Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986) began drawing at an early age at her home near Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. She studied for a year at the Art Institute of Chicago (1905-06) and the following year (1907-08) at the Art Students League in New York. Disillusioned with the academic realism of her instructors, she quit painting and worked as a commercial artist in Chicago. Recuperating from measles, she relocated to her parents' home in Virginia in 1910, where she began painting studies again at the University of Virginia. For the next several years (until 1918) she earned her living by teaching art to children in Virginia, Texas and South Carolina. In 1914, at the age of twenty seven, she began to study painting again, this time at New York's Columbia University under Arthur Wesley Dow (1857-1922), who taught her that painting was simply "filling space in a beautiful way." In 1915 a mutual friend showed some of her drawings to the photographer and art dealer Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), owner of the modernist 291 Gallery in New York City. Stieglitz was immediately intrigued, declaring "at last, a woman on paper," and showed O'Keeffe's work without her permission in a group show at his 291 Gallery. O'Keeffe traveled to New York to insist that Stieglitz take down her very personal drawings; instead, they began one of the most fruitful relationships in American art, culminating in their marriage in 1924. From 1917-28, O'Keeffe divided her time between New York and New Mexico, with trips to the Stieglitz family home in Lake George (New York) and Maine. After Stieglitz's death in 1949, she moved permanently to New Mexico and lived and painted there until her death in 1986.

O'Keeffe is one of the many artists who did not practice watercolor painting consistently, but instead plunged into it during a crucial period of self evaluation or change. (Another painter in this group is Mark Rothko.) "I decided to start all over new," she wrote of herself in 1915, "to accept as true my own thinking." Beginning in charcoal, she turned to watercolor in 1916, and painted over 114 surviving works in the next two years. (In contrast, only 14 watercolors survive from the following decade.) Most of her watercolors date from the years she spent as an art teacher in rural Texas. Pink and Green Mountains No.1 (1917, 23x31cm) announces the themes of the whole series: a landscape stripped of human presence, natural forms shaped from extremely simple brushwork, washes and tints folding in uneven veils across the page, a wonderfully casual abstraction, and strong variations in color. Viridian, prussian blue and a rose lake, three colors and five basic forms on the page, are all O'Keeffe calls on for the image. In complete disregard of the academic watercolor technique of the time, O'Keeffe painted directly and without any fussy brushing, sponging, or lifting of color. The brush is used to model form and color in a single gesture, without hesitation or hurry. All O'Keeffe's paintings from this time radiate a touching sense of acceptance, as if she were not simply reinventing herself, but falling in love with her artistic spirit.



Many of the pieces are skyscapes that celebrate the pure desert light at the crossing of day and night. Abstraction Blue (1917, 40x28cm) encloses O'Keeffe's disarmingly erratic symbols for stars in the sky — rough lozenges and blobs of white paper. The lightening of color towards greens and yellows at the bottom suggests this is the dawn sky, and the swirling of blue and green together suggests the sinking and swirling of paint as it is rinsed out of a brush: blossoms and puddles within the dark blue sky equate the light of dawn with dissolving water. O'Keeffe painted her Texas watercolors on a slightly fuzzy, thick, cream white "student" paper, which was lightly sized and created interesting wet in wet effects. She frequently explored and exploited these random water patterns, sometimes mixing paints on the paper and even squeezing paints directly from the tube onto the prewetted surface. In a similar spirit, she seems also to have let the painting develop organically, in search of her own symbolism. The starry sky here is framed with a narrow dark border, then the border is elaborated outward in a way that suggests the intuitive shell of the sky over our heads, but also as a doorway to dawn. The lower part of the image may represent the shoulders of blue mountains, or dim blue light across the Texas plains.

Many of the images form a series of paintings around a single visual idea or motif; this theme is explored through slight variations in color or technique. A series of paintings of stylized houses, including Window, Red and Blue Sill (1918, 30x22cm), seem to be geometrical studies in design, but also exercises in color mixing to represent the changes in hue and value in the transitions from light to shadow. The lefthand vertical stripe of violet (which mixes into alizarin crimson at the bottom), the slight difference between the panels of gray at the base of the picture, the pale blue reflection or curtain in the window — are all indications that O'Keeffe is moving away from the color freedom that icons and symbols permit, and grappling with the shading and control required to paint physical objects. And it is with paintings of this kind that O'Keeffe's productive and stimulating romance with watercolors comes to an end. O'Keeffe moved on to pastels as a medium allowing her precise control of color and tonal gradations, and from there back to oils as her medium of choice. Watercolors allowed her to explore rich colors and simple but strong designs, learnings she carried with skill and conviction into her life's work.

O'Keeffe is not a major watercolor artist: in comparison with other painters, her involvement with the medium was too limited in time and technique. But she does illustrate the fascinating role that watercolors have played in the development of many artists, who have used the medium as a method of discovery about the artistic process. Perhaps the thing that sets the committed watercolor artist apart is that a sense of discovery and a focus on process become the abiding interests in their work.

A wonderful starting point for O'Keeffe's watercolors is the National Gallery's exhibition catalog, O'Keeffe On Paper by Ruth Fine and Barbara Buhler Lynes (National Gallery of Art, 2000). A fine overview, grouping together watercolors and oils by theme or subject, is in O'Keeffe and Texas by Sharyn Udall (McNay Art Museum, 1998). The O'Keeffe watercolors purportedly given to Ted Reid (which are currently not accepted as authentic by the curators of the National Gallery's catalog raisonné, as some appear to have been created as late as 1930) are collected in Intimate Landscapes: The Canyon Suite of Georgia O'Keeffe (Universe, 1997), edited by Dana Self.