Edgar Who? ...Is he scheduled at Kanuga?

When I have mentioned this idea for an Ed Whitney web archive over the past few years some have thought it a great idea, a few have questioned my motivation, and a few more have replied Ed who? Skip's take on the status of Ed in today's watercolor world is that a growing number of workshop participants haven't a clue who Whitney was. While watercolor (as a medium) continues to grow and has diversified in countless ways, I for one simply can't let go of many aspects of the Whitney era (another one of Shirley Landgraf's photos from 79 to the right).

Though I was never a direct participant in this mid-century rise of watercolor, there was clearly a spontaneity and expressive approach conveyed that I find crucial to my creative process. Here I am, several generations removed, still impacted daily as I paint by wisdom and energy generated from efforts thirty years back. "The Complete Guide" is still a constant reference for me. I own well over 200 painting related books many of them fine publications, but this is the one I would grab if the studio were on fire (Light and Shadow would go of course, if I could manage two books). When in a slump it is back on my nightstand. Ed's reference bibliography alone at the back of this book could supply a lifetime of deep art and philosophical reading. Could be my bent for the nostalgic I suppose, or some have indicated that my enthusiasm is due to never being personally subjected to a Whitney critique.

Why just Whitney as a focus? Certainly, countless others such as O'Hara laid critical and equally important groundwork prior to Ed Whitney and deserve equal if not greater billing. How true! My hope would be that this effort might encourage other such efforts to sprout that would address other and earlier greats, with at least one legend still living as I write (Milford Zornes). An effort to document the California School legacy could be a lifetime project for someone. Any takers? As mentioned in the inaugural blog, this is all but an experiment and I will focus on Whitney because blogs ARE personal efforts, and the Edgar Whitney story (to borrow from Neil Young) is "most innaresting to me".

Frank Webb confirmed in a conversation over the summer that although at least one book has been written on the Whitney legacy (Ron Ranson's Learn Watercolor the Edgar Whitney Way), many other resources remain in the form of individuals with deep and long lasting associations with Ed. Certainly, a number of them are highly respected professional artists. In a sense, one motive for this site is to plumb out such persons and collect what they would wish to share. Not only could we gather a better picture of his lengthy trail of workshops all over the country, but hopefully, answer questions such as where is his body of work (all over the place, no doubt!)? The painting below (cropped) was discovered by Mary Jane Stephens (Whitney site contributer) in an small upstairs painting room at the National Art League in Queens, NY.

In conducting my own workshops over the past ten or so years, one thing I can vouch for is that his influence was powerful for many. While painting in watercolor was certainly the stated purpose for those following the Whitney wagon, as a human growth and development professional (my other ongoing career), I am equally fascinated by the impact he had upon individuals personally and feel there is much to flesh out in this regard. A few have questioned whether those of the earliest Whitney era are technology saavy enough to follow and post to a blog and to that I shout a resounding YES. Why, because this (computer) medium is creative and watercolorists of all ages still rise to a challenge. I receive emails regularly from participants in their 70's and 80's who not only still paint but have taken up learning Photoshop! Technological deficits among the Whitney populace is the least of my concerns, and should anyone need help I will do my best to offer it.

A recent email inquirer asked me how I came to know Ed Whitney. I will share my story (only once to your relief). Whitney passed away in 1987 at age 96, the same year I posed a serious challenge to myself to tackle this medium in earnest. Back up a few years to 1981.. I was twenty-one, a recent college graduate who had started graduate school, quit graduate school, just lost my father at age 57 to cancer and to put a positive slant on it, found myself "awaiting direction" at the time. My interests were backpacking and mountaineering, shooting pictures and occasionally reverting to making feeble attempts to draw and paint, an activity I had cherished in my younger years. I suppose looking back I was at the time a young man "in the ashes" as Robert Bly would call it. My mother utilized different, less prosaic terminology I recall.

She did however, bring me a book from the community college library where she worked. It was the "Hows and Whys of Watercolor" by Edgar Whitney that had been placed in the discard bin. Most of us who call ourselves artists can usually recall our ah-ha moments with clarity. I had never seen any paintings quite like these. They appeared very unusual to me; more of a response to being fully present in a place..put upon paper with watercolor. I wondered what it would feel like to make a painting like that, full of wild splash and bold calligraphy. That thought in itself was exciting.

I slowly and methodically pulled out of my nose dive over the next five years, returning once again to school and proceeding on to a respectable career. This encounter with watercolor continued to germinate during this time, though real action in this regard was sporadic at best and not worth going in to much detail about. Lets just say I painted a number of old farmhouses, derelict barns and a few commissioned "homeplaces". In 1987, employed at Appalachian State University in Boone, I found myself on my lunch hour repeatedly staring at a wall of watercolors. Upstairs, above a downtown drugstore lunch counter, was an art gallery of sorts. A rather dimly lit cavernous attic, with creaky wood floors housed the first Cheap Joe's Art Stuff business locale.
A narrow hallway in this domain served as Joe Miller's personal display area. Gerta, a polite German lady was employed to hang out up there should anyone happen to come up and to oversee this entreprenurial phoenix awaiting ascension. But, for the time being, she mostly sold a few tubes of paint and tolerated me staring intently at Joe's work daily from 12 to 1. I soon sought out this Joe Miller watercolor zen master and probably aggravated him near to death for a year or so. I would remind him now that he probably did the same to his first mentor and our friend, Noyes Capehart.
Several workshops with Joe led me to Skip Lawrence, where I began to get a taste of Ed Whitney incarnate, at least in some senses of the word. Skip is free to counter this, but in addition to exposing me to incredibly rich saturated washes ("bold of hue" I believe he termed them) he added a bit of the "Whitneyesque" flair and drama to his workshops (proof in the 1994 photo). Later workshops with the honorable Cheng Khee Chee (who still scolds me when I call him Master Chee), another Whitney student and associate moved me in equally exciting directions. Mr. Webb has yet to be subjected to my participation in one of his workshops, but it is never too late!

However diverse their approaches, processes and the end results of their painting efforts, those who studied with Ed and now teach seem resigned to his presence. He is called upon at least once, but more often a number of times during any given workshop week. Through countless watercolor instructors across the country and even worldwide, I expect the theatre of Edgar A. Whitney continues even if it now fails to be recognized as such. There is no question that the sound principles, the tools and rules of design, that Ed put forward so well in his book remain as the guage of a strong painter.

We are now in an age where it becomes easier each week to disassociate from many elements of our past, especially from the humanistic forces that perhaps brought us together in the first place. Technology (how ironic), I suppose, is in many ways responsible for this. Regardless of how internal we perceive ourselves as painters, watercolorists are notoriously good "gatherers". We have our own societal niches and when looking back on the Edgar Whitney watercolor era, it is impossible not to take notice of the importance the social element played in the energy of this time.

It may take some time for this web effort to develop a following if it does so at all, but... if it does I predict numerous photos to be posted from everywhere USA of Edgar Whitney holding court during social hour, with a stiff drink in hand. I will gladly post them all. That folks, is how I came to know Ed Whitney without ever meeting him in person. I suppose I could say that his book, or more accurately the ideas put forth in his book changed the course of my life. Sorry this was so long guys, but that IS why the call it a B..L..O..G..! I will soon be off to China for the long awaited adoption of our daughter, so look forward to some posts from the real Casey Jone'ses up to bat. Regards, WES