A fluid medium

A new exhibit at the Pence Gallery explores the full range of watercolor as a medium

Sue Steele Thomas’ “Red Alfa Among the Shasta Daisies” hides shapes within other shapes.

Sue Steele Thomas’ “Red Alfa Among the Shasta Daisies” hides shapes within other shapes.


Water + Color National Juried Exhibit runs through Mar. 31. Pence Gallery, 212 D St., Davis. For more info, visit pencegallery.org.

It seems like it was only yesterday when humans first started watercolor-ing on cave walls. Things sure have changed since the Paleolithic Age. For one thing, rocks were a lot less absorbent than today’s modern watercolor canvas, paper.

And while it’s no cave wall, you can see some pretty fantastic paintings at the Pence Gallery in its latest show, Water + Color National Juried Exhibit. It features works by artists across the country, all judged by professional watercolorist Sandy Delehanty.

“I always find that there’s that one painting, or sometimes more than one, that draws me like a magnet,” Delehanty said. “When you first see it, your first impression is, ‘Wow!’ It just kind of blows you away.”

For this show, more than one painting accomplished that. Out of 364 submissions, Delehanty narrowed the exhibit down to 28 artists, for a total of 38 paintings. The result is a wide variety of works that show off just what watercolor is capable of.

There are craggy seascapes, moody portraits and busy scenes of people in action. In Steve Walters’ “Chain Saw Blues,” three men are hard at work, cutting down a tree in the forest. Small flecks of brown fly off one man’s chainsaw, creating a spray of sawdust. It’s the smallest of details, but it really ties everything together to give the scene a sense of motion.

Delehanty—who has achieved Signature status in American Women Artists, the California Watercolor Association and most recently, the American Watercolor Society—judged each of the paintings based on composition, technique and creativity.

“There are so many different subject matters and so many different ways that people painted the subject matter,” said Delehanty. “There’s different techniques, different styles, and that’s what I always hope for as a juror.”

Out of all of them, Delehanty found herself especially drawn to “Red Alfa Among the Shasta Daisies,” by Sue Steele Thomas. The painting, which depicts an Alfa Romeo hidden within the shapes of several bright red flowers, won first place.

"[This painting] is one that just knocked my socks off,” Delehanty said. “It was so creative.”

It takes more than a couple seconds to realize what you’re looking at, and a couple more to take in all the extra details. The bold colors were achieved using a combination of watercolor and gouache, which gives everything a more opaque quality. In the car’s headlights, you can make out the warped reflection of a cityscape, suggesting there’s a whole world out there, just out of frame.

Delehanty has a painting of her own as part of the exhibit, too. Titled “Notre Dame,” the scene gives the impression that you’re standing right up against the historical building, and leads your eye up along the arches to settle on the underside of a gargoyle perched high up in the distance. It has a dizzying effect.

Delehanty has been painting full-time since the ‘80s, and she shows no signs of stopping. She’s painted with oils and acrylics, but watercolor is what she enjoys the most. What is it about the medium that keeps her coming back? Delehanty cites two main reasons.

“First of all, you can’t really control it very well. It controls you as much as you control it,” Delehanty said. “Number two, there are so many, many different techniques that you can use to paint a painting with watercolor. In fact, most paintings have many different techniques within them. And consequently, it’s a medium that I don’t get bored with, because there’s so many different ways of creating.”

Delehanty will be giving a talk on Mar. 1 to discuss more about the exhibit and the judging process. Until then, she’s got some sage words of advice to those looking to master the medium: “You have to keep learning, you have to keep growing. I take a workshop every year, because if you don’t, you’re just going to become mechanical and stuck in a rut.”