was familiar with watercolor from color-study work in college, so the new mother bought watercolors, paper and brushes and started playing. “Almost immediately, I remembered how much I loved the transparent look of watercolor,” Pitts says. “It’s a very independent-minded medium. It really wants to do what it wants to do. I love working back and forth between letting it do what it’s going to do and trying to control it.”
Watercolor has been Pitts’ medium of choice ever since. She painted florals for a while, which allowed her to explore design and color. Other favorite subjects have included cowboy boots, Hawaiian shirts and kimonos. But after suffering the loss of her younger son when he was 18, Pitts suddenly wanted to paint trees. “After he died, I found my art evolving into these tree paintings without even considering them,” she says. “They just came to me. Painting them gave me a certain feeling of comfort.”
Getting Lost in the Process
Pitts starts many of her paintings of nature en plein air, often at gardens near her home. “I find fascinating things all around me,” she says. Just seeing a branch outside her window gets her thinking about how she’d draw and paint it.
After beginning work outside, she brings the painting back to the studio. “I start adding a little and playing around with the background, exploring a couple of ideas from my imagination. Then I might look at some photos to see if there are other ideas that I might be able to add,” she says. Each painting draws inspiration from a combination of real life, photos, imagination and ideas from previous paintings. Pitts isn’t interested in making an exact copy of nature. “I don’t find that interesting, and I don’t think I’d paint if that were the case,” she says.
Pitts used to rely heavily on an initial drawing, but she works more loosely now. She only draws if she thinks she might lose her way in a complex subject, like the nest paintings she has been painting in recent years. She found the subject of Nest I, Van Vleck (below) during one of her local garden sessions. Transfixed by a nest entangled in a large branch cut from a tree, she asked permission to take the nature vignette back to her studio. Once there, she wrestled with propping it up so she could paint it.
She determined it needed to be painted in a fairly large, horizontal format, so she cut a 25 x 45-inch of Arches cold-pressed paper from a roll. She then clipped the paper to foam core, propped it on an easel and started to draw the loose intertwined pile of leaves and twigs. “It was a real challenge,” she says. “Once I got the drawing down, I took a deep breath.”
Coming into Focus
To prep for painting, Pitts creates separate palettes of individual colors—one for blues and one for greens, for example. She then lays the paper flat on the studio table. To begin Nest I, Van Vleck, Pitts painted one long twig and then another, ensuring that each was dry before painting the next. After the paint has dried, she often puts the piece back on the easel and asks herself: “How is it developing? Is it coming into balance? Are the colors I want in it featured?” She goes on to explain, “I answer those questions in my mind, place the painting back on the table and execute what I think the piece requires. And then I go through this process again until it begins to take shape.”
To create the balance she desires, Pitts focuses on color. “If I want a nest to be really vibrant with a touch of whimsy, I might start with a bright orange,” she says. She’ll mix the orange, start with it in one area and work until the orange is balanced throughout the painting. Then she might mix a toned-down yellow and repeat the process, following it with a rust color.
“I observe how the brighter colors look with the duller colors, and then I might introduce another bright color, say, a rose,” she says. “I might decide to revisit the orange and rose again because I don’t paint all the orange at once and all the rose at once.” Once she achieves the balance and colors of the subject, she adds the background, most often in a contrasting color to the subject’s dominant colors.
After Nest I, Van Vleck was completed, Pitts was surprised by how wildly colorful and exuberant it was. “I’d never painted anything quite like this nest,” she says. “There was something about it that refreshed my work in a way that I’d never experienced before.”
After Pitts painted several more nests from life, she was able to create additional works strictly from memory and imagination, such as Vortex Nest, II (top of article). Many of her series evolve in this way—from the real to the imagined. “I can’t put every idea I get into every painting, so I’ll save them for subsequent ones,” she says.
Take Pitts’ tree trunk paintings. The first one the artist painted was a commission of a real setting featuring a foreground of trees through which a bay and a distant island can be seen. As Pitts was painting that scene, she considered other ways to depict it, and the background became more mystical and abstract in subsequent paintings.
In Mystery of Trees I (above), for example, the trees became a screen that reveals a more distant, experimental background. “I was trying to paint the trees so that they looked good together, but each had a unique personality,” she says. When the trees were dry, she painted the background in vertical slivers from the top down. “I started with a dark blue mixed with a tiny bit of super dark green,” she says. “When I got two-thirds of the way down and everything was still wet, I added in a little green to make the transition from sky to landscape, and then I moved on to the next sliver.”
After completing hundreds of paintings, Pitts still isn’t quite sure where her ideas come from, but she’s quite sure that art is in her being. Her advice for artists looking for ideas and inspiration? “Take a walk, look around and listen to that soft inner voice,” she says. “Ideas come in through the side door, perhaps not fully formed or completely understood, and sometimes ideas that are initially unrelated become one idea.”
About the Artist
Sharon Pitts holds a B.A. in plastic and graphic arts from the University of Illinois, Chicago, and has studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the Barnes Foundation and Montclair State University. Her work is featured in collections throughout the United States and in numerous exhibitions, and she is listed in Who’s Who in American Art. As an instructor, she teaches at the Montclair Art Museum, in Montclair, N.J., and gives workshops around the world.
Amy Leibrock is a Cincinnati-based freelance writer and content manager. This article is an excerpt from a full-length profile that appeared in Watercolor Artist. Subscribe for more great artist profiles, technique articles and more!