Denise Lisiecki sits down with a student in her watercolor class and gives her a minilesson in perspective. She gets out a ruler and shows the woman how to make the windows of a building she’s painting line up properly.
Another student asks her advice on creating a shadow on the birdhouse she’s painting. “Let me show you,” Lisiecki says, then sits down and begins to use the woman’s paintbrush to demonstrate a watercolor technique known as a flat wash. But Lisiecki hops up quickly and goes into another room to get her own brush. “She can’t stand my brushes,” the woman says.
Lisiecki is not only a self-described “queen of perspective” when it comes to drawing, but she’s a master of control at watercolor. And to help her students achieve similar levels of control, she emphasizes the importance of certain techniques and tools in watercolor painting.
“Use a sable brush,” she advises. “It will hold the paint properly.” To do a flat wash, meaning to paint over something but allow what’s underneath to come through, “hold your brush at a 45-degree angle to the paper. Take the pressure of the brush and release the paint onto the paper.”
As she explains this during the first session of an eight-week watercolor class at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, Lisiecki is wearing a flowing navy and red skirt that looks a lot like an abstract watercolor. And the rest of her look, like her paintings, involves bold color choices: red top, bright blue necklace, red sandals, red toenails.
Yes, Lisiecki is an artist right down to her toes. “I was always drawing or painting as a child,” she says. “I would watch Captain Kangaroo on TV, and there would always be a little craft project. I’d get out my scissors and crayons and paints.”
Lisiecki went on to become a watercolorist who is nationally recognized for her brightly colored, carefully composed still-lifes and whose painting techniques allow her to create a high degree of realism. Her works are in museum and corporate collections throughout the country, and she has been featured in the former American Artist and Watercolor magazines.
She’s also been teaching art at the KIA for 30 years and been the director of the Kirk Newman School of Art there since 1997, after a year as interim director. “When I was hired (as director),” she says, “the director of finance said, ‘You have to take the job — you’re one of the few artists who can read a spreadsheet.’”
When asked if juggling these three roles is difficult, she shakes her head no. “I’ve done it for so long,” she says. “I think with the personality I have, the stimulation of all the parts makes it work. I just have a personality that thrives and can do many things.”
Lisiecki finds that teaching watercolor classes helps her with her own art. “When you teach, you can start articulating what you’re doing visually. It starts to clarify things for you. Problems and situations come up in the students’ work and I’m solving them for them so it expands my repertoire.”
Many of her students take her classes multiple times. Carol Leigh, a retired teacher who taught art for 37 years at Gull Lake Middle School, says she first took a class from Lisiecki after seeing “a huge, beautiful painting she had done.”
“Her class was called ‘Less Intimidation, More Control,’” Leigh says. “She did stilllifes where watercolor was used in such a controlled way. I had done watercolors but had never felt comfortable with them. The techniques she teaches are just great. Now I take the classes for fun.”
Marlene Williams, who has a doctorate in religion and worked mostly as a counselor, has been taking Lisiecki’s classes for three or four years. Williams had one of her watercolors accepted into this year’s Art Prize competition in Grand Rapids. “She’s an excellent teacher,” Williams says. “She’s very patient. When I came in, I didn’t have a clue about anything. My real work started with Denise, with this apple I thought I’d never get right.”
Lisiecki, though, has changed at least one of her teaching methods over the years. She used to show her students examples of works by nationally recognized watercolorists. But one of her students, Gail Wheaton, went to the KIA office after her first class and asked for her money back, feeling she would never be able to create such wonderful work. Lisiecki overheard the request and persuaded her to persevere.
“That was when I first started teaching watercolor,” Lisiecki says. “I thought it would be inspirational to show those works, but it was just discouraging.” Now she tells her students she has postcard images of her work if they’d like to see them, but she doesn’t pass the cards out in class.
Watercolor, Lisiecki says, is a very unforgiving medium — you can’t go back and paint over something the way you can with oils. She, in fact, wasn’t as interested in watercolors as in oils when she was younger. “Wet the paper and let it flow — I didn’t care about that,” she says. She wanted more control of the movement of water and paint on paper. “But I don’t want everyone to paint in the style that I do,” she says. “That’s why I’m happy we have three watercolor teachers at the KIA who all paint very differently,” the others using a much “looser” style than hers.
Sealing her fate
Growing up in Cleveland, Lisiecki attended a junior high and high school that both had strong art programs. One of her high school teachers, in fact, trained his students to have a portfolio ready so that they could get into the Cleveland Institute of Art. But it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that art would become Lisiecki’s chosen profession.
She was one of the top chemistry students in her high school. “I was wild about it,” she says, “and my teacher was ecstatic that there was a girl who loved chemistry.”
She loved French too, but when she began attending Miami University in Ohio, she decided to study psychology. “I thought it would be more of a science, and I became disillusioned with it. I took some art classes and thought, ‘Maybe I’ll go into art.”
The summer between her sophomore and junior years she was accepted into Kent State University’s Kent Blossom Art program, “this fabulous program that only took 40 visual art students from across the U.S., both graduate and undergraduate.”
“That’s where I met Ken,” she says, referring to Ken Freed, the artist she’s been married to for 39 years. “That sort of sealed my fate in art.”
In graduate school at the State University of New York at Oswego, she did a lot of figurative painting using dancers as models, since she herself did some ballet and modern dance. But she also became interested in printmaking, screen-printing in particular. When she began working at the KIA, she taught printmaking, and for 10 years she would do her own screen-printing eight hours every day. At that time, the ink used was oil-based and the fumes highly toxic. When Lisiecki became pregnant with her son (who’s now 29), she had to give it up.
She was looking for a gift one day for a friend who wanted books by women artists when she happened upon a book on watercolors by Sondra Freckelton. “She approached watercolors the way I approached screen-printing,” Lisiecki says. “After that, I did a huge watercolor painting just like that. That painting got into a national watercolor show and was purchased by a museum in Alpena.” Lisiecki has been painting watercolors ever since.
Her predominant subject matter has changed, too, over the years. When she moved to Michigan in 1976, she began focusing on flowers. “We lived on a property with an amazing floral collection,” she says. “There were flowers from all over the world. For a long time I used just flowers as subject matter.” Then she began incorporating more objects into her artwork, and “now I’m getting a little more into the landscape again.”
Lisiecki often chooses objects for her still-lifes based on their symbolic significance to her. “A lot of times I’ll like to tell a story with a painting,” she says, “but the story is not important to the viewer.” The viewer will bring his or her own meaning to it, she says, “since objects evoke emotions and attachments.”
She speculates that people are drawn to her work for this reason but also because “it has a lot of movement and flow to it. The composition is quite dynamic. The colors are bold.”
Sometimes Lisiecki is asked to do commissioned work. A company might commission her to do a still-life for a retiring executive that incorporates some of that person’s favorite objects. Recently a beer distributor asked her to create paintings of the company’s buildings in Michigan and New Jersey.
“This is something I would never choose to do on my own, but I like the challenge and satisfaction of creatively trying to figure out how to do it,” she says. “I had never painted a building before, and now I have multiple commissions. One year I did almost all commissions. That was good because of the money but bad because I couldn’t do my own work.”
Teaching and running the KIA’s art school also take time away from her art. And even though she enjoys those responsibilities, making art is her lifeblood. “If I don’t get into the studio for awhile, I can feel it psychologically,” she says. “It’s almost an addiction … it’s the only place where I can control everything. It’s like a little sanctuary. If something goes really crazy, I can go in there and close the door and start painting and get away. It’s better than any vacation.”