Capturing subtlety in watercolor

Alice Teersteg's orchid series opens this weekend at Lyle's

Posted: Thursday, September 27, 2001

Juneau artist Alice Teersteg has temporarily abandoned the bold and strong in favor of the delicate and subtle.

Teersteg has taught art - specifically batik and printmaking - at the University of Alaska Southeast for almost 30 years. In the past she preferred those same techniques for her own artwork. But this summer she was inspired to paint orchids and turned to watercolors to capture the subtleties of the exotic flowers.

"I grow orchids and a number of my friends are growing orchids," Teersteg said. "They're so delicate, they seem to lend themselves to watercolor."

An exhibit of 18 new paintings by Teersteg, all watercolors, will open Friday at the Big Picture gallery in Lyle's Home Furnishings. A reception will be held from 4 to 7 p.m. at the gallery.

She grows the orchids under lights in her garage. Tiny, fragrant dendrobiums - magenta with white centers - bloom next to phalaenopsis and catalayas, which sport 4-inch blossoms.

She said her father sent her the first ones from his yard in California about 10 years ago - on a bet they wouldn't grow in Alaska. She's cultivated them indoors ever since.

A few kinds of orchids do grow wild in Southeast Alaska, but Teersteg grows more exotic varieties. She said she hasn't painted the wild Alaskan orchids like the calypso or fairy slippers.

Batik and relief printing, Teersteg's favored artmaking techniques, create bold and strong images, she said. The orchid's subtle color changes invite a different approach. Fortunately, some similarities between batiking and watercolor helped her embrace the new medium.

One technique shared by batik and watercolor involves sprinkling salt on the paper or fabric. Each salt grain concentrates a bit of the damp paint, creating a textured pattern of flecks and spots.

"You can also do a resist," she said. "That repels the water so you can keep that area white."

Both styles share an element of unpredictability. Teersteg selectively dampens areas of the paper before she paints and there are no guarantees that the paint will do exactly what the artist wants.

"We say, batiks will do what batiks want to do," she said. "Watercolors are similar."

Riley Woodford can be reached at

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