Friday, May 18, 2012

Friday Feature: Arena Shawn

"Hide and Seek" watercolor by Arena Shawn

Hi Everyone, this week's feature is fellow blogging buddy Arena Shawn.  Her work is magnificent.   She has a fabulous play between abstraction and realism.  Her wet on wet backgrounds add a dreamy romance to her pieces.  They blend so seamlessly with the bright focused areas a beautiful dance.

To see more of her work visit her blog

How did you get your start?  What’s your artist journey so far?

I was a graduate student studying physics in Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana, and the policy of the university is that graduate student working as teaching assistants (which I am) can take any classes the university has to offer except business classes. So, I went ahead and took some computer art classes – painting in photoshop, vector images for advertisement, etc. I found out (to my surprise! :-P) that if you cannot paint or draw using physical media, going digital is not going to make you a better artist! Frustrated and deciding to get my foundations right, I started to take studio art classes, and one of the teacher referred me to a nice local watercolor artist, Rena Brower, who teaches in the community art center. Oh boy was that eye-opening! She paints these huge, semi-abstract florals and landscapes wet-in-wet, and after three classes I was hooked! She also introduced me to books of her mentor, the late Zoltan Szabo, who paints these beautiful moody landscapes also wet-in-wet, and is a master of the watercolor medium. That was the beginning of my love affair with watercolor…

After graduation I got a job in California, as an after-sales engineer in a scientific instrument company. The work involves a lot of travel and made it difficult to paint, but I still managed to squeeze at least 2-3 hours a day to practice. I had a suitcase which I always had a few quarter-sheets watercolor paper, a couple of gator-boards and my palette and brushes packed in, and I took it around the country painting in hotels and on location. I started to enter juried shows in 2010, and was lucky to get in a few national shows, even winning some awards. In the mean time, my works exhibited with local art groups started to get sold in Art Walks. With the encouragement of my boyfriend, I took the leap after some serious thought, to leave my job and try to paint full time. I’ve started my Daily Paintworks page at the beginning of this year, and found a very supportive online community of fellow artists, from whom I’ve got lots of encouragements and great tips of both art and marketing. I’ve also started entering local art fairs and outdoor arts-and-crafts markets this year. Hopefully that would spread the name across locally and generate more sales. With more time dedicated to painting, I’ve also been able to produce more work to submit to juried shows. This year I have been accepted to the Richeson Small Works Show, the Watercolor Art Society – Houston National Show, and the Illinois Watercolor Society National Show. Hopefully, there would be more to come… (Greedy…)

Recently I’ve started to go back to the foundations, and joined a full-time classical drawing and painting atelier program. The full-time program would ideally last 3-4 years, and each student would start from copy master drawings, then progress to drawing plaster casts of classical sculptures and live models, painting casts in limited palette, and finally to full-palette painting of still life and figures. The teacher I am training under, Andrew Ameral, studied and later taught in the Florence Academy of Art for years, which inherited the 19th century French Academy lineage. So far, I am absolutely in love with the training, and I'm counting my blessings everyday for being given this opportunity...

Where were you born?

Shanghai, China.
"Island Beauty White" watercolor by Arena Shawn
If you could live anywhere where would you live?

I would be torn between cities rich with classical art and architecture wonders, such as Rome or Florence, and remote and barren places devoid of human trace, but haunted by nature beauties, such as Iceland or Alaska. Maybe half and half in time?... Yes, I admit I’m greedy…

What’s your favorite thing to paint and why?
I love flowers (what, you already know that? How? :-P) but I really want to be a landscape painter too. I am so captivated by remote, barren places whose beauty was rarely seen by human eye. My last trip to the central highlands of Iceland just made me realize again that the ability to transfer the experiences of being in these places and moods of these places on paper would be a true blessing. I am working toward it – being a landscape painter requires a lot more editorial, designing and abstraction skills and so far I have been a related literal painter. Lots to learn there…
"Dancing Tulip" watercolor by Arena Shawn

Could you talk about your painting techniques? 

I paint mainly wet-in-wet, starting with a faint under painting with light and more bright colors than the finished painting would normally look, indicating both value and color temperature relationship in this underpainting. Then I would wet the painting section by section, and go with more saturated colors, and heavier pigment density, trying to finish each section in one go, before the paper totally dries. For the center of focus in my painting, which is normally painted more sharply than the surrounding elements, I would often wet it multiple times and glaze wet-in-wet to achieve the in-focus look, but still try to maintain a soft color transition within each shape.

How did you arrive at your current style?

My first teacher in watercolor, Rena Brower, started my love with wet-in-wet techniques. I read a ton of books by the later master Zoltan Szabo and did lots of exercises in them to practice. After I moved to California, I studied with another master painter, Karen Frey, and she taught me my current approach of faint underpainting + controlled wet-in-wet. I have been fortunate to be able to take lots of workshops with many great watercolor artists, from each of them, I have always learned a great deal, and added to my arsenal of techniques, which I’m sure have influences my current style as well. For example, lately after taking a class with the wonderful artist Jeannie Vodden, I have started to experiment with multi-colored underpaintings, and much more glazing in the underpainting stage. Every teacher leaves their marks…
"Edge of Summer" watercolor by Arena Shawn
 Do you have a favorite artist?  Who has been your biggest inspiration?

If only one can be picked, I will definitely say Dean Mitchell. His watercolors just blow me away – each one with a solid drawing as foundation, and all sorts of different subjects – from still life to portraits to street scenes to rural landscapes, and techniques carefully chosen for the best rendering effects of that subject. I’ve looked at his miniatures (4x5 or smaller) in person and been absolutely amazed that there is no sloppiness in even such small work, and the underlying abstract design and value patterns makes his painting stand out even when you are viewing it across the room.

What are some of your favorite things or things that are essential to your well being/success as an artist?

I love hiking in the wilderness. I used to hike five miles everyday in the open spaces and regional parks all across the San Francisco Bay Area, and marvel at the beauty untamed nature has to offer. I am also really taken by good food, and love to seek out local restaurants with a personal touch! Last but not least, I am a gallery and museum junkie. When I was working as an Engineer and travelling across the country, for each city I go to, I would plan my trip after a day’s work, not matter how tired I am, to see their art galleries and museums. Seeing works of other artists and past masters online is great, but sometimes, seeing a beautiful work in person just blows your mind away!
"Dancing Tulip" watercolor by Arena Shawn

Do you have go-to paints/colors, what are your favorites?

Cobalt Blue and Quinacridone Burnt Orange. I will go through a nervous breakdown if I found that either of these two colors are down to the last tube and the new supply has not arrived in mail…

What are five things you would like to happen in your life in the next five years? Dream big here:)

  1. Being juried into the American Watercolor Society International Show and win an award;
  2. Being juried into the Shanghai Zhu Jia Jiao Watercolor Biannual International Show;
  3. Get Signature Status in National Watercolor Society;
  4. Get a gallery representation in Scottsdale;
  5. Being able to support myself painting and selling my paintings!

What is your advice for other artists who are just getting started in their career?

Ask yourself about the goals you are trying to achieve, and try to be as clear and honest about them as possible. What would success mean to you? It may be different from everyone else’s definition. If you wish to make a living as a full-time artist, then a lot of time spent marketing yourself may be necessary and yes, it would take away from your studio time. Is that a sacrifice you are willing to make? If you want to be the best painter you can, then you may have to spend a lot of solitude time in the studio, and not get recognition any time soon. You may have to go back to relearn drawing skills, or the basics of painting without being able to produce finished work for a while. Is that a sacrifice you are willing to make? Life is all about making choices for yourself, and stick to it. I am still suffering to make mine, but I believe if one give a clear and honest evaluation about what to give for the gain he or she desires, a lot of unnecessary agony can be avoided later.
"High Summer" watercolor by Arena Shawn
 What is the best advice that you have received as an artist?

Don’t be a workshop junkie (which I am). Being an artist is largely about being able to stay in your studio alone and paint lots and lots of paintings in solitude! (by Keiko Tanabe)

Chocolate or vanilla?

Vanilla, my boyfriend and I both like it, while Chocolate is only my love ;-)

Sunny beach or rustic mountain retreat?

If sunny beach is packed with people, then rustic mountain retreat, as long as I can occasional go down and get online… :-P

Book or movie?

Book – although I guess e-books soon could include a few movie clips in them…

Favorite author?

He is non-fictional and I am a nerd, John McPhee. He is a great nature writer. I love his large volume, “Annals of the Former World”.

Favorite movie?

Currently is “In the Mood of Love” – self-restrained love stories are my favorite. I’m twisted, I know…

Romance or comedy?

… (Blush) Romance… I am such a girl…

Favorite ice cream flavor?

Vanilla, plain and simple.

Night owl or morning person?

Night owl by personality, although after joining the atelier program I was forced to get up at six every morning a paint a little before attending class, because after standing and drawing for 8 hours a day I rarely had any energy to paint at night on weekdays any more… Carrie, how do you do it? I admire you and Crystal…

Cake or Cupcakes?

Cake, and to be specific – large Cheesecakes! ;-)

 See you Monday!  The movers called yesterday and asked if they could come early, as in today, that would be a Negative.  We compromised and may have packers showing up on Monday, earlier than scheduled.  Wish us luck that we can get it all together:)



  1. Great post -- I love Arena's work and her commitment is so impressive. Good luck with the move -- yeesh! You really are amazing Carrie.

  2. Carrie, thanks for the featuring and posting during your busy schedule! Best of luck for your move! I always pack until the last minute and stress out -- hopefully you guys will do much better than me... :-P

    Give us updates regarding your move! ^___^

  3. Thank you, Carrie. It was very good to get to know more about Arena.

  4. Really interesting interview, Carrie.

    Arena's work is so precise - which appeals to me, as an 'every detail' man.

    Her advise on marketing for a living, versus, ars gratis artis, is right on the button.

    Thank you Carrie; thank you Arena.

    All the best with your move, Carrie!

  5. What beautiful work she does. Great interview, Carrie. Hope things are great with you and yours. :)

  6. Fabulous interview Carrie and Arena! I really loved the chance to get to know Arena better, her work is stunning!

  7. Wow! Her paintings are almost photographic! Fantastic :0)

  8. I enjoyed the interview and Arena's work very much. Thanks for sharing her work and blog with us. I love your comission painting too. Great work!