Wednesday, April 17, 2013

When is a Painting Like a Jar of Jelly?

The Art of Kay Duffy

Watercolorist Kay Duffy gave me a jar of mulberry jelly that she made herself from mulberries she picked from her own tree. What a rare treat in Silicon Valley! Kay said mulberries are so tender that she has to wear rain gear to pick them because they shower her with juice.

The tree stands not far from the picture window in her studio. When she is not painting outside, Kay works at a long bench where this window gives her a view of the fruit trees on her property in woodsy Saratoga. It's a big place—maybe a half-acre; big enough for a few fruit trees, a large terraced flower garden, a petanque court, and even some untended, natural area. Wouldn't you just kill for that much natural space of your own? I tried to imagine her three children playing there when they were growing up. Petanque is a French form of bowling with hollow metal balls that requires a clean sandy court; Kay says the family still loves to gather there for a game. Kay and her husband have lived there fifty years; it was they who planted the trees that now tower over their patio.

A small part of Kay Duffy's large garden
The scene from Kay's studio window
On the workbench is a scene at Hakone Gardens.
In addition to tending her own land, Kay was concerned with the land around her, which was rapidly being subdivided for houses in the 1970s, so she became one of the early proponents of the establishment of open space and served as an elected director of the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District for twenty years. In the 1990s Kay was president of the Hakone Foundation, which preserves and manages Hakone Gardens, an Asian estate and garden in Saratoga, and she founded a program of arts education there. (She still teaches watercolor there twice a month, plus an occasional class in collage.) Consistent with all this, hiking and biking are her favorite forms of recreation.

Kay brings the sensibility of a person constantly involved with nature to her watercolors. It is a way for her to express the joy of fruit trees blossoming in the springtime, the lively grace of an iris, the subdued mood of the fields and marshes around Moss Landing, or the magic of a rose-hued sunset over Mt. Diablo. Kay calls her style "impressionistic," meaning that instead of being concerned with literal reality, she wants to show how the subject impressed her.

Mt. Diablo
Photo from Kay's website
Kay likes to work in a quick, spontaneous fashion that finishes a painting in a sitting or two, just the sort of thing a busy community activist and mother could tuck into the occasional quiet moment. Therefore her brushstrokes are broad and loose, with generous sprinklings of white space that create a fresh look. She uses a variety of techniques that allow her to indicate aspects of the scene without actually rendering them. For instance, she may use a masking material like rubber cement to prevent certain areas from receiving color; she may use a razor blade to scratch into dry paint, creating highlights and shadows; or she might wipe the paint lightly to create a convincing impression of rain. She may supplement watercolors with gouache, an opaque form of water-based paint, and she sometimes likes a light coat of acrylic as a background.

Kay learned to paint by making workshops, with both local and nationally known artists, a regular part of her life. These teachers constantly inspire her to experiment with technique. She also has a degree in chemistry from Syracuse University and worked as a chemist in the valley until she started her family.

Kay's favorite thing is to paint out of doors, and she frequently joins one of the watercolor groups she belongs to for an outing to some scenic place. Recently she came to Sunnyvale and painted a delightful impression of our Heritage Orchard, one of my favorite places. Her kit for painting outdoors always stands at the ready. She carries paint, palette, brushes and water along with her personal gear in a duffle bag in one hand, and an easel with a backboard to support the paper in the other. When she first gets to the scene, she explores the area to find a focal point and take some reference photos. She can lay in the basic composition during that outing, then refine the effect in her studio.

Kay Duffy with her outdoor painting gear

Sunnyvale Heritage Orchard
iPad snapshot
In addition to depicting local scenes, Kay has painted in the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Alaska, and Ireland, and she did a very nice series in France. In addition to nature, she paints structures, city scenes and an occasional portrait. She did some unusual work in which she tried to depict movement, such as an eagle flying, dogs howling, and dancers leaping. But the majority of her work is dominated by landforms and vegetation, whether at home or abroad.

River guide on a painters' tour of Grand Canyon
iPad snapshot

Kay swears this cactus really did have all these hues.
iPad snapshot
Aran Walls, a scene in Ireland
Photo from Kay's website
In her most recent phase, collage and abstraction frequently press to the fore.  These compositions typically combine watercolor with scraps of published pages and hand-made papers, some of which she makes herself. She's rather keen on shiny papers, and has even been known to throw rick-rack in a "painting." Often she will integrate all these elements so that you might not even be aware of the collaged material except as it enhances the textures in the painting; other times the fun is in picking out the different materials. Collage lets her express the more playful part of her personality.

Detail of collage combining hand-made papers with watercolor
iPad snapshot
When is a painting like a jar of mulberry jelly? When it is a gift from the fresh and natural world of Kay Duffy.

My iPad snapshots don't do Kay's work justice. You can see better examples on her website: Kay Duffy.  There are also good examples on a blog by watercolorist Chris Beck.

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