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85-year-old watercolorist Anne Abgott’s best work lies ahead

Abgott is winning awards and her instruction is in high demand.

Anne Abgott describes her watercolor techniques.
Anne Abgott describes her watercolor techniques.
Photo by Sidra Wali
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In her studio in Cortez, Anne Abgott rattles off the technical names of colors with the ease of a chef reciting a signature recipe — ultramarine blue, aureolin yellow, gamboge.

The 85-year-old watercolor painter is known for her use of color — her daring with it — and her impatience with the medium, the way she “mingles” her colors on the page rather than mixing them on a palette.

This approach has earned Abgott signature status in the American Watercolor Society, among several other societies, countless awards, magazine covers, spreads, and placements in watercolor shows. Her painting “Coconuts 2” will be shown in the upcoming 43rd annual International San Diego Watercolor show.

"Coconuts 2"
Courtesy image

Colorful shadows. Rich, warm darks and the use of the paper’s own white. These are some hallmarks of her work. She laid out her process, including her mingling technique, in her 2007 book published by North Light Books called “Daring Color.” 

In traditional watercolor painting, “the dark and vibrancy are built up with layers of paint. You do a thin layer of paint, then let it dry, then another layer and let it dry,” said Abgott.

It can sometimes take 20 to 25 layers to build up dark sections of a watercolor, explained Abgott. That means lots of waiting for a watercolorist or the use of a hairdryer to speed things up.

It’s clear Abgott doesn’t have the patience for that. 

Her condominium turned art studio is a happy chaos of piles. Piles of prints to be sold, piles of frames and mats for future use, piles of paintings in varied states of completion. Pieces she’s unhappy with but may return to. Pieces that she’ll never finish — she’ll chop them up and paint on the backs of the unredeemable pictures.

She wastes nothing. When a paint tube is nearly exhausted she cuts it into pieces and shakes the pieces in plastic vials of water until the foil wrappers have given up their last whispers of pigment. 

She paints at a glass table on a screened-in balcony overlooking the bay. It’s a fitting studio for a woman obsessed with the light. Abgott has a special palm tree in downtown Bradenton. She photographs it at 7 a.m., then again at different times throughout the day. She wants photos of the light, the way it dances through the fronds.

Anne Abgott shows her watercolor technique.
Photo by Sidra Wali

She starts with photos, so she’s constantly collecting them. She never throws a photo away. With her camera or phone, she walks through the old fishing village streets of Cortez, the mobile home parks.

“Whenever I see a shadow on a house, I stop and take a photo,” says Abgott. “If I haven’t got shadows, then I haven’t got anything. I don’t believe shadows are gray. They reflect the light around them.”

She sees that Old Florida vibe fading. She wants to do a series of paintings to preserve it. In the meantime, her palm series is doing a brisk business. The prints are selling and the originals are off winning awards.

She refuses commissions. They stifle her creativity, she says. But she’s canny about what sells, even though her focus is competition. Her “beach babes” painting is a perfect example. It began with a photo taken some 20 years ago. The tanning women, sleek in their swimsuits, have cigarettes in hand. So at first Abgott painted them as such. But now in 2023, the two women hold coffee cups.

And then there are the marvelous shoes — shining stilettos and pretty pumps painted with sheen and gloss. Abgott housesat for a friend and had to photograph her closet full of shoes.

One of Anne Abgott's watercolor paintings.
Photo by Sidra Wali

Abgott keeps a huge archive of photos. Her filing system is unique. The photos that show promise — shadowy, complicated shapes — she puts in plastic sleeves and marks with a splotch of lime-green nail polish. Why? It must have been on sale. 

Some years ago, a frame store was going out of business. Abgott bought the lot of mats and metal frames. Now she only paints for the framing sizes she has on hand. The savings. It takes time otherwise to go to the store. 

She’s in a rush, you see. She had to hang a sign in her studio to remind herself to, “Slow Down.”

“I’m much happier with the results. The impatience and desire to get it done fast is how I came to pick up the paint with the brush and put it on the paper,” says Abgott.

Could some of that impatience stem from her late start in watercolors? She painted as a teenager in Canada, with Alexandra Luke, who was a member of the Painters Eleven, a group of artists who helped push abstract painting into the Canadian mainstream.

“She used to take her friends out and paint in the fields. Because my mom knew her I would get invited to go,” says Abgott.

But marriage and decades intervened. She didn’t discover her artistic path until she retired and moved to the Sarasota area in the 1990s. She found her way to the Longboat Center for the Arts and the tutelage of painter Harry Thompson.

No one else would teach her. She called a handful of local artists whose work she admired and asked if they taught. Four or five said no. Thompson said yes.

When Thompson was ready to move on from teaching on Longboat, he surprised the watercolor class and Abgott by telling them he already had found a replacement instructor — Abgott. It was a nontraditional path to teaching art, but then again, Abgott’s teaching style is not traditional. And that’s the appeal, whether in person or online.

She’s an art ambassador for the art supply retailer, Cheap Joe’s Art Stuff. During COVID she took to Zoom to teach workshops for the art store. Her online workshops have since drawn students from all over the world and continue to sell out. She now has students in England, Italy and Portugal. She expects 30 students for her current online workshop.

She’ll challenge them, just like she challenges herself. It’s not enough to “make a pretty picture” as she says. You have to learn something. She’s not interested in painting anything unless it’s a challenge.

And oh, there’s so much more to talk about. The still-life series of bourbon and wine, the way she edits photos on her phone, her instructional DVDs, and the growing notice of her work on social media — she had no idea … Her subjects are boundless. The Saks department store window, her award-winning croquet players, bar scenes, swimming pools, wine glasses, she loves glasses of all kinds, reflections.

Perhaps some of the freedom she feels is coming through the brush. 

“I don’t cook. I love to make a mess. I don’t like to sit and do nothing. … I’m knowing true freedom for my first time.”



James Peter

James Peter is the managing editor of the Longboat and Sarasota Observers. He has worked in journalism in a variety of newsroom roles and as a freelance writer for over a decade. Before joining the Observer, he was based in Montana and Colorado.

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