Art Space: Seeing Mount Diablo in a New Light: Watercolorist Robin Purcell, poet of the palette | August 7, 2009 | Danville Express | |

Danville Express

Living - August 7, 2009

Art Space: Seeing Mount Diablo in a New Light: Watercolorist Robin Purcell, poet of the palette

by John A. Barry

If you've never seen an oil painting of Mount Diablo, chances are you either just moved to the area or you've been living a very sheltered life. It's understandable why such landscapes are so pleintiful (sic). The 3,864-foot-high mountain is a prominent topographical landmark, visible from many vantage points. But if you're like me, you may find a certain sameness in these omnipresent representations of "Devil Mountain."

So I was struck by the local landscapes, diabolical and otherwise, of Danville watercolorist Robin Purcell, particularly by the saturation of the colors. Purcell believes that many landscape painters render their images.

"Rendering is like trying to make a photographic image, and I'm not trying to 'render,'" she says. "I'm trying to interpret a scene and show the movement in it." Movement, she explains, is "a path for your eyes to travel."

Purcell differentiates rendering from her method of interpretation by equating the former to reportage and the latter to poetry.

"I'm not trying to be a reporter; I'm trying to give people a sense of how I feel" about Mount Diablo, for example." In addition to movement, she also focuses on shapes and values.

In painting the popular local geologic formation, it's "as much as shapes on paper as Mount Diablo," in her view. In doing so, she notes, she likes "to play with the idea of abstraction and reality" by "pushing" the shapes and colors to accentuate what excited her about the view in the first place.

Concerning values, Purcell says: "There are a lot of people who can draw, but if they don't get the values right, it totally falls apart." She learned about values from the work of William Wendt (1865-1946), known as the "dean of Southern California landscape painters." Purcell, who categorizes herself as a "curvy, blobby William Wendt," usually works with five values- white and black and three shades in between. Purcell paints in color- the values represent gradations of color from lightest to darkest.

In plein-air (outdoor) painting in this locale, Purcell notes, "We live in a Mediterranean climate. You can go back day after day, and the view is still the same. With a large sheet of paper (22 by 30 inches), I will often go back to a site for two or three mornings. There's a certain point where I know I have enough information to finish it."

Finishing takes place in her studio. "When I get to the studio, I make an effort not to add any shapes, because it gets too busy." It is there that she saturates the lighter values she started with because "It's much easier to go darker than the other way." To help get the saturated colors that are a hallmark of her work, she uses hot-press paper, which, she explains, holds more pigment when it dries and retains more color than what most watercolorists use. Most of them paint wet washes on wet paper. "I do wet on dry, one section at a time."

One way Purcell differs from most other watercolorists is that she stands at the easel while painting. She keeps a roll of toilet paper next to her palette to control the amount of water so that it doesn't run down the vertical surface.

Purcell studied graphic design and art history in college, where she tried every medium. She liked pigment on pure-white paper. "I don't really care for canvas," she says. She found oil "gummy" and acrylics "too much like plastic."

After graduation she worked as a package designer. When she started to stay home with her children, her husband enrolled her in a watercolor workshop with New England plein-air painter William Turns, whom she refers to as "the perfect person for me," to learn basic watercolor techniques. Since then, she has taken those techniques to new heights.

Robin Purcell's paintings can be seen locally at Studio 7 Fine Arts in Pleasanton and on the Web where she keeps a journal of her newest paintings at

--John A. Barry is a writer and aspiring artist. To share anything art-related, call him at 314-9528 or e-mail


Like this comment
Posted by Gayle
a resident of another community
on Aug 7, 2009 at 9:18 am

I love Robin's clear explaination of the difference between "reporting" and "poetry" and between "rendering" and "feeling" in the creation of her watercolor images.

Like this comment
Posted by Eric Merrell
a resident of another community
on Aug 13, 2009 at 7:15 pm

Cheers, love to see Robin's work, glad that she was included in this profile!