Watercolor Magazine, Fall 2001

Painting Porches

The Watercolors of Lynn Ferris

by Jeanne Mackin

Lynn Ferris loves porches, and their promise of a slower passage of time, of quiet observation and pleasure, of their "be here, now" philosophy. Her admiration of porches extends from the personal to the artistic: she paints porches. And since her own home lacks a porch, she's on a constant lookout for other people's porches as subjects for her watercolors, a quest that sometimes leads to interesting situations.

"I'll paint any porch that intrigues me," she states emphatically. "One day, I was walking by a house and stopped short because there was such beautiful light on this one porch. But I didn't like the furniture. So I knocked on the door and asked this total stranger if I could rearrange her porch furniture and take a picture." Ferris takes a deep breath, and laughs. "She probably thought she was going to be mugged, but she took the chance and let me. I thanked her, and after I was done rearranging and photographing, I went on my way," she says.

It helps that that particular porch was in Key West, Florida, a city known as much for its quirky, casual atmosphere as for its sunshine. Ferris spends part of each year there, where, as well as rearranging furniture, she exhibits and teaches watercolor painting. Originally from New Jersey, she now divides her year between Florida, where she travels the southern art-show circuit, and West Virginia, where home base is a log cabin from which she paints and travels around the northeast show circuit.

Colorful Key West has greatly changed the artist's palette. Ferris describes it as featuring "more clean colors now--not necessarily lighter, but more glowing, with jewel tones, turquoise, and emerald greens." The sunlight there is so clear that she finds herself using a more primary palette, whereas when she paints in the northeast, she turns to a more neutral palette.

Ferris' watercolors begin as an emotional response, usually to light. She may walk past a chair on a porch for days, then suddenly, the light will change and trigger instead of an intellectual response, an emotional one that captures her eye. But rather than paint that vignette on location, she usually takes photographs and then works from those--"because I paint a lot of light and shadow and they change so quickly," she explains.

After photographing a scene, she sketches her composition in graphite. "There's a lot of drawing underneath my colors," Ferris admits. "Some watercolorists say, 'Don't do that! --but I do it. Watercolor happens very quickly, and you have to make fast decisions. As I'm drawing, I'm deciding how I'm going to handle this area, that area. It's like a walk-through before the actual painting begins."

Ferris uses a No. 2 pencil (and sometimes a straightedge to set up perspective if the painting includes architectural elements), Arches 140-lb cold-pressed paper stretched on a Homosote board, and DaVinci paints, generally on a three-color palette. She has used the same colors since college: alizarin crimson, phthalocyanine blue, and cadmium yellow light. When painting in Florida, she adds phthalocyanine green, viridian green, and a vivid pink to her palette.

A frequent award winner, Ferris took First Place two years in a row in the Historic Medford Village Business Association Festival of Art and Music in New Jersey. She has also won awards for her watercolors in three shows held in Maryland: the Westminster Art in the Park show, the Towsontown Springs Festival, and the Belair Festival for the Arts. A signature member of the Baltimore Watercolor Society and the Potomac Valley Watercolorists, the artist currently exhibits at Mountain Laurel Gallery in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia; Washington Street Gallery in Cape May, New Jersey; and Fulton Art in Fulton, Maryland.

Ferris has also worked as a commercial and architectural illustrator, and her watercolors have graced covers of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. Although animals do not loom large in her work, her history with them includes many years as a trainer of thoroughbred horses before she took up painting as a full-time career.

What does loom large in Ferris' paintings is the play of light and shadow, elements that she regards as fundamental and perhaps even more important than issues of color in painting. To contemplate one of her watercolors is to consider the sensuous quality of light and the absence of it. Is it warm? Is it cold? Does it illuminate or conceal? Her shadows, especially, explore the relationship between objects and reflected light. The shaded areas in her paintings display a richness of subtle color that reminds us that light does not exist without shadow, and shadows do not exist without light and color. Although the mood of her work may vary from stern realism to playful interpretiveness, the lights and shadows remain as constant reminders of the warmth of sun and the coolness of shade.

In addition to maintaining a busy schedule of painting and showing her work, Ferris teaches watercolor in Maryland, West Virginia, and Florida. For this artist, teaching is an important counterpoint to her more solitary hours of studio work. "There is a strong relationship between teaching and art," she explains. "When I teach, I have to break things down very logically into little pieces. When a student has a dilemma, I find myself coming up with solutions to new problems, and I learn from solving those problems. It's really very invigorating. I come out of teaching energized, eager to pick up my paintbrushes and paint."

Her enthusiasm is contagious. She once gave a creativity workshop for 26 accountants, "24 of whom had no desire at all to be there," she confesses. "They were working on a vision statement for their company, and the project was to learn how to express visually, not verbally--to think a little differently." But her sinking sensation of facing a group of unwilling students didn't last long. Once they began painting, her reluctant students, most of whom had never picked up a paintbrush before, became as enthusiastic as children. "They had a ball," Ferris says. "I had them start with a fantasy farm scene, something almost guaranteed to be fun."

She always encourages her students to work, as she does, with a three-color palette, not only because it requires less of an investment in paint but because a limited palette also enables the mixing of colors to become intuitive instead of intellectual. For Ferris, intuition guides her art, even when the subjects require mathematically precise renderings of architecture. "My paintings are both an expression of light--since watercolor, to me is about light--and an exploration of negative space," she says. "Those two things awaken a new way of seeing."

As for that porch she doesn't own, Ferris is content to rely on the kindness of strangers. "If I had my own porch, I might just sit there, looking," she sighs, "and not get around to painting what I see."

Reprinted by permission
Watercolor Magazine,
an American Artist publication.



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For more information contact:
Lynn Ferris
Berkeley Springs, WV