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Lee Steadman
 
During the past ten years, watercolorist Lee Steadman has traveled thousands of miles - from the fiery volcanic islands of Ecuador to the remote snowy mountains of Canada - in search of nature's diverse beauty.
When he is not traveling, artist Lee Steadman wakes up to paint the beauty of his family's dairy farm in northwestern Pennsylvania. Some might wonder whether Steadman finds farm life a bit mundane, but he doesn't. The artist has appreciated and grown from occasional trips to exotic lands, but these same trips have taught him that the art in living to is to find the exotic in everyday life.

Painting on the Shoulders of Giants

As a young man in 1831, Charles Darwin visited the Pacific's Galapagos Islands to document the native plants and animals, work that contributed to the development of his theories of evolution and natural selection. More than a century and a half later in 1985, Lee Steadman had the chance to follow in the Darwin's footsteps. Steadman's older brother, David, was serving as a geologist with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. when he discovered that fossils existed in the Galapagos. With the museum's endorsement he planned a two- month excursion to document the fossils of Galapagos birds and their evolution.

As a twenty-five-year-old artist, Lee was eager to participate inn the trip as a field illustrator to see, learn and paint an exotic land. He thought it could be an important stepping-stone in his young career, and he was right. The trop resulted in t the book published by the Smithsonian Institution Press, Galapagos: Discovery in Darwin's Islands, featuring fifty-one color plates by Steadman. Other outcomes were a one-hour Public Broadcasting Series television documentary and a solo art exhibition at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History. The trip was professionally challenging for Steadman for a couple of reasons. The first was the necessity to ensure scientific accuracy while completing a fine art painting. This was more than painting accurate representations of the species. According to Steadman, the background had to be correct, the habitat appropriate. The chosen tree, shrub, or beach had to be part of the informational as well as the artistic composition of the painting. And the animals' involvement in the scene had to reflect reality. Another challenge was the harsh environment. Because the islands are largely uninhabited by humans, it was difficult to cut through the brush to reach a particular site to paint. And because of its volcanic origin, the whole inland environment was tough with dry surfaces, lava rock, and thorny plants. In the lowlands, the islands were a blend of dull browns and greens that limited Steadman's palette and required him to mature as an artist.

Labrador: Fulfilling a Childhood Dream

Several years later, another chance to travel and paint appeared. In 1993, Lee's brother, David was serving as the New York State Biologist and Curator of Birds, Mammals and Reptiles for the New York State Museum. David was quite interested in researching modern day Labrador, as the environment and animal life is similar to that of New York during the Ice Age. Plans were finalized for a month-long excursion and the two brothers embarked on another exploration.

"The trip was serendipitous because David and I had a childhood dream of exploring Labrador since we were children" Lee explains. He remembers that a neighbor farmer gave him a book Lure of the Labrador Wild, about the first explorers of the area, encouraging them to pursue their dreams. " Little did I know that back then that I would have the opportunity to hike through those very mountains and paint the beautiful landscapes," Steadman says. While there, the crew analyzed wildlife for comparison to fossils found in New York State. Lee painted mostly mice and squirrels and again faced the challenge of producing fine art paintings with scientific accuracy. Of the two trips, Lee enjoyed Labrador most because he felt more comfortable in the northern climate. " I really loved the crystal-clear waters and rivers and the presence of large animals such as moose and caribou, "he recalls. " I feel fortunate," Steadman continuous, "because it was the techniques that I learned during these two very different excursions that have an impact on my artistic style and my ability to view the everyday with innocence and wonder."

The Everyday Exotic

While the trips are treasured times to Steadman, he most loves the rolling hills and pastures of his home landscape in McKean, Pennsylvania. Growing up, Steadman spent countless hours watching birds and getting lost in the woods on his family farm. "I always see something new when I am in the woods," he says, "probably because I take the time to notice," Steadman also appreciates how rare it is to see exact moments unfold. His artist's eyes see images flash by and pick up things about lighting, habitats, moods, and personalities , things he would never see from his studio window or in reference slides. Steadman's artwork has the quiet style of a silent observer of nature. So much in nature is quiet," he explains. "I want my art to reflect that." His goal is to know the woods and animals so well that when he returns to the studio, he can smell the leaves, feel the creek water and visualize the color of an animal perfectly. "By knowing my subject s so well, my paintings can have the right feeling not just the right image," he says. Sometimes though the vivid memories aren't enough. Once, when doing a series on trees, Steadman literally turned his studio into a forest so he could understand the shadow s and colors better. Even though he might spend an hour in the middle of his painting day to find the right tree branch, he believes it is worth it for the subtle differences in the final painting. Afterwards, the trees and branches usually become fetching sticks for his energetic chocolate Lab.

A Large-Scale Roller Coaster Ride

Steadman's favorite way to capture the beauty of nature is through large-scale watercolors. He began experimenting in 1985, and now most of his work is large -up to eight feet in size. "First began pushing the size limits because it was challenging, "he says. "And then I was hooked," he adds with a laugh. "I love the excitement and the anticipation of having a blank four-by-seven-foot sheet of paper in front of me" Steadman compares his process to a roller coaster ride. Stretching out the paper and getting his supplies ready are similar to the anticipation of slowly creeping up the first big hill. He admits he usually takes a few gulps of coffee and then plunges into his first wash, working fast and furious with car wash sponges or large brushes and quart size containers of paint. Once he starts with the wash, there is no turning back. He keeps up the flow of color until the edges are reached; then he turns on fans and leaves the studio. He returns when the paint is dry and determines at that point which direction to take.

To prepare to for the ride, Lee first completes up to a half dozen three-by-six inch sketches of a specific landscape. Using museum board because it is tough and durable, he usually works quickly to get his first impression of a scene. He tries to iron out any problems with color and composition at this point, knowing that in a large-scale format, he will not have the opportunity to make drastic changes. He moves continually across the picture plane. One painting that encapsulates Steadman's ability to appreciate the quiet happenings is The Falling Leaf, a watercolor of a barred owl in a snowstorm. Steadman said he had been taking a hike in the winter when he suddenly came out of the woods and entered the field edge. He stopped to listen to the sound of the snow falling to the ground and to appreciate the beautiful gray landscape as it melted into the somber sky. At that instant, a single beech leaf fluttered to the ground and landed at his feet.

That experience inspired him to record the moment, imagining how an owl looking for field mice would have reacted to the leaf. Knowing his subjects so well, he painted several sketches from memory to finalize his composition and develop his gray and purple palette. Steadman took into consideration the entire environment- the weather, sounds, the leaf, and how the owl would have participated. The style is very soft, subtle, and quiet-just like the occurrence.

Another dimension of Steadman's large-scale work is nocturne paintings. "Nature becomes another world at night, and it seems to be one that few are able to appreciate," Steadman ventures. Nocturne paintings call for special techniques. For example, "I have to be very careful with the dark color base," he explains "or it is very easy for the watercolors to become muddy," One of his favorite nocturnes, Midnight Crossing, shows the travels of a Luna Moth in front of a barn door. The moth's soft shadow from the moonlight connects it to other elements of the painting and creates motion. The painting reflects the quiet, small, and very beautiful happenings of the natural world occur when many of us are indoors, sleeping or simply looking the other way. Viewed with the appreciative eyes of an artist, such small events - the dropping of a leaf, the passing flight of a moth a momentary ruffling of a pond's surface - become exotic events that bring meaning to an ordinary and inspiration to an extraordinary painter.

In addition to his nocturnes, Steadman is working on a series of paintings of old trees lines and woods interiors. An exhibition id scheduled for summer 1997 at the Roger Tory Peterson Institute, Jamestown, New York. HE has been exhibiting his large-scale watercolor paintings at galleries such as Concept Art Gallery in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Nature's Gallery in Akron, Ohio, and has participated in exhibits at Harvard University and the Wausau, Wisconsin. Several museums have featured his work, including The Chautauqua Institute, The Hunt Botanical Institute, and The New York State Museum. Steadman and his brother have a scientific excursion planned for northern Mexico this summer. Other possible future destinations include the Polynesian Islands and a return trip to Labrador. But for Lee, the most exciting excursions will continue to be his daily walks across his Pennsylvania farm, appreciating the everyday exotic.
 
 
 
Lee Steadman
4800 South Hill Road
McKean, PA 16426
Phone: (814) 476-7689
Fax: (814) 476-0079
Copyright Lee Steadman, 2000. All rights reserved.