Bob Olson: Capturing the colors of Wisconsin

donna fischer | the artist next door | feb. 2018

Wisconsin is a beautiful state for any artist trying to capture a range of natural features in four distinct seasons. Bob Olson is an artist who has taken to watercolors in order to bring about his vision of our state's natural wonders. After a career as an art teacher, Olson continues to make art a central part of his life. His watercolor paintings depict water scenes, rustic settings and woodsy trails, always with light playing upon surfaces in ways that delicately evoke the atmosphere of the moment.

When it comes to the best form of paint for his work, Olson has no doubt that he's found his favorite.

“Watercolor, unlike other mediums like oil or acrylic, has a luminous transparent quality that seems to glow,” says Olson. “Watching paint flow across a sheet of watercolor paper mixing with other hues is fascinating to me … I like the way all this intermingling of colors works.”

Some of Olson's paintings include a sailboat sitting majestically in front of a brilliant evening sky and that is no accident. It turns out that Olson has been sailing most of his life, and being on the water gives him an authentic perspective for his artwork.

“Sailing has been part of my life for many years,” Olson explains. “The views from 'Reality' can be spectacular. In nature, light reflects off water just like light reflects off watercolor paper.”

The name for Olson's boat is a curious choice since his artistic preference is to take reality and mold it into his own vision, as any good artist will do. It all begins with simplifying the scene.

“I work from my photos and even photos taken from others, but most photos contain too much information and have to be simplified. So, I develop a plan using a small sketch or sometimes just an image of what attracted me to the scene. I do work outside, but mostly for just a quick thumbnail sketch. I then do most of my work in my studio where I can use my artistic license to make things more visually appealing.”

Bursts of sunset colors flood many of the scenes Olson has painted. He seems adept at capturing the essence of an outdoor experience no matter the time of year.

“I do like Wisconsin because of our seasons. They all present a real challenge. But, I do enjoy painting autumn and winter because of the moods and colors. Summer is such a relief because of the long lingering light, a time to kick back and enjoy the warm air.”

The seasons also play into Olson's painting habits with winter months spent mostly on experimentation and working out new techniques based on the sketches and photos.

“During the summer months I can go for weeks without picking up a brush [and] just enjoy nature and spend more time sailing. So, I can go for weeks without painting a single stroke, but seeing something that inspires me will dash out a painting in several hours.”

Olson's skills were shaped in part by his high school art teacher, Tony Yaworski, whom he calls, “one of the best watercolorists in the Midwest.”

“After watching him do a landscape demonstration in class, I knew I wanted to paint watercolors like him.”

Many of Olson's peers can be found at meetings of the Northeast Wisconsin Watercolor Society, where he has been a member for roughly 20 years. He also serves as the chairman for “Splash,” the society's annual watercolor exhibit and sale held in October at the Art Garage.

The society is made up of artists from Green Bay and surrounding cities with a passion for learning and sharing new techniques and tips.

“Each month we have a visiting watercolor artist that demonstrates his or her techniques. As an artist I am always open to new ideas and inspiration. I also enjoy talking to other artists about anything.”

Indeed, while attending a recent meeting, this author found members to be very talkative and eager to share their love of art. Having a community of fellow artists to interact with has to bring a whole new dimension to the solitary practice of creating art. Some members brought their recent works to share with the group, and the vibe in the room was thoroughly supportive and positive.

When that night's guest artist held up a particular tube of paint she found essential, folks started whispering to each other and jotting down notes with excitement. Getting the right tools for the job is kind of a big deal.

View more of Olson's paintings online at Inkdroparthaus.com, or in person at the Art Garage or Green Bay Botanical Gardens (lower level).

For more information on the Northeast Wisconsin Watercolor Society visit NeWisWatercolors.com.


Donna Fischer is an avid fan of music, film and art. When she's not writing on these subjects you'll find her gardening or snowshoeing around Green Bay.

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