Painting the town

On a Saturday afternoon in Harlem, just as the burgeoning sun starts to redden and dip down into the Manhattan skyline, watercolorist and fashion illustrator Anne Watkins stands at the wall of PicNic Market & Café, a seasonal, family-run French restaurant and the site of her small art class. Anne pats a student’s floral watercolor picture against that wall, examines it, smiles and gasps.

“Oh, just look at this. I guess my teaching’s done here,” she says jokingly, then turns to peer at her students through her plastic red and purple-rimmed glasses. “What do you think about this one?”

This is the way Anne teaches, using a conversational style that’s enhanced by personal stories and quirky observations she’s collected through her decades-long love affair with her ultimate source of inspiration – the ordinary and the extraordinary life of the city.

As Anne pedals her bicycle from the Riverside Drive apartment she shares with her photographer husband and adopted cats and dog up Broadway to one of her art classes, her petite frame leans with the weight of supplies and a hefty portfolio.

“I come from a long line of teachers. I resisted becoming one because it felt expected. I feared that teaching would interfere with my art-making habits,” she says. “But as any good teacher would tell me, just the opposite happened.”

Since January, teaching has become a new and pleasant venture for the watercolorist who works on commission, documenting weddings and high-profile celebrations across the nation, and painting portraits of industry leaders, performers, athletes, children, animals (perhaps her favorite subjects) and city scenery. Anne’s fashion illustrations have appeared in publications such as The New York Times, Town & Country, Martha Stewart Weddings and Harper’s and have also been used to advertise major lines, including Levi’s, Paul Stuart, Thom Browne, Bergdorf Goodman and Coach.

Beyond the window dressing

The act of making a watercolor is by nature a fast, free-flowing experience – usually 20 minutes per work, she says, although she has finished many fashion and wedding illustrations in five minutes, too.

“I never ask a subject to pose,” she says, but instead paints from observation.

“I make records of the things I see, and watercolor allows that to happen quickly. Painting what captures my attention deepens the experience of seeing and uncovers a feeling.”

Always artistically inclined, Anne worked from the late 1980s to 2000 in visual merchandising, creating striking Madison Avenue window displays, sometimes with virtually no budget. Her first major job – and a great platform for her creativity – was serving as the one-person display department for Hermès, where she first created arresting tableaux using furniture found at The Salvation Army.

“I’ve realized my career shifts every 12 years,” she says. In 2000, Anne discovered a rewarding transition from visual merchandising when she fine-tuned her passion for watercolor under the tutelage of her late mentor, the then-86-year-old Mario Cooper at the Art Students League in Manhattan.

“People make art a million different ways. Early on, watercolor claimed me. I love its fluid softness and subtle strength,” she says of what she describes as a “surprisingly muscular, cruelly misunderstood medium.”

“It is called difficult, treacherous, hard to control. I would love for more people to give it a chance. I find it portable, fresh, freeing and fleet.”

And to that effect, Anne says, “I almost always travel with my watercolor kit. I carry it just about every day, everywhere.”

Her sense of personal purpose in the pursuit of her next worthy subject is not financially tied or necessarily connected to what is deemed the look du jour. It’s about her quiet observations that capture the spirit in the room and yet leave the viewer with something to ponder.

Last year, Anne, being quite the broad-brimmed hat-wearer herself, took her bike and paints through the rain to the annual Hat Luncheon at the Central Park. At the event, given by the Women’s Committee of the Central Park Conservancy, Anne created fabulous portraits of the swarm of social butterflies. Her sophisticated watercolors caught the eye of New York Times’ photographer Bill Cunningham.

“Bill and I are pen pals now,” Anne says with obvious delight, adding, “He’s shot me before, but I never made it into the papers.”

Nevertheless, Cunningham sent Anne photos he’d taken of her painting that day and wrote a touching note: “The poetry of your vision of the luncheon is enchanting even in the rain. With a few dashes of pastel color, you capture all the beauty of the luncheon guests. Thank you for sharing, Bill.”

The young artist

Anne’s sharing and creating were always encouraged as she was growing up in suburban Pittsburgh, where her mother made sure her art box was well-stocked.

“My family and schoolteachers treated me like an artist, and so I figured I was one. …(My mother) made art, too, showing me by example the joy she got from both the doing and the sharing – wonderful lessons. One of her heroes was Peter Hunt, a wood furniture painter, who said that people who worked with their hands were happier people. I believe that.”

In the 1970s, New York called to the ambitious, independent-minded Anne. She still loves living and working in a city where inspiration can be found literally on any street corner.

“My favorite question that I’ve ever been asked – and I just about died, it was said so eloquently – was when one groom said to me, ‘How can you see like that with your eyes open?’”

For more, email anne@annewatkins, call (212) 866-0057 or visit annewatkins.com

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