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Women of the easel

Nancy Block is one critique-group member who developed a distinctive style "sort of like Matisse," says Eshoo, after years of getting "kind of lost" in watercolor landscapes.

"She breaks up the spaces so well," says Hamilton-Brandon, as Block displays a vibrant study of Mexican folk dancers. The Medford artist brought the watercolor back for a second critique because she toned down the background and darkened a purple ribbon on the female dancer's full, swishing skirt.

"It just makes me want to get up and dance," says Hamilton-Brandon, 92, of Medford. "It's a perfect Cinco de Mayo painting."

The anatomy of the figures, however, could use a bit of work. The group aims their comments at the woman's arm, which is holding aloft a corner of her skirt. The limb looks more like a fork or a crescent wrench, they say. Someone suggests painting over it, so it simply becomes another patch of red fabric.

"I'd love to see a foot," says Hamilton-Brandon.

"I don't like their feet when they do those Mexican dances," replies Block, noting that she paints from photographs. "They're very awkward."

The male dancer's eyes, broaches Brooke, are too prominent. Known for realistic watercolor portraits, she suggests a shadow under his hat. Such feedback, says Brooke, shouldn't arise from the critic's own personal style, but more concrete aspects of a work, like color or form.

"We are all extremely different."

As evidence, Eshoo shows a watercolor in which the human figure almost blends into the landscape, rather than dominates it. Painted on clayboard instead of Eshoo's usual 300-pound paper, the work offers a learning opportunity for the group, which exclaims over the texture.

"Love your tree," says Cochran.

"Maybe I won't trash it after all," replies Eshoo, explaining that she painted the piece more than a year ago but "dragged" it out of her studio to show something new at this meeting.

The Medford resident says she'll go for months without creating any art but then has "spells" of painting every day for six weeks. At one point in her career, when she exhibited at a Portland gallery, Eshoo could hardly paint fast enough to replenish all the pieces that sold.

Locally, she still exhibits at Medford's Rogue Gallery and Ashland's Art & Soul Gallery, where Boutacoff and Peterson are among the directors. The majority of group members are studio painters, with Brooke's studio "to die for," says Eshoo.

"They each have their own strengths."

A watercolorist since the 1980s, Eshoo says she used to do "big, thick, juicy" oil paintings with palette knives but found "no joy in it."

"With oil paint, nothing happens unless you move it."

Feeling like she "didn't learn a thing" from studying abstract expressionism at UC Berkeley, Eshoo turned to seemingly mild-mannered watercolors. The water, she says, brings an unpredictable element to the process.

"It's like two people are painting the painting. So it's exciting," she says. "You want to always be in control, but sometimes you're not.

"It moves around on its own," she adds. "It's always an interesting trip."

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Sarah Lemon at 541-776-4487 or slemon@mailtribune.com.

Barbara Eshoo shows her artwork to a critique group in her Medford home. - Photos by Julia Moore