Interview with Brenda Swenson

by Paint Tube 5 Minutes

Interview with Brenda Swenson

Brenda Swenson ("Glowing Watercolors") is an artist, author and watercolor instructor. Her artwork has been featured in numerous publications including Splash, Watercolor Artist, Watercolor Magazine, Plein Air Magazine and many others. Brenda has achieved signature status in WW, NWWS, and SDWS. An active participant in the arts community she has served on the board of directors for the National Watercolor Society and Watercolor West. She is in demand to judge shows, demonstrate and teach workshops to groups nationwide and abroad.



What does watercolor give you as an artist? 

The best description of watercolor is it’s alive. It’s a dance between you, paint and the surface moisture on the paper… stepping into or pulling back. Watercolor requires you stay awake and respond to what’s happening on the surface. Never turn your back while the paper is wet…stay awake! I once heard someone say, ”Oil is like a dog, it wants to obey. Watercolor is like a cat, it does as it pleases”. I couldn’t agree more!


How important is it to understand materials in watercolor? Why?

Let’s start with paper. Understanding the materials can save a lot of frustration, wasted time and money. Watercolor paper isn’t something you want to skimp on. Every surface (cold press, hot press, rough) acts differently. Knowing how surfaces will react will save a lot of frustration. The weight of watercolor paper (90lbs-300lbs) varies greatly. Too light the paper will warp, too heavy and the pigment soaks deep into the paper and slows drying time. Lighter paper 90lbs is fine for watercolor sketches, dry brush or light washes. Heavier 140lbs to 200lbs cold press is my preferred weight and surface for painting.


Where do you see students struggling with materials? 

Student grade materials are a recipe for frustration. I would rather see students attend workshops with limited supplies that are artist grade than an abundance of student grade paint, paper and brushes. In the past, good brushes were very expensive. With modern technology synthetic brushes can fool an experienced painter. You don’t have to over pay to have quality. Most people own more colors than necessary. You will learn more with a limited palette of 8 colors. But don’t be cheap with watercolor paper!


Could you walk us through your process? What do you need to have figured out at each stage?

Step 1: Find my Inspiration

Step 2: Know my focus

Step 3: Creating a interesting design with a compelling value plan

Step 4: Draw

Step 5: Paint

Step 6: Know when to stop



Where in your process do you do your thinking? What does that look like?

Where do I do my thinking? Before the paint touches the paper. When I’m draw and laying out a painting I am literally walking through the painting in my mind. I’ve always thought of watercolor as a thinking man’s (woman’s) medium. There’s no wiping off a section and starting new. I failed painting is a humbling experience. With that being said, a failed painting is a great teacher. 

“Think like a turtle, paint like a rabbit.” ~Sergei Bongart   

En plein air: 

I am drawn to the strong presence of light and shadows. I start with a pencil drawing of the major shapes. I map out the shadows with light value pencil marks. I often use shadows as a way to link shapes together. It may have to lengthen or adjust shadow shapes to unify a scene.


I use my plein air paintings as inspiration for studio work. The hard work is already done.If a plein air study didn’t work won’t work big. In the studio I’m able to refine and make corrections where necessary: design, values, shapes.



For your reference: What do you take more or less directly and what do you translate? Why?

I’m not restricted by what I see. If I need to move a building, add people, change a color…I do so. As a painter it’s my job to create a scene or tell a story. If I’m not willing to change things I might as well frame a photograph and be done.

When I use a photo reference it will be in addition to a sketch. Either a watercolor sketch or value study. I will refer to the reference photo if necessary for architectural accents or signage. Black and white photo are the best for simplifying shapes and values!

“Don’t state the truth, tell me a beautiful lie". Gerald Brommer



What’s the biggest challenge you see with students and color?

Color is complicated. The task of understanding pigment as it relates to watercolor is compounded by understanding paint characteristics: granulating, staining, transparent, opaque and semi-opaque. Once someone wraps their head around these characteristics the possibilities of watercolor opens in new and exciting ways.


What kind of pigments do you use and what do those choices allow you to do? 

I mainly use transparent paints and a few semi-opaque pigments. I like the freedom of being able to develop a painting with transparent colors without worrying the colors will go flat or muddy. I can create glowing surfaces with multiple glazes while creating interesting and complex shapes with each glaze. 

There’s nothing wrong with opaques but they do not work for negative painting. My plein air palette has several opaque colors. Why? Opaque pigments are perfectly suited for creating body color and atmospheric perspective (fog, distance, skies…)



How important is drawing? Why? 

You learn to see through drawing. Drawing is the first thing people should be concerned with. Watercolor requires more forethought than other mediums. You can’t correct things like oil or acrylic. Drawing is where design is learned and values honed. Without drawing skills I have nothing. Perhaps that sounds drastic to some, but not to me! 

In the mid 90’s I was challenged by a teacher to do a sketch a day in ink for 70 days. The experience propelled my artwork more than anything I had done before. I learned so much about design, edges, perspective and values. I wanted to give the gift of that experience to others. I created the “75-Day Sketch Challenge”. Within a short time it took off across the US and overseas. I was rewarding people with an ARTISTIC LICENSE that looked like a drivers license with their picture on it.  It was so popular I couldn’t keep up…people were sketching daily across the US: Men and women, Young and old. People in foreign countries all across the world…even a teacher in the Ukraine. She would send me pictures of her students sketching after school, meeting in hallways to share between class. It was a rewarding experience for everyone.



You paint en plein air and are sketching constantly from life. What has plein air painting and sketching given you as an artist? 

I used to dread plein air and would cringe when someone looked over my shoulder. Today I absolutely love it! I love being surrounded by my subject, feeling the warmth or chill on my skin, the smell of the earth or a coffee shop and the sounds that surround me. My love of light and its effect on a subject came from plein air. Learning to sit and observe my environment has given me a stronger awareness and understanding of my world. I literally feel a shot of adrenaline and have a heightened awareness of everything around me. Painting plein air is addicting! 


Learn more about Brenda Swenson's "Glowing Watercolors" here.