“Where’s your black?” Emmons asked when she struggled to paint her eggplant’s darkest darks. Traditionally, botanical artists mix black from opposite colors rather than buying black paint.
“She gave us permission to do whatever we wanted,” Walser-Kolar recalls. “I thought, ‘This is how I used to paint when I was an illustrator’” – mixing thick puddles of multi-hued transparent color, rather than layering single-color washes from a limited warm-cool palette.
“It was the beginning of doing whatever I needed to make it work,” she says.
Still, there were difficult moments. She returned exhausted from the Royal Horticultural Society’s exhibition in London in 2011 with a silver gilt, or second-highest, medal. She had worked five years completing a series of eight paintings of hybrid hazelnuts from the Badgersett Research Farm, traveling to southeastern Minnesota to observe the new hybrid multiple times in every season. When she missed a stage, she had to wait a full year.
The RHS critique of her series discouraged her because the judge criticized aspects she felt convincingly conveyed her observations and intent. “I wouldn’t have changed a thing,” she recalls thinking.
She didn’t paint for several weeks before deciding to paint for her alone, “whatever I want.”
She sketched raspberries from her garden, put her drawing on a copier and blew it up, then painted the two- by two-inch raspberries on vellum. She lit her specimen from the lower left instead of the traditional upper left. Her painting made the cover of the catalogue for ASBA’s 2011 “Small Works” Exhibit in Boston.
Next she painted blackberries, then blueberries. “I was really happy,” she recalls. “I never went back to paper after that. I put in all the colors I saw. Nobody even notices that raspberries come in all those colors. In a quarter of an inch, there are at least 20 colors and all the transitions.”
Her artistic confidence is evident, says Frei Nathan.
“She’s committed to a stylistic interpretation that’s paid off for her,” she says. “She’s not wavering on it. I saw the consistency in her work over a period of time. Her work has a subtle strength. It has all of her in it.”
These days, Walser-Kolar still struggles to find time to paint. She works ten hours a week at The Reading Center/Dyslexia Institute of Minnesota, in Rochester, and she succeeded Garber in 2015 as ASBA’s Annual Meeting and Program Coordinator.
She limits her traveling workshops to three a year—she will teach vellum classes in southern California, Washington DC, and Wellesley in 2016—and still teaches occasionally at the Minnesota School.
Among her first students was Connie Scanlon, who later won a silver Grenfell metal at the 2013 RHS Exhibition for “Preludes and Postludes on a Stem.”
“Denise gives her heart and soul to her students and shares everything that she knows without holding back,” Scanlon says. “She is one of the most humble artists I’ve ever met. She’s such a wonderful role model. Some artists end up with their egos all wrapped up in their art. To keep it all in perspective and enjoy the ride--she helps keep that balance.”
Walser-Kolar’s studio occupies her former living room, with two skylights and a large window. “My husband thinks my studio is the whole house,” she jokes.
Her painting table is a roomy five-feet by eight-feet Duncan Phyfe dining table with all the leaves in. She paints on an angled wood frame that a student purchased for her at auction from Mayo.
When she can paint an entire day, she starts at 6 am and works until 8 pm. She prefers natural light, but when she paints at night or on dark days she uses an old gooseneck lamp with General Electric Reveal incandescent bulbs. She has ten boxes of the bulbs stored because she worries they’ll be discontinued.
In late fall 2015 she completed a two-week marathon painting session to meet a commission deadline for Hadley Table, which designs and sells cork-back placemats. The first of three Hadley commissions, her design is reminiscent of her “Hoefnagel-Inspired” series of small paintings on vellum, featuring a seemingly random collection of small, delicately-rendered natural objects.
Her inspiration springs from a small 41-page volume she spotted in a bookstore decades ago, “Nature Illuminated: Flora and Fauna from the Court of Emperor Rudolph II,” featuring Joris Hoefnagel’s tiny portraits of flowers, fruit, insects, seed pods and creatures such as toads.
“I love the beautiful little paintings,” she says. “I love how the subjects seem to have nothing to do with each other, yet go together so well.”
From Garber, she learned about the source for the paintings, the 16th Century calligraphic manuscript, Mira Calligraphiae Monumenta, housed in California’s J. Paul Getty Museum. She painted “Hoefnagel-Inspired #1” in preparation for a class she offered at the Minnesota School. It was so much fun, she decided to continue.
The 4-inch by 6-inch watercolors on vellum are clever, whimsical and very personal, featuring natural objects she collected or were given to her by family or friends. Each has a story.
For her most recent, #11, she used a peony that came from her garden by way of her late grandmother, Viola Lillehaugen, who passed away in 2014 at the age of 103. The painting further honors her grandmother’s memory with a wheat stalk--her grandfather was a wheat farmer—and a shamrock for her Irish ancestry.
Walser-Kolar originally planned to paint 25 Hoefnagel-inspired pieces, but it occurs to her now that the series may continue. “They may never end, I’m liking them so much,” she says.
Her advice to aspiring botanical artists is simple. “It really is just a matter of painting and painting and painting and coming up with whatever works for you,” she says.
“And it never gets easy. It’s not easy for me. It’s harder than it ever was before because I’m seeing more things. It doesn’t ever get fast. It doesn’t ever get easy. It’s always satisfying.”