by Linda S. Price
Vermont artist Kathleen Kolb is not a fussy
painter. She doesn’t need sunny skies and perfect weather to paint
outdoors and actually prefers painting the cold, wintry snow scenes for
which her state is known. Although she enjoys painting on-site—working
in her car if temperatures are unbearable—Kolb also works indoors, using
photographic reference or field studies to start a new painting or add
the finishing touches to a work started on location. And when it comes
to media, the artist is able to easily switch from oil back to
watercolor, the medium she has worked in for 20 years. Yes, Kolb is a
versatile artist, one who is willing to adapt to almost anything, as
long as she is painting a subject that, as she describes it, has an
“emotional ignition, something that’s so startling to me in its beauty
that I must paint it.”
Kolb finds most of her inspiration within a 30-mile
radius of her rural home and claims she never runs out of ideas for
painting the landscape that is so meaningful to her. As she drives
around with her camera and sketchbook or paints and easel, she seeks out
subjects using a cardboard viewfinder of the same basic proportions as
the painting support she will be using. When painting in oil, Kolb
spends the first hour carefully sketching the scene in graphite on a
hardboard panel, then sprays it with fixative. When she’s ready to add
color, she starts by establishing the key shadows and areas of direct
light that are subject to change. Because she’s a slow painter and wants
to finish most of her work before conditions alter, she works on panels
that are 9" x 12" or smaller. Still, some paintings will be completed in
the studio. By painting on-site, Kolb immerses herself in her
environment, making it easier for her to create larger studio versions
of a similar scene later on. When making plein air sketches for future
studio paintings, Kolb supplements those with lists of the darkest and
lightest areas of the painting, rating them from 1 to 5 according to
Sometimes Kolb’s landscape paintings are done entirely
in the studio, using photographic reference, sketches, and notes to
recreate that “emotional ignition” she was initially drawn to on
location. Key to that connection for the artist is capturing the quality
of light, which is why she often uses a camera to remember its exact
characteristics. “Light is indistinct over a period of time, but a
camera can pinpoint a unique light at a precise moment,” she explains.
“I prefer dawn or dusk for warmth and poignancy.” The artist uses slide
film because she loves its luminous quality, but, realizing that photos
don’t show nearly as much as the human eye can see, she carefully
brackets exposures to reveal colors in the shadows and a range of hues
in the sky. Because she wants her scenes to ring true and be
recognizable, she alters little, and does so only to create stronger,
When working in oil, Kolb always starts at the top of
the canvas and works her way down, “but if there’s water or intricate
rocks in the scene I do washes with turpentine to establish the lights
and darks,” she says. “I do the whole sky at once and anything that has
to blend into the next tier down. I paint in oil as I do in watercolor:
very thinly. I’m not in the habit of mixing up large gobs of oil paint.
I like glazing and will use it to adjust colors throughout the painting
process.” Although she doesn’t mix large amounts of paint, Kolb
definitely puts a lot of time and consideration into the mixing of the
colors themselves. “Color variation is the key to keeping surfaces
interesting,” she says, noting that skies, snow, and foliage all need
plenty of variety, whereas the side of a building requires less.
When working in watercolor, Kolb follows a process she’s
honed over time. For many years she has been painting on Cheap Joe’s,
she’s surprised at how much she actually likes them. Her equipment also
includes red sable brushes that she calls “the workhorses of her
watercolor kit,” bristle brushes for scrubbing, a fan blender for
creating the effects of grass, a dip pen for doing tree branches, and an
old mop brush she’s had since she was 13 years old.
Regardless of what medium she’s working in, one of
Kolb’s favorite subjects to paint is snow scenes; and, according to the
artist, painting these successfully comes from much looking,
experimenting, and struggling. “Snow,” she says, “is a lot like water.
It reflects the sky, but taken down a register or two. I discovered I
wasn’t putting enough yellow and green in my snow, that there is more
warmth and color variation than I was painting.” She finally discovered
what works: Prussian blue with some turquoise for the warm areas and,
for the cool spots, ultramarine blue with some apricot reflected back
into the shadows. After much observation she realized that at night snow
looks quite green, and it is these variations of green that make it
appear luminous. Sometimes she applies a final yellow glaze to intensify
the green effect.
The artist notes that foliage is also tricky and that
paintings with too much green are tough to sell. One of the secrets of
good greens, she says, is realizing how little blue there actually is in
green. Often she mixes cadmium yellow and Prussian blue to create a
Kelly green, which she then tones down with burnt umber, burnt sienna,
or Van brown. Or she will use purple to gray down a combination of
ultramarine blue, cadmium yellow, and white. For passages of brilliant
light she uses a straight mixture of blue and yellow. Both trees and
snow get energy from the tension created by the juxtaposition of warm
and cool colors.
Whether she’s painting foliage in spring or wintry snow scenes, some of
Kolb’s most striking paintings contain skies at dusk and dawn. To create
this luminosity she mixes up at least three variations of sky colors and
uses a separate brush for each. She begins painting near the horizon
with a mixture of white with cadmium yellow and a touch of cadmium red
light. The next band of sky is white with a little turquoise and a small
amount of cadmium yellow, followed by a combination of turquoise and
white. The cooler upper sky and corners contain Prussian and ultramarine
blue with perhaps a little turquoise added to the white. Once she’s
painted in these horizontal bands of color with a hog’s hair filbert,
she blends them vertically to create a shimmering effect. The sky must
be done in one sitting, she warns. “It’s a disaster if I allow it to dry
before finishing it.” For clouds she uses warm cadmium red or burnt
sienna tints next to a cooler ultramarine/violet gray, a contrast that
she says creates visual energy.
About the Artist
Kathleen Kolb grew up in the Cleveland area and attended art
classes from the age of 6. By age 13 she was studying watercolor with a
serious professor, who insisted the class do tonal studies for the first
six months, and later continued her education at the Rhode Island School
of Design, in Providence. Although at school she did mostly figurative
work, she discovered the landscape genre after moving to Vermont and has
been attached to it for the last 30 years. She’s done several
residencies for developing and emerging artists at the Vermont Studio
Center, in Johnson, where she learned from excellent visiting artists,
including Janet Fish and Wolf Kahn. Kolb is represented by
Findlay Galleries, in New York City (www.davidfindlaygalleries.com),
and by Clarke
Galleries, in Stowe, Vermont (www.clarkegalleries.com). For more
information on Kolb, visit her galleries’ respective websites.
Linda S. Price is an artist, writer, and editor
living on Long Island, New York.
Exclusive online gallery of Kolb's oil landscapes at American Artist
Anderson Homestead, 2002,
watercolor, 18½ x 22½.
drama in this
2002, watercolor, 22 x 30.
Kolb used a 4" hake brush to
lay down a yellow wash
for the large lawn area.
When it was dry, she
over it with a large mop,
letting some of the yellow
Caspian at Bathtub Rocks
2005, watercolor, 11 x 15.
The large cloud and its reflection in the lake provide
enough interest to create an effective composition. The
beautiful granite rocks break up the flatness of the
15 x 22. Private collection.
When the oil painting of this scene was making its debut
in the movie What Lies Beneath in California, Kolb
decided to capture this local spot again, but in
11 x 22. Private collection.
This watercolor was completed before Kolb embarked on
the larger oil painting of the same scene. It’s cooler,
and the snow has less variety in color and brushstrokes
than the version done in oil.
House on Lobster Cove
2000, oil, 12 x 16.
This well-known house
on Mohegan Island, in
Maine, has been the subject
of several of Kolb’s
paintings, both in oil
22 x 30. Courtesy Clarke Galleries,
Kolb purposely included the power poles in this scene,
making the strong vertical shaft the key to the
composition. Like the wires on the left, the poles
energize the scene, preventing it from appearing static.