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Shirley R. Klein Kleppe

National Watercolorist

How in the world does anyone make it through the journey to become a professional artist? Is it nature or nurture? I would say, ‘Both!’ So how did this happen for me, Shirley Kleppe?

After thinking about it, I mentally put together a group of creative and motivated ancestors, but none of which were fine artists. From the time I could hold anything in my hand, I drew on everything from scraps of bank deposit slips, my bedroom walls, and countless sidewalks and driveways. The world was my easel. I was eventually guided to paper pads, coloring books, pencils, Crayons, chalk, etc. Over my career in art I’ve tried about everything that the arts touch. Through the encouragement from my family, teachers, and professors, I took the final commitment to take the fine arts path for my life during my first year in college.

Being born and raised in Sedalia, Missouri, I was enrolled in Central Missouri State College two weeks after I was graduated from high school. I went straight through college attending school year round for three years.  Not even 21, I graduated with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Education in fine arts and biology. I went on to teach art to kindergarten through 12th grade for two years in public schools, being yearbook and photography sponsors. Having the teaching skills but frustrated with academic politics, I moved into commercial art with on-the-job training. I spent many years in and out of commercial art learning design and print.

During this time, I met and married my husband, Steve, now of 50 years! We had a son and daughter in Kansas City, Missouri, and later moved to Brownsville, Texas. There, Steve managed his first fast food restaurant. We later moved to Phoenix, Arizona to operate Sonic Drive-Ins.

By this time, my children were in school full time, so I set time aside everyday to paint. I started my own school after teaching for the City of Phoenix in various areas. Every new painting I completed was entered into the next Arizona Watercolor Association show. Slowly, I started winning awards, and my skills got better. Eventually, my work took on its own personality. With a strong sense of design, I still choose subject matter with good diagonals and placement.

For me, every painting must start with a complete pencil under drawing. I use a mechanical 2B lead pencil and a white eraser. I soak my 140 lb Arches cold or hot pressed paper for about ten minutes in regular room temperature tap water in a clean bathtub. Carefully picking it out of the tub by holding two corners, I let it drain for a few minutes. I gently place it on a gridded Masonite board to square the paper for tape placement. I usually mount several pieces at the same time to ensure that I will get one board that has sealed correctly. I always try to do this during the day to monitor the paper and taping drying process. For the best results, dry the mounted paper inside only, horizontally. If a piece of tape seems to be lifting, I will take it off and replace it with a new piece. When all goes well, I end up with a perfectly square, drumhead tight piece of beautiful white paper! I am now ready to project and trace my image onto the paper. Being careful as to not touch the paper surface with my hand, I outline the image. Afterwards, I correct the vertical and horizontal lines with a T-square and triangle. I work the painting from the upper left to the lower right, working each element back to front. If I need to put my hand down on the surface of the paper for steadying, I use a clean white sheet of paper under my hand. I do wash my hands frequently, as hand oils act as a resist for watercolors.

Regardless of the composition, I work each area as a CONTROLLED WASH AREA. This means the area that is in one piece is painted separately. In this area, I first put down a very lightly pigmented wash onto to the dry paper just almost to the pencil line. The light pigment allows me to see where the water is. Because the water tension line flows to the outside of the wash area, along with the pigment, I will slowly bring that tension line over to the pencil line. I allow that CONTROLLED WASH AREA to soak into the paper. I wait until it has a semi-glossy or dull look before putting down my first pigmented layer. This is the important layer of that area. This application will have a medium sized pigment load that can be quickly layed into the basic color areas. I use Winsor-Newton No. 7 Kolinsky red sable brushes for their ability to load and hold pigment. Their points are perfectly pointed but soft to lightly blend the pigmented areas with a quick hatching motion, rinsing and blotting the brush in between each blending movement. This technique will prevent color muddiness and contamination, uneven blending, and eliminate back runs. At this point, I let this first layer completely dry. This is particularly necessary for large controlled wash areas. The larger the area, the lighter the pigment load will be to control correct blending.

This is the point when the MAGIC HAPPENS. Even though the paper you are painting on was water soaked and stretched, it still has sizing in it. The best watercolor pigments have the right balance of pigment and gum Arabic. When the two touch and combine, you have an incredible forgiving surface to work on, because the surface has been sealed to gladly accept future layers. Depending on the subject matter and color palette, I work each controlled wash area separately with never two adjoining areas worked on at the same time. This will cause the edges to break and flow into each other. When I am working the high color pots and jars, as each color layer is stacked with more pigment, I softly hatch blend the edge of the two colors coming together and let everything COMPLETELY DRY, before adding the next layer if needed. I do, however, get the whole controlled wash area the same degree of wetness, even if there is only clear water in an area. I do this so the whole area will have a uniform drying rate and no water edges. This is my secret to achieving the out of gamut brilliant color range without the mud. Beware, just because the surface looks dry, the under layers will not be. An easy way to check the dryness of a surface is to check the temperature. Wash and dry your hands. With the back of your hand touch the surface of the painting. If it is cool, it is still wet, so wait to paint. Never touch the surface with your fingertips. While the painting is drying, I do not make an attempt to speed up the dry time. Setting the painting in the sun, (and forgetting it!), or using a hairdryer can make the surface contract unevenly, even to the point of popping the paper off the board. Just let the painting dry out of the sun, horizontal, at room temperature. Work your painting so that you can move compositionally from back to front working areas that are not touching.

As Paul Harvey says, “Here’s the rest of the story!” At the moment, I am completing several new pieces to prepare for this next year. I also have my art archived for giclee sales. I have invented a photography bag platform mount to stabilize a camera and lense, guns, etc. The registered trademark is Lense On!® with a registered patent. I continue to paint and compete in national art exhibitions.

Whew, go out there and make it a great day painting and racing!

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