Artist Insight: Vance Kirkland’s Watercolors

Vance Kirkland’s professional career began with watercolors – ironic because he had been flunked in his freshman watercolor class at the Cleveland School of Art in 1924. Despite his teacher’s doubts, he went on to be carried in the 1940s and 50s by the great Knoedler & Company gallery in New York for 12 years, and was in 18 group shows at The Art Institute of Chicago-for his watercolors.

Kirkland Museum Founding Director & Curator Hugh Grant adds this about Kirkland’s watercolors:

“His professors’ criticisms ironically relate to what Kirkland did in his later work. The first of two criticisms was that he was putting colors in landscapes that were not there. Never mind that the Fauvists in France had done that almost 20 years previously. It took Kirkland 16 years, until 1940 with his surrealist paintings, to again put colors in landscapes that were not there. Another criticism was that his colors were fighting. Kirkland said he tried to argue with his professors that the fight made the paintings more interesting, strong and unusual, but to no avail. But once again this is what Kirkland was innately compelled to do. This time it took him 40 years until he would again use fighting colors in his dot paintings beginning in 1964 with his Valhalla series, by setting up complex combinations of complimentary colors.”

Waterfall, Elyria by Vance Kirkland, 1927, watercolor

Most of Kirkland’s watercolor paintings fall into his first two painting styles, Designed Realism (1926-1944) and Surrealism (1939-1954). These were very successful years for Kirkland as an artist. Knoedler & Company gave Kirkland three solo exhibitions and a two-person show with Max Ernst. During this period Kirkland was included in many significant exhibitions including the landmark presentation of Abstract and Surrealist American Painting and Sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1947 (in which Clyfford Still also exhibited).

Kirkland mastered a variety of water-based techniques, the names of which can sometimes be confusing to museum visitors. Here are some helpful definitions:

Watercolor is a paint that uses water to help disperse the pigment in it, and which has a water-soluble, complex carbohydrate binder (what helps the pigment stick to the paper or board). The water evaporates leaving the pigment on the painted surface, stuck in place by the binder. It is usually transparent.

Like watercolor, gouache is a type of paint consisting of pigment suspended in water, but the pigment particles are larger, the ratio of pigment to water is much higher, and an additional white pigment such as chalk is also present. Gouache is heavier and more opaque than watercolor.

Tempera consists of colored pigment mixed with a water-soluble protein binder (usually a glutinous material such as egg yolk). It is fast drying. Egg tempera was a primary method of painting until after 1500 when oil paint was invented and quickly gained popularity.

Casein is a kind of tempera paint and has been used since ancient times. It is made with a protein found in milk, and unlike gouache is fast-drying. The even consistency of casein when it dries makes it a great medium for mural painting and underpainting. Of all the water-based media, it most resembles oil paint.

Fantasy Garden by Vance Kirkland, 1949, casein on panel

Colorado is known for its dry climate and Kirkland used to leave buckets of water around his studio to increase the humidity so his watercolors wouldn’t dry so quickly. Use of watercolor didn’t keep Kirkland from playing with media. He mixed denatured alcohol in with this painting (below) of 1953, making the pigment bleed in an interesting pattern. Later on he would mix sand, glass and all sorts of materials into paintings to achieve certain textures.

Rocky Glen by Vance Kirkland, 1953, watercolor & denatured alcohol

When Kirkland painted en plein air up in the mountains, his water-based paints would often freeze. The story goes that he’d mix some of whatever alcoholic beverage he was drinking to keep himself warm in with the watercolors to keep them from freezing. Hugh Grant comments that it’s a good thing Prohibition was repealed, or Kirkland’s painting career might not have worked out!

Vance Kirkland in the Rocky Mountains, 1944

In 1952 Kirkland began experimenting with a resist technique that combined oil, water, and alcohol compositions on increasingly larger canvases. Water continued to be an important part of Kirkland’s artistic process, even when he began to paint primarily in oil. Kirkland encountered resistance to his new modern style and Knoedler & Company stopped carrying his paintings. However, it is these large cosmic works for which Kirkland is now best known and appreciated.

Please share your thoughts on Kirkland’s use of water, or your own experience with water-based media, in the comments section below.

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