One thing that Bill Paarlberg and Ken Fellows have in common is that they’ve only painted with watercolors. Another is that they’ve both moved beyond being “pretty good” at it.
Paarlberg is best known for architectural illustrations, including his “Famous Monsters of Portsmouth” series. When he started painting about 15 years ago, he chose watercolors.
“It’s the first thing I picked up,” Paarlberg said. “Then I got worse. Then, for five years, I just got worse.”
Fellows said he wanted to paint watercolors “in the worst way,” and for a while, he did just that. “It’s the first thing I tried,” he said. He’s a retired academic physician who specialized in radiology and has now been painting for about 25 years.
“It has absorbed my interest, all these years,” Fellows said.
Everyone can see how far they’ve come in a new exhibit at the Kittery Art Association, humbly titled, “Two Guys and Some Pretty Good Watercolors.” It’s on view from June 25 to July 17, and a reception is set for Sunday, June 26, from 4 to 6 p.m. There will be an opportunity for people to try out watercolors for themselves at the event.
“It’s both amazingly simple and amazingly complex,” Paarlberg said. “You’re just taking dirt and water and smooshing it around on a piece of paper, but it’s tremendously difficult to do anything on purpose.”
Both artists got instruction from one of their mentors, Dewitt Hardy, a noted Southern Maine watercolorist. After five or six years, Fellows said, “It just all seemed to come together.”
Fellows always wanted to capture the light in his paintings, but learned that he can’t do that without the dark.
“Some people, if you mention watercolors, they think of little pictures with pretty light and pastel colors,” Fellows said. He credits Hardy for instilling in him an attention to detail, perspective, and structure, and, above all, for telling him to be bold. Fellows went on to teach art as well.
“I think it’s awfully important to find a teacher who’s not only competent but who’s an inspiration, who paints the way you want to paint. Learning watercolors, because it is fussy and demanding, you need more than instruction, you need inspiration to keep going,” Fellows said.
For Paarlberg, inspiration only goes so far. It takes dedication to get better.
“You have to have the right feeling of confidence, and if you go into it painting timid or unsure of yourself, it shows. It also reflects a state of mind,” he said. “But, I’m a big believer in discipline. I can’t wait around till I feel like a superhero to go to work. I have to just go to work. You just have to do it.”
Though also a serious and prolific artist, Fellows takes an approach that is less business, more pleasure.
“I paint essentially for pleasure. I just look for things that catch my eye and then try to paint them,” he said. “I look for things all the time.”
Although some of the places Fellows paints are popular among artists, he always looks for a new angle. He wanted to incorporate a house that overlooks Brave Boat Harbor, so he painted its reflection in the water.
“I had never painted a reflection before. I wasn’t sure if I could do it,” he said. “My wife says I probably did it.”
His work is whimsical, a record of whatever fascinates him. The show includes recent Maine landscapes, portraits, and interiors. And, with Fellows, what you see is what you get.
“My paintings don’t have meaning. They’re not representative of some philosophy I have or a subliminal message I’m trying to transmit. I’m just trying to interpret what I see in a pleasant and interesting way. I’m hoping it’s interesting to others as well. It’s not very deep,” Fellows said.
Paarlberg said he’s not exactly trying to “paint the tortured soul of human existence,” but what he does paint has meaning to him. In the exhibit, he’ll be showing views of Portsmouth and of the Kittery Land Trust Norton Preserve.
“We tend to think of landscapes as boring, pretty pictures. It’s always a problem deciding what is a pretty picture and what is something more. I always try to do something more, but if it comes out to be a nice, pretty picture, that’s OK, too,” he said. “It’s hard to paint a pretty picture. I’d be happy spending the rest of my life learning how to paint trees better. But I aspire to something more.
“What’s important when I make a painting is I have a feeling behind it and you feel something when you see it, even if that feeling is not necessarily the same,” Paarlberg added.
While meaning is subjective, Paarlberg’s style is distinctive.
“The kind of painting I like to do shows the marks of the brush and whatever it is that makes me a painter and reflects who I am. I want people to say, ‘That’s one of Bill’s.’ I want the marks of the painting to be characteristic of me,” he said.
Paarlberg has been incorporating dirt and water from the sites he paints into the paintings. “It turns it from a painting into a sculpture. It turns it from an image into an object,” he said. “It gives them some extra soul or context.”
He’s also mounted paintings on wood to make a book, videoed one of his paintings burning, and painted a portrait of Donald Trump on a toilet seat.
Fellows said Paarlberg is multi-talented and inventive. Paarlberg said Fellows has a broader range of subject matter, and a more classical approach. The two have been friends for years.
“In general, his style is looser than mine,” Fellows said. “We’re both influenced by Dewitt Hardy but don’t try to paint like Dewitt Hardy. We try to be ourselves.”
In the Seacoast, the local artists also find common ground.
“I truly have affection for Portsmouth,” Paarlberg said. “I’ve always found something special in the architecture, in the way Portsmouth sits on the water. I could draw Portsmouth forever.”
His recent watercolors are a shift away from man-made structures and more toward nature. He likes the challenge of finding a focal point and creating a compelling composition out of the chaos of the woods. But he is also working on a new addition to the “Famous Monsters” series in which aliens are invading Market Square.
Fellows’ muses are the coastal towns of Maine with rich seafaring histories and grand old structures.