Judi Betts Workshop Inside Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival

The Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival is one of Alaska’s aesthetic treasures. Founded in 1980 by Jo Scott and Edward Madden and situated on the campus of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks for two weeks mid-summer, the organization provides evening performances under the midnight-sun. Faculty are world-class, flying in to instruct local artists or amateurs who just want to imagine they are on a Broadway chorus line, singing at the Met or painting like Picasso.

Flash-back twenty-one years ago, May 1990, Judi Betts was juror at a Fairbanks Watercolor Society exhibition and workshop. My watercolor, “She the Prom” had been accepted into the show—the piece depicted the mutton chop prom dress I had sewn for daughter Jennifer. What a thrill for me, a soccer mom, this was my first outside-the-state acceptance. Free-floating a watercolor (or taping the work to mat board instead of tucking it underneath) was all the rage. So, I had the framer free-float my painting while I spent days fabricating a foam lined box for mailing.

Judy Betts DVD "Extraordinary Watercolors Louisiana Cowboys"

Husband Dave, our two younger boys, then six and nine, drove to Fairbanks, as a mini-vacation. Dave would visit clients to defray travel expenses. I would attend the Judi Betts workshop. Our first stop was to visit my painting hanging at Alaskaland. To my shock and embarrassment, the piece had slipped its moorings and was now sitting on the bottom of the frame! It would remain that way the entire show. Later in the classroom, Judi was very sympathetic about my hanging disaster. She was supportive when I excused myself to supervise the boys but strongly suggested I paint more carefully, something I still need to be told.

Fast forward to mid- July 2011, I am a now a guest/reporter at a Judi Betts Workshop for a day and a half. Dave and I drove from Anchorage, this time no kids. It is Monday nine am and a dozen women, one man, are shuffling around a UAF art studio, coffee cups in hand. These smocked artists are rummaging through their bins of paint tubes, packages of 140 lb paper, and old jars full of round and flat brushes. All are waiting for Judi to call the group to order for another demonstration.

This is week two, quite evident from last week’s finished compositions tucked in corners. In the front of the classroom Judi has pinned-up magazine clippings illustrating her accomplishments. She has been featured in national magazines, won countless prizes and often juries shows. Judi likes to say, “Draw, Draw, Draw,” to her attentive audience, some catching her every movement and impish grin on cameras. The audience are teachers, a lawyer, a photographer, all wanting to learn to watercolor, a medium that is both captivating and frustrating. Using the wrong pigments in combination can cause MUD! With watercolor you walk a tightrope between success and the trashcan. Betts has been teaching at Festival for many years and some students religiously return.

I discovered a woman who’d been in my Betts workshop twenty-one years ago. Many buy her double-ended brushes (flat end- round end). Others like her personalized sketchbooks with multi-colored pages. Judi teaches a least two workshops a month somewhere in the world. She’d just returned from Prague and showed the class her sketchbook, pen and ink drawings of cathedrals that might turn into finished works. Judi’s sketchbooks become scrapbooks as drink coasters and ticket stubs are glued next to mini-watercolors cataloguing her trips.

Betts has published two books, Watercolor Let’s Think About It with Joel Gardner, and Xtraordinary with artist Charlotte Huntley. Judi, who was a student of the late California painter Rex Brandt, has impeccable draftsmanship as seen in her renderings of architecture and boats. Her works have appeared at Disney World and on television sitcoms like Seinfeld.

This morning Judi is demonstrating how to use low tack masking film. Students tear the white film into desired shapes, placing the film, adhesive down, onto virgin watercolor paper. A light wash of choice is then brushed over the paper and film. She encourages her students to loosen up with a 2 inch flat brush. After the paper has dried, the film is removed leaving a pattern that becomes an underpainting/background. A drawing can now be rendered over this design, more washes of pigment and water applied. Judi insists each layer of paint should dry thoroughly.

I purchased a Judi Betts DVD, Extraordinary Watercolors, Louisiana Cowboys and highly encourage watching an instructor’s video to solidify what you’ve learned at workshops. On the cowboy video Betts blends a limited palette of cobalt blues, cerulean blues and ultramarine blues into yellow ochres and indian reds changing the mixtures from warm to cool, creating the imaginary smell of sweat and sand at a rodeo. The camera zooms into Judi’s palette as she adroitly flips her double ended brushes of varying sizes. She begins with diluted washes that are allowed to dry. Judi often marks her paper with numbers, indicating where to keep washes light and where to add pigment for punch. Like a general she charges from palette to paper, monitoring the drips that are removed with a tissue or corralled into some corner for definition. Some areas are deliberately left white while other white spaces fetched up as surprises. To Betts, darkening shadowed areas gives form.

I returned Tuesday morning as Judi had asked Fairbanks pianist/composer Etsuko Pederson to model. Clothed in multicolored layers of pinks and greens and seated high in a chair at center classroom, Etsuko bantered with the watercolorists about her compositions playing on a boombox. During lunch hour, the Festival hosts Lunch Bites. Festival students and teachers purchase sandwiches/sodas while listening to poetry or some instrumental composition. Today, Tony nominated/composer Ron Drotos is playing a pops-esque piano while watercolorist Judi Betts speaks about her long career. Several students play game show hostess Vanna White and stroll the room showing-off Judi’s paintings.

Take advantage of this marvelous Alaskan opportunity and plan to attend the 2012 season of the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival or catch a Judi Betts workshop.