Art beat // Underwater

THE WEDGE — This is probably just a coincidence, but we’ll note it here, anyway.

For both Margaret Pezalla-Granlund and Keren Kroul, motherhood influenced significant and similar shifts in their artistic work.

“I really switched about eight years ago,” Kroul said, referring to her transition to watercolors from oil painting. “I was pregnant with my first child and I decided I’m not going to do any toxic stuff, and put all that [oil painting] stuff away.”

Pezalla-Granlund, who two or three years ago focused on sculptural work, described the decision to take up watercolor as both artistic and practical.

“I was working outside a lot,” she explained. “I had kids, so I was out on my porch [watching them play], and with watercolor I could work in short bursts of time.”

Kroul and Pezalla-Granlund are two of the five artists whose work is featured in “A New Breed of Watercolor” at the Soo Visual Arts Center (SooVAC), a show that Executive Director Suzy Greenberg said she hopes will challenge preconceptions about the medium.

Watercolor blends the expressiveness of painting with the immediacy of drawing. Given the resurgent interest in drawing, it seems to make sense watercolor would hitch a ride.

Still, in the old fine arts hierarchy, watercolor pooled in the shadow of oil painting. And even today many see watercolor as the domain of the weekend artist who carries his kit down to the lakeside and paints sunsets.

“A New Breed” should shake that image from your mind.

“When you hear the word ‘watercolor,’ there’s the stereotype of pretty flowers and landscapes, and these are really quirky images that these artists are working on,” Greenberg said.

Lindsay Smith contributes some of her quietly surreal watercolors, including an image of what appears to be children or young women clambering over a pile of grey boulders. A stand of trees just beyond the rock pile could also be a theater curtain.

Betsy Walton of Portland, Ore. — one of two out-of-towners in “A New Breed” — combines figures, geometric designs, trees and underwater plant life in mysterious and slightly melancholy scenes. Walton works in gouache, a more viscous, more opaque water-based pigment, applying rich, vibrant hues over slate-colored washes.

She said watercolor’s reputation as an amateur’s medium gives the false impression that it’s easy to master.

“When we’re kids we use watercolors a lot, so I think it’s a really familiar form of painting for people,” Walton said. “However, it’s really challenging to do it well.”

The other West Coast artist in “A New Breed” is Serena Cole of Oakland, Calif., who scours fashion magazines for the faces she depicts in watercolor and colored pencil.

Cole seems drawn to haughty expressions. She wraps these faces in swaths of hair and embellishes them with gold leaf in a style that references Gustav Klimt.

Cole’s precise, carved-in-ice portraits give way to the more free-flowing watercolors employed by Pezalla-Granlund and Kroul.

In her recent work, Pezalla-Granlund has imagined the forms of meteors hurtling through the void of deep space. She exploited watercolors’ inclination to bleed and spread in unexpected ways to depict space rocks shaped by minute, mysterious forces.

“I was interested in figuring out how to make forms that wouldn’t immediately be recognizable as being correct or incorrect,” she said. “I could invent forms, and watercolor was really great for that because watercolor kind of does what it wants to do.”

Kroul said she achieved a new delicacy in her work when she switched from oil paints to watercolor.

She places simplified figures in dreamlike environments filled with organic shapes that mimic plant bulbs and grasses. Her palette includes the many variations on green found in nature and the equivalent number of pinks and reds contained in the human body.

“I found a whole new voice through the watercolors,” Kroul said. “Even the way I work on them is different”

First though, she had to overcome an ingrained bias in favor of oil painting, something she’d picked up in all those art history classes in art school. Clearing that hurdle led to what Kroul described as a “revelation” in her painting.

“It completely changed my work and opened up all these possibilities that I never had while working on canvas,” she said. “Once I did that, I could never go back.”

Go see it

“A New Breed of Watercolor” runs through July 26 at Soo Visual Arts Center, 2640 Lyndale Ave. S.