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News / Life / Clark County Life

Flights of fancy: Vancouver artist’s watercolors showcase birds

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian staff writer
Published: September 7, 2018, 6:00am
6 Photos
Watercolorist Denise Joy McFadden works on a seabird in her home studio in Cascade Park. She and her husband frequent the Oregon coast to go birding and find subjects for her paintings, she said.
Watercolorist Denise Joy McFadden works on a seabird in her home studio in Cascade Park. She and her husband frequent the Oregon coast to go birding and find subjects for her paintings, she said. Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian Photo Gallery

Watercolorist Denise McFadden dabs a drop of bright blue onto her paper and watches admiringly as it wanders across the field of white.

“I love the way water paints itself,” she says. “The water does its own thing. I have no control.”

But then McFadden exercises a little control. She tilts the paper this way and that, urging the rivulet of color to flow down the curving back of a graceful pelican. She picks up a brush and spreads some of the blue into yellows and reds, darkening hues and blurring lines. She snaps her brush at the page — and smiles at the sudden spatter of colorful dots.

Those fascinating dots and smears are pointing the way toward a future artistic phase that McFadden feels coming on, she said: slightly abstract, deeply textured landscapes. That will be a change after spending the past year focused on painting the seabirds that McFadden and her husband sight, and he photographs, while the couple hikes the Oregon Coast. They go over there a lot, McFadden said — both to birdwatch and to deliver her paintings to galleries in Yachats, Seaside and Bandon, where they sell well.

To Learn More

First Friday Art Walk: Download the monthly “hotsheet” from Vancouver’s Downtown Association at


But the great thing about being a working artist isn’t selling, said McFadden, who added that she probably breaks just about even on sales and expenses. No, she said, the great thing is when you know your vision has touched someone.

“I love when someone loves a painting and puts it up in their house,” she said — recalling a couple who purchased a McFadden depiction of a pair of sandhill cranes and hung it over their bed because they felt like it said something about their love. “That’s such an honor,” McFadden said.

It’s fitting, too, because McFadden’s bird scenes tend to convey simple stories and domestic situations, as illuminated by her clever titles. One crow looking uncertainly back at another is called “Yes, Dear”; a goose seeming to lord it over a trio of turtles is “The Conductor”; a gull commanding a nest is “Mother Knows Best.”

“I try to bring them to life,” McFadden said. She succeeds: Not only do McFadden’s paintings show and sell, she’s won numerous Best in Show, People’s Choice and other awards from art organizations like the Southwest Washington Watercolor Society and the Columbian Artists Association of Longview.

Success and struggle

This year, McFadden painted countless practice seabirds, based on husband Bruce’s photographs, in order to generate 19 that she really likes. Despite all the repetition and success, she confessed, the artistic process never seems to get any easier: “I still struggle with the feathers and the backgrounds.”

Those vivid, energetic paintings are now on display in “Earth Elements,” a two-month exhibit at Art on the Boulevard in downtown Vancouver. The show opens today, and McFadden will be on hand this evening to meet and greet art lovers as part of the monthly First Friday Art Walk. She’ll share the spotlight with Al Sieradski, an Oregon stone sculptor whose works are the other half of “Earth Elements.”

McFadden grew up in Chicago, where she was always “that art kid” in the crowd, she said. Her artsy father always encouraged her, she said, and today she always includes her maiden name when signing her paintings — Denise Joy McFadden — as a tribute to him. She majored in graphic arts at the American Academy of Art and worked as a graphic artist in Chicago and Colorado. When she got married to Bruce and moved to Vancouver, she said, she concentrated on raising children and stopped doing art for about 15 years.

Then she started taking painting classes at Clark College, and tried every kind of painting before falling in love with the lightness and spontaneity — and the risk — of working with watercolors. Clark College’s community education offerings changed her life, she said. Nowadays, McFadden is painting more than ever before.

If You Go

 What: “Earth Elements,” an exhibit of watercolors by Denise Joy McFadden and stone sculpture by Al Sieradski.

 When: Gallery hours 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; also 5-9 p.m. Friday, during First Friday Art Walk. Art is on display through Oct. 29.

 Where: Art on the Boulevard, 210 W. Evergreen Blvd., Vancouver.

 Admission: Free.

 To learn more: www.denisejoymcfadden.com, www.artontheboulevard.org

“My husband says I’ve gone over to the other side,” she chuckled.

Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525; scott.hewitt@columbian.com; twitter.com/_scotthewitt