When Alex Tolstoy tried her hand at oil painting at the age of eight or nine, her mother’s friends wanted to buy her work. Though she put down her brushes throughout school and a distinguished career as a scientist and mathematician, she never left art behind. “I promised myself I’d go back to it when I was 60,” she explains.
True to her pledge, she began taking classes at the McLean Project for the Arts in 2008. Now 67, Tolstoy has emerged as an accomplished watercolorist. With a light touch, her paintings explore the elusive quality of the medium to suggest momentarily, often brooding views. Scenes on land and sea recall collective memories: A phantom ship merging with overcast skies. Solitary farmhouses shrouded in mist. Dusty dunes rolling toward a dark horizon. In a kind of spare visual poetry, spaces left empty echo the reflective mood.
Tolstoy knew nothing about watercolor when she took that first class not far from her home. “I thought watercolor would be quick, that it would get some action going immediately,” she remembers. Midway into the course, she says, “I fell in love with the process. You end up with surprises. You never quite know what you’ll get.”
Her art blends broad washes of mostly monochromatic color with dabs of the deepest hues. Tolstoy’s fluid style contrasts with the meticulous approach taken by other watercolorists. “Some artists, like Andrew Wyeth, create beautifully controlled, highly realistic paintings,” she says. “I’m impressed when people can do it, but I don’t have the patience for hyper-realism.” She is inspired by the atmospheric watercolors of British marine painter J.M.W. Turner, among others.
In her first career, Tolstoy worked at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington. She spent most of the day at a computer formulating research models about the behavior of sound waves in the ocean. Any connection between that specialty and the water themes in her paintings, she says, “is not conscious or deliberate.” As a theoretician, Tolstoy gladly avoided going out to sea. “It’s not like being on a sailing ship looking out into the sunset,” says the artist, who now captures those fleeting moments in her paintings.
In fact, Tolstoy prefers working in her studio to observing nature in the open air. Conveniently located in the basement of the McLean townhouse she shares with her husband, photographer Ron Colbroth, her studio is a laboratory for her art.
After taking many classes with artist Barbara Januszkiewicz and working in her medium for seven years, Tolstoy has reached the point where, she says, “I have a feel for how the paint behaves.” Certain colors stain the paper quickly, others cover it completely and can’t be changed. While some paper allows paint to be lifted and erased, handmade and rice papers absorb it instantly. “If you make a mistake, you have to live with it,” the artist notes ruefully.
Tolstoy starts by brushing an area with clear water, then laying down the colors. “Paint will follow the water,” she has learned. “I direct it, at least.” If you flood the paper with water, she cautions, “then you have no control.”
As the white paper slowly disappears, an image starts to come through. Once that background is gone, the artist notes from experience, “It’s the only part of watercolor that’s hard to get back.” She puts a premium on colors that can merge, rather than block out. And she values watercolor’s unique quality of transparency. “The more that paints can be mixed and paper shows through, the more interesting the picture is,” she believes.
That clarity and freshness come from watercolor’s composition. It is simply pigment suspended in water without any additives. Paintings appear spontaneous because they typically dry within an hour. Tolstoy generally completes an image in one sitting, but occasionally returns to apply the second layer of paint.
She usually sits down with some germ of an idea before she begins. It may be a building, a color or a section of a picture she has seen. “Something will kind of brew, percolate. All of a sudden, I’ll find time to do it, and a complete painting will come out,” says Tolstoy with ongoing wonder at the process. “It’s magical.”