Lubbock landscape architect Tim Oliver remembers the first time he developed an interest in painting watercolor. It was the early 1980s, and he was working on a degree in his current profession at Texas Tech University when Oliver visited friends, also landscape architecture students. “They were doing a thesis project and using watercolor as a rendering medium,” Oliver recalled. “You’ll find a lot of architects who turn to watercolor as a hobby because, historically, watercolor was the medium for color rendering. Now it’s all digital, of course. I was absolutely fascinated by watercolor and watching those guys.”
Oliver rushed to buy a basic, inexpensive set of watercolors, the kind elementary students use in art class. “I went home with my watercolors, so excited, and pulled out a sheet of typing paper, and over the next 30 minutes or an hour was totally frustrated by the medium,” he said.
Oliver was so defeated that he abandoned the idea of learning watercolor painting for the next three decades and became distracted with building a career and a family.
“I was still drawing and sketching, but fast-forward to 2009, and I happened to get an advertising email from a landscape architect in Pasadena, California [about a workshop] titled Sketching on Location,” Oliver said. “The course description [described it as] a four-day workshop, and half the day you’d be in the workshop, and the other half you’d walk around Pasadena sketching, and part of it was watercolor.”
Though the Olivers had children in college at the time and little extra money to spare, his wife insisted he attend the workshop, even joking that she would rob a convenience store to fund the trip. Oliver agreed to go, and the experience proved to be just the impetus he needed to again pick up his brush.
He continued to take workshops from artists whom he admired, rented videos about painting with watercolors, and eventually taught classes himself. He developed his own style, landscapes he half-jokingly describes on his website as “sloppy representationalism,” a term he coined himself. “Representational painting is an accepted term for anything that’s not abstract art, basically,” he explained. “You have abstract and extreme abstract, and extreme representational painting, and hyper realism, so I’m a representational painter – that’s what’s appealing to me – but I chose [the term] sloppy because it’s sort of loose and sketchy. I try to loosen up and not be too tight, try to paint the feeling of an object and not the object itself, and that’s hard to do.”
In addition to its challenges, part of the appeal of watercolor, Oliver said, is its luminosity and unpredictability. “It’s a transparent medium, so when you do it right, it almost glows from beneath, and the way that it moves – and it’s unpredictable in a lot of ways – and the more you try to control it, the worse it looks, so you have to go with what the watercolor gives you. You’re watching the different pigments and responding.”
A self-professed history buff, Oliver is drawn to landscapes, the rusticity of everyday rural life tucked away that most people do not notice, much less draw inspiration from. “This lady one time, I don’t know if she meant it as a compliment or not, said, ‘You seem to paint the things the rest of us drive by,’” Oliver said. It is an observation with which he agrees. “I’d rather paint the alley than the street, the Dumpster than the mailbox, the fallen down than the pristine.”
Alabama watercolorist Iain Stewart, whom Oliver has studied under, gave him some of the best advice on how to paint in an area that is devoid of mountains, streams, and trees. “He said, ‘Paint the things you know, and paint the things you enjoy that stir emotion in you,’” Oliver said. “It’s those abandoned farmhouses, the farmsteads, and the industrial things that sometimes are appealing to me because every one of them I’m attracted to, and I’m wondering about the stories [behind them]. I wonder who built it and who lived here. There’s a point where the long horizons and big skies intersect where man has made his imprint. Those are the places that always pull me in.”
Oliver said his craft is a continuous learning process, one in which he never feels he has peaked. “I’m taking a one-year mentorship workshop from an artist in Minnesota,” he said. “You’re constantly learning, growing, changing, refining. You don’t ever arrive and say, ‘This is as good as I ever wanted to paint,’ and that’s the fun of it – learning and experimenting. There is no substitute for brush miles. You have to practice, practice, practice.”
For Oliver, those miles have paid big dividends: his art resumé is both impressive and extensive, with a hodgepodge of awards, exhibitions, and honors dating back to 2014. Most notable among those is an award and signature membership in the National Watercolor Society in California for a grain elevator he painted and acceptance as an exhibiting member in the American Watercolor Society in New York City for Terlingua Trading Post Vista, which he painted en plein air.
To achieve signature status in the AWS, Oliver must have two more paintings accepted into the show. “There have been people painting for 80 years who have never achieved that,” he said.
For now, he is honored even by the comparatively smaller rewards of painting, such as selling a piece he created to someone who feels an emotional connection to it.
“I’m really humbled that someone would take their hard-earned money and spend it on something I created out of a piece of paper and paint,” Oliver said. “I never take that lightly.”
Just completing a painting, he said, brings “great satisfaction and also anticipation of the next one to come. I can’t really compare it to anything else. I can drive across Texas or Lubbock County, and anywhere I go I’m looking for that next thing. At this point in my life everything is about ‘how can I capture that on a piece of paper?’ That keeps me going. I’ve got a thousand paintings I want to paint right now. I know I can’t do them all, but it sure adds a lot of fun to my life.”
To view more of Oliver’s work or purchase a painting, visit his website.