The Not-So-Still Lifes of Water colorist Dawn Clements

 The Not-So-Still Lifes of Water colorist Dawn Clements

We were saddened to learn that artist Dawn Clements, whose large, cumulative still life works captured the joy of everyday life, passed away recently at the age of 60. According to the obituary by Neil Genzlinger for The New York Times: “Dawn Clements, whose intricate drawings and water colours captured detailed scenes from her own life and from melodramas, often on a panoramic scale, at in the Bronx. Ms. Clements’s drawings — generally in sumi ink or ballpoint pen — and her paintings often used multiple sheets of crinkled paper, stitched together into large, irregular shapes that contrasted with the technical precision of her hand.”

Clements was featured in an article by John A Parks in the issue of Watercolor Artist. Battling cancer at the time, Clements addressed her illness and how it had impacted her work. We dedicate the article re-published here to Dawn’s memory.

If you love the look and feel of watercolor painting Watercolor Artist is the one magazine you should subscribe to. With its features on contemporary artists and pages of beautiful art and technical explanations, everything about watercolor is here, cover to cover.

A Cumulative Effect

Dawn Clements draws and paints her surroundings, moving from one viewpoint to the next with an intense eye and a sure hand over days and weeks. The works become cumulative not only as observations but also physically, as the artist adds sheets of paper to incorporate each new area of her subject. Gradually, they grow to become very large pieces, some more than 20 feet long.

Chrysanthemums by Dawn Clements (watercolor on paper, 80×94).

Folded stressed from handling, and often far from true rectangles, Clements’ finished work bears witness to a long physical engagement with the world. Inevitably, this enterprise becomes autobiographical, not only as a testament to spending time in a certain place, but also in recording the objects with which the artist finds herself living.

Recently faced with grave issues, Clements has chosen to incorporate evidence of her ongoing treatments in the form of medication packaging. A body of work that takes on the shifting, nature of perception has now broadened to become a meditation on mortality.

Far from negative, the sheer vibrance and intensity of the work affirms the artist’s joy in engaging the world, even as some of the subject matter assumes a new poignancy.


Clements began to work in her current manner back in the early ’90s when she was drawing still life and found herself traveling. “I was in a room in Italy, drawing a telephone cord,” she recalls. “I hadn’t planned the drawing very well, and the image didn’t fit on the paper. I was disappointed until I realised that I really didn’t have to confine myself to the rectangle of the paper—that I could add on pieces to extend the image.

“Once I gave myself permission to glue on more paper, I realised that I could make large drawings from smaller modules. Once the frame of the rectangle was changed. I could think of drawing in a more sculptural way that a drawing needn’t be a ‘window’ but could present itself as the object it is.”

Clements further discovered that she didn’t need to keep her growing drawing flat; when it got too long to manage she could just fold it which enabled her to make drawings on a much larger scale.

“Sometimes my drawings get torn or worn as I fold and glue them,” she says, “but then I patch and repair them. All of this is part of my process.”


Clements’ process inevitably results in images that are somewhat fractured. They incorporate various dis junctions as one day’s work is added to the next. In a sense the work reflects the way in which we approach a comprehensive and continuous world from a patchwork of shifting viewpoints and sensory inputs. But the drawings also present a much more elaborate appreciation of the visual richness of an environment than we’d normally consider.

Clements works up close to each object, spending time observing it intensely before moving on to the next. She accepts that her process means that she’ll dispense with a complete, coherent perspective space throughout a work. While individual objects or small groupings might have “correct” perspective the whole work can incorporate many different viewpoints while taking on a certain flatness.

“Not only do I shift my viewpoint,” says the artist, “but I might draw at different times of day. This may result in multiple shadows or shadows that don’t conform to a single light source.” Clements’ earlier work featured a variety of media, but in recent years she has begun to work extensively in watercolour.

I worked primarily in ink and gouache,” she says, “sometimes ballpoint pen, sometimes Sumi ink and brush, sometimes gouache. People often describe my work as ‘drawing.’ Even though I often use paint there’s something in my process that makes people think my work is drawing. I don’t mind what people call it. To me, it’s work.”

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