The Big Picture

Beyond painting, watercolorist Chris Unwin has taught art workshops, produced books and DVDs, and hosted renowned painters in classes worldwide. Photography by Don Unwin.
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A loose landscape with paint spatters, surface carving, and a merging of colors mixing on paper defines artist Chris Unwin’s style.

When it speaks to you, it speaks to you. And the voice was loud and clear for artist Chris Unwin, of West Bloomfield. Her foray into the art world began with oils and acrylics in 1964, “but when I tried watercolor, that was it,” she recalls. “That medium spoke to me.”

Some six decades later, Unwin has not only mastered the medium, but she’s also taught watercolor classes for years. And with her husband, Don, she’s written and published six books, created several teaching DVDs showcasing her own and other artists’ techniques, published how-to books featuring other artists, and traveled the world as a cruise agent and watercolor teacher on the high seas.

One of her greatest accomplishments occurred in 1995, when she was accepted into the National Watercolor Society as a Signature member (Signature members must have three paintings accepted and exhibited in the society’s International Open exhibitions). It’s an organization to which many have attempted to obtain membership and failed. In a nutshell, Unwin says, “They decide whether you have a style.

Chris Unwin at her home studio.

“I remember my first watercolor class well,” she continues. “It was through U-M Dearborn, and it was in the lower level of Fair Lane (the former estate of Clara and Henry Ford, a National Historic Landmark that’s now undergoing restoration). I went alone and there were lots of people in the class who had master’s degrees in art, but the teacher said something like, ‘There’s a person here, who I’m not going to name, who’s doing very well.’ I didn’t know at the time that she was talking about me!”

Following that first class, Unwin took drawing and painting classes for several years. A teacher with a degree from Western Michigan University, she taught grade school children in Garden City after college. “But not for long,” she says. “I started a family and stopped working.”

Five children, 12 grandkids, and one great-grandchild later, Unwin looks back on a remarkable art career that’s still going strong. In fact, from July 13-Sept. 24, one of her paintings will be on display in a special area, along with the works of artists who were juried into a Michigan Water Color Society Signature Exhibition, at U-M Dearborn’s Stamelos Gallery Center. “We had to submit our paintings to the president of the organization, and I submitted a full-sheet watercolor of orchids, which I love to paint,” she says.

Birds are one of the painter’s favorite subjects. Her loose backgrounds reflect colors that are in the main subject.

Unwin reveals that she’s crazy about birds and waterfowl in the wild, and likes to capture them flying above lakes and rivers, or moseying among marshes and wetlands. The artist admits that she also loves to paint abstracts, but in her experience, the general public doesn’t have a huge affinity for non-definitive subject matter.

To those who are just starting out in watercolor or trying their hand at entering art shows, Unwin shares that she’ll never forget the time her work was juried into a Michigan Water Color Show just after she was rejected from another show. “It’s always about the juror and what they like and what they see,” she says. “Watercolor is like no other medium; it seems like it moves and blends together better than other mediums. You have to learn to control it, but it can be done.”

She also stresses the power of observation, and explains that when she’s creating a water scene, “I’ll put water down first and then I look closely at what’s there in the scene because, in our minds, we’re fixed on what something should look like — but when we truly look at the subject matter, it’s different than what we had in mind.”

“… when we truly look at subject matter, it’s different than what we had in mind,” Unwin says. That’s especially true of her captivating floral motifs.

Unwin’s favorite paint brand is Winsor & Newton. She also loves Daniel Smith’s Quinacridone colors, which are said to be more intense and transparent than other paints. “They’re a little brighter and seem to sparkle,” she says. Her favorite ingredient, though, is good old H20. “You have to use a lot of water. I think that’s what watercolor is all about,” she says.

Beyond fine-tuning her own work over the years, Unwin also has been — and still is — a representative of several artists. “I published several books with my husband. They feature artists from all over the world,” she says.

Called the Artistic Touch series (Creative Art Press), each book showcases watercolors ranging in subject from landscapes to still lifes. The accompanying text explains each featured artist’s inspiration and goals, and often includes tips regarding a few techniques related to the piece.

Unwin used a wax resist to capture the feel of light and water for her bird-in-flight painting.

Unwin also has represented American artists who come to metro Detroit to host workshops, and her husband frequently videotapes and makes DVDs of the classes. Both the books and DVDs are for sale, and feature watercolorists such as the Upper Peninsula’s renowned Nita Engle and Bev Jozwiak of Washington state. Unwin recently published Jozwiak’s second book.

As for what’s next, Unwin says Don would like to go on a cruise. Of course, there’s plenty of inspiration to be had for an artist at sea. “After 50 cruises, we’ve stopped counting,” she says. “We’ll see.”

MORE INFORMATION:

To learn more about Creative Art Press, or to purchase Chris and Don Unwin’s books, DVDs, and teaching links, visit chrisunwin.net.

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