Artist Profiles | Visual Arts

Roland Lee: A Love of Art and Teaching

Watercolorist Roland Lee in his St. George studio.

St. George artist Roland Lee is internationally known for his wonderful, transparent watercolors of Southwestern Utah’s “red rock” country and rural scenes from across the United States and Europe, the result of over thirty years of dedication to his craft. In addition to his prowess as a creative artist, Lee’s love of teaching his trade is inherent in every workshop, exhibit, and conversation. Both aspects of this artist’s career and personality are on display at the St. George Art Museum through June in an exhibit entitled Roland Lee: Canyon Country Paintings. After seeing the exhibit you might be surprised to learn that Lee, a graduate from Brigham Young University in 1971 with a degree in Art, did not begin his career teaching his art techniques. In fact, as he was growing up he never even dreamed of a career as an artist.

Roland Lee was born in southern California, where he spent many hours as a child drawing and admiring the magazine and book illustrators of the sixties. His childhood interests spurred him to pursue a degree in illustration and graphic design at Brigham Young University. After graduation, he returned with his wife, Nellie, to southern California to pursue a career in design and illustration. With the birth of their first child in 1973, however, the couple decided to relocate to St. George — to get away from “the hectic chaos” of the big cities of Southern California and in order to raise their family, which eventually numbered five children. In St. George, Lee evolved from the highly successful commercial Designer/Illustrator and Design Director of Lawry’s Foods he was in California to become a St. George art studio owner and art teacher at Dixie State College. He taught at the college for four years, and publication design work at the College led him to the founding of “St. George Magazine” which he co-owned for many years.

“Five Minutes of Fame”

It was while teaching, however, that Lee embraced his childhood love of art and began a serious study of transparent watercolor. After a few workshops from Osral Allred, Carl Purcell, Glen Dale Anderson and Tom Leek, Lee’s mind was settled on watercolor as his medium. The peaceful surroundings of his home were a natural inspiration to his work. As he says, “five minutes in any direction gets you away.” Zion Canyon was a particular “haven” for him in early years and he spent many hours there. His strong desire to be “in the landscape . . . as a part of the landscape, rather than painting on a street corner” took him to sketching on location. If you have heard him speak or seen one of his gallery shows, his sketchbooks are an incredible testament to his commitment to journaling what he experiences in nature. He gladly shares these sketchbooks with others and encourages the use of hard-backed sketching journals of a size that are easy to carry. He says that he takes his journal everywhere he goes so he will not miss out on any opportunity that arises. “What nature does in and of itself is wonderful,” he says. As is apparent from his work, Lee spends hours studying rock formations and the way light and shadows play against each other.|1| “The light is the key to the drama in the landscape,” he says. “If you understand that, you will be successful”.

Lee’s paintings demonstrate that he has understood this key, and he has been recognized in a variety of venues for his success. Lee’s attention to lighting makes his pieces stand out from other “red rock”paintings. He is especially careful to preserve the whites on his paper, using technique, rather than masking, to accomplish this goal. His shadows are carefully shaped to bring the eye to the focal point of the painting. His colors are muted shades that evoke a sense of peace to the viewer. Most notable are Lee’s skies, which are seldom calm and always full of color and movement.

“Sandstone Towers”

Lee has received numerous awards and endless recognition over the years. He took second place at the Sears Invitational Art show this past February in St. George, was in the “Arts for the Parks Top 200” in Jackson, Wyoming in September of 2006, and the “Arts for the Parks Top 100 mini show” in Jackson, Wyoming the same year. Lee’s work has been widely talked about and published in newspapers and magazines over the last 20 years, most recently in the featured article of “The Drawing Board”” Magazine in May of 2006, and “SkyWest” Magazine and “The Artist’s Magazine” in 2005. His work can be found in over 850 public and private collections throughout the United States and in several foreign countries. He is listed in “Artists of Utah” by Verne Swanson and Robert Olpin, and in McKittrick’s “Guide to Fine Art.”

Lee has been inspired by other artists. He particularly notes his college professor, William Whittaker, who taught him about commercial design but whose figurative painting skills were especially admirable and continue today. He also mentions John Singer Sargeant and his wide artistic abilities with oil, watercolor, crayon, or block and his incredible ability to define light, edges, and form. He mentions that of the early Utah artists, Maynard Dixon has inspired him the most; particularly since BYU had a large group of his paintings on display during Lee’s college years. Dixon’s early California Impressionism technique and bold shapes taught Lee how to see color.

Lee describes himself in one sentence as a “peaceful person who is passionate about the landscape.” And his landscapes and rural scenery portray the peace he speaks of. He also points out that any people or animals in his landscapes are purposefully at peace with the surrounding landscape. He describes art as a dance between artist and spectator. Both are required for art’s purpose to be fulfilled—in his case, the sense of peace with the landscape. When asked what makes Roland Lee different from other artists, he says it may be his enthusiasm. “I have never had an artist block in my entire life. My head is filled. In fact,” he says with a grin, “I am surly without painting.”

What does Lee see himself doing in five years? “The same as now, with more travel, but I don’t plan on ever quitting.” His wife is at his side on his trips to California, Europe, New England, the South Pacific, and the Midwest. He says she doesn’t seem to tire of reading a book while he sketches or blocks out a quick watercolor study of a scene. When he is not traveling or on location, Lee paints out of his studio/gallery overlooking St. George. He has a remarkable view with good north light. He shares his gallery on the third floor of an office building with several lawyers who seem to enjoy his work hanging in the hallways. His studio is tight, but contains everything he needs at arm’s reach. Again, his view of the “red rock” is inspiring and a stone’s throw away. He points to an area of rock nearby and says, “When it rains, I have my own private waterfall right there.”

Lee puts as much enthusiasm into his teaching as he does his painting. He left his University position years ago, but he is still in demand as an instructor. Catherine Hostetter, organizer and attendee at a recent three-day workshop for the Utah Watercolor Society in Salt Lake, describes Lee as “the most prepared instructor I’ve ever seen.” His teaching makes use of Powerpoint slides, demonstrations, and plenty of time for hands-on work. Hostetter says that his teaching attitude is “you can watch and you can listen, but if you don’t experience it, you won’t address issues that arise with new techniques.” She also states that he “doesn’t hold back” on steps to creating certain trademark effects, is very personable and “his whole persona is kindness.” She says that Lee prefers smaller groups, but due to the demand, there were twenty-three in this workshop, but it appeared to pose no problems for him. Lee’s web site is a learning place for watercolor artists and sketchers alike. It includes multiple step-by-step demos of his technique. In one, he shows you how to use a sketchbook to develop, with a little artistic license, a delightful watercolor out of what was a fairly mundane scene. In another demo, he provides insights on how he creates his stunning Lake Powell paintings, including techniques for the water and rock walls.

Lee’s enthusiasm as painter and teacher is now on display at the St. George Art Museum. Roland Lee Canyon Country Paintings |2| is currently running through July 7 at the St. George Art Museum on 47 East 200 North in St. George. The hours are Monday through Saturday from 10-5. Admission is $2 for adults and $1 for children. The gallery is a “learning place” gallery, featuring art experiences for children. Lee’s show is a wonderful experience for children and adults who want to get inside the head of the artist. Lee has provided three sets of step-by-step progress images alongside the final watercolors to explain how the watercolor evolved. Also included in the show is a collection of pages from his sketchbooks, as well as a display of his artist pouch and the items he typically carries with him.|3|

If you would like to know more about Roland Lee, visit his web site and his daily blog where he journals art events in his life. His work may also be seen at the Mission Gallery in St. George and the Datura Gallery in Ivins. Also, the Watercolor Gallery in Laguna Beach carries his work.

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