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Article Published February 13, 2019
Joan McPherson: An Artist’s Eye
Margaret McNellis, Associate Editor

Clinton Art Society member Joan McPherson recently won the Golden Art Materials Award in the New England Watercolor Society’s 2019 Signature Member Show in Boston for her watercolor painting View from the Farnsworth Museum’s Gift Shop.

“[It’s] a talented group, but because they’re Boston-oriented, I don’t get to participate too much,” Joan says.

For signature members’ shows, sometimes she and other local artists will arrange a carpool, since one show can mean several trips: receiving, the opening reception, the awards and judging, and collection of unsold works at the end of the show.

Despite the longer distance, Joan has been a signature member of the New England Watercolor Society since the ‘80s or ‘90s.

“You have to get in several times to become a signature member,” Joan says.

How many shows must your work appear in? Well, that can depend on the society or organization.

Her work is also on exhibit in the Clinton Art Society’s 2019 Member Show, which runs through Tuesday, April 30 and is viewable at Andrews Memorial Town Hall, 54 East Main Street, Clinton.

In the member show, members can each hang one painting. The show is not juried, which means any member who wants to exhibit is welcome.

“This makes for a vibrant and varied exhibition, with artists not concerned about ‘getting in’ to the show,” Joan says, “but simply enjoying the opportunity to share [their] recent work.”

Where her award is concerned, she’s grateful. It’s not her first and it won’t likely be her last award for painting—for Joan, “it’s about the painting you’re working on right now.”

Awards can affect the sale price of a painting, but Joan prefers to focus on the process.

“It’s a medium you never master,” she says.

Perhaps one of the reasons for this is watercolor is such a fluid paint, whereas acrylics and oils behave differently on the paper or canvas.

How does one go from amateur to an award-winning painter? For Joan, her passion for the arts began in her youth.

“I’ve always drawn,” she says, “from childhood. Then I took a watercolor class in college.”

Joan was a student at Penn State when she enrolled in a watercolor class for architects.

“I don’t know what I was doing in there,” she says, since architecture wasn’t her field of study.

Even so, Joan became smitten with the medium.

“I should have gone to art school,” Joan says.

Joan did pursue a career in nursing. For a few years, she worked as an R.N. at St. Raphael’s Hospital, now a part of Yale New Haven Health, and she also worked in hospice homecare.

All the while, she kept taking watercolor classes and workshops.

“What makes you grow the most,” Joan says, “[is to] just paint.”

Paint she did, and for every polished, complete painting, Joan says there were 9 or 10 that went into the trash.

Joan loves to paint en plein air, which means painting outdoors. When a painter works outside, along with the benefits anyone might enjoy, she says she can make the most out of natural light.

For Joan, light is crucial. Sunlight and shadows are the focus of so many of her pieces, whether the objects depicted are motorcycles, boats, flowers, or sunsets.

She’s “on the lookout for interesting shapes and strong value contrasts.”

When we see contrasting values, our eye automatically presumes a line, which gives form to two-dimensional objects so that our visual centers can interpret in three dimensions.

This is what allows painters like Joan to depict light and dark on a single pane—and the viewer to interpret the image as moving off of that plane.

“Watercolor is often painted from light to dark,” Joan says.

In other art mediums, an artist may note the darker values first. However, because of the nature of watercolor—its viscosity and transparency as opposed to thicker paints—it’s often best to start with lighter values and build up from there.

The best way to learn to depict value contrasts is to learn to observe with an artist’s eye, she says.

While teaching, “I would tell my class, ‘Let’s look at what’s in front of us,’” Joan says. “If you’re not an artist, you’re not seeing the value changes that make painting interesting. You have to be taught to look.”

Joan would lead her students outside to examine the way sunlight wraps around a tree trunk, for example.

While Joan isn’t currently teaching classes, she’s taught in the past at the Guilford Art Center, through the Town of Madison, and in Connecticut River Art Workshops, the latter of which were sponsored and run by residents of Essex in the late 1990s.

“It was en plein air, and quite a challenge finding good sites with plenty of shade but good views, bathrooms nearby, and parking for everyone,” Joan says. “Essex is a wonderful place to paint, however, and it was fun teaching there.”

She wanted more time to devote to her art. However, she still helps her fellow watercolor artists grow.

Through the Town of Madison’s Beach & Recreation Department, Joan facilitated the watercolor studio group for about a decade.

The group meets every Wednesday, from 9 a.m. to noon. From 9 to 10 a.m., “members can show a completed or nearly finished work and get feedback,” Joan said.

The rest of the time is devoted to self-directed painting, though “sometimes, more experienced painters will offer help,” Joan says, “like with composition.”

Composition involves not only what’s in a painting, but how it’s arranged and where the focal point exists.

“This is a supportive gathering of painters,” Joan says, “who celebrate each other’s growth and successes. And it is lots of fun.”

Joan feels that Connecticut, in general, is a great environment for artists working in all mediums.

“Connecticut is an amazing place for the arts,” she says. “There are so many supportive organizations to help you grow and improve.”

Her growth as an artist has required a lot of time drawing, painting, and even photographing scenes that catch her eye.

Joan loves when a composition shows ordinary objects in extraordinary ways.

Aside from entering her paintings in exhibits, Joan enjoys gifting her work to her children, donating it to raffles and auctions benefiting causes she cares about, or carving up practice paintings to make notecards.

“It’s one way I share my art,” she says. “People love to get little hand-painted cards. [They’re] a good warm-up when you get into the studio.”

Joan is also always learning.

“I want to study portrait,” she says of her latest effort.

Joan McPherson’s award-winning painting, View From the Farnsworth Museum’s Gift Shop, will be on exhibit in at the Guild of Boston Artists, 162 Newbury Street, Boston through Sunday, March 3. The Watercolor Studio Group is run through Beach and Recreation; interested painters of any level can visit for more information.