Serendipitous splendor

Sometimes the most beautiful results come from having no plan at all.
By Lennie Bennett, Times art critic
St. Petersburg Times
Published September 3, 2006

Taylor Ikin works in her studio at home in South Tampa. She uses watercolor and paints on an unlikely surface, a slick synthetic sheet called Yupo. “It’s just like glass,” she says.

[Times photo: Chris Zuppa]

   Watching watercolor artist Taylor Ikin at work, one sees why this medium has for centuries both earned respect and invited dismissal.
   She begins by laying on vague washes of yellows, blues and greens that don't look like much.  Working very wet at first, she allows the colors to run together, acknowledging why watercolor can drive even an expert crazy:
   More than any other form of painting, watercolor demands it.
   Or not.
   "I don't fight it," says Ikin, 68, a painting teacher who has used watercolors for more than 30 years.  "I often find those 'accidents' are the best part of the painting."
   Ikin's technique, more like oil or acrylic painting, is unconventional.  So is her choice of surface, a slick synthetic sheet called Yupo, manufactured in Japan, totally different from the traditional fiber-based papers with textures known as "tooth" that absorb the water-based pigment.
   "Yupo is like painting on glass," she says.  She discovered it about eight years ago on a visit to North Carolina.
   "I had been searching for something that would allow me more freedom with the paint," she says.  "I called the company that makes it and asked them if it was archival and acid-free important in preservation.  The man asked me what I did, and when I told him I was a painter he told me no one used it for painting; it was developed for the printing industry.  He was intrigued and sent a bunch of the Yupo to me.  I have never looked back."

Ikin’s finished landscapes are heavily built layers of pigment softened with liberal swipes of a wet brush.

[Images from Taylor Ikin]

   In addition to the serendipitous flow of paint, the glossy coating allows Ikin to remove and adjust it, nearly impossible in standard watercolor work.  With a swipe of paper towel, a portion of the wash she has just applied is gone.  With a broad, damp brush stroke, another portion of color is expanded.
   So although she gives up control in one way, she gains it in another.
   She puts this first-stage painting aside to dry and lifts another painting, further along, onto the flat table where she works.
   She usually has about 25 paintings going at once, leaning against chairs or stacked on easels in her sunny studio, an enclosed former carport in her South Tampa home.  Most are landscapes, but she sometimes paints still lifes, usually groupings of oversized fruits and vegetables.  She has painted all over the world, but her true muse, she says, is the unpoetically named Cockroach Bay, a protected inlet area south of Ruskin on Tampa Bay.
   "It's a treasure trove of a subject," she says.  She has visited it more times than she can count, photographing it for reference but mostly painting it from memory.  Realistic depiction is unimportant to Ikin; she prefers to interpret a scene, investing it with an impressionistic looseness.
   This second painting shows a slice of the Hillsborough River, lit with morning sun and surrounded by dense vegetation.  Ikin has built up the preliminary thin wash with thicker dabs of pigment using a 2-inch flat brush.  She will typically load it with three colors she mixes directly onto the paper.  Sometimes she dips the brush in a nearby pot of murky water and dapples the painting with more water, purposefully making puddles of her progress.
   "I have no idea what the paint's going to do," she says, "but I let it find its own path."
   Which it does, resolving into new colors that, when dry, she will build up more, defining a tree or a rock with an unexpected color such as a favorite, Taylor Flamingo Pink, named for her by the company from which she gets her pigments, a color mix she invented one day a few years ago with her students.
   Ikin teaches painting once a week at Beach Art Center in Indian Rocks Beach.  Many of her students dislike Yupo because the paint can't be controlled as easily as on textured paper.
   "I think of it all as a big old gift," she says of such uncertainty.
   Ikin came late to painting, though she studied art history in boarding school and organized a trip to Europe with classmates to visit the great museums.  She says they were sitting on a bridge in Paris sketching. After seeing Ikin's work, a friend told her to forget about being an artist.
   "So I did," she says.
   She married at 23, had two children, moved to Tampa from Virginia with her insurance executive husband.  She was a widow at 33.  Several years later, she vacationed with a friend on St. Kitts and met an Australian businessman.  They married in 1971, and she moved with her son and daughter to the Caribbean island.
   "There aren't many activities on a small island," Ikin said, "and I was dropping my kids off at school and asked some of the other mothers what they did.  They asked me to join them for an art class.  I told them I couldn't paint, and they laughed and said they mostly talked and drank coffee.  I went for friendship and found a calling."
   Ikin lived on St. Kitts for almost 20 years and developed a local reputation for her tropical scenes.  Every year at Christmas, she drew a different church and had prints made for the congregation to sell.  In 1981, she drew the Catholic cathedral in Antigua.  The bishop, a friend, asked her if he could take it to Rome.  He gave it to Pope John Paul II, and a few weeks later she received a photograph of him accepting it along with a papal blessing on parchment.  Both hang in her living room.
   Her husband retired and they moved back to Tampa, where they had mutual friends.  He died in 1993. Her son and daughter-in-law live in Orlando with their young son.  Ikin's daughter and her husband live in Raleigh, N.C., with their two sons.
   She sees her family often, has many friends all over the map and is involved in local arts organizations as a member of the Tampa Museum of Art's education committee, Hillsborough County Arts Council and the boards of the Gasparilla Festival of the Arts, Kaleidoscope Children's Festival and the Florida Watercolor Society.
   Her paintings, seen locally at Tampa's Nuance Gallery, fetch several thousand dollars and sell well.
   Ikin relates her life story as she continues to work on the landscape.  When it becomes too wet to continue, she moves on to a painting of a magnolia.  It looks finished, a flash of white (actually a mix of colors that fools the eye) surrounded by an unexpected background rich in deep blues, thickly crusted like an oil impasto.  She wets her brush and adjusts the proportions of a pod attached to the bloom.
   Although the paint is malleable in its wet stage, once it dries it bonds onto the paper.  It's still watercolor, and vulnerable to moisture, so she seals the paintings with an acrylic spray.
   How long will she continue to work on a painting?
   Sometimes months, she says.
   "I never know for sure when something's done," Ikin says.  "The closest I come to feeling sure is when I truly don't know what to do next."

Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or
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