Artist offers new insight for class

Published 7:00 pm Sunday, February 6, 2011

She stood a few feet back from her work, resting a soggy paintbrush across a pregnant belly and inspecting the pale yellow andrich green on the canvas.

The old house and barn in the photo was beginning to take shape,the trees casting long shadows on a sun-baked lawn and the whitesblowing in the breeze on a thin clothesline.

Betsy Belk had never painted this way before, and the lessons ofpost-impressionist artist Bill Harrison were starting to makesense.

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“He is teaching us how to work loosely. That’s something I’vealways tried to do – the way you hold your brush, stand back fromthe painting, layer the paint,” she said. “I love it. It’s alreadychanged the way I will paint from henceforth.”

Harrison, a 68-year-old acrylics painter from Point Clear, Ala.,demonstrated his techniques in a three-day workshop at Ava JaneNewell’s Art Barn last week, showing a crowd of 12 local artistshow to paint in his bright, dreamy style. A lifelong painter, Navyveteran and 25-year professional, Harrison specializes in GulfCoast and rural imagery.

And he keeps his brain from getting too involved. He usuallyfinishes a painting in an hour or less, keeping the work fresh forthe sake of the “spontaneity of art.”

“If you take a long time on a painting, the image startstightening up, getting stiff and dull – it becomes academic in away,” Harrison said. “When you paint quickly, the right side ofyour brain takes over and you don’t even think about it.”

Harrison slowed down a little for the workshop at the Art Barn,stopping after each step of the painting as the 12 Brookhaven womenfollowed along, largely imitating his work but adding in their ownlittle changes. He walked the room after each step, helping,adjusting and coaching his students, who were all novices to hisstyle.

“He’s doing everything in reverse of what I would normally do,”Newell said.

Newell met Harrison last year during a vacation to Fair Hope,where she visited his gallery, The Garage. She asked him to returnthe visit and the workshop has been scheduled for a year.

She hopes to have him back next year so he can continue toinfluence local artists.

“It keeps the interest up, just introducing us to differentstyles,” Newell said.

Harrison passed out canvases primed in yellow. He allowed onlyhorizontal brush strokes. He encouraged his painters to break uptheir images and see them in sections. He used only six colors andmixed them when he wanted more options. Half of those original sixcolors were house paint.

“He encourages you to look with your own eyes to see what yourcan see,” said Andrea Balkcom. “Everything you add to it changesyour understanding.”

Dixie Simmons painted captured the spark, too.

“I wish I would have done this 10 years ago. The differentconcepts are very stimulating,” she said. “And, I’ve been holdingmy brush wrong all these years.”

More of Harrison’s work can be seen online at and