Carrie Waller is a watercolor artist working in a realistic, detailed style. When she first started painting, she found herself drawn to realistic painters. She was inspired by the memory of objects, and when she heard about a ban on lightbulbs, her award-winning series was born. Carrie is a signature member of the American Watercolor Society, Louisiana Watercolor Society, and Mid-Southern Watercolorists. She teaches workshops and private classes and is a co-host and contributor for the Artists Helping Artists #1 blog radio art podcast.
What does still life, as a subject, give you as a painter? What about it makes you curious and want to share as an experience through paint?
When I first started painting I was drawn to artists like Laurin McCracken, Paul Jackson and Janet Fish. Their works just drew me in and I knew still life was what I wanted to pursue.
In my early works I was reflecting on memories from my childhood and times I spent at my Grandmother’s house. Setting up familiar objects like Ball Jars and other glass jars and bottles helped me tell a story and feel closer to my family. I wanted to take ordinary, everyday objects and make them extraordinary.
As I progressed, I started challenging myself with technical aspects of painting to see if I could push myself in watercolor. My first light bulb painting called “Banned” was a result of reading the news that incandescent bulbs would be banned in the United States. I wanted to paint them and show how important they were to me as an artist. I had such a great time painting light bulbs that I continue to work on that series to this day.
After moving to Japan I started my tea series. Tea is such a beautiful subject and has such history in Japan and is such a ceremonial experience that I wanted to convey that in my pieces.
Could you walk us through your process? What problems are you solving at each stage?
I begin my process with an idea. Ideas can spring up from anywhere such as a newspaper article like in my lightbulb series or having a tea ceremony. Once an idea is brewing I will really think it through for a while. I compose in my head what props I would like or what kind of mood I want to convey.
Sometimes this results in a shopping trip to find a prop or sometimes a shopping trip with be the starting point and I find an object I just have to paint and a composition will come from that. I love to hit up local thrift shops and recycle shops for inspiration.
I then set up my props on a sunny day. I always use natural sunlight and I like the afternoon sun the best. I photograph my setup with my Ipad or iPhone. I photograph from just about every angle possible. It is common for me to have 50-100 shots and I use only 3 - 4 of those images. I then take those images into Photoshop and manipulate them to get an image that I like. After I get a composition it is time to get a drawing on my watercolor paper and start to paint.
How do you go about shooting your reference photos? What do you need from a reference photo?
I use my iPhone or iPad to photograph my images. I am usually looking for strong design principals in my compositions.
I studied graphic design and Interior design in college so I do pull from that knowledge when creating my compositions. Sometimes I may have a strong diagonal line leading you through, “Anticipation” (below) is an example of that or vertical lines like in “Going Green.”
I may have the golden ration going on like in “Banned” and "Incandescent.” Other times, there is something I’m specifically wanting to emphasize, like how the teapot in “Tea with Friends” is front and center full of design and color.
These ideas come out after the photoshoot. Sometimes I go back and shoot again to really get an idea across.
What will you take directly from the photo and what will you change in your painting? Why?
I really have things pretty composed in Photoshop before I start painting. I will use multiple images sometimes if I like the background in one and the foreground in another or I like the colors better in some sections and I want to incorporate that all in one image. I am a very planned person so I really like to have everything worked out ahead of time before I start painting. Sometimes my actual painting time is the fastest part of the process.
Your paintings have such a sense of composition: How do you set up your compositions? What are you looking for in that setup?
I really see life as a series of paintings. I am constantly composing my photos just from our everyday photos in the most professional way I can. I like a polished image and I like a strong graphic statement.
In one of my newest paintings “Tea with Friends,” I wanted to have a strong graphic pop with color and text, and I wanted to create an amazing visual in the teapot with the liquid in the glass. The liquid distorts everything and I was so excited to see how interesting I could get that to look.
Along those same design lines, there is so much going on in your paintings. How do you keep it at that level of engagement and energy without overwhelming the viewer?
I usually am using a design principle to guide you through the painting or to the object I want you to look at. With my painting “5 o’clock Shadow” I used the purple light bulbs to pull you through the composition. In my painting “Focus” I use curved lines and an out of focus background to pull you to the center to focus on the center bulb. In my painting “Abundance” I intentionally had a very chaotic painting. It really symbolizes how over stimulating Japan can be with all of its lights and business. But the out of focus background and the cords still pull you to the focused area of the painting.
How do you choose your color palette for a painting? Are you basing it on local color or are you designing a color approach through a color scheme? (Or maybe a combination of both!)
A lot of time I have a complementary scheme in my paintings. A good examples would be “Going Green,” which has a predominantly red and green scheme. “Celebration” is an orange and blue color scheme. My lightbulb paintings are purples and yellows.
That being said I have my favorite colors that show up in just about every painting. These are my tried and true colors. Quinacridone Gold, Quinacridone Burnt Orange, Payne’s Gray, Indigo, Sepia, Undersea Green, Ultramarine Blue, Cobalt Turquoise are in every painting.
I will shop all my paints at the beginning of a painting and pick out a color that would work in the painting that I haven’t used before. Sometimes you find your favorite colors that way.
What’s important to remember for how glass changes the objects behind it?
That is my absolute favorite part about painting glass. I LOVE what happens with all of the distortions and abstractions. Glass is seductive and mesmerizing. When you put liquid in glass it takes on a whole other look and I just love to play with that as well. All of those abstractions are the best part and it fascinates me how painting all of these abstract areas fit together to make a realistic-looking piece.
My painting “Perfect Medicine” was all about layering colored bottles in front of each other to create all kinds of colors and abstractions in the bottles and jars that were front and center. The lettering on the jars had the most amazing abstractions.
What is the main problem you see your students facing when it comes to painting glass? Any advice?
You have to really paint what you see and not what you think you see. Forget about labeling things in your head when you are painting them. Yes, you may be painting a teapot but you have to really just lose yourself and study all the little color changes and shapes and go paint those instead of a “teapot”.
One of the best compliments I ever got from a student is that I had really taught her to see the world. She said she had looked at trees and grass her whole life but not until after taking a class did she start to look at all the colors and shapes that make up those objects.
If you are really struggling with this, paint upside down, paint in a small section so that you really can’t identify what you are painting. Trick your brain into seeing things differently.
When you are finished with a painting, how do you analyze it to know if it’s done? Could you walk us through some of the questions you ask yourself?
I have a funny process. I really paint one area of a painting until it is done and then move on. I learned early on that I would get really frustrated if I tried to do washes over the whole page. I would get frustrated with that “adolescent stage” of a painting where nothing is completed yet and it’s going through an ugly phase.
By painting each little area to completion I establish my values from the very beginning and I know if the painting is working the whole time.
At the end of the painting, I rarely have very much to go back and touch up. By the time I am painting I have really answered all of the questions and I am in autopilot. I stick on a podcast or movie and try not to think about how I am painting at all.
Learn more about artist Carrie Waller at her website, on Facebook, and on Instagram.