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Love Like A Rock: Creating My “Sea & Stone” Watercolor Painting Series

I’ve always wondered what it means to love “like a rock.”

Does it mean that the love itself is rock-like: round? heavy? flecked with mica? Or that you love someone the way you love a rock? Or perhaps it means to love the way a rock would love…

Pebbles (a sketchbook study), by Alison Leigh Lilly

In any case, I love rocks like a rock. I love the words and feelings they evoke: hard, rough, worn — words that, when applied to so many other things in life, seem so difficult and undesirable. Stone somehow redeems such words, joining them with others: solid, smooth, tumbled, settled, still and even, sometimes and unexpectedly, soft

This year has been a rocky year, in many ways. Only looking back do I realize I’ve been painting rocks in one way or another since April. Starting with my archeology-inspired “100 Days of Ruin” watercolor-and-ink series as part of the #100DayProject. And then for a time during the summer, painting on rocks themselves, etching line-and-ring designs in inks of black and glittering gold, and then hiding the painted stones among the ferns and brambles in local parks to be found by dog-walkers and curious kiddies.

When it came time to decide on a theme to explore for the annual 6x6NW Art Show, it was perhaps inevitable that I settle on stone.

Our weekend hikes in Deception Pass State Park this summer reminded me just how glorious pebbled beaches can be. It’s hard for me to visit North Beach without stooping every few feet to marvel at the stunning colors and textures of stone, to wonder at the strange geological forces that could have tossed all those mossy greens and freckled pinks and glowing yellows and muted blues together in a jumble, like some real-life pointillist scene. More than once, I’ve returned home with a backpack that is two- or three- (or ten-) stone heavier than when I left.

I really should know better. Not only because it’s against the law (and ecologically harmful) to remove stones from a protected park area. But also because, no matter how breathtaking they might be on the beach — each pebble glistening in the sun, wet with seawater, wreathed with foam — once you get them home, they always seem to fade to the same dull gray shade.

“Ringbarrow 40,” by Alison Leigh Lilly
Featured in Hot Press: Northwest Watercolor Society Newsletter, Summer 2020

But I’m an artist now (apparently!) — and what is art even for, if not to capture that fleeting vision of beauty that is so often otherwise elusive? And if my work can celebrate the beauty of stone while also encouraging people to take home a painting (or a picture) instead of a pebble, so much the better!

I even enlisted the help of the elements themselves. Painting with watercolor is not always about controlling every brush stroke with precision; sometimes it’s much more like a cooperative dance with the spontaneous nature of a medium that has a mind of its own. And so, on one trip to Deception Pass, I brought with me two small jars to fill — one with sand, one with sea water. Mingling each of these with my paints during particular stages of the process produced amazing textures evocative of the rocks themselves, as the pigments pushed and pulled against salt and surface tension in unpredictable ways. The resulting paintings are a meeting-of-the-minds, a conversation with sea and stone in a language that we share, one of attention and patience, ebb and flow.

So far in this series, I’ve painted 190 stones this way. (For those who enjoy little factoids: that’s an average of 23-24 pebbles per painting, or 4 pebbles per square inch!)

The first eight pieces in my “Sea & Stone” series will be available for viewing and purchase as part of this year’s 6x6NW Art Show starting Friday, October 2nd. (You can learn more about this annual community exhibition and fundraiser here). Each painting is 6″ x 6″ square — a good, solid, well-grounded format! — and comes mounted on stiff backing board with removable drafting tape. They can be framed as-is or with an acid-free mat, depending on preference. Although I use professional, archival-quality materials for my paintings, watercolor is by nature somewhat more delicate than other mediums; to ensure these pieces last a lifetime, I highly recommend framing behind UV-protective glass for display.

There will most certainly be more paintings to come in this series, as I continue to explore Sea & Stone in different sizes, formats and stylistic approaches. If you want to follow along with me as I continue my like-minded (hard-headed?) conversation with rocks, please follow me on Instagram @alisonleighlilly. For future news about where you can view my art in-person and online — plus updates and coupons for my Etsy shop, where you can purchase prints, cards and original paintings — please sign up for my newsletter below. Thank you for your continuing support!

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