Cool light filters through 20-foot-tall windows in painter Barbara Januszkiewicz’s Arlington studio. Light falls on gray walls and gleaming pipes, on concrete floors and towering easels of gridded steel. In this silvery atmosphere, her brilliantly colored paintings stand out.
Luminous hues flow across the large canvases in transparent waves. They wash over one another, interacting and becoming richer. Against these huge color fields, tiny specks of concentrated pigment shimmer on the surface like reflected sunlight.
“The whole composition is a statement about color,” explains the artist, her hands moving to emphasize thoughts with the energy seen in her brush strokes. “This is about relationships, about the placement of potent colors and the canvas sparkling through. I want the eye to dance across the canvas, but direct you, too.”
It’s a tall order. A single brush stroke may sweep over six feet. Januszkiewicz paints in wide motions, standing on a scaffold between ladders and using a massive brush that she adapted from a broom. She executes each movement with authority. “If I’m not committed and I stop, it doesn’t work,” she says.
After finishing a brushstroke, the artist steps down. Every painting begins with some idea for a composition, but “there’s always creative decision-making throughout the whole process,” she finds, and time to consider more than the science involved. “There’s a moment of awe when you watch the colors dry and become lighter.”
One step rarely changes. “Most of the time, I never go back,” she says. “I leave my brush mark and move on.” A painting measuring six-by-five feet often includes only five brush strokes, completed over several days.
Januszkiewicz’s command of the process gives little hint that her current style is a new direction. “It represents the culmination of everything that happened before,” she says. Januszkiewicz, who grew up in McLean, studied painting under Chinese watercolor master Mun Quan at Florida’s Jacksonville University and for three decades was an established illustrator, winning awards for watercolors depicting everyday objects in a lively, pop-art style. For the past 15 years, she has taught adult watercolor-painting classes at the McLean Project for the Arts and served as an adjunct professor at the Corcoran College of Art & Design.
Her change in direction resulted from a serendipitous meeting that came about after one of her classes. When Januszkiewicz mentioned the Washington Color School—a nationally renowned art movement of the 1960s—an eager student asked for directions to the school. “I realized there was a need to document the only significant art movement to come out of Washington, DC, before everyone who remembered it was gone,” says Januszkiewicz. So she decided to chronicle the Color School by making a film, which is still a work in progress.
The project began five years ago when she started interviewing collectors, students and others who had known artists in the group. One of those people was Paul Reed, the Washington Color School’s last surviving member, who lived just three miles from Januszkiewicz’s studio. On her first visit, she remembers, “Paul Reed asked me, ‘If you’re making this movie, why don’t you try to paint in our style?’” That style required using thinned acrylic paint that penetrated into, or stained, the untreated surface of a canvas. “I am a watercolor artist, a paper girl,” Januszkiewicz thought. She told him she wasn’t interested. But he set up a canvas, and as she describes it, “He showed me how different artists dripped, poured and jabbed with the paint.” That first attempt, she remembers, “was a disaster.”
Reed gave her 100 yards of unprimed duck canvas from the 1960s. When she returned with another effort, he exclaimed, “‘You did it!’” she recalls.
“I already was a colorist with watercolors. I knew about staining and transparence on watercolor paper,” she points out. “My expertise was with a brush. When you pour, there’s no control. I paint on canvas exactly as I do on paper.”
Reed became her mentor. “He pushed me in the right direction to change my materials and technique,” she says gratefully of the artist, who died last year at age 96.
Reed’s influence came at a time when, Januszkiewicz says, “I was bored painting things; I was bored with exactitude. I was ready to do something different, to take a risk.” Now, she continues, “color is a passion; painting is a passion. I owe it to him, because he made me grow.”
She tries to guide her students at the McLean Project for the Arts along a similarly satisfying path. “I tell them, ‘Go out and find your own voice.’ I knew what my mine was, and I’m coming back to it.”
Writer Tina Coplan is based in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Michelle Couraud is a photographer in Alexandria. “Color Chords,” an exhibition of paintings by Barbara Januszkiewicz and other artists working in the style of the Washington Color School, will be presented May 24 to July 10 at Northern Virginia Community College; call 703-323-3159. For more information, visit barbaraj.info.