It may have only been a wild fantasy back then. It may not have even been anything that conscious. But Joseph Andersen’s journey to this point started whether he knew it or not. “I was painting from the time I was six,” Andersen says. “The skill level for the actual drawing, I’ve had that ever since I was a kid. My teachers saw that I had it and pointed it out to my parents to get me to pursue art classes.”
A pursuit culminating in his first major art show which opens May 25. Andersen’s passion, begun when he was six, took tangible flight a year and a half ago. That’s when he began work on the 10 paintings on display at the Castle Gallery. Actually, it was 12 paintings, but only 10 are involved in the show, a show which came close to never getting off the ground.
“I didn’t know Joe at all,” says Jody Hemphill Smith, owner of the Castle Gallery. “He sent me some slides, and we were leaving for Italy the next day and Mark [husband] says, ‘Just what we need, another photographer.’ We get like 10 photographers a week looking to show here. So I got back from Italy and said wait a minute and read the letter, and I called him. So he came right over with some actual work.”
The work spoke for itself. Vivid watercolors which were the evolution of a talent honed doing portraits. Andersen painted a lot of sports art for Beckett’s card collecting magazine. He captured the likes of hockey players Brett Hull and Jeremy Roenick for the inside and back inside covers. A pretty big-time gig — but portraits didn’t stoke Andersen’s spark into a blaze. There was no control.
“The portraits were fun, and there was some decent money there, but I really liked painting what I wanted to paint,” says Andersen. “I remember I did a two-year-old one time, and the parents said it looked fine, but they wanted me to put more teeth in her mouth. I mean, she’s two! After a while I thought, this just wasn’t for me. I like to have full control.”
And in painting still lifes, there’s nothing but control.
“I always liked the notion of doing still life because it was kind of like being the director of a play,” says Andersen.
Which means his vision quest is totally up to him. Everything is a decision. The subject, which for this show, is all flowers. The lighting, with one exception, is the natural variety which pours through his windows from 11 o’clock to one o’clock in the afternoon.
Then there’s the most important aspect of all — the color. And in the color is where the watercolorist makes his name. It’s a tedious and time consuming process, but Andersen’s experience as a teacher has more than prepared him for the patience required.
It shows. His colors are striking. The vividness and translucence make you forget it’s a two-dimensional work. And that’s just the effect Andersen is striving for.
“Since there’s limited light, I work from slides,” he says. “Slides are better than photographs because what I ended up having was a painting of a photograph because a photograph is very flat. But a slide gives me color and some detail but not exactness. I’ll take a number of slides from different vantage points to give me as many references as I can use.”
Then the crafting begins. Watercolors are not easy. One painting takes Andersen three to four weeks to complete. The biggest reason for the extended development comes from the medium itself.
“The darker areas probably have 25-30 layers,” says Andersen. “I mix the paint up so it’s relatively weak. I use red, yellow and blue, and I mix to make my own colors. For instance, all the greens are basically me laying down layer after layer of blue and yellow to get just the right green and it takes a lot of layers to build up the dark areas. With watercolors you can’t put it on thick and hope to get it with one coat of paint. If you do that you lose the transparency and that’s the whole trick to watercolors, to keep it transparent. So that the light is passing through the dark to the light of the paper and that makes it much brighter and more vibrant.”
And here’s the kicker: it’s all done without using any white paint. Which isn’t to say there is no white in Andersen’s work. There is, and it’s what gives each piece its punch. It’s also what gives watercolorists a certain badge of honor. The artist either has to paint around the areas needing white or it in after the painting is finished. Neither is easy.
“You’ve gotta have a certain degree of white to make a painting work,” says Andersen, “and if you don’t have it, you’ve gotta get it somehow. I have to go back with sandpaper, a toothbrush or an exacto knife for real hard cases and scrape away the color.”
Andersen calls it a cowboy mentality. But for him, instead of John Wayne, it’s more like Gene Autry. Because, in addition to being a talented artist, Andersen is also an accomplished musician playing bass for a band called the Bel-Airs. A parallel pursuit which took its toll.
“We were playing 15 gigs a month,” says Andersen, “and the thing that suffered the most was the painting. We play rockabilly, which requires a lot of slap bass, and my hand would get so swollen, I couldn’t paint. So I knew something had to go. The band was hurting my art, and art is the thing I liked the most. Music was a blast. I met my wife that way and had a lot of fun, but art has always been my first love.”
Which means the band performances have been cut to about twice a month. Bad news for those who like a good, swingin’ beat, but good news for those who value a still life with verve. A trade-off which Joe Andersen is hoping will make all the years of working toward this show pay off.
“I’ve shown before here and there over the years but in much smaller situations. So this is kind of my coming out party in Fort Wayne.”