Dawna grew up in the Philippines, then moved to France, where she lived for 13 years, teaching English as a second language. Then 18 months ago, she took the leap to become a full-time watercolours artist in Valencia. Daniel Hazelhoff chatted to her…
“We left France four years ago and I had my baby,” says Dawna, now 40. “We went to Asia, I taught English in Vietnam, and Thailand and the Philippines. Although teaching has always been my passion, this is when I kind of rediscovered my love of painting… My sister lived in Vietnam, in a lovely place, which was the inspiration.
“As a child, I’d always loved sketching, but during those times, to be an artist was not considered to be a profession, just a hobby. A job for us in the Philippines is more like teaching, being a nurse or doctor, those are ‘real jobs’. So I followed the norm and got trained in teaching. I taught in China and Paris, and I travelled the world as an English teacher, which was amazing.
“But four years ago, I went back to Asia, did some soul-searching, and fell in love with painting. It was a scary and tough decision. To start from nothing again. I can teach as an English teacher at any time, but becoming a watercolours artist in Valencia was a big challenge… There are thousands of amazing artists out there, so to find your touch, and your niche is a daunting task. It was very difficult,” says Dawna with feeling.
Becoming a watercolours artist in Valencia
Starting from zero can be such a daunting task, can’t it? You started a year ago, but you already have 725 students. How did you grow your pool so quickly?
“It’s really a very slow process,” says Dawna. “I’ve almost given up several times. But you have to stay calm. I paint and sketch every day, even when I’m not inspired. When I am, I paint my best stuff. I’m not very active on social media, so when Eugene offered me this opportunity, I became very excited.
“It’s my third interview. If you focus on your art, then you can make it. It’s all a matter of being steady and consistent with your work. Focus on your art and eventually, you will find your audience. It took me a while to find my audience. I love all kinds of art, I struggle to find my identity and my niche. And I was super excited with this new passion I found, so I tested and tried so many different art mediums. It seemed that I couldn’t find my focus, it was exhausting.
“So I had to find my focus and my identity. I’m trying to find that branding and niche. I study online, read books, watch videos, and practise painting my favourite types of art. So yes, I would say that the challenge and struggle was with branding and identifying my niche.”
Finding inspiration all around
I’m mostly struck by your landscapes, but another one that was incredible was a portrait you did of a child. What’s your process? Did you start with watercolours? What made you choose the watercolour format?
“That’s my daughter! That’s a good question, I tried many mediums, acrylic, and oils… I always challenge myself, and watercolours are a challenging medium, so defining my niche as a watercolours artist in Valencia was a challenge. In fact, I think it is one of the most challenging mediums out there because it’s very hard to control. Once you make a mistake it’s done, you can’t go back. With acrylics, you can fix your work. With watercolour, it’s about control, and really knowing how it works. You have this feeling that watercolours are kind of free. The colour has a lot of free movement.
“It has a certain parallel to life itself with watercolours, the paint bleeds into the paper in a chaotic way. You can’t always choose what happens in life and you have to kind of go with the flow. It’s always trial and error with watercolour. You have to experiment a lot, and make mistakes, and this is how you learn. You can’t go back with watercolours, you can only move forward. I like that aspect of watercolours.
“That’s like my quality, no going back, you can only adapt and overcome. Watercolours are alive. It’s a fragile art, it’s on paper, it’s transparent and you can almost do everything with watercolours. One of the things I love about it is its healing properties. It feels like it’s healing inside of you. It’s free movement, you can get lost in that.
Painting as therapy
“When I was in Vietnam I was diagnosed with panic attacks, but when I started painting it calmed me down, because that outlet, it’s somewhere else. Every time I wake up in the morning I’m always excited to paint. Sometimes I couldn’t sleep, my mind was invaded by all these things I was painting. Art definitely has soothing qualities.”
So, most of your pieces are works of landscape. Are you physically at the spot when you paint, or do you do it from your mind?
“Most of my paintings are done indoors. Some of them were done outdoors. I think when I’m outside I’m observing shadows, shape, and lights, and then when I’m in my studio I do it from memory. My inspiration is a Taiwanese artist. He isn’t very comfortable working outside. And I’m the same, I’m not very comfortable being observed, I have a rather reserved personality. When people look at me while I paint, I don’t enjoy it very much. I paint when no one is around. Art is intimate, I don’t enjoy being observed during those moments.
“I’ve done a lot of outdoor paintings, but I do it alone, on a bench, and just sketching mostly, I sketch a lot outside. Then I bring my sketches home and use my watercolours. I use my imagination and memory when I’m in my studio. When I paint something I always focus on depth and perspective. I try to work on that regularly, I don’t want my work to be too tight.
“So I use big strokes with lots of pigment and lots of water, I always challenge myself not to do too many strokes. I always focus on composition, it’s an important factor for me. You can master all the techniques in the world, but if your composition isn’t on point it will not work. I think there are some people who have a gift for composition. They can just start away, that’s something I have I believe.
“Composition and sketching are probably the most important parts of watercolour painting. I’m a subtle artist, I study a lot. I watch videos and read books. I’m not very young either, one of the reasons I keep working on my art is to inspire people. No matter how hard the obstacle is, you just have to start. Once you take that first small step, you cannot stop. When I was teaching last year, I’d paint during my breaks, it wasn’t manageable. All I wanted to do was paint, all the time.
From the pandemic came a new determination
When Covid started it made me reflect on how short life is, and, there’s just no time to mess around, you gotta do what you love. You can teach yourself anything. Recently, I sold my 100th painting, and it was a huge milestone for me. I sell mostly online, so I sell all over the world. People will eventually take notice of what you do, if you keep doing what you do. Everything we see is art, and everyone has their own taste. And defining myself as a watercolours artist in Valencia seems to answer a certain taste and niche.
“I focus on oriental and occidental art, Europe and Asia. I focus on landscapes and cityscapes, and I’ve started to dabble in illustration. I’ve met some artists here in Valencia, and I’m going to do my own expo at some point in town. I focus online, but it would be really nice to have my own little space in Valencia. This year I would really love to do an exhibition here as a watercolours artist in Valencia.
“I’d like to continue to inspire people to do what they really want to do in life, it’s never too late. When you start art, you need materials, basic materials at least. But I started with almost nothing because I was moving so much. So, there is no excuse, if you want to do something, stop making excuses and just do it. Just take the first step, one step at a time, and just do it.”
It’s a powerful message and could be a slogan for a sportswear manufacturer; in fact, it already is. With her drive and determination, we are sure that Dawna will succeed…
• You can see more of Dawna’s work on instagram, @lilou.onlinefinearts; buy her work at www.etsy.com/shop/LilouOnlineArt; join an online art class on skillshare at www.skillshare.com/r/user/lilouonline; or visit her website at www.lilou.online