Landscapes Through a Prism:
The Watercolors of Manette Fairmont
By Michael P. Kinch
Manette Fairmont believes that experimentation beyond the bounds of one's style can not only strengthen an artist's style and technique, but can also lead to new levels of creativity and recognition. The artist relates how she pushed the boundaries of her own realism to create dynamic andimaginative watercolors that emulate the luminosity of stained glass windows. Earlier in her art career, Manette Fairmont painted watercolors in a style that was representationalalmost photo-realistic. Although she had mastered technique, and clients sought out her work, something seemed to be missing. The artist realized that photorealism no longer challenged or excited her as it once did. Fairmont wanted to work toward a freer, more imaginative style, but was reluctant to break from the success and affirmation brought by her realistic work.
"The wake up call for me was at an exhibition critique. The judge, who was a wonderful contemporary artist, saw my realistic floral entry and said, 'this artist really knows how to paint, but didn't go for it enough. The artist is holding back.' That was the push I needed," says Fairmont. "When I got home I went berserk with my brush and paints to loosen up!" And loosen up she did. Over the years her work has evolved into her current style which has proved to be successful as well as exciting for the artist.
Fairmont believes that through experimentation and pushing the boundaries of one's own style, artists can reach new levels of ability and competiveness. She says that "experimentation--whatever comes of ifwill actually help strengthen the creativity of your current work. Moving beyond technique is the beginning of creativity." In adopting a new style, says Fairmont, a person still carries over the basic building blocks of painting. As she notes, "You are simply moving from one language to another, but it's still language. It still contains the same foundations."
The artist suggests that when moving toward a new style, begin with one step at a time. And, she adds, "Remind yourself that you can always fall back on your more successful technique at any time. Allow yourself to moveback and forth as you need. Also remember that you don't have to show your experimental workever!" Fairmont recalls that the great English painter Joseph Turner (1775-1851) created wonderful works for his public, but these works stayed within the traditions accepted by his time. Yet after his death many unseen abstract studies of sunlight were found hidden in his studio. Although never shown, these works undoubtably strengthened his use of light in the paintings seen by his public.
Fairmont's current imaginative style has evolved from a variety of inspirations. One of her strong influences came from students of the Choiunard School of Art in Los Angeles. Two of these artists were Millard Sheets (1907-1989 ) and Phil Dike (1906-1986), founders and shapers of the "California Style" of painting of the 1930s and '40s. Both artists helped define California contemporary art and demonstrated to other American artists that watercolor could be a serious and powerful medium. Another influence on Fairmont's work has been Keith Crown, a Missouri based artist. As she says, "I could see in Keith's work that I could create a strong, confident and powerful painting and yet keep the wonderful transparency of watercolor."
A solid art education has been important in Fairmont's work. The artist attended a small and respected liberal arts college in the Midwest where she received a rigorous classical education in the fine arts. "I took composition and design classes until they were coming out my ears!" she says. "But I'm so thankful for those courses because they gave me the foundation I needed to be a serious artist, regardless of style." Design and composition encompass all aspects of Fairmont's work, from the shape of her paper to the final display of a series of her pieces.
Unlike many artists, she prefers to work within the shape of a square. The artist tends to think of her square paintings as a series of windows. Indeed, they are as bright and lively as stained glass windows. She also finds the mathematical perfection of the square a challenge for her. "I like breaking apart the perfect shape of the square," says Fairmont. "I work to redefine the shape by creating and balancing different shapes within the square. By doing that I make the viewer's eye move vertically and horizontally to give an illusion of a rectangle within that square." She works to create a precarious balance of shapes within that "perfect" square. In doing so each painting becomes an intertwining of organic shapes within rigid dimensions of her borders. "I'm contrasting perfect symmetry against the 'imperfect' organic shapes of nature," says Fairmont. "I also like to add manmade shapes to create tension against the organic and circular shapes. I use my imagination to exaggerate those shapes to increase tension and achieve active paintings."
Even though Fairmont's art may look purely imaginative, her pieces are in fact painted on location with an eye to her subject. "My art teachers believed in painting on location," she says, "so rain or shine, we students painted outdoors. And I still do. There's nothing wrong with studio work, but I need to be on location to elicit an emotional response to a scene. I need to feel something." The artist uses the landscape before her as "information" which she uses to paint her shapes and textures. "The design and placement of those shapes and textures are constructed from my mind," she says, "but I also do that on location. Painting on location is such a great discipline and teacher."
To achieve brilliance and snap in her watercolors the artist usescombinations of compliments and contrasts within each piece. She likes to place "muddy"more opaquepassages throughout a work. "I'm big on using compliments," says Fairmont. "The work of Millard Sheets showed me that a painting can be so much more vibrant by 'complimenting' darks against lights." Fairmont uses darker opaque colors to make the lighter, adjacent shapes more vibrant. Her darks are laid in as seemingly dull mixtures of complimentary colors, but they are enlivened through layering and glazing. The artist notes that "conventional watercolor wisdom says that when you use opaque, or staining, color there is no point in going over that with transparent color. But in fact I find that a transparent glaze over an opaque color adds a subtle shimmer. The strokes of a transparent glaze can also create edges and texture in an opaque passage. The effects are subtle, but glazing can help the painting to resonate in those darker areas."
The final effect of the entwined opaques and transparents is similar to that of a stained glass window. Her paintings almost look like they are lit from behind because the darks allow the lights to glow She notes that "a transparent color over virgin white paper just 'pops' when it is played against those rich darks. It is the darks and the negative shapes that make a watercolor look more masterful. And it is the relationship of negative to positive areas, and the areas of vibrant color that lead your eye through the painting."
Fairmont hopes that viewers of her work will see familiar landscapes in new and exciting ways. "I want them to see them as I do," she says, "expressed as visions sifted through the prism of my imagination." And like the influential French painter Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863), the artist agrees that, "work in which imagination plays no part is impossible for me."
Manette Fairmont received her fine arts degree with honors at Principia College in Elsah, Illinois. She also studied in England and received the Studio Art Award for outstanding graduate work in fine art. Her work appeared in The Best of Watercolor: Composition (Northlight Books, 1997). She is a signature member of the National Watercolor Society and has won many national awards. The artist's work is represented in numerous private and corporate collections. Her watercolors can be seen in The Fairmont Gallery which she owns and curates in Sonoma, California.
This article was reprinted with permission from WATERCOLOR
an American Artist Publication
Winter 2000 issue