Art Pulse,  Featured Artists

Artist Spotlight: Karen Kramer, Watercolorist

We are one week into World Watercolor Month. What better way to celebrate than by exploring the unique watercolor techniques of a local artist? Karen Kramer is a watercolor painter whose studio is just down the street from MacPherson’s Emeryville office. I discovered her work while exploring the Oakland Art Route, a community art walk featuring openings and studio visits in various neighborhoods, compete with an illustrated map, “passport,” and prizes. Karen’s studio is nestled into a cozy artists’ space at her studio at Studios 11. I was drawn in by the lush colors and depth of her watercolors, playful and inventive compositions that focus on the delicate contrasts of natural forms. I reached out for an interview to learn more about her technique, supplies, inspiration and motivation.

A piece that Karen is currently working on, Hills of the Valley #2, surrounded by finished works, paints and reference material.

Where does your connection with nature come from?

“I was born in New York but my mother and I moved out to Berkeley when I was three and what completely sold her was Tilden Park. We did a lot of camping and hiking when I was young. I grew up with a family that appreciated being in nature, and I developed that more as an adult. Going to parks, hiking, backpacking…I have always gravitated toward nature.”

You’ve got these leaf earrings, the floral thing going on. Leaves seem to be everywhere in your studio… how do you feel about them?

“Leaves are so underappreciated! They deserve more attention and love. I was in Costa Rica and there was this one leaf, just twisted in on itself. It was dead, and it was so gorgeous. I made a whole painting based on that. I just find them extremely graceful, with infinite variety. They are so crucial and yet people tend to just kind of overlook them.”

What materials do you use, and how does your process work?

“Daniel Smith has what I need in terms of color. Especially the earthy colors. The ones that granulate are pretty amazing. Their colors are just so gorgeous, rich and unusual. Some of them, like the Bronzite, even have a sparkly quality. They feel a little bit more like the actual minerals are in there.

As for the pencils, I love Derwent Inktense, I have tons of those. The Faber-Castell ones, the Staedtler. I’ve got a whole range. I use them until they are… nearly done! I have probably at least… I must have like 300 pencils or something.

As for my process, first I choose my color scheme. I decide what colors I will use in the ground, then I choose the pencils and the paints I’m going to use based on the mood I’m trying to create. I love color, I’m addicted to it. But I also want to make sure that there is a harmony in my paintings. There is so much harmony in nature and I want to reflect that in my work. So planning the colors, at least I have a starting point that will have interest and contrast but will also be unified and harmonious. 

Once I have my color scheme, I create my ground. I use Daniel Smith paints and water to create a watery mix and then pour the colors onto dry paper. I use 300 lb. Arches cold-press watercolor paper because you can really abuse it. You can lift and lift and lift!”

In The Garden

I know what you mean by that because I use watercolor as well- you lay color on, you can take it off, you can play.

“Exactly. The paper handles a lot of wear and tear. And I don’t know in advance what colors I’m going to use where; it’s kind of a conversation I have with the painting as it develops. I do end up sometimes wanting to lift something or make it transparent. The heavy paper lets me do that.

Back to the ground—I pour two or three colors and depending on if I want them to mix together or not, I let them dry more or less before pouring more color. I like the spontaneity of this process, it is like nature, something you can’t control. It’s going to teach me something, it gives me something to react to. I let the ground dry completely and put my composition on top of that. Sometimes I’ll pour a ground without knowing the composition, other times I have it planned out.”

A detail of the layers that go into Karen’s watercolors.

This one is so cool, I can see the branches mirrored by the shapes in the background. My eye goes to that…

“Great, that’s awesome, that’s what I was hoping for!”

So once you apply the composition, whether you improvise or not, what role to brushes have in your practice versus pencils?  

“It’s about 50/50. I like working wet on wet, so I wet parts of the paper and obviously I’m using the paint for that. Wet-in-wet is great for a loose, flowy effect, while the pencils are great for details. It’s a very intuitive process: I tap into what the painting needs or wants. I’ve started integrating some charcoal into my process as well.”

Detail of the painting Journey Through Time in which Karen uses  charcoal in tandem with watercolors.

Why do you use that instead of black watercolor?

“I really enjoy juxtaposing a lot of opposites…I feel in nature you have wet and dry, dark and light, dying and blooming… the soft and hard. So I feel like using the charcoal fits into that theme because you have the color and the black and white, you also have this very different feel that you get from the charcoal versus the paint.”

What do you feel is your most important tool as a watercolor artist?

“It’s hard to choose between paper and paint, of course. You have to have good brushes… Everything works in tandem. But the two most critical things are the paper and paints.”

Your studio is so organized! What are these clear plastic containers?

“These are great for paints. They are actually made for beads. But you can put your paints in each little compartment and then close it up once you are done. It’s completely waterproof, and you avoid the risk of the paints contaminating each other.”

You are using it as a palette; I love how you labeled with the colors. It’s like tupperware for paint.

“Yes, honestly, if people made something like this that was actually designed for watercolors, it would be very popular.”

Sierra Reflections

Nature is clearly so central to your work. Do you ever paint outside?

“I take a lot of photographs. So I work from those and from my imagination. I don’t especially like painting outdoors. I like being outdoors. I’m in awe of nature and I’m totally drawn to it. But my process doesn’t require me to paint outdoors. I’m mostly creating my own compositions as opposed to painting a scene and I’m using my own set of colors rather than trying to recreate the exact colors I see. It’s not like a traditional landscape painting. That said, I have on occasion painted outside if the right situation presented itself.”

So before becoming an artist, you were a lawyer for 25 years. How was that transition for you?


“I did a lot of drawing when I was growing up and in high school. Then I pretty much dropped it in college because it was impractical. I didn’t have any artist role models in my family and I wanted to be able to support myself.  So I did the practical thing and went to law school. I spent most of my legal career working for a wonderful federal judge in San Francisco. When I turned 50 I decided I was ready to try something different but I wasn’t sure yet what it was.  It took me a little bit of time to realize it was art. Then I discovered watercolors. Before that, I hadn’t met a medium I didn’t like. But there was something about watercolor, I just felt at home immediately. I loved the physicality of the water. It feels like nature is just right there with you.

I still do some legal work, since that pays a little bit better <laughs>. I was wondering, if it would work to go back and forth between legal work and watercolor painting. And what I discovered is that  it works really well, because I am switching sides of my brain. If you are using one side, the other side gets a break and gets refreshed, and the you move over to the other side… it hasn’t actually been hard at all. It feels very easy, very natural. “

A lot of people say watercolor is a gateway medium, but it’s also such a challenging medium. What do you think?

“I think any medium can be a gateway medium. I’ve actually heard so many people tell me, ‘Oh, watercolor is so hard, I could never do watercolor.’ I think it’s because people feel they don’t know how to control the water (what’s too much, what’s too little), and it’s not like acrylic or oil, you can’t just always paint over it or fix it, even with the most forgiving paper. Watercolor is great to experiment with, but it does intimidate some people, people who want to have more control. I mean, you can paint very tightly with watercolor, almost like it is gouache, you can develop a very high technical level. But to me the whole joy of it is to let the water play, let the colors interact. Let water be water.”

You talked about your process earlier; what is your process like in terms of being in the studio?

“I come in pretty much every day during the week.  I try and have two projects going on at the same time, I don’t always succeed in that…I paint for as long as it feels good and take breaks when I need to. I have a desk here so I can also do my legal work, pay my bills, take care of household stuff. There are other artists here, so we can have some community time. I’ll go back and forth, maybe painting, maybe doing something else. I also listen to music while I paint, I love music from Zimbabwe and South Africa.”

Secret Life of Hummingbirds

What is the most challenging part about being an artist and what is the most rewarding?

“There are two really rewarding parts. First, I love the feeling of when I am painting and I’m so absorbed in it. Seeing the painting develop and really loving how something is coming along. Secondly, people appreciating my artwork is so rewarding. Saying that my work makes them feel peaceful or alive… hearing how the artwork affects other people. I love seeing where people hang my artwork, sometimes they send me pictures.

The challenge is to stay fresh. To not get stale, to keep pushing. Trying new things or continuing to grow and develop as an artist.”

There is no better way to celebrate World Watercolor Month than to shine a light on local watercolor painters or educators who are working closely with all things watercolor. How do you connect with your community of local artists? How has your artistic community inspired you, and vice versa? Get in touch and let us know at artdogblog (@)

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