Arts & Entertainment

Karen Vaughn Harding’s Fresh-Picked Art

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La Paloma Gardens have had a big influence on this Rockford-area artist, who’s known for her vibrant, colorful floral paintings. Find out how she stumbled onto this creative outlet.

Karen Harding at work on her latest colorful work.

Karen Vaughn Harding remembers the moment when she realized people might actually like her paintings.

About 10 years ago, the former history teacher had been painting watercolors for only about six months. While she was painting, a friend who was an art teacher came by her Rockford home and asked what she was doing.

“And she said, ‘Really? I didn’t know you painted,” Harding remembers. “I said, ‘Well, yes, I do. It’s one of my hobbies.’”

The friend asked to see her paintings and was stunned by the vivid watercolor images of flowers from Harding’s La Paloma Gardens. Rockford’s annual Art Scene was approaching. The friend was part of a group displaying its own art, and had an entire empty room available at the venue.

“She said, ‘Why don’t you frame this and then show it?’”

So Harding framed about 13 pieces and exhibited them at the show. By the end of the evening, she had sold all but two. “It was so much fun,” she says.

That confidence-building evening let Harding know that her bright, vibrant works were more than just a means of self-expression. They spoke to others as well.

Today, Harding is a fixture in Rockford’s arts community, and her watercolor works have earned international acclaim. Her early 2012 one-woman show, “Regarding Flowers,” won rave reviews at the Swedish American Museum in Chicago. Some of her works are part of the permanent collection in Rockford’s sister city of Borgholm, Sweden.

Not bad for a woman who took just six undergraduate hours in art. Harding credits her childhood art teacher, Winifred Clark, at Rockford’s now-closed Jackson Elementary School, for her lifetime appreciation of art.

Harding, 68, came to painting by way of gardening. She continues to manage the La Paloma Gardens on her property near Spring Creek and Alpine roads. Harding and her late husband, Ben, created the gardens in the 1980s and ’90s on what used to be a golf course. The plants were, and still are, the inspiration for much of her artwork.

After Ben died in 1999 following a long illness, Harding realized she suddenly had a lot of time on her hands. She thought about their winter home in Tucson, Ariz., and an art supply store that always had captured her imagination. In particular, she had been taken with a brand of radiant concentrated water colors – Dr. Ph. Martin’s pigments in suspension – that yielded bolder, more vibrant hues than traditional watercolors from a tube.

“I thought to myself one day, ‘Well, you know, that great store’s down there, and these things are so much fun to use. Maybe I should start.’ So I bought a few of the colors and played around.”

She first tried photographing her plants and flowers, but didn’t like the results. “I thought my photographs weren’t artistically special,” she says. “I always saw so much more in the flower than my photograph revealed. I couldn’t make the flower come alive for me.”

Harding dabbled in botanical paintings, too, but they were just a bit too real for her artistic taste. Rather than mimicking the original, as a botanical illustrator would, she eventually found her “voice” with vivid color combinations.

“Mine is abstract botanical art,” she says. “I think realistic botanical art is one of the most intriguing categories to paint. And for a long time, in the beginning, I tried to paint that way. But if a line went wrong, the painting was ruined. So then I just decided I had to loosen up.”

Not that Harding doesn’t bring a technical approach to her painting – in fact, that’s one reason she’s so passionate about it. She’ll photograph a plant from various angles, and sometimes will even dissect it to get a feel for its design.

“I’m interested in families of plants,” she says. “When I study one, I really study it and learn all about it. Once I’ve studied a plant, it becomes my lifelong friend.”

When painting, she keeps a journal – more of a catalog, really – of the paint she uses for each work. She records how each color reacts atop other colors and on different papers, or with various wash techniques.

Just don’t ask her to paint while people watch – say, at an exhibition or even a class. That would rush what is for her a methodical process.

“My paintings take days and days for me to do,” Harding says. “And I concentrate very deeply on how I want the colors to run and blend – which ones will blend, which ones won’t. There’s some science behind all of this.”

She also needs peace and order: Bach or Mozart playing on the stereo; her paints, palettes, brushes and journals arranged on the table around the work in progress. She paints either in her studio/office, or at a table overlooking the gardens.

Harding has no plans to veer from her passion: flowers and vegetation from those gardens. Having recently explored orchids and irises, she’s now set her sights on tulips, and fungi may be next. When the paintings start to feel repetitive, she knows it’s time to move on.

“The first time I realize that I’m painting the same thing over again, only in a different color, I stop painting it,” she says. “I might finish that painting, but I stop that association with that little club.”

Harding’s work can be found in several Rockford shops, such as Rockford Art Museum Shop, Crimson Ridge, Poska and J.R. Kortman Center for Design, in the form of prints, cards, even silk scarves. The card lithography and photography is done by Rockford artisans, and the scarves are printed in San Francisco rather than overseas. She insists on that. And she’s particularly proud that so much of her work is produced in Rockford, a place where the arts community is vibrant and unique.

“I’m very involved with the art museum,” she says. “I think our art museum, for the size and type of city we are, does phenomenal work. We seriously try to appeal to everybody, and we try not to be elitist in any way.”

One hopeful trend she sees is the big turnout for local youth art competitions.

“It’s just knowing that our community has great potential,” she says. “If it were told more often how fabulous it is rather than how lacking it is, it would be a much more positive community.”

Still, Harding remains humbled – and a bit shocked – by all of the success she has enjoyed in the few years she’s been painting seriously.

“Someone called me the other day and said, ‘I Googled your work.’ I said, ‘What?’ I never Google myself. And then I Googled it and I went, ‘Holy tuna fish! This is like big leagues.’ So it did really, truly startle me to see what was there. Because I’ve just had a good time doing it, putzing along with it.”

Contact Karen Vaughn Harding at KVH@lapalomagardens.com.

Tips from a Pro

Karen Harding paints on 300-pound Arches handmade watercolor paper, which feels rough and heavy, like cardboard. “I paint on this because, first of all, I can paint on both sides,” Harding explains.
“It’s so thick and dense. But beyond that, I am often painting three different paintings. So if I use this paper, I know if this is wet, I can just slide it across the table and it’s not going to bend.”

Her favorite brush is made by da Vinci, and is made from the fur of a weasel – specifically, the Siberian kolinsky red sable weasel. “It holds a great deal of water and paint, and goes right back into a point without any help,” she says. “It’s 10 years old and has no signs of wear.”

Adds Harding: “Another trusty tip I share with water colorists is Q-Tips and Linco bleach. When you make a mistake, just bleach it out.”

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