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Precision in a Watercolor World

By Marilynne S. Mason / March 11, 1993



DEFYING his medium's penchant for diffusion and softness, Jerome Vaden drives his watercolors into hard, clear, clean lines and planes of color. He often uses a blow-dryer to dry the pigment before it can saturate the paper. This self-taught artist works with precision to render dramatic compositions, street scenes and portraits, that capture the whole of humanity - all races living in harmony.

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Mr. Vaden is an idealist. He is also an engineer. The art world has its own prejudices, but Vaden has never let those limitations block him. As a child, he taught himself to draw, sometimes staying up well into the night recreating all he had seen during the day. His only experience in an art class taught him about contemporary biases in art - but abstraction just wasn't his thing. He dropped the class and took to studying on his own. He still does. He spends part of every work day doing research in the

arts - particularly old and modern masters, their lives and techniques.

Vaden left a stable position at Martin Marietta in 1987 to pursue his art full time. He'd become an engineer because his father wanted him to get "a real job," but he kept drawing and experimenting with different forms until, with the full support of his wife of 17 years, he made the leap into the art world.

"I was painting for myself and didn't care who saw the work. If you paint for money, you fail," he says. "Paint for yourself and from your soul and be your own worst critic." Coming as he does from a family of artists, educators, and performers, the discipline of 10 to 12 hours a day in the studio is natural and pleasant for him. But the engineering profession has also contributed to his art: In some cases, he has actually used engineering techniques in his drawings. He prefers watercolors to oil and acr ylic because watercolors are more exacting.

"You can paint over a mistake in oil. But in watercolor, what you put down is what you get. So you have to plan each step. I sketch out each piece, working sometimes on 10 pieces at the same time. It can take months to complete one."

He describes his images as "suspended in time." "I try to capture a person or place in time, and freeze it there, down to the exact second - I can tell where the sun was in the sky." He points out that the moment he captured in "Katy" was the exact moment when jazz/blues singer Katy Webster hit a particular note.

Exactness of detail is important to him, but so is the spirit within. He paints the precise moment, the precise action, but he also paints his memories and his experience of the music (in the portraits of jazz musicians) or his hopes and dreams (in his street scenes).

The street scenes like "The Premiere," "Down to the Nightclub," and "In the Open Air" bustle with life. Some people are beautifully dressed, others plainly. Blacks and whites inhabit the same space freely and easily.

Dignity matters. So does music.