My studio is a haven
Welcome to my watercolor studio! For six years I have watched this space above our garage evolve as a labor of love built by my husband, Wade. Our goal was to create a space that married our love of antiques and history with our sense of humor. I like to say that the bathroom is styled after the back alley behind an old gas station! It also serves as a functional place for guests to stay and a peaceful, beautiful place for me to create art that flows out of love for nature and beauty.
When we started building the shop and studio, we were a single-income family. Making a living from my art was a daydream that felt impossible. Wade needed a space for his hobby, restoring old muscle cars, and I wanted a place of my own to paint and teach the occasional class.
As we saved money and made time for each small phase of the studio’s development, my career was also emerging in ways I couldn’t have ever imagined. Who would have thought that the small northern town of Dawson Creek, British Columbia, Canada, could be the hub of a worldwide community of watercolor artists, led by this country girl?
My studio space is so precious to me, especially after years of painting in our busy family home. I describe my watercolor style as being “heart-led,” and I am very intentional and mindful about making my painting sessions nurturing to my creative process. Under the hand-painted, embossed tile ceiling (my favorite feature of the space), I choose to make painting a guilt-free, playful time; a freedom and release from the stress of daily life.
I want my inner child to feel free to play without judgment, and I do everything I can to encourage her to come out and dance. I surround myself with beauty and color, turn off the phone and play my favorite music. She likes a pretty space with lots of colorful paint and clean, white paper!
To create deeply is to enter into and allow the emergence of the unknowable.
— Nancy Hills
I haven’t always been so unselfconscious about my creativity. In fact, when someone asked me a few years ago who my favorite artist was, I was embarrassed when my first instinct was to reply, “Me!” Later, I had to ask myself, why shouldn’t I be my own favorite artist? After all, I’m the only artist who can read my mind and paint exactly to my tastes. I can make every painting a heart-thrilling delight for my own enjoyment.
That realization was part of a decades-long adventure that has brought me more joy and satisfaction than I could have ever imagined. When I took my first watercolor class 25 years ago, at the age of 18, I only hoped that I had the “gift” to be an artist, and I struggled with many insecurities about my ability to make art. Our rural northern region can feel very isolated for an artist looking for opportunities. I searched for my creative identity, but it didn’t really seem possible to make a career as an artist without leaving the north, and our roots were here.
When I started painting in 1995, the internet didn’t really exist as a resource for artists. After the first eight-session workshop that I took, I was on my own. In the early days of our marriage, watching TV beside my husband on our sofa, I propped my painting board on my lap and learned how to master watercolor techniques.
As a stay-at-home mom with three small children, I carved out time to develop landscape painting skills during their nap times. When I started homeschooling my children, I learned that I loved teaching and communicating ideas. That led to teaching beginner watercolor classes out of my home a few times a year, getting a reputation in the community as “the watercolor lady.”
I might have stayed in this cycle of #momlife and part-time artist if it hadn’t been for the internet. The rise of the world wide web changed the way we learn and receive information, and this development had a huge impact on those of us in isolated regions.
It was on the internet that I stumbled across art by Jean Haines and Linda Kemp, and I saw in these mentors’ creative freedom my own future. Their paintings felt like permission for me to paint for my own enjoyment rather than wanting to paint to please others or make sales. I realized then that the desire to paint a flawless painting was holding me back from truly expressing my love of watercolor and my connection to the aspects of the medium that are beyond my control.
I began recording short videos and sharing what I was learning on YouTube, and, despite the terrible quality of those early videos, people seemed to genuinely connect with my teaching style and my encouraging approach. I felt like I was meeting a need, and I began to look for ways to be more intentional about teaching online. I opened my first online course for enrollment in November of 2013–a terrifying leap of faith!
It’s been six years now since that first online course, and Dawson Creek no longer feels like the middle of nowhere. Rather, it’s become the center of my watercolor world, which includes 20-plus online watercolor courses, as well as a membership community that serves as an online classroom welcoming hundreds of students. It’s the departure point for workshops that allow me to travel all over the world to meet students in person and share together in our love of watercolor.
An epiphany gave me the freedom to explore a looser, more intuitive style; as I taught myself how to be a loose painter, I started having “light bulb moments” that my teacher’s heart wanted to share with others.
It’s also the home of my beautiful studio space, cozy above the garage on our five-acre property. My overarching message as I teach watercolor skills to my fellow watercolor lovers is that if you paint to your happy you will always make art. I’m so honored and humbled that my own path has led me here, and I can’t wait to see what the next 25 years of this watercolor relationship holds.