Fairbanks artists color outside lines

Posted: Thursday, July 15, 2004

FAIRBANKS A perfect June day. An acclaimed watercolor artist-teacher, working with the historical Chatanika Gold Camp as a backdrop. What more could amateur artists wish for?

''You could spend a year in just this spot,'' said Mel Stabin as he strolled between the easels of 21 local artists set up around the gold camp grounds late last month.

The New Jersey watercolorist and author was in town to lead a five-day watercolor workshop sponsored by the Fairbanks Watercolor Society.

The picturesque gold camp bunkhouse and restaurant, surrounded by a scattering of outbuildings and mining artifacts, provided ample and intriguing subjects to paint.

Stabin ambled about in shorts and a baseball cap sharing his half century of artistic expertise and advising students on technique.

''This is your best effort yet. You're looking good,'' Stabin said as he approached Patricia Reynolds, who was working on a scenic view.

The wildlife biologist was taking a week of annual leave to attend the workshop.

''I've learned a lot, and I've got a lot of practicing to do,'' said Reynolds, who took up the medium a couple of years ago.

''He's shown me how to look at things, how to look at shapes, how to look at values,'' Reynolds said. ''I tend to look at the world as a big picture. Now I've started looking at shapes. It's a whole different thing.''

Each morning, Stabin spent about an hour or so demonstrating watercolor techniques and producing a finished painting before students began their own work. In the late afternoon, everyone reassembled, work in hand, for a critique session.

Tom Nixon described Stabin's criticisms as ''warm and fuzzy.''

''Instead of ripping and tearing, he mentions what is best in it. Then I know that what he doesn't say is what I need to work on,'' Nixon said.

Stabin, 74, took up watercolors under the tutelage of an inspirational teacher, Ed Whitney, at the Pratt Institute. For the next four decades, Stabin kept up a dual career by day, making his living in the ad industry in New York City, then teaching watercolor classes during evenings, weekends and all of his vacations.

Fifteen years ago, Stabin began painting full time and continues teaching annually at 14 to 17 watercolor workshops around the country and overseas.

''Watercolor is my chosen medium because of its spontaneity,'' Stabin said. ''It's kind of a wild, uncontrolled medium and I like the challenge of that.''

Unlike oil and acrylic paints that can be painted over many times, the high water content used with watercolor paints requires the artist to work quickly and efficiently.

Prior to the last century, watercolors were used only as a preparatory medium, such as a study for a more serious oil painting, Stabin said. But that started changing when the watercolor works of noted American artists like Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent upgraded the medium in the art world.

''In the past 25 years, it has become the most popular medium, especially in the field, because it is easier to carry the equipment,'' Stabin said. ''It's the only medium that gives you the transparent, translucent quality of seeing one color through another color that you can't get in any other medium.''

As Stabin continued his rounds, students paused with him to look critically at their works in progress. Some were advised to limit the texture of their scenes and focus more closely on light and shadows.

''Make a lot out of those trees. They're interesting,'' he told Sue Cole, pointing to various aspects of a nearby birch grove. ''That area of trees is very important, how it's designed and those little negative places between the trees.''

Pat Sheehan listened and watched attentively while Stabin looked over her work and offered a few suggestions before moving on to the next artist.

''He makes it seem easy,'' said Sheehan, shaking her head. ''It's not,'' she added with a resigned smile, bending back to her art.

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