Wendy Mattson is a nationally recognized watercolor artist who is also an author on painting. During our interview, she explains how listening to and following God’s direction has been key to her success. She also talks about how she approaches her subject, how her art has challenged her, how she’s changed and progressed as an artist, how she’s overcome challenges, and how she’s balanced her art and family life.
How did you get interested in art?
When I was a senior in high school, my mom and I were looking for something to do together. She enrolled us in a community watercolor class. We had a great time, and I loved it. When I went to college, I had no clue what I wanted to major in or do with my life. So, I thought, “Well, what the heck? I’ll do art.” I seemed to have a knack for it. Then, in my junior year, I had completed my art major but didn’t have enough credits to graduate, so I added a business major. I got married right after college, and art would never let me go. I kept wanting to paint, and people started liking my work. That’s how I got into art.
What do you like about it?
I like that it challenges me on every level. If you’re pursuing art as a career and a passion, it’s not something that just happens. You can’t just go into the studio and paint a pretty picture. It demands discipline, creativity, vision, perseverance, and faith. And if you’re going to be successful in those areas, art demands that you approach it spiritually. You have to get yourself out of the way to let God express His infinite vision through you. When that happens, there’s nothing more exciting.
How do you select your subject?
During the early years, I concentrated on painting florals. I would take my camera wherever I went in order to get pictures of garden scenes that attracted me. Most often these images were a close-up view of flowers bathed in light. Later I moved on to everyday images of children at play. When I went into my studio to paint, I would go through my picture files and see which images inspired me that day, and I’d paint from the photos. This last year, I have felt a need to break away from recording an image. I feel that it’s important for an artist to be progressive, so I have given myself permission to let go – let go of form, of the fear that people aren’t going to like my art because it’s not traditional, let go of habitual painting and get out of a rut. So my current paintings are very abstract. It’s exciting to rely on the more spiritual aspects of art – inspiration, intuition, design, color, and shape – and see how those qualities take form on the paper. I generally start with a concept, sketch out a basic composition, develop a color scheme and then see how those elements come to life.
Would you explain what you mean by concept and how color plays into that?
I did a whole series of paintings on letting go. It was something I was working with in my own life. I find it exciting to explore a spiritual idea as a life metaphor and see how that concept is expressed artistically. For example, since my objective was to let go, I would see how far I could let go, how simple I could make a design and still have it be effective, how much color I could let go of and still have it be beautiful. I also tend to explore color combinations in a series before I move on to painting with different hues. I find this challenges me to use color more creatively. I’m also conscious of today’s homes and businesses, so I do choose color from a marketing and practical standpoint as well.
How did your statue paintings come about?
There’s an ethereal quality to statues – to me they are a momentary glimpse of grace, beauty and form. I was inspired by this and began to paint them. Now I’m taking it a step further by painting elements of a statue and abstracting the rest. They are a bridge between my traditional and totally abstract work.
You’ve been nationally recognized for your flowers and children. What do you think is unique about them?
Traditionally people think of watercolors as soft and flowing. My work incorporates strong colors, contrast, and design. For my children’s images, most people have said that they’ve found something spiritual in them, which I loved, as that’s how I approached them. I have always sought to paint the essence of the child, not just the image. I get to know the children first and then express what I find special about them. I’ve also become known for my use of light. Light is inspiration, Soul. It enhances and illumines whatever it shines on. Light has been an integral part of whatever I paint.
What has enabled you to succeed?
I think, as an artist, listening is crucial. We can get in our own way, stagnate, or find ourselves in a rut when we impose our own human will upon our work. We have to be open to God’s direction, and know it’s Him that’s guiding us. For example, I was strictly a floral watercolor painter for 15 years and never wanted to be a figure painter. In fact, somehow I managed to get an art degree without taking a figure class because I was absolutely convinced I would never paint people! I was completely happy with this arrangement until we had our daughters. I think artists want to express what they’re most drawn to. As a new mother, I was completely in love with my daughters. I had an absolute need to paint them. My first attempts were very crude, but I kept going, and the paintings got better. It was a good lesson in perseverance. In preparing for an art show one year, I looked at my booth and noticed that I had a lot of children’s paintings for sale. I panicked because I worried what I would do if someone asked me to paint their children. I resolved to say, “No, I wouldn’t do commission work.” At the end of the day, a lady came up to me and asked if I did commissions. I couldn’t believe I heard myself say, “Yes.” Although I never painted anything for her, when I went back home, I had three messages from people who wanted me to paint their families. Over the next year, I did 14 commissions, and during the following 10-year period made enough to keep our daughters in private school. It was all due to listening and being open to where God was guiding me, despite what I had planned for myself. God is always leading us, but we often don’t heed His words. Every leap forward in my career is because I’ve listened to where God was directing me to go.
What challenges have you faced in your career, and has inspiration from the Bible helped you overcome them?
I think one major challenge for anyone pursuing a passion is lack of motivation or inspiration. Art is a very solitary occupation. You sometimes think you’ve run out of ideas, aren’t motivated to paint, and find you are stuck in a rut. I’ve been painting for 20 years now, and I’ve had some of these challenges that have lasted for over a year. I’ve worked a lot with “loaves” and “fishes” in thinking about lack – lack of inspiration, marketing opportunities, and exciting work in life. I think about what Jesus did when faced with the hungry multitude: he didn’t complain or worry about how little there was; he was grateful for what he had on hand (Matt. 15:36). It’s a lesson I refer to frequently: he blessed what he had (Matt. 14:19). So the times I find myself in a slump, I go back to those stories, acknowledge what God has given me, am grateful for it, and ask God how I can use it. What we have on hand is always enough – not only enough, but abundantly so. It’s also helpful to realize that those “miracles” showed not how great Jesus was, but how great God’s majesty is. And it’s the same when we’re successful or break through challenge: it shows not how fabulous we are, but how wonderful and accomplished God is. I’ve also found that growing spiritually demands that sometimes we keep repeating lessons until we learn them. It seems that when I have hard times is when I’m spiritually thirsty: I’m relying on myself rather than God. This recognition serves as a launching pad for me once again to approach my work from a spiritual standpoint. After all, we’re either thinking we are the originators of actions, which can lead to stagnation, or we’re trusting that God is the source all ideas, which is infinite and ongoing. When I get back to expressing God the ideas flow.
Has your business degree helped you as an artist?
It has helped with a main challenge all artists face – marketing and promotion. It’s fun to create; it’s not so fun to sell. A business degree has definitely given me some necessary tools in approaching my work professionally. Business often seems to be against the artistic nature. Artists usually feel that they’re bragging, and we’ve been taught not to boast. It helps to look at the marketing activity correctly. If we look at our interests just as a passion, something we love to do, it becomes all about us: it’s a selfish outlook. I like to look at art, which is a passion of mine, more as a gift from God. I often think about Jesus’ parable of the “talents,” in which he explains that “a man … put his capital in their [his servants] hands” (New English Bible Matt. 25:15-29). What an amazing way to think about our talents: it’s God’s “capital!” This takes it away from us. In that story, the master gave different amounts, which we can think of as gifts, to different servants. God gives each and every one of us our own gifts – art, real estate, acting, running a household, etc. What’s demanded of us is that we use our individual portion. The servant who was afraid, lazy, or slothful, lost his talent. I think of it as an affront to God if I don’t use the talents He’s given me in creativity and marketing to the very best of my ability.
As a mother of two now teenage daughters, how have you balanced your professional and family life?
A huge part of whatever I’ve been able to accomplish has come from my family, especially early on. Our daughters are only 14 months apart, so my husband took off one day of work a week to give me a painting day. That enabled me during the early days of motherhood to keep honing my craft. Both sets of parents have also been helpful with art shows and enthusiastic support. We built a studio on the side of our house, which has helped me balance work and motherhood, art and the rest of my life. I approach my art as a job, not a hobby. When I go into my studio, I’m not tempted to do laundry and all the rest of the household work. I work during school hours. It has varied, and I do have to be flexible, as life has demands, and the demands of family do come first. But when I’m in my studio, I’m fully there. My family’s been very understanding of the hours I do spend in pursuit of art, and for that I am immensely grateful.
What advice would you give aspiring artists?
Set goals for yourself every year, then listen and be courageous with the answers that come. In my own life, this has taken shape in many different ways. One year my goal was to have my work appear in a national book and to get accepted in a national art exhibition. That year 3 of my paintings appeared in a book on creative watercolor and I got into my first show. Another year my goal was to find gallery representation. I researched galleries, got slides of my work, and sent inquiry letters. A gallery in Sacramento took my work and that year I was selected as one of Sacramento's rising stars. A couple of years ago I set my goal to have an art book of my own published. I submitted a book proposal to a publisher in the U.S. It didn’t work for the slot of books they had lined up for the year, but they wanted to keep my presentation. Later that year they used promotional material from my proposal for a magazine article on presenting yourself professionally. A year later, they contacted me, told me they were developing a new line of books, were looking for new authors, and asked if I would write a book for them. So, I got a book contract 2 years after I had made my initial submittal, and it just happened to be on painting people, which I hadn’t even wanted to do earlier in my career! The book came out on the market this past spring. It’s called People in Watercolor and is part of the No Experience Required line by North Light books, sold at Borders, Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble. It’s kind of fun. So another piece of advice would be to heed every idea that comes to you. It’s so easy to dismiss ideas or think they’re too big or impractical. If an idea comes to you, follow through with it without asking when or how it may come about because you never know. Trusting that God knows where you need to go and is completely capable of getting you there allows you to pursue your passions confidently and joyously!