Artist Snapshot: Patricia Watwood

Exploring the mind and habits of an artist in twenty-five questions

patricia watwood interview
Patricia Watwood in her studio, 2019. Photo: Stefan Hagen

At what age did you decide to become an artist?

I was twenty-four the year that I made a pivotal choice to either take a job working as a theatre design assistant, or instead, spend the summer as a full-time art student in hopes of becoming a visual artist. I picked the art classes.  

How did your parents react when you told them you wanted to be an artist?

I am very grateful for the long support and enthusiasm of my parents toward my choice to be an artist and freelancer. They never once speculated, “Do you think you have enough talent?” or “Shouldn’t you have a practical skill to fall back on?” I am so glad they did not plant that seed of self-doubt. My parents love music, art, and beauty, and always instilled the value that great works of art are important to culture and human happiness.

Who are your favorite artists?

I love Auguste Rodin, Gustav Klimt, Monet, Frederick Leighton, Titian, Peter Paul Rubens, Joseph Mallord William Turner, Edgar Degas, Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, Nelson Shanks, Lucien Freud, Andrew Wyeth, John Singer Sargent, and Anders Zorn. I love the contemporary artist Bo Bartlett.  

Who is your favorite artist whose work is unlike your own?

I’m delighted by the work of Hilma af Klint, and I find her abstractions energetically resonant and spiritually vibrant. I am very interested in her practice of channeling spiritual guides in the (collaborative) project of her paintings and drawings. I also love earth artworks like Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty and Andy Goldsworthy’s constructions from natural forms.  

Art book you cannot live without?

Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland, and Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert.

What is the quality you most admire in an artist?

Intrepid joy. I absolutely adore the quality in people who are playfully game to try anything once and boldly go forth into the unknown.  

Do you keep a sketchbook?

Yes, or rather, I keep about ten of them, all unfinished. I do not do daily sketching from life, as on the subway or in a restaurant. I like to explore imaginative ideas in pencil and watercolor in a mixed-media sketchbook.I do small concept sketches (“thumbnails”) as a way to record an idea for a narrative composition. I also do travel sketches in watercolor or drawing. All of these, with an occasional shopping list or diary entry, accumulate in my sketchbooks.  

What’s your favorite museum in all the world?

The Musée Rodin in Paris. To visit is such a complete experience—the gardens, the sculpture, the architecture. The view into the world of Rodin and his circle, the life of the artist and his process. I would love to travel in time and live in that world for a while. 

What’s the best exhibition you have ever attended?

That’s difficult, as I have been lucky to see many eye-popping shows in New York and elsewhere. Recently, the Metropolitan Museum did a large retrospective of Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, and it blew me away. Not only is her work exquisite, I learned that she was incredibly prolific, and overcame countless struggles (expulsion from France, divorce, her money absconded, difficulty with her daughter); she moved cities (multiple times!) in Europe, and had to re-establish her career; she was endlessly resilient, financially successful, and a hard-headed businesswoman. Her career and creative output are incredibly inspiring, and she’s underappreciated because women artists were considered of lesser status. 

If you were not an artist, what would you be?

I often comfort myself with the idea that if I have to give this all up, I will become a hair stylist. I think I’d be good at it, and I like people. I think I would also be very happy being an art conservator and restore old paintings.  

Did you have an artistic cohort that influenced your early creative development?

I did my atelier training with Jacob Collins at the early Water Street Atelier, the precursor to Grand Central Atelier. The cohort of artists I got to study with there was incredibly important to my formation: Michael Grimaldi, Dan Thompson, Kate Lehman, Travis Schlaht, Sarah Lamb, Edward Minoff, Tony Curanaj, Tim Stotz and Michelle Tully, among others. The dedication and sheer talent in that group kept all of us pushing forward, and with great esprit de corps toward making beautiful realist and figurative works early in the atelier movement. (I started there in 1996.) There, I felt that if I didn’t give my work 110% effort, everyone else would leap far ahead. We learned a great deal from one another. There was a strong devotion to working from life, to aesthetic naturalism, excellence and rigor, and to fine traditional methods and materials. 

What is one thing you didn’t learn in art school that you wish you had?

To be willing to repeat myself with successful works in series, and create a more visibly cohesive body of work. I also wish I had learned to work in standard sizes and use interchangeable frames. These are essential to working successfully with a gallery, and dealing with various exhibition opportunities while not going broke. Learning marketing and public relations like a small business owner would help any emerging artist.  

What work of art have you looked at most and why?

I keep a small postcard of Nelson Shanks’ (1937–2015) Self-Portrait (1987) on my desk. He was my friend and mentor, and this self-portrait is the outstanding work of a master at the height of ability. He admired all things excellent, refined, discerning, and exquisite, and his entire life was governed by his commitment to his art. He was indefatigable in the pursuit of great painting. In the 1987 self-portrait, he is holding his brush and looking at me, the viewer, with sharp appraisal. It says to me, “There is no time to waste. There is excellence and poor imitations thereof. Get to work.”  

What is your secret visual pleasure outside of art?

I love to walk in the cemetery. Green-wood Cemetery is blocks from my house, and the landscape is rich with monuments, lakes, walking paths, and beautiful trees and flowers. Among temple-like mausoleums, you’ll find statuary of angels, portraits of ones who have come before us, sculptures of faithful dogs, and a rich array of symbolism of humanity’s achievement, significance, values and mortality. I find it always puts the trials of the day in a larger perspective. 

Do you listen to music in your studio?

Often, I listen to the radio, typically classical or indie rock stations like WQXR, WERS, or WFUV. I like the interspersed conversation from the DJs, and not having to pick the playlist. I also listen to talk radio like WNYC and a fair number of podcasts, either art studio themed, like Suggested Donation or Gently Does It, or something more philosophic like On Being. I find it helpful to listen to conversations that keep my conscious brain occupied while my subconscious mind gets work done. Other times, the language is totally distracting, and I have to listen to something purely instrumental or even trance-like, like weird meditation/ nature soundtrack things or a genre called “binaural beats.” I find those conducive to concentration.  

What is the last gallery you visited?

I am often at the Salmagundi Club, where I am the First Vice President. Every time I go, there is a new exhibit of realism to see, often including artists who are friends of mine. They show an array of contemporary realist artists, and highlight historic works of American Realism, so it is always informative regarding artists of the past and of today in my genre. Plus, the building is magical and gorgeous, a luxurious home away from home.

Who is an underrated artist people should be looking at?

Charles White is an incredibly important American artist who’s been under-appreciated due to his race. His recent retrospective at MoMA was a revelation to me, so full of dignified, empathetic and prophetic works. It also made me sad and angry to think that, even I, a portrait artist with a Masters in figurative art, had never heard of him—when he should be every bit as famous to me as Andrew Wyeth. It made me terribly aware of my limited and white-centric view. Since then, I’ve been learning about him and other twentieth-century American masters like Elizabeth Catlett and Augusta Savage.  

What art materials can you not live without?

Excellent linen with an (3 or 4X layer) oil ground. I cannot abide cheaper canvases, as they can be difficult to work with, and it’s impossible to make them into anything but a machine-made mass-produced surface. I’m a terrible snob about my linens. I use AE Art Canvas, a local producer in NYC, or Artfix linens. I am also a huge fan of Rosemary & Co. brushes, as I find them lovely in my hand and the quality of the bristles elegant.

Do you paint/sculpt/create art every day?

No, I find I go in fits and spurts. I’ll have a show or deadline on a project and paint every day and late in the evening completing works. Then, other periods, days will go by when I’m dealing with administrative tasks, email, business and teaching obligations. I feel I can either answer all my emails, or paint, not both. The last two years have been unusual for me in the studio, as I have been writing a book, The Path of Drawing, due out late 2022 with Monacelli Studio Press. My book teaches foundational realist drawing lessons, and how drawing is a practice of mindfulness that develops mental resilience and our creative voice. This has kept me at my desk instead of at my easel, and my studio output has been much smaller these two years. It is just about done, so I look forward to a better balance of studio time. 

What is the longest time you went without creating art?

When my first child was born, I went about eight months without doing studio work. I was lucky to be a new mom, but it provoked an identity crisis as I was no longer doing the one thing that defined how I saw my place in the world: an artist. What is an artist who doesn’t make art? When my baby was a bit older, I managed to get back to the studio, and I’ve been juggling parenting and painting ever since. 

What do you do when you are feeling uninspired?

I go swimming or go for a walk. Moving my body with a drumming rhythm gives my mind time to churn through clutter. Then, I feel centered and more able to navigate decisions and priorities. I do not wait for inspiration to begin work, however. Instead, I think, “nail your shoes to the studio floor,” and rather force myself to just start working on something. I will set a timer for twenty minutes and then I’m not allowed to do anything else until the timer goes off. After twenty minutes, I’ve usually broken through the hard shell and gotten interested in the materials in hand.  

What are the questions that drive your work?

Why do I keep painting beautiful women? Am I perpetuating body image issues in a youth obsessed age? Is it feminist or internalized patriarchy? What is the power within the nude? Is it a universal archetypal language or a hackneyed art historical trope? Why do I love it so much and how can I use beauty as a tool that empowers and does not subjugate? Where is the line between sensuality and prurience? Agency and exploitation? Vulnerability and strength? What of the gender binary? These are all stewing in the pot of my figurative practice.  

What is the most important quality in an artist? 

Outlandish arrogance mixed with perpetual insecurity. 

What is something you haven’t yet achieved in art?

I have not yet truly understood my motivations in painting the figure. We follow our teachers, we learn what is considered important, what gains praise and awards. We refine our skills and master the craft. But the poet Rumi writes, “Out beyond ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing, there is a field, I’ll meet you there.” My goal is to go beyond the learned into the deeply personal motivations of artmaking, and then developing my own criteria and process of expression—that is all a work in progress. 

What is the best thing about art in the era of social media?

I love being able to see and message my artist friends all over the world. I love seeing their smiling faces, the projects they are working on, and the organizations supporting contemporary realism. While it can be very challenging to survive as a professional artist, I am very optimistic about the future for figurative and realist painting. The sheer talent, energy and joy arising from the current generation is inspiring, and I see many signs that collectors and institutions are noticing and opportunities are growing for all of us. The old guard of gatekeepers is rapidly changing in a tumultuous technological shift, and this is creating openings for new voices. 


PATRICIA WATWOOD (@patriciawatwood) is an American figurative artist living in Brooklyn, New York. Her book, The Path of Drawing: Lessons for Everyday Creativity and Mindfulness, will be published by Monacelli Studio Press in November 2022. Website: patriciawatwood.com

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