Someone recently told me that art isn’t just something you do—it’s a lifestyle. It’s about everything you do from what you eat to how you dress. This Femme Visuale isn’t just a talented watercolorist; Heather Rippert truly lives and breathes art.
As I pull up to her studio in Seminole Heights, Rippert looks like one of her own watercolor paintings wearing a bright fuchsia tank top with an azure blue kimono-style silk jacket flowing around her with every movement.
Her forte is landscape painting, with many of her paintings including beach scenes.
“I love water—I love to paint the water, I love to swim in the water. With watercolor, I like how the water blends colors and you can get different things happening. Water’s a big deal,” she says with a laugh. “I don’t do a lot of plein air, it’s just because nature is so fast. That’s why I take my own photos and work from them.”
Heather Rippert, Fabulous Flamingos, watercolor on paper
Sometimes she combines photos to make the composition how she wants, maybe by leaving out the land in one photo, or using the sky in another. Starting out with a small sketch to work out composition details, she uses a projector to blow up her image on a larger piece of paper.
She points to Fabulous Flamingos on the wall.
“That one was in the Florida Watercolor Society Annual Exhibition two years ago. It was the first time I had entered the show and I got accepted," she says. "That was exciting because I heard it was really hard to get into. It was so cool because the curator of the Cornell Art Museum picked my flamingos to be on the poster they had outside the museum, which I didn’t know until I went over to Delray Beach for the weekend. I got there and I was trying to find some place to park. I drive by the sign and I’m like, ‘Oh my God! My flamingos!’”
She ended up getting to take the sign home, where it currently resides in her studio closet (Talk about a great souvenir!).
“I’m going to submit again this year. I submitted last year, but didn’t get selected. You know, that happens. It’s all subjective. I don’t know what I’m going to make yet, but I have one photo of boats that has really great reflections with those kind of zig-zaggy lines in the water and I just love that,” she says.
Painting sometimes up to four hour increments, her pieces take between 30 and 60 hours. But she’s not just a pro at watercolors; she’s also proficient in pastels and plans to keep experimenting with other mediums.
“As you see, I got this monster easel off Craigslist for 40 bucks. I have this yearning to get into some even bigger work. I don’t know if I’ll be able to do it in this studio because it’s kind of small, but now I’m ready for water-soluble oils—that’s my next endeavor,” Rippert explains. “I love watercolor and it’s definitely in my heart, but there’s more to be expressed and I feel like I want to go bigger and bolder. You can really play with a big space, to explore and discover new things.”
Rippert in her studio with her new (massive) easel.
Looking at her sand dune paintings, the repetition of lines from the wooden fencing and it’s shadow on the sand is done with careful precision, while other sections have improvised daubs of color to hint at sand; she paints between strict technique and the haphazard.
“Some of my skies are going to have a little more of the accidental look: letting things bleed through, and wet on wet. I like to get into that in all of my pieces. In my process, I like to get darks down quickly,” she says.
This is unusual for watercolorists, who typically start light and slowly build depth and intensity of color.
She shows me some dark silhouettes of trees on a rocky shoreline.
“I love Payne’s grey, it’s one of my favorite colors, especially for the skies and these rocks," she says. "It’s just a really rich blue color. For me it’s important to have a full range of darks to lights, so they speak to each other. That’s what makes it exciting.”
“In mapping things out with the watercolor, one of the big things is using frisket,” she says.
Frisket, or masking fluid, is a liquid you can paint on to protect the paper beneath. Once it dries, you can paint over it to keep the paper beneath it fresh and clean. These masked areas make sections pop with brightness and add interest. Never underestimate the power of negative space.
Heather Rippert, Drifter, watercolor on paper (giclees available)
Born in Philadelphia, Rippert was immersed in the arts at an early age.
“When I was little, and as an only child, I would entertain myself by drawing. I just loved it, you could plop me down anywhere on the floor with paper and crayons, and I would be happy for hours. It always made me feel lit up, excited, and alive,” she says with clear passion in her voice.
“In high school, I had this awesome art teacher Michael Mulhern. He was definitely more like a college professor. He would take me and a couple other students who were serious about art to the Philadelphia Sketch Club so we could draw the nude models. He wanted us to get that experience because we loved art and loved to draw, and were good at it. He had us draw things over and over,” she says.
This started her love of watercolor because he usually had them do a sketch of a still life in pencil, India ink washes, and other different mediums.
“We would get annoyed like, ‘Again, Mr. Mulhern? You’re having us draw that stupid shoe again?,’” she laughs. “He’s the one who told me to get Windsor and Newton paints, and said to make sure to get good brushes.”
Showing me her tools, I noticed how pristine the bristles were.
Heather Rippert, Lines in the Sand, watercolor on paper, 22 x 30 in. (won Best in Show in the watercolor category at the Avalon Art Show 2009)
“I’ve had these Windsor & Newton brushes since then—these are my first two brushes here. You can see the handles are all jacked up, but look at those bristles!,” she exclaimed. “My teacher said, ‘If you take care of your brushes, your brushes will take care of you.’ All of those lessons stand through, and I am always grateful to him wherever he may be.”
One time, Mr. Mulhern entered one of her drawings in a contest at school without her knowing. The piece won an award, which was a free class at the Main Line Art Center in Haverford, PA.
“I ended up taking a life drawing class. It was so great because my mom would drop me off there, and I would go into the art center and you could just smell the paint. I would go in and draw for three hours and when my mom came to pick me up, I was lit up like a Christmas tree like, ‘That was the best!’ That’s the thing about art and creativity; it’s that infusion of life that we get from it. That’s why I do it. I have goosebumps just talking about it! Whether or not I sell things all the time or some of the time is secondary,” she says.
Rippert, who is represented by Beach House Gallery in Dunedin, received her BFA from Maryland Institute College of Art in 1992. She has shown work in Scotland, Las Vegas, New York City, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Florida, and is in permanent and private collections worldwide. She has also been featured in two WEDU Arts Plus features in her six years of living in Florida. She’s always been involved in the art community wherever she has lived, and will be leading an art segment of a private women’s retreat in Trumansburg, NY in October.
Since she’s been painting coastal landscapes for a while now, Rippert hints that she’s ready to move on to something new.
Heather Rippert, Surfs Up, watercolor on paper (available at Beach House Gallery in Dunedin)
“In a lot of the reading and coaching I’ve had, they’ve said, ‘In order to sell, you have to have a consistent brand.’ It’s like, ‘But I’m an artist!’ I need to stay in some sort of box that I created in order to sell my work? That just doesn’t make any sense at all," she says.
One show that got her out of her comfort zone was the Dreams II exhibition held at the Duncan McClellan Gallery this past March, curated by local St. Pete dream expert, author and talk show host Velva Lee Heraty.
“I guess maybe I’m a little bit bored, and maybe I’m ready to venture into another dimension of things. I mean, I love the sky, I love the atmosphere, but I don’t know that that’s my true pursuit. I’m at that point of asking, ‘What’s next?’ The Dreams exhibit was a really pivotal opportunity for me to grow as an artist and explore creating original imagery based on my dreams,” she says. “The exploration of creating those two pieces has really given me a huge opening for the new work that’s beginning to emerge in my deepest creative center. I’m excited about the next phase of my creative journey. We’ll see how things unfold and where the path is going to lead me. I just know that I want to say something more.”
Detail shots from one of the pastel drawings that was shown at the "Dreams II" exhibition at Duncan McClellan
To see more of Heather Rippert’s work, visit her website.
Urban Dictionary defines Femme Fatale as “a woman with both intelligence and sex appeal that uses these skills to manipulate poor helpless men into doing what she wants. May cause death.” Keeping in line with this concept, the women highlighted in Caitlin Albritton's "Femme Visuale" series aims to highlight local women artists and show off some lesser-known talent that's been hiding in the shadows. In the art world, if it ain't big and loud, it ain't being seen (looking at you, Koons). Art as a grand spectacle leaves little room for modest, sincere, or quiet voices, especially women's voices. And I promise, we won’t bite.