For watercolorist Bill Abel, making art is less a dialogue with his medium than a high-stakes game. “It’s like a tennis volley, a dance, or even playing chess,” he says. “You make the move and then wait and watch what happens. The next move will be based on what comes back at you.”
His connection with the notoriously tricky genre is a long one, going back to childhood, when his mother, an MFA graduate from Ohio State University, gave him his first watercolor kit. But he attributes the inspiration to pursue an art career to his maternal grandfather Dudley Fisher, who for many years penned a nationally syndicated color comic strip called Myrtle.
“Although I never met him, his skills inspired me,” says Abel. “He was a skilled draftsman, a carpenter, photographer, musician — way beyond the norm. The man built a pipe organ in his own home.”
Abel, now 60 and a Hendersonville resident for three years, has since built a decades-long portfolio of distinctive portraits, landscapes, and seascapes known for a vibrant color palette unusual for the medium, all created with little academic training. “I dabbled in formal training,” he points out, “taking a couple of classes at Florida State University, but to me informal training is where the rubber meets the road.”
Abel reveals that his sixth-grade art teacher was R.L. Lewis, one of the 26 original Florida Highwaymen, a group of African American painters of the mid 20th century. Denied gallery representation, The Florida Highwaymen sold their work at roadside stands throughout the state, and their originals are highly collectable.
Later mentors were the plein air watercolorist Tony van Hasselt and the late Judi Wagner, a Maine-based landscape artist who brought an impressionist sensibility to the medium.
Although watercolor’s immediacy is often a draw for budding artists, Abel cautions that it requires patience and method, starting with something as basic as the water supply. “Painting with dirty water creates dirty mixes and washes,” he explains, “so I refresh my water frequently when I paint. Also, in order to paint, you’ve got to use paint. Watercolors can easily remain timid until you learn to load your brush.”
Long fascinated with color theory, Abel may often paint with just primary colors as the basis of his palette, which, he says, keeps the hues fresh and more easily integrated. For more complex works, he’ll resort to color theory’s “warm” and “cool” versions of each color, as well as the primary from which they’re derived.
Abel’s portraiture, with deep modeling that approaches chiaroscuro in the play between light and dark, is one example of his application of color theory to the medium; other works, like his landscapes and architectural studies, follow more traditional uses of watercolor — that is, delicate and meticulously detailed.
“A quick pencil sketch to simplify the scene works best for me,” Abel says of his process. “Often photos serve more as an inspiration; the color reference and details emerge as I paint.”
Just as strong as his love of watercolor is Abel’s enthusiasm for teaching the medium to others. He often combines painting instruction with gentle yoga and guided meditation in what he calls “Yog-Art” classes; this multidisciplinary approach is designed to instill a sense of play and ease.
“Patience and playful awareness are the gifts that I lean on to paint,” he says. “Impatience will not serve the artist well. In any creative work, I do my best when I surrender control and trust my intuition.” It’s a working style he tries to bring to his students, encouraging them to experiment with the medium without becoming attached to the end product.
Abel’s been teaching almost as long as he’s been painting, starting at community colleges and after-school programs in Florida. “Demonstrating and sharing publicly can be terrifying, but also cathartic,” he observes. “Teaching is itself a creative process that brings growth, and what I love now as I teach is that I accept myself more and more. It’s a joy to not be so hooked on being perfect.”
Bill Abel is represented by Art Mob Studios & Marketplace, 124 4th Ave. East, Hendersonville, artmobstudios.com. For more information about the artist, see wherearthappens.com and artandyoga.life. Abel will host two workshops at the Art League of Henderson County’s Art Place Venue (2021 Asheville Hwy., Hendersonville): “Painting Watercolor Portraits” on Saturdays, Sept. 16, 23, and 30; and “Building Blocks for Painting” on Saturdays, October 7, 14, and 21; see artleaguehvl.org.