Watercolor Incorrect

Jerald Silva’s genre-bending brushstrokes make art an adventure

By Jessica Laskey
April 2021

Acclaimed painter Jerald Silva fits many descriptions. Here’s one he doesn’t fit: watercolorist.
“It’s not insulting. I just work so differently from persons who describe themselves that way, I don’t wish to be misunderstood,” Silva says. “Mine is a different genre using the same materials.”

Silva’s style was developed by accident. As a young artist, he was using a friend’s studio while the friend was abroad. He ran out of canvas. With necessity serving as the mother of invention, Silva noticed a roll of butcher paper. He decided to paint on that—until he discovered it was too porous for watercolor.

He then saw a gallon of Elmer’s glue, which he thinned and spread across the paper. He glued on a piece of cardboard for stiffness. The glue film allowed the paper to resist the water, which gave Silva a new surface to paint on, along with a new genre he called “watercolor incorrect.”

“This method of working is really an unexpected extension of the medium,” says Silva, whose lifelong pursuit of painting and drawing has included art studies at Sacramento City College, where he studied with Wayne Thiebaud and Amelia Fischbacher. He also attended the prestigious Chouinard Art Institute of Los Angeles (now part of CalArts), and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Sacramento State.

“It offered me possibilities that nothing else did,” he says. “I’ve tried very hard to show other people how I do it—I think it’s really easy, but I’ve been doing it for 60 years. I love it because the style is unexpected. Every painting is an adventure.”

The 84-year-old is always up for an adventure, as evidenced by his huge body of work—he estimates he’s completed roughly 900 paintings—and extensive resume. He’s exhibited in his native Sacramento, plus Folsom, Rocklin, the Bay Area, Southern California, New York City, Ashland, Ore., and London when his family moved to England on a whim in 1968 after a successful show in L.A.

“My wife had always wanted to live in England and she asked if the show had been successful enough for us to move there,” says Silva, who has three sons with his late wife, Susan. “I said we could do it but it would be difficult. Well, in this family, if something is possible, it’s mandatory. Ten weeks later we were on a freighter to England.”

Silva is quick to point out his success has been a product not just of talent, but timing. “The 1950s and early ’60s were a really good time for me to decide to be an artist because it was very stylish to be poor,” he says. “Nobody thought of BMWs, fine houses or haircuts. We lived the life we were actually living—we were poor, but we didn’t feel poor. When I lived was a miracle. Twenty years before or after, I couldn’t have done it. I can’t believe how lucky I’ve been.”

And he’s not done. He recently had a solo exhibition at artspace1616 on Del Paso Boulevard and plans to exhibit again in San Francisco and L.A., where his paintings fetch substantial sums. He’s still experimenting with his style—in fact, he’s painting in his Curtis Park studio as we talk.

“Now I’m doing odd landscapes with drawings on top as if in fog,” Silva says. He uses a technique called scumbling. A stiff brush scratches the color on, and he softens the material into what he calls a “vague painting” by spraying the watercolor pigment with water, causing it to relax and float around. Then he marks the surface with his finger. The result is a ghostlike image that looks like it’s been drawn on a steamy window.

“I’m only ever playing,” Silva says. “I always want to face the unexpected—you don’t want to be caught boring yourself. Every day you wake up is an experiment. If it’s not, you’re not doing it right.”

For information on Silva’s work, visit jeraldsilva.com.

Jessica Laskey can be reached at jessrlaskey@gmail.com. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.

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