The many masks of modern art

Many of those who paint in watercolors claim they are the ''poor relations'' of the art world. That they aren't taken as seriously as those who paint in oils or acrylics, and are often dismissed as dilettantes.

Their complaints, unfortunately, are quite legitimate. The world at large does take watercolor less seriously than oils, and does so despite the fact that five major twentieth-century American artists - Maurice Prendergast, Charles Demuth, John Marin, Charles Burchfield, and Morris Graves - did much of their best work in watercolor. And that, over the years, such artists as Durer, Blake, Turner, Cezanne, Nolde, and Klee used watercolor to very good effect.

The problem, I suspect, lies in the informality of the medium. It's too sketchy and light-spirited, and not weighty and ''important'' enough for artistic greatness - or so many think. Art, they feel, must be good-sized, complex, and executed in a ''serious'' medium if it is to achieve any significance at all.

Watercolor just won't do. How, after all, can anything important result from a few splashes of paint on paper? Or from a few tinted washes accented by a few black lines and highlighted by one or two touches of white? It's all too simple to be important. It's true that watercolor can achieve something lively and pretty, even something quite moving at times. But important? No. A watercolor by its very nature is a minor work of art.

If that were true, our world supply of great art would shrink dramatically. Most Chinese and Japanese painting, for one thing, would be minor, and much of the painting of the Near East and India would also fall short. In fact, we'd be left with relatively little first-rate painting, and most of it would have been produced in Europe during the past five or six centuries.

No, the medium itself has nothing to do with it. Artistic greatness is determined by what one does with a pencil line, a watercolor wash, or a smear of oil paint, not by the choice of one over another.

Watercolor demands total honesty and a thorough mastery of its craft. It's as difficult to fake a watercolor as it is to fake the ability to walk a tightrope fifty feet above the ground. Neither leaves room for error or subterfuge. (Oil painting, on the other hand, can easily be ''worked up'' to appear accomplished and important. After all, a good 80 percent of the oil paintings in museums are distinguished more for the hard work that went into them than for their art.)

That, however, is not the case with watercolor. We know immediately upon seeing one whether or not it ''works,'' just as we know without question whether or not an acrobat makes it safely across a tightrope.

The temptation, unfortunately, is to make too much of a performance out of watercolor painting, and to show off one's highly developed skills with brush and wash. Too many watercolor paintings are more about watercolor effects than about what those effects can help convey. Many a promising watercolor painter has foundered upon the rocks of shallow technical virtuosity, and has spent the balance of his career placing technique and theatricality above artistic substance. What results may be fascinating to other watercolorists, but is of little interest to anyone else.

This insistence that technique take precedence over everything else applies, of course, to all modes of artistic expression. Printmaking, in particular, often loses itself in technical trickery. And yet watercolor, because of its difficulties and potential brilliance, is more likely than most to fall victim to mere virtuosity.

On the other hand, watercolor has many advantages. No other medium except drawing can say so much with so little. And no other can make such a virtue of suggestion, delicacy, and modesty. The watercolorist's brush can prance about on the paper the way a happy colt prances about on a field. With a touch here and a wash there, the watercolor painter can bring out the whiteness of the paper and make it the picture's primary source of light. He can suggest form, or define it precisely. He can combine movement, color, character, and perspective in one brushstroke, or produce highlights by not touching the paper at all.

It's a marvelous medium for expressing passion and enthusiasm, and for making a point dramatically and with flair. Yet it can give voice just as easily to something gentle or serene.

Watercolor is remarkably autographic, and can respond to the slightest whim of the artist. With a few daubs of paint and a line or two, a watercolor painter can communicate his most extravagant feelings, or share his delight at the way a tiny bird balances delicately on the twig of a tree. Small things become as important as big things in this medium - which is both marvelous and a problem. It takes a very special sensibility and talent, after all, to make significant art out of something ''ordinary'' and everyday. And most water-colorists who have the desire to do so just don't have those special qualities in sufficient degree.

Even so, a truly amazing number of them keep trying. People in the larger cities may not realize it, but watercolor painting is very popular throughout the United States. There are many clubs devoted to it, both for teaching and exhibition, and almost every town or city of any size has a few good to excellent water-colorists among its citizens.

Among the best of these is Mary Jane Anway, a resident of Grand Rapids, Michigan, and one of the relatively few watercolor painters I've met recently who can transform the ordinary into art.

She does so through a basically traditional approach to watercolor. Although freely and loosely sketched and imaginatively designed, her paintings are generally drawn from nature. Her most recent works, relatively large studies of flowers, are characterized by painterly fluidity and inner radiance. Their effect is both lyrical and dramatic, thanks to her understanding of the energizing potential of white paper, and to her ability to control it by sharp contrasts and sensitive patterning. As a result, her florals are charged with an inner vitality that is quite extraordinary, and which she can call up with increasing ease. She is an excellent example of an artist with considerable technical skills who prefers to use them for the creation of art, and not for demonstrations of virtuosity.

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