by Stacia Friedman
“I’ve been here forever,” said artist Howard Watson, 87, about his over 30 years teaching watercolor at Woodmere Museum. His classes are usually filled to capacity with “repeat offenders,” students who have been with him for years.
“I have always been an admirer of Howard’s ever since I came to Philadelphia over 40 years ago,” said retired architect I.C. Wang of Chestnut Hill. “This is my third year studying with him. Thursday mornings have become the highlight of my week. His passive and yet active teaching style taught me to be myself.”
Watson quickly puts newcomers at ease with his easy-going manner, sense of humor and insightful tips. He constantly circles the class room, commenting on each student’s work, like an orchestra conductor making sure that every player is in sync.
“Stop! You’re done,” he will say to a student before she goes too far and gets bogged down in needless detail. When a student is dismayed, he will say, “Watercolor is hard. But it gets easier. Keep going.” All students feel they are making progress because Watson is invested in their success. During the critiques at the end of each session, he comments on each student’s painting.
“Who did this?” Watson will ask, holding up a painting.
A tentative hand will rise.
“I like this!” Watson bellows.
The better the painting, the stronger Watson’s suggestions for improving it. The weaker the painting, the more gentle his comments. This skill reflects a lifetime of teaching and Watson’s own development as an artist.
“I grew up in Pottsville. My father was a professional cartoonist and photo engraver,” said Watson. “I’d sit next to him while he drew cartoons, and he’d let me do the erasures. Later, in high school art, my art teacher, Mrs. Zerbe, encouraged me to pursue a career as an artist.”
After serving in the Air Force in Korea and Japan, Watson came to Philadelphia to study illustration first at Tyler School of Art, then at the Museum School of Art (now UArts). His first illustration job was at Snellenburg’s department store on Market Street. But he didn’t stay long. “I was always looking for the next job,” he said. That turned out to be a Center City ad agency. Watson, who is of mixed race, said, “I was the first person of color ever hired by that agency.”
Eventually, Watson set up his own Center City studio and worked as a freelance illustrator. But that is not how he defines himself. “I do not consider myself an illustrator. I am a watercolorist,” he said. Represented by the Carol Schwartz Gallery for over 18 years, Watson’s paintings and prints are recognizable for their bright colors and lively composition in an impressionist style.
“I don’t paint things,” said Watson. “I paint forms, shapes and colors.” This reflects Watson’s philosophy on the difference between seeing and looking. “Everyone looks. But an artist trains their eyes to ‘see,’ to visualize how the blank paper will appear when their painting is finished,” he said.
His most well-known paintings are scenes of Valley Green, Boat House Row, the Academy of Music and Independence Hall. “A doctor from Bryn Mawr bought six of Howard’s prints for his office last week,” said gallery owner Elliot Schwartz. “His work is also popular with people from the area who are moving away or going off to college and want a painting that reminds them of Philadelphia.”
But it’s not just Philadelphians who collect Watson’s work. During the Carter Administration he served as Artist-in-Residence at the White House and provided art for President Bill Clinton and Vice-President Walter Mondale. “It was a thrill to be there,” said the artist of his White House experience. In addition to teaching at many art centers and colleges, Watson has led watercolor workshops in Austria, Switzerland, France, Scotland, Canada and Norway. His favorite locale? “Austria. My wife and I love the mountains and the food,” he said.
Watson starts his day with a cup of Ovaltine in his home studio in Wyncote. An avid follower of politics, he keeps a TV on while he tackles art projects, typically working on three paintings at one time. Luckily for us, one of the things Howard Watson is going to continue to do is teach at Woodmere and create beautiful paintings.
More information at www.hnwatson.com.
Mt. Airy freelance writer Stacia Friedman is the author of “Tender is the Brisket,” available on Amazon.com.