I like painting with watercolors.
My first summer in college I studied landscape architecture in Italy. I learned how to watercolor by spending an entire day sitting in one spot in a garden: Villa Gamberaia, Villa Petraia, Bomarzo…—no food, no wine, just painting with a block of smelly Fabriano cotton paper, three little tubes of paint, and a bottle of water. I found I was pretty good at it, if I spent the time and could avoid distraction.
I aped the illustrator-y, early 20th c. style of N.C. Wyeth, but later ventured into a splashy gestural style which I turned on my student work. I emulated the neo-suprematist studies of Rem Koohaus, Zaha Hadid, also Steven Holl, and found that watercolor was particularly broad and useful.
In my first presentation at graduate school, architect Michael Graves dismissed nights and nights of my virtuoso production as “rendering.” Deflated, his critique sent me on a decades-long quandary, about “mere representation” of things, or whether I possess a rare way to come up with architecture. Thus my later thesis work at graduate school involved overt form-making through watercolor in a way that could only come about by my painting—techniques such as staining, refraction, sedimentation, shading, etc. I got wonderful recognition for that.
Then during my year working with Bob Stern, I met a growing classicist movement of young beaux-arts renderers, whose techniques I cannot match. I am in awe of their labor, skills, and discipline. Bob had me do lots of presentations and the classicists taught me a lot. But I was terrified of being a “renderer,” what would Michael think? I jumped ship to do avant-garde work with Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio, briefly testing my brain’s other hemisphere.
I’ve painted images of many, many buildings and landscapes since those days. I still ponder the value of my talents. I don’t think my painting is rendering (not that I consider rendering to be pejorative.) Watercolor lets me suggest a world of my own making, one that’s different from what’s out there, and that can seduce. It shows impressionistic possibility of form without potential-killing specificity. It’s not representation, it’s creation.