Franciscan Joy: Finding His Hobby Was a Stroke of Luck

Friar Voices

Detail of an abstract watercolor by Fr. Jim Van Vurst, OFM


For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by watercolor paintings. I would wonder how in the world the artist managed to work with water-laden paints and wet paper and still be able to produce the hardest of edges and as well as the softest areas in the same painting.

In 1988 I had the opportunity to explore this exciting world of painting following a thrilling walk through the Cincinnati Art Museum to view the stunning Munich Art Museum Exhibit. Upon leaving I found in the lobby a brochure for the Art Academy’s Education courses which included offerings to adults for painting and drawing. That was the start. I took drawing classes along with watercolor classes at the Academy with other adults, many of whom were just beginning. I felt intimidated at first but soon realized that the teachers were very affirming of our efforts, as limited as they were. The very fact we were at least trying to paint was important to them.

There was one incident I’ll never forget. Our small class of about 12 beginners in watercolor painting had met for only a few weeks and to our horror, we were told to meet in downtown Cincinnati at the busy, crowded Fountain Square. With some trembling the class spread out and began to set up easels. You can imagine what happened when the onlookers spotted us getting ready to paint. Pretty soon we had people all around us, watching. We were scared to death. I had no idea what I was trying to paint, but as I put down some brush strokes, several people commented, “Oh, that’s pretty.” I think just watching the paint go on the paper intrigued them because it was probably the first time they had seen it happen. I can assure you I was relieved to fold up and head home.

At the library I found a watercolor video by Ron Ranson, the English watercolorist, in the Cincinnati library. He started painting almost on a dare after he lost his job. He was in his 50s at the time. What caught my attention was that his plan and technique was to simplify the whole learning process: He limited himself to just seven colors and three brushes. His instructional video was a real eye-opener, and I was hooked. (Tip for learners: Nowadays YouTube has hundreds of watercolor and oil instructional videos.)

I worked steadily on learning the basic techniques of watercolor. I continued gathering a small library of watercolor books and videos of well-recognized artists. As might be expected, there were times I was discouraged – nothing I did really pleased me. I knew in my head what I wanted to paint but discovered that the color-laden brush in my hand did nothing like I wanted it to do: With patience and perseverance, the results (at least sometimes) seemed to me to be what I was looking for. In the summers I took watercolor workshops in North Carolina with Ron Ranson and Hungarian artist Zoltan Szabo and others. And of course I continued to read and paint and paint and paint.

While living and working in Dayton, I became a member of WOWS (Western Ohio Watercolor Society), entering several of their shows as well as shows in the Dayton area. In time I became chaplain at a large retirement center and was able to offer watercolor classes to the staff and residents. The classes always filled up.

After nearly 30 years, I would say my own philosophy about painting could be summed up this way: Whether a painting is a success or failure or something in between, the painter’s willingness to risk is what allows him or her to engage in an effort that comes from the soul. I also wanted my paintings to be interesting and pleasing to the eye of the viewer.

While most of my early paintings were landscapes, I’ve also branched out into abstract watercolor and mixed media paintings, which brings an extra excitement to the work. In a sense, I never know for sure whether I will have a success or failure, or something in between. What at first may look like failure can gradually grow into something beautiful and unexpected.

Sometimes the opposite is true. One thing is certain – the process of abstract watercolor is always an adventure.

The paintings of Fr. Jim Van Vurst are displayed in Cincinnati at Roger Bacon and Seton High Schools, the Sisters of Charity Administration and Motherhouse, and the Offices of St. John the Baptist Province in Cincinnati, as well as St. Clare Monasteries in Cincinnati and Duncan, British Columbia, Canada.

(Fr. Jim is Associate Pastor at St. Clement Parish in Cincinnati, Ohio.)

Watercolor by Fr. Jim Van Vurst


Detail of watercolor by Fr. Jim Van Vurst

Fr. Jim Van Vurst instructing a painting class