Passionate about Watercolor

When I first moved to Martha’s Vineyard, Norman Rockwell was alive and well and living in his beloved Stockbridge, Massachusetts home. It occurred to me that I should probably try and go see him; I could picture myself walking up his driveway to shake his hand so clearly that it still seems it might have really happened.  The sensibilities behind his art were so wonderful, and exactly how I felt.  His paintings made me fall in love with his understanding and view of the human heart.  But of course, I never went there, I didn’t want to bother him.   Joe and I have now been to Stockbridge many times, have visited his museum and studio; I picked this stick up from the front yard of his studio to save.  One of my prized possessions.  My Norman Rockwell Stick.  I photographed it where it lives, on my art table, hopefully osmosing genius out into my studio like gamma rays. The paper it’s sitting on is one of the throw-away scraps I use to check colors on my brush and test my pen to make sure it isn’t going to drop a clump of ink on the watercolor I’m working on.  I like to think Norman Rockwell had one of these too. 

So I thought today, I might give you a tour of my watercolor world.  And you don’t have to come all the way to Martha’s Vineyard to do it, I’m only as far away as your computer!   Above, is a photo I took when I was working on the page I did to honor Tasha Tudor — this sweet corgi (hopefully like one of hers) and one of her lovely quotes . . . you’ll find the finished product when you turn your November calendar page over to December in a few months. ♥ I’d never painted a corgi before, but now I would like to stop everything and ONLY paint corgi’s, he was so fun to do; his colors are beautiful, but my favorite is his nose!  Have you noticed that Corgis are like little tea tables?  They have such wide flat backs, they could be like a hassock or an end table. 

After I finish doing a page for a book or calendar, it gets scanned into the computer, which allows me future access to it (another miracle), and the original art goes into these acid-free boxes, and then into this huge old bank safe Joe found for me.  All the original pages for my books, along with everything I’ve ever painted, is stored here.

You know I only started doing watercolors just after I turned thirty?  (You must, by now :-))  Even though I paint almost every day, it’s still a surprise to see my art table covered with paintboxes and brushes and know they’re mine.  I think it’s because I didn’t grow up with them.  Needles, thread, and embroidery hoops make more sense to me than brushes and paint!  Sometimes I walk into the studio early in the morning, before the sun has come up…all quiet, birds singing in the rhododendren outside the window, or in the winter, when I paint to the hum of the furnace, with Girl Kitty on her pillow keeping me company, and a blank piece of paper in front of me, waiting for my brush and that first drop of color, and wonder how this all came about.

This was my first painting.  It was a plant sitting on my kitchen table; I filled a little pot with water, squeezed some watercolors from tubes into a plastic dish I’d bought, sharpened a pencil, sat down in front of it and started drawing.  I really didn’t know what I was doing. I just looked at the plant and tried to put what I saw on the paper.  Everyone was shocked that it looked like a geranium!  I was shocked!  Because it was a geranium!  This was one of those life-changing moments that are sometimes only visible in the rear-view mirror.  One of the reasons I want to encourage people to “just try it” when it comes to watercolor is because I’m sure that this must have been inside me my whole life, and I had no idea.  I doodled just like anyone else, random squiggles; drawings of stick people; not the slightest inclination that there could be more. If this ability could be hiding inside me, it might be inside you. 

My mother put this crayon drawing in my baby book.  I was a star to her no matter what I drew.  Would you have looked at this and thought you should start saving to send the child to art school?  No.  I don’t think so.

What really matters is practice!  In my 7th grade art class, we spent the entire semester drawing our thumbs!  Seriously, that’s what we did, left thumb stuck up in front of me, pencil in right hand; the teacher went over and over it, showing us how to really look at things, the curve, the edge, the shadows, the lines.  I can still draw a good thumb if I want to. That’s what I mean about practice.  If you look at the art in my first book, Heart of the Home, and compare it to later work, like the calendar or the Autumn book, you can see what a big help practice can be.

I’ve always painted the things around me.  Before I moved to the island and began to write books, I did little scenes of flower pots, baskets with apples, bowls of fruit, quilts, straw hats, my old stove, and my kitty; I hung them all over my kitchen, called them “kitchen art,” and gave them away as Christmas presents.  Soon my friends were asking to buy them, giving me confidence to do more and more.  My first painting sold to the outside world in a gallery on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills and after that I began to have local art shows.  I took Polaroid’s of the paintings as I did them, which is a good thing, because they’re almost all gone.  I still have a few of my favorites.  These framed apples came with me from California to Martha’s Vineyard and hang in my kitchen now.

I still love using the things around me as my subjects, although you might not know it to look at this — probably a little hard to believe that these “birds” might be “around me.” (BTW, see that real feather lying on the paper? Inspiration!  And I know he’s not a real partridge, I just called him that, he’s actually a made-up bird!)  Here’s a 20 second video I took that explains . . . (they aren’t really my children :-))

I have worked a little from old photos too, especially for my mom.

This one became a greeting card, which I framed for her along with the original photo.

I’m often asked what kind of art supplies I use, so I thought I’d tell you.  These are my brushes, but I almost always use the smallest one, there in the middle.  It’s a # 1 Windsor Newton University Series 233. I was shocked the first time my brush wore out — who knew paintbrushes wore out?! Now I buy them by the fistfuls.

The paint comes from everywhere, including children’s paint boxes.  Actually I love any kind of paint box; Prang and Pelikan have been my favorites. I use watercolor paint tubes, like Holbein, Rowney or Grumbacher, I’m not particular about the brand, I just want as many colors as possible.  This is my collection of reds  and pinks. . . I never met a red paint I didn’t love.  I keep them in separate baskets, by color. To use them, you just squeeze out a little paint, mix it with water and voila!  So easy.

The jar is Daler Rowney Pro White which I use when I make a mistake with the pen; I get it and lots of my other supplies at Blick.  I use two sizes of Rapidograph India ink pens to write with, a refillable Koh-i-noor drafting pencil to draw with, and then, the most important item in my arsenal, the eraser!  A soft white Staedtler.  A metal ruler is important too.

I hope this helps someone out there who might be thinking of giving it a try. Watercolors are one of my dearest passions.  Rarely a day goes by that I don’t paint.  When I heard that song, Raven hair, ruby lips, sparks fly from her fingertips, I said, hey, that’s me.  (Except for the hair and lips and the witchy woman part :-))

I’ve loved lettering forever, always got perfect marks for handwriting!  This quote, one of my favorites, is for the new book I’m working on.

And now, a gift for you, just a reminder . . . This is a painting I did originally for my grandmother; it hung in her kitchen for years. We are giving away a signed and numbered fine-art print we made from the original.  I hope you’re entered for the drawing . . . if you haven’t yet, and you’d like to be, you can read about it by scrolling down a few posts to “Brownie, Quilts and Shutters”  all the information is at the bottom of the post.

I did something new I just finished yesterday, called Home Sweet Home, you’ll find it up in the top Menu if you haven’t already. I hope you enjoyed our walk in watercolor world.  I can’t keep you here all day, I know, but I sure like to try!  xoxo

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203 Responses to Passionate about Watercolor

  1. Sweet Mormor says:

    Oh Susan! My eyes filled with tears as I saw your creative talents put to that little corgi! Before my husband passed away, he introduced me to this most wonderful breed of dog and I have been so in love with these little creatures! We raised 3 Welsh Pembroke “babies” before he left… You portray them so beautifully! I have the book “The Night Before Christmas” with Tasha’s paintings of her corgis. There is nothing cuter than a little corgi’s tail-less “bottom”! Our “Thunderbird” had the kind, gentle personality of a big dog but in a little “package” and he dedicated himself to our family. I wish you could experience their deep devotion and kindness – I know why Tasha loved them so! Please paint more corgi’s – you do it so well and express their “softness of heart”. (Needless to say – all your paintings are beautiful!) Sorry to go on and on but you touched a very soft spot in my heart!

  2. blondie blu says:

    I always wondered how you created that beautiful printing in all your books! Thanks for giving us a peek at the process. You are, as always, an inspiration. I am just now finding out what I want to be when I grow up (lol, and I’m in my 40’s), and it is one of life’s greatest joys to truly find that part of yourself – just like you did with that first watercolor. Glad you made it safely through Irene’s visit. We are on Long Island, and she was very kind to us! Didn’t even lose power. 🙂 Have a great day, Susan.

    XO Helena

  3. Ginnie says:

    I’d say the Normal Rockwell stick is working! Now the rest of us need Susan Branch sticks to magically enhance our homes. 🙂
    I love Tasha Tudor, too. Have read several books about her, which included lots of gorgeous photos of her farm and home. And I remember reading she kept little dead animals (mice and birds, etc.) in the freezer and took them out to use as life models.
    Loved the tour of your painting – so much fun to get glimpse of genius at work!

  4. Wylie says:

    I have treasured your books and calendars for many years. I also have a page from a calendar taped on the inside of my kitchen pantry. It lists the ingredients for a party for 100, and I have used it at least once or twice! 🙂 I, too, went to art school many years ago, but haven’t painted in years. Loved seeing your supplies, and am thinking a field trip to the art store might be in order. Could you tell me what size point Rapidograph pens you use? Thanks again for sharing all your supplies!

  5. I love that bowl in the painting. I have one like it that was my Mother’s on a shelf in my living room….thanks for taking us on a tour of your world as an artist…I’ve dreamed of doing some watercolor, bought tons of books on the subject and have lots of supplies but have not sat down and tried….It was interesting to me that you sketch everything even the words and then paint them.

  6. Gwen says:

    I *love* that you wrote “what is wrong with this pen?” on your test paper – I do the exact same thing! Now, if I could just watercolor as well as you…….

  7. mary boyer says:

    I have this bowl, which was originally my grandmother’s in my kitchen, it one of my most prized possessions.
    I love your work, thank you for sharing so much on your blog. I also am a huge fan of your cookbooks and have tweaked your chicken salad recipe to my personal specifications – could probably eat a mixing bowl full myself (oh, who am I kidding – I HAVE)!

  8. Cheryl says:

    Susan, what a great post. I loved seeing into part of your world. That vault is so cool – to have all your art together! Is there ever any chance you would sell any originals?

  9. Gumbo Lily says:

    I am so glad you gave us a taste of your watercolor world. I have loved dabbling in watercolors even tho I don’t think I have talent. It’s still fun to play. Now that I have a 3 year old grandgirl, I get to play even more in watercolors because SHE likes to dabble too. We like Prang.

    Great, great quote.

  10. Evelyn says:

    My daughter has a Corgi…Bridget…and she is the sweetest dog ever. My daughter is a talented artist…went to college as an art major then switched to architecture and worked in the field for 7 years before she became a stay at home mom. Inherited the gift from her Dad…he was also very talented. We always encouraged her to follow her God given talent to have a happy life. Both of my daughters ended up in art fields. My youngest is a graphic designer. Looking for the talent in my grandchildren now and it seems my granddaughter loves art. Can’t wait to see where that goes. You’ve inspired me to try watercolors. Gotta admit they’re a little intimidating but nothing ventured nothing gained. Just wanted to mention how much I love the quotes you sprinkle throughout your books. Thanks for all the info on art supplies. :0)

  11. Laurie says:

    Oh Susie! You have once again whispered in my ear-“You can do it Laurie, just do it!” Thank you for your never ending inspiration and thank you for sharing you! I’m heading to the art store in the morning, I did a small watercolor of my sweet Great Dane and I need to correct one area. i did not know that could be done!!!! Thanks for the mini lesson, sometimes thats all it takes-how selfless you are!

  12. suzanne says:

    The response and enthusiasm of everyone whose written is exciting! I have all your cookbooks but also have searched your website for your art notes which I found… but this blog actually shows us how you do your writing!
    Will you think of doing a book on your artwork – like how you did with this blog? Show us how you do it step by step and some lessons we can do?
    I think there are many of us who would be ecstatic!!!
    If not a book, like the mini book you did for the past snail mail issues of Willard?

  13. Melanie says:

    Oh Susan..I read your blogs and just think “Yes! Yes! Yes!”, but this blog REALLY had me nodding and smiling and just had to comment. I fell in love with Norman around age 12. I live in upstate NY about 45 minutes from Stockbridge. I used to pour over his paintings – so many favorites..”Triple Self Portrait” hangs in my craft/sewing/scrapbooking/painting room, “Stockbridge at Christmas” in my bedroom…when my parents took me to the museum for the first time I got a migraine. I was so excited to see things he really painted. I remember just standing in front of a painting and shaking with emotion. When I saw his studio I thought I might faint. I didn’t know where to look first. I was truly a geek – while my friends were boy crazed cutting pictures out of Tiger Beat magazine, I collected Norman Rockwell figurines and plates…and had books and books of his magazine covers and paintings..and I was so sad when he died. I think what amazed me the most about him is his capability to capture a moment of ‘life’ in a painting. Drawing and painting and anything crafty have been a part of me ever since I can remember. My mom saved many of my first drawings and cards that I created and I am so happy to have them. I think maybe that is why I kept at it – I had a mom who valued creativity. I have kept most of everything I’ve ever drawn – I have pads full of drawings created during a phase where I drew ads and models from Seventeen magazine, I have my studies of hands, and feet, a watercolor of Affirmed, and a watercolor of Pete Townshend I had hanging in my dorm room in college for 4 straight years. After college I started taking folk art painting classes and fell in love with it – so now I paint with acrylics…I don’t get to paint as often as I’d like – usually its only in the fall and winter. My greatest joy is painting for others – so October and November finds me in my craft room surrounded by things I’m painting for Christmas gifts. I’m usually still painting something on December 24th. As always, thank you for being you, for writing about Norman, for always inspiring me, for continually being a kindred spirit.

  14. Deb Wire says:

    A friend of mine has an original painting by Norman Rockwell. She bought it with her last $2000 when she was broke and out of work on the advice of her uncle. She still has the painting, although it is of course worth considerably more. How I would love to paint. That is not my niche. I am a quilter, so I paint with fabric.

  15. Carol says:

    Susan, Thank you for the inspiration on watercolor. I check everyday for a new post as your writing inspires me and gives me a mini vacation in the midst of my over-committed schedule.

  16. Carol Lichwala (gramz) says:

    Hi Susan,
    You are an amazing artist, I fell in love with your work when I purchased my first cookbook “Heart of the Home” back in the 80’s. Now I have all your books placed in my bookcase next to Tasha Tudor’s cookbook and her Corgi cottage. I also have the Norman Rockwell cookbook. Those are my prize possesions. I visited the house where Norman Rockwell was born in Vermont on the Batenkill River, it’s now a beautiful B&B. You are definitely a kindred spirit. I look forward to your blog everyday.

  17. Donna says:

    I just *love* your watercolor world…
    Please share it with us often. Please?
    Thank you. XOXO

  18. Elizabeth says:

    I just bought some watercolors, and then read your blog! Everyone on my mom’s side of the family is an artist, and I would love to be able to draw and paint. I have perfect handwriting and love to letter, and I cross-stitch, so maybe I can finally learn to do other things too! Thanks for the inspiration.

  19. Doreen Strain says:

    Good Morning Susan, your desk calendar I ordered arrived safe and sound here yesterday! I like Melanie, lived about 30 minutes from West Stockbridge. I loved going to see all of Normal Rockwell’s work. I have a log home in Upstate NY so when my husband and I go for a get away, we go over to see the sights. We like to go for the day and have lunch at the Lion’s Den in The Red Lion Inn. At Christmas time, it’s like going back in time. I just love it. I have to stop into the Pink Kitty and see all it has to offer and just sit on the porch of the inn and ponder what life must have been like back in the day. Thank you for sharing your “gift” with us today. You are so talented. I like Deb, can’t paint with watercolors but I too am a quilter and use my fabric as my canvas. I’d love to know the name of that B&B Carol L. is talking about on the Battenkill. It’s such a nice area up there. Well, once again as said over and over here on your blog, thank you for sharing who Susan Branch is and what your all about with those of us how are thrilled to be able to come here and be inspired. FOSB 4~Ever! ~ Doreen ~

    • sbranch says:

      Love the wallpaper in the dining room of the Red Lion Inn! Took a picture of it!

      • Doreen Strain says:

        :>) That’s a little birdie smile, just in case you couldn’t figure it out. After reading your post…I just couldn’t help myself! FOSB 4~Ever! ~ Doreen ~

        BTW…I’m lovin the “girlfriends” here today! It’s so much fun to read all about what is going on and who has what planned. I compare it sometimes to us all sitting around a campfire and sharing stories! S’mores anyone! LOL ! ~ Doreen ~

  20. Kay in UK says:

    Thankyou, thankyou, thankyou!
    What an inspirational, encouraging post.
    I have just come out of hospital after having an operation to correct complications from a previous operation in March, and I was feeling a bit sorry for myself. Now, however, I am feeling all excited about watercolours! I am not a particularly gifted person re all things arty, but I had decided to try my hand at cardmaking and having seen the lovely calligraphy in the above post, I feel I could try my hand at it and incorporate it into any cards I make. I, too, have always had very neat handwriting and thought that it was of no use nowadays because of all the superb fonts available on computer. I have skimmed through the replies above, but have printed off this post and replies to read through in more comfort. I think that a lot of us would love (and benefit from) some more advice regarding calligraphy/watercolour painting and if you could recommend any suitable books, that would be great.
    I really want you to know that you have been a blessing to me today.
    God bless you.

  21. Natasha says:

    What a beautiful post! I am 26, and I have been painting with pastels since I was a little child, and after reading your post I went and bought my first watercolors! Can’t wait to get started! Thank you for the inspiration! 🙂 Have a wonderful day!

    Natasha, Greece

  22. Gert stevens says:

    Dear Susan,

    I looked this morning and saw you had 169 comments and just thought I wanted to be your 170th one…smile…

    Love all you showed us on this post and now realize just how talented you are! And organized…


  23. Connie says:

    What an enjoyable post. Thanks for sharing this with us. I first “discovered” you by buying one of your calendars and have been a fan ever since. I love your work!

  24. Monica says:

    Thank you so much for this post! I have loved your art for the longest time – the lettering, the quotes, and the pictures you paint speak to my heart. Have you ever thought of doing instructional videos? I, for one, would love to learn how to paint with my favorite artist as the instructor! Thanks for the inspiration – your art supply list is now in my purse and I’m looking for things around my house to paint. Have a great Labor Day weekend!

  25. Angela Fehr says:

    So glad I found your blog – I have admired your work for some time and it’s encouraging to read about an artist who loves watercolour, delights in painting every day and didn’t start at birth!

  26. Jody says:

    Dear Susan, I’m a longtime fan and this is fascinating! As a calligrapher I enjoyed having a peek at your lettering process, and would love to see more! Thanks.

  27. Linda says:

    Hi Susan!
    I’ve been a fan of yours for a long, long time. I have a few of your books, always a wall calendar in my kitchen, and now I get to read your blog and follow you on Twitter! I love your creative inspiration! Thank you, and I am so happy to be back on line after 7 days without electricity all in the name of Irene!

  28. Tammy says:

    I’ve been an avid fan of yours for years, but as soon as I saw the Corgi in the blog pic, it warmed my heart! I have a Corgi who will be 11 in October, and I grew up with them! We had Tasha Tudor books everywhere in our home! Thanks for giving me a smile this morning!

  29. Grace says:

    Susan, this post was just what I needed. I have always loved to paint, especially watercolors, but have put it off for the past two years because of my husband’s inability to focus on the positive (he always seems to need to point out something I could have done better). It is very discouraging and I lack self-confidence as a result. I have a little art room in the silo of our renovated barn that is now gathering nothing but cobwebs and memories; I think it is time to give it a clean sweep and return to doing what I love. I no longer work, because I am fighting cancer, and that little room could be a refuge. Thank you, for posting this blog, how did you know that I needed it?

  30. ashley draper says:

    this is my favorite blogpost of all time…all. time. : ) thanks for sharing all your little things, tips, ideas, encouragement. i especially loved the little video. oh. and the witchy woman lyrics. i love singin’ that song. i squint my eyes and get witchy. bless you…

  31. Ann says:

    Because I always cheat and flip through all of the months when your new calendar lands in my hands (can’t help myself!), I flipped when I saw your beautiful painting of the Corgi…. and yes, of course I have one 🙂
    Please, please continue to paint pictures of these funny little dogs. I know I’m not the only one who is waiting for you next rendition of a Corgi. My little guy, Cooper, reminds me of Tim Conway for some reason….

  32. celita says:

    Oh, I love reading your posts. I love Norman Rockwell’s work. Always have, and I love that we are kindred spirits in the loving. 🙂

    When you say, “One of the reasons I want to encourage people to “just try it” when it comes to watercolor is because I’m sure that this must have been inside me my whole life, and I had no idea.” I KNOW what you mean. I papercut and have only been doing so for a little over three years. I also started a new talent just a little past 30. It is a talent I would have NEVER guessed I had; when I attempted to do it three years ago, I never would have guessed it would become such a sweet and treasured outlet and mini vacation to my soul.

    I think your stick figure man (the one you made in childhood) is brilliant for a youngster. My kids draw like that, and I love it. Their works are filled with details only their young minds can conjure, and with seemingly so little effort. Now it takes work to draw something out, and make it look good. As a kid, the things they accomplish are done with little fear, with abandon, and out of pure pleasure and joy. It shows in your work, there. I love it.

    I love birds. They are like God’s gift to my heart. I love to watch them play, swoop, soar, glide, etc. I love to hear their songs and speakings. I would love to be able to draw them better, so I could then papercut them better. I am working on it, but birds and animals in general are not easy for me. I have a fascination right now for the human hand, and fist. Powerful image- the hand. Says so much with so little words. I do hope I can improve my birds, though. Yours are so sweet. They make me want to go outside, lay on a blanket, and just listen.

    I LOVE how you made the watercolor greeting card of your family photo!!!!!!!!! WOW! And, I am assuming this is your own words, and I LOVE it as a quote… “I never met a red paint I didn’t love.” OOOOh! I agree with the quote. I have noticed that my kids, and most that I know, run out of red before any other color. Any ideas on that one? How is that? There must be some psychological explanation. They should sell RED all by its lonesome self, because then we would never have to run out, and all the other colors would always benefit from having it around. 🙂

    Thanks for sharing. Have a most lovely day!

    C in Italy

  33. SusanP says:

    My watercolors have been stored away for years….you have inspired me to get them out, dust them off and see what I can do with them! Blessings on your day ~ it has finally cooled off today from our horrid, hot summer here in Oklahoma…FALL is HERE!!!

  34. Wendy says:

    Oh how I love Norman Rockwell! A dear friend and I connected in college through our mutual admiration of “Norman.” I even invited him (and his lovely wife) to my wedding. Although they did not attend, I did receive a handwritten response saying “Mr. and Mrs. Norman Rockwell regret that they are unable to attend.” I treasure it!

  35. Lisa says:

    Thank you so much for sharing about water colors and for opening up more of your world and making a lot of us feel better when telling about the “light box”…thank you for that!! You and all of your creativeness are a beautiful “light” in my world!!

  36. Rita says:

    You INSPIRE me!! I love seeing your paintings and how you do it. It so inspires me to be better at my craft. Now all i need to know is tha business side of how to get drawings into the hands of art directors and distributors! Thank you for showing us your world.

  37. Susan! I’ve been wanting you to write about your painting 🙂

    I water color, but only in classes where I have a teacher to help me. I have supplies, and even an easel… but have I don’t anything without the class? well.. yeah, with water color pencils.. a lighthouse that turned out pretty nicely (it was the same pic from the class i took, just did it with pencils)… but haven’t done anything without a teacher …


    I will give it a try!

    I hope! lol

    Thank you, Susan! You’ve always been an inspiration to me and will forever continue to be <3

    Denise of Ingleside, PEI

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