Colors of the West: An Artist’s Guide to Nature’s Palette by Molly Hashimoto. Skipstone, 2017. 9781680510973.
Sarah: I got this book, Colors of the West, it’s a gorgeous book and the writing is wonderful but I realized I am the worst person to review this. I’m an indoor kid, I don’t go to a lot of state or national parks, I’m not a visual artist, and the author does a lot of amazing programs for my library so there’s no way I can be objective. So I gave it to my friend Bibi to review. You have a degree in art, right?
Bibi: Yes, a couple of them, actually.
S: And you actually go to national parks and camp and hike?
S: So what did you think?
B: It’s fabulous. It really reminded me of places I’ve been. I would turn a page and say, “Oh, I’ve been to Olympic National Park!” Hashimoto really captures the feeling of the places she paints. There’s a painting of a pueblo in New Mexico and I remember being there and trying to take photographs and they just did not get the essence of the place. Her painting did, it caught the light and the feeling of it.
S: She’s got paintings of animals in the book, too, wild animals, and I know she sometimes uses stuffed specimens from Seattle’s Burke Museum and the Audubon Society as models.
B: I love how she will pick certain animals and not do a big background, just really make the animals the center of the paintings. She gets the character of their actions and how they live in their environment. It’s really sweet.
S: This book isn’t just her paintings and her views of these places, it also teaches how to use watercolors, techniques and materials.
B: It’s so incredible, all of the information on what to do. She has painted palettes, how to organize your palette, what materials you should purchase. She’s painted a beautiful watercolor color wheel which explains how she made each of the different colors. She talks about lightfastness, which is a big deal in watercolor, because watercolors are not particularly lightfast (resistant to fading in light over time).
B: The whole book is organized by color, which I love. The chapter on blue has her paintings of a black oystercatcher at the Olympic National Park, and an explanation of what’s it’s like to walk on the beach there. I’ve been to these places but I haven’t done plein air painting, like she has. I find it really inspiring as well as a beautiful book just to look through. She talks about different techniques you can use, which I think is really awesome. She says at the beginning of the book that “watercolor is very simple.” Well, technically any child can open a tray of watercolors, add some water, and splash some paint on a piece of paper, but it’s one of the most difficult media to learn how to control because when you put it on the paper it’s THERE. It’s not like oil paints or acrylics that you can just paint over. Hashimoto talks about many different ways to learn to control the paint. I didn’t know about “walnut ink,” which is a way to create a lovely sepia tone from dried peat. She gives her recipe.
S: You said this book might inspire you to travel back to some of these places?
B: Absolutely! Because there’s quite a few places I’ve been, like Hole-in-the-Wall at Rialto Beach, the light was just exquisite. On Lopez Island, there’s a park where you sit on these rocks and across the water is a harbor seal colony. I remember going with my extended family, it was such a special time. It’s lovely to see how she captured the feeling of these places in her paintings.
S: And as the title implies, besides being arranged by color, this is specifically parks and places and animals of the Western US.
B: It’s difficult to get the feeling of a place, and she’s really managed to do that. There’s a painting of Devil’s Tower, which I think if you try to take a photograph or a movie of it… it’s just an odd piece of landscape. The way she has her lines going, it really makes you feel like you’re standing under it, it’s just shooting up above you.
S: She’s got a couple of her… what does she call them? Her artist heroes.
B: Oh, I loved those sections! She talks about the artist, why they’re heroes to her, has samples of their artwork and why they’re important.
S: Yeah, and they’re specifically western artists, specifically artists who worked in nature and in these parks.
B: Which of course means, wow, artists are still important!
S: (laughs) Yes, artists are still important! Artists are still inspiring people.
B: I think it’s important for children to know this as well. I teach art to children and it’s important to show them that art matters, not just because you can make something beautiful but because it can tell people about a place you’ve been or about a problem in the world that needs to be solved. Having paintings of beautiful places reminds you that we need to protect them.