The grapefruit, neatly bisected, fairly drips from the canvas. Rendered in brilliant tones and bathed in a beam of morning sunlight, the textured canvas is a burst of color and light against the nondescript gray walls of the Gertrude Herbert Institute of Art's main gallery. A vivid departure from the pale transparent washes and floral focus usually associated with the watercolor medium, the painting is representative of Augusta artist Caroline Swanson's artistic vision - a vision represented in this year's prestigious American Watercolor Society traveling exhibition.
"A lot of people are surprised I get such intense color out of watercolor," said Ms. Swanson, surrounded by the tools of her trade in her home studio. "I think that comes from the affinity I have for the bright colors, and so I just sort of learned how to achieve that."
The society's show will occupy the main gallery of the Gertrude Herbert Institute of Art through June 23. Ms. Swanson has a solo exhibition running simultaneously in the institute's third-floor gallery.
"I had several pieces that I knew I wanted to show," she said. "I've tried to limit it to the still lifes and people paintings that I've been doing, and mixing older and newer works."
Ms. Swanson's studio swirls with color and light. The walls are festooned with artwork, easels, photos and awards. At her back, a large sketch of Sacred Heart's exterior awaits the application of paint. Flooded with sunlight from large windows, the studio seems a perfect spot for Ms. Swanson's bright muse.
"I do like the play of light," she said. "I kind of feel like I'm the director of a play or conducting an orchestra because I'm controlling how the viewer's eye travels through the work."
Ms. Swanson first came to painting in 1984. An avid tennis player, she found herself sidelined by a back injury. So she took to the more sedentary pastime of painting.
"All beginning watercolorists are awful if they haven't had any previous art experience," she said. "But I found I liked it well enough to pursue it and keep working at it."
As her artistic skills improved, Ms. Swanson began to enter paintings in competitions, with favorable results. In 1989, five years after she first picked up a paintbrush, her work was accepted in a traveling exhibition to Takarazuka, Japan. She has also been honored by the American Artists Professional League, the National Association of Women Artists and the National Watercolor Society.
"I enjoy the competitions," she said. "Not everybody does. Some people paint to sell or paint to please someone else, but I paint to please myself and to compete."
Ms. Swanson said she works in watercolors because she finds the unique properties of the watercolor art appealing.
"I love the way the paint flows and mixes on the paper and the transparency," she said. "Also, we travel a lot, and with traveling it can be so immediate and compact."
Viewing her art as something that continuously evolves, Ms. Swanson said that her art tomorrow might be something quite different from the painting she is doing today.
"I think you have different stages," she explained. "I think there are plateaus. Hopefully I'll never become complacent and will continue to try and improve and will continue stretching."
Among the possible changes Ms. Swanson said she foresees is experimentation with other mediums.
"I haven't tired of the watercolor medium, but I do see myself moving into oils or acrylics," she said. "Because I do use the medium so heavily, I do feel like my work is leading that way."
Ms. Swanson said that her involvement in art has been something of an education, providing her with role models from the annals of art history.
"Growing up I loved Norman Rockwell," she said. "Since I've learned a little bit more, I've also come to admire artists like Cezanne, Van Gogh and Vermeer - especially Vermeer. Although he may not be that well known, Vermeer had a wonderful way of capturing light."
Taking her inspiration from staged still lifes, people and her travels, anything might end up on Ms. Swanson's canvas.
"That's how it is," she said. "I think if you have it in you, you're just always looking."
What: Works by Caroline Swanson at the 132nd International American Watercolor Society Exhibition
When: Through June 23
Where: The Gertrude Herbert Institute of Art, 506 Telfair St.
Reach Steven Uhles at (706) 823-3626 or email@example.com.
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