Magic Happens when Creating Watercolors: Meet Artist of the Month Kay Sullivan

Kay Sullivan prepares a rough sketch in her SaddleBrooke studio. (Photo by LaVerne Kyriss)

Kay Sullivan prepares a rough sketch in her SaddleBrooke studio. (Photo by LaVerne Kyriss)

LaVerne Kyriss

Perhaps best known around SaddleBrooke for her precise and realistic watercolor pet portraits, often done as commissioned work, Kay Sullivan also paints landscapes, portraits, florals, and abstract images.

“Painting animals comes easy to me,” she explained. “I always start with the eyes, the nose, and then the color of the body. The expression is all in the eyes.”

Sullivan noted that painting in watercolor can be challenging.

“I love the magic that happens when creating a watercolor. You have to be disciplined to look at the image backwards—from light to dark—to preserve your whites. When you work in oils or acrylics, you’re adding color and depth and finish with the highlights. I start with the highlights and paint around them.”

Sullivan and her husband moved to SaddleBrooke from California in December 2000.

“I’d never taken an art class since grade school,” she said. “We were so excited to be here and starting a new adventure. I took my first drawing class through the SaddleBrooke Fine Arts Guild in April 2001 and I’ve never looked back.”

Sullivan has served in many volunteer and leadership positions in the ensuing 20 years and met some of her closest friends while taking an art class together. She’s also led classes and workshops, sharing what she’s learned.

“I still take classes to expand my skills,” she noted. “Most recently, I’ve started doing some portraits of people and I’ve been working on getting deeper shadows to add more depth to my work.”

“I often paint from a photo I’ve taken, but I might do some rearranging to improve the composition. I start by sketching the scene on newsprint and scaling it up to the size I want to paint,” Sullivan explained. “It’s really important to get the perspective right before I transfer it to 300 lb. cold pressed watercolor paper. This way, I can erase as needed. I hate drawing and want to get right to painting, but I don’t want to waste my expensive paper. And if the eyes aren’t right, I start all over.”

“Using good quality materials and supplies is another tip I learned as a beginning artist. Having the right paints, brushes, and papers is a smart investment,” Sullivan said. “I bought a brush nearly 20 years ago and paid an exorbitant price—but it’s my ‘go to’ tool. I can cut the finest line with it as well as blend a wide wash. Never skimp by buying student-grade materials,” she admonished. “It’s not worth the aggravation.”

Finding a mentor is another piece of advice Sullivan recommends to budding artists.

“You don’t need to have a formal relationship, but having others around you who can offer tips on how they solved similar problems can be encouraging.”

Taking local classes is her third tip. She suggests trying the Guild’s ‘I can’t draw a stick figure’ class as an introduction.

“It’s a no-risk way to try art,” she added.

Finally, Sullivan confided that she doesn’t throw away failed paintings, but has been known to repurpose them into collages and other work.

“I made a COVID mosaic this spring using squares cut from four different old paintings. I sorted them by color and created an abstract design,” she said displaying the finished work.

For more information about the SaddleBrooke Fine Arts Guild, visit their website at