Joan Pinney integrates hard work and faith in her artistic calling. Like the transparent, wet in wet skies she loves to paint, that combination of work and faith have blended to make a legacy of gorgeous paintings, a vibrant gallery, inspired students, and deep friendships.
Joan came from a family that has a creative bent, but no painters in the bunch before her but a great many since. She spent her first five years in Alderwood, north of Seattle. Then her mom, dad and two siblings moved to a twenty-one acre farm in Kirkland, near where the Evergreen Hospital is today. They had cattle, pigs and one horse that the children shared, and lots of baby animals around. “It was a joyous way to grow up,” Joan says. Her parents encouraged the kids to help on the farm. They learned to help at a very young age. “We don’t know what to do when it seems like time we should quit,” reflects. “But that’s the joy of being an artist, you can keep painting until you can’t.”
It was a good upbringing. Besides caring for the animals, they kept a great big garden and canned fruits and vegetables. It wasn’t all work. “Daddy was home. Every day at lunch we’d have stories,” Joan remembers. They had a couple of hired men who came in at lunch time too and spun their stories. The kids learned a lot at the table.
Joan’s interest in art began in childhood. She was always making things. Her dad would stop and ask, “what are you making?” Joan replied, “I don’t know. I have finished it yet.” How could she know till she was done? Joan’s mom allowed the kids to make a mess. She provided them with material to create. Both parents encouraged her in whatever they did. Joan states, “They would always give their blessing. They would think it was wonderful. She spent a lot of time drawing which she believes is the foundation of being an artist.
Joan attended Lake Washington schools, all the way through her sophomore year. Her junior and senior years were in Sultan. Sadly, Sultan High School didn’t have any art classes at the time. So Joan didn’t get to take formal art lessons for quite a while.
She did, however, get married. Joan and Tom Pinney married young. Joan was right out of high school. The made their first home in Kirkland. They had two children, a boy named David and a girl named Cheryl “who are the joy of our lives.” Joan enjoyed being a mother and homemaker. She didn’t take art classes until after Cheryl was born. She learned about a Faye Chong Chinese brush stroke class. It was near by and in the evening. That course started her on what she later came to see was an artistic calling from God. Joan took that class, then others. Her first steps into the artistic vocation was through adult education.
Joan didn’t go to college until she was thirty. Their kids were older so she could leave them with a babysitter after school. Joan was studying interior design and took mostly design courses, including one in stained glass. She loved them. She enjoyed thinking about space and color. But her real motivation was more practical. Previously, Joan had worked as a seamstress, doing dressmaking and alterations. And needed a change, she did all kind of sewing jobs for interior designers. Working in interior design made sense. Their family had moved to California and spent a couple years there. When they moved back to Washington, Joan took classes at the Factory of Visual Arts in Seattle, near the University of Washington. This was her door into painting.
Joan had always wanted to paint but had never spent much time painting. She took a class from Washington watercolor legend Perry Acker who taught there. Acker’s class opened her eyes. After that first class, when she walked outside, she says, “I saw so much more than I had ever seen before.” Perry instructed his students to paint with their right hand and then paint with their left hand. Then Perry had a stroke. He couldn’t paint with his right hand, but he could still paint with his left hand. During this period when Perry was not able to teach, another Northwest watercolor legend, Thomas William Jones, taught one class. Joan enjoyed that class, and their friendship continues to this day. Joan took another class through the Factory of Visual Arts. It was painting on location. The class met all around Seattle. The teacher would give the students a map and the address. Each week they’d meet at that place, set up their easels and paint. Since then Joan flourished as a plein air painter.
But it was really her mother’s death that pushed Joan into painting as her work. When Joan was forty her mother passed away. Joan was in a class and the instructor asked if there was anything that they had always wanted to do but hadn’t. She said yes that she always wanted to do something with her watercolors. It was at that moment that she decided to make a change. Her mother had died at age 64. She decided to stop the other things she was doing and paint full time.
Open Door Gallery
Joan realized that she was too much of a people person to just be home and painting alone. She needed more interaction than that. She had a group of artists friends that got together and painted. They decided to look for a place to rent in Monroe, where they could have a studio. By that time both Joan’s parents had passed away. She had a little cash from her inheritance which she could invest. Space was expensive, and the places they looked at were not the right fit. Joan’s dear friend Toni Accetturo, a lifelong painter, accompanied Joan to check out all these potential spaces.
One day they went to look at what had originally been a Doctor’s office. When they got there the sign said “SOLD.” A real estate agent happened to walk by just at that moment. Joan asked him “do you know of a place that we could look at?” He said, “this place is for sale.” Joan responded, “but It says ‘SOLD.’” The real estate agent shared that the space had just came back on the market. He showed it to Joan and Toni. The doctor who had had it built had fought in WWII and wanted to build something sturdy. It was in an art deco style, with these old poured concrete walls, thick. It was 1987 and the price for the space was good. But it was dirty, smoke stained. The previous renters were had not kept it very clean. The glass block windows were cracked and full of water. Toni said “this is awful.” Joan said, “I like it.” She told Tom about it. He said, “Well, let’s go look at it.” Joan told Tom, “Tell me right away if it’s not worth doing. If you think it has a chance, let’s measure it.” Tom said, “Let’s measure it up.” Joan called it the Open Door Gallery because they had been praying for a door to open to a place for a studio & gallery. Tom being supportive of Joan’s Gallery venture is an example of how critical it is to have a supportive spouse to survive and thrive as an artist. It’s hard, if not impossible, to make it as an artist without the support of your spouse. Tom stood behind her and helped with turning the space into a gallery. Still, Joan had to do the challenging work of running it.
Joan and the other artists worked creatively to make the Open Door Gallery thrive. The artist friends came together to make it a cooperative gallery. On Tuesdays one would stay back at the gallery, the others set up easels somewhere in the neighborhood and painted together. Joan knocked on the door of the house they wanted to paint and asked if it was OK if they did a painting of the house. If no one answered, they would set up in the street or on the sidewalk and paint. Usually, by the time the owners came home they’d say, “Can we see that when it’s finished? We’d like to buy that.” Or a neighbor would come by and say, “I want to buy the painting when it’s finished.” That helped them make the monthly payments and kept the gallery open.
The payment wasn’t a lot of money, just $600 a month. Still, a gallery is a difficult thing to make pay for itself. For Joan, the work of running a gallery was worth it. During that time she met all kinds of artists. They showed her their work, hoping to get in the gallery or have a solo show. The Open Door Gallery was less than a thousand square feet, but it had ten foot high ceilings allowing Joan to hang paintings up to a high level. Joan placed a large conference room table from her brother in the main room, which was perfect for classes and meetings. Being a gallery owner is also being an interior designer, because space, color and the arrangement of paintings matter.
One of the most important things that happened was the coming together of artists. There is so much to learn from each other all about art, being an artist, how to sell and have shows. Great learning took place in that gallery. It was a true labor of love by all who were involved.
Through that time the artists came together and formed the Sky Valley Artists Guild. Who in turn started the Spring into Monroe Art Show and the August Art in the Park. Great memories came from all those yearly events.
Plein Air Painting
Joan was inspired to spend a year painting Plein air by an artist she met while doing the gallery. Irene Cook. Irene was an oil painter. She said if you can paint outside for a year it will transform you as an artist. Joan began to paint outside a lot. This helped her learn what the
shadows do, to discover what kind of colors show up in the shadows. She points out that a photograph can’t capture the subtleties. It makes the shadows dark, minimizes the colors in the shadow. You can’t get as much from a photo as you do in real life. Sometimes Joan would go out alone, other times with another person. She remembers, “I’d find myself in the Tualco Valley where the Prison Honor farm is. I’d be standing at my easel and then think, hmm this is really close to the Honor Farm. Maybe I shouldn’t really be doing this by myself.
Another artist and Plein air painter she met through the gallery was Genevieve Tuck. Genevieve was 36 years older than Joan. She too was a lifelong painter. She would make arrangements and pick her up and of we would go. She never cared if we didn’t have permission to go on someone’s farm. Joan says, “Well, I was raised on a farm. And you just don’t go out there in a field. But Genevieve did. I’d usually put myself in the middle of a driveway where I hoped they couldn’t complain too much. Then she’d go off. And at that point she was in her eighties, maybe even mid to late eighties. And she’d have a big long down coat on if it was cold. She’d go down through a ditch, and she’s carrying her easel and her paints. Down and up and through this muddy field. I would say, “I can carry that for you.” And she’d say, “No, I always give myself something hard to do.” Joan thought that was great advice. She didn’t just give up because she was getting old. She really never got old in spirit. Genevieve was one of the first Schack’s Artists of the Year. Joan was also later named a Schack Artist of the Year. She learned her lessons from Genevieve well.
The Co-op artists taught classes there. Together they kept the doors open for seven years. Then Joan realized that she was doing so much administrative work, curating, and bookkeeping that she didn’t have time to paint anymore. She decided to put the business on the market. The business sold. But the group who bought it struggled, they hadn’t factored in that Joan was working for free, as her contribution. There was a ten year period of time after that when Joan rented a large studio space in Monroe and used that space for classes, workshops, and friends painting together as a group. This studio was a place for another coming together of artists.
One lesson is to spend time working, painting, and rubbing shoulders with artists you admire, enjoy and respect. Joan points out that while she has learned things from her art teachers. But the people you really spend a lot of time with, those are the people you learn the most from. Like Irene Cook. Like Genevieve Tuck.
Irene Cook once told Joan, “If you have the desire to paint, then it’s really a calling. We artists are really blessed. We’re called of God to do this work.” Joan has taken that lesson to heart. To be able to do that work is so good, a gift from God.
Joan integrates her faith with her work as an artist. She believes that if she prays about what she’s doing and asks the LORD for help, “things come out a lot better and a lot sooner than when I try to do it myself.”
Joan has learned through all the years that she painted that most things can be fixed. “Sure, some paintings you just need to tear them up and throw them away. But most things can be fixed.”I’ve used a toothbrush to get the paper back to white. And a clear plastic spoon to flatten out the fibers while it’s wet. Smooth the paper back out again. Sometimes, especially if I’m doing a commission. And I really don’t want to lose it. I’ve already spent a lot of time on it. I’ll take some extreme measures to get the paper back to where I can work on it again.”
Mentors and Community
When asked who her mentors are, Joan talks about that gals that helped her at the Open Door Gallery: there was Toni Accetturo a good friend of Joan’s who was twenty three years older. They painted together a lot; there was Sally Erlendson, Sally Ohlsen, Clara Russel, Dee Little, Carol H. Sue Bull, Lorraine, Debbie, Joanie G, & Marilyn T. Joan says they were women who had a little more time, they were able to help & go out and paint. She learned greatly from all of them. Those friendships didn’t end when the gallery doors closed. Joan has helped some of them move, usually from a large house to a small house. She brings her boxes, puts the paintings in, carts then to the new place, and hangs them once the furniture is in. “Once they have their paintings on the wall, then it’s home,” Joan remarks. This makes downsizing easier than it is for a lot of people, because they bring their art with them into their new home. Joan says, “It’s like having their friends all around them. They have their art, plus they can still paint. You can paint till you die. Artists are blessed in that we don’t have to quit painting.”
Joan’s friend Dee is in her late eighties now and she paints every day. She Skypes with her daughter in South Dakota and they paint together. They paint and talk about what they’re doing and it is just great. “I don’t think she’s been happier than she is right now. Dee lives at the Friendship House community. It’s just a small house, in a row of little house, with a little backyard. But Dee is so happy. She’s painting and they have a little Bible study and birthday parties.” At this point in Joan and Tom’s life, they are watching how other people are growing old, with grace. Joan’s still learning from her mentors.
Watercolor, Joys and Struggles
Joan was drawn to watercolor because it’s transparent. She loves the transparency of watercolor, its fluidity. She like the fact that magical things that happen almost by themselves. For example, when you paint wet on wet, and turn the paper, the colors mix and blend. Joan paints skies using this method. Sometimes she’ll paint a number of sky washes each on sheets of watercolor paper till she gets what she wants. She paints some vertically, others horizontally. Then she finds one that matches a scene that she wants to paint. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t work, but with watercolor always it is a creative adventure.
For Joan, watercolor is the medium she uses to capture places she loves, from the Washington Coast, to the Cascade mountains, to Italian towns and ports. Besides painting on the scene to capture the beauty of a place, Joan takes lots of photos. She has drawers in her studio full of photographs. “If could paint every hour of every day for the rest of my life and maybe get through some of them, but not all”. In a class she is teaching, she will use photos from a trip she took to Italy. As soon as she starts looking through the photos, she is back there again.
There are challenges that come with watercolor too. One of them is working on commissions. Joan has done a lot of commission work for hospitals and clinics. She was commissioned to do paintings for the Duvall, Redmond, Woodinville and Bothell Evergreen clinics. She’s done large commissions for Providence Hospital, and more for the Snoqualmie Hospital. Painting commissions is challenging work, especially if you’re painting from black and white historical photos. The ones Joan did for Providence Hospital that are on the eighth floor were painted on large, thirty inch by forty inch watercolor paper, twice the size of a normal full sheet of watercolor paper. There’s pressure that comes with commissions. “You kind of hold your breath and hope you can do it” she says. Thankfully, the paintings that they chose were ones that Joan had already done before. One of them was a vertical sailboat painting. But the hospital wanted it as a horizontal. She did another full sheet painting as a horizontal before she took off and did the really big one. They loved the paintings and people still see them today and Joan is happy about that.
When asked about her legacy Joan downplays it. She says that what she enjoys the most is teaching. “If I can inspire people to paint and enjoy it. That’s a really good thing.” Joan believes that if people keep using their brains, especially the right side of the brain, where lots of emotional things happen, it helps them get through all facets of life. She’s taught new beginners to watercolor to experienced “wonderful” painters. She talks about one student she had about three years ago. In all her classes she says, “Now it’s brush time.” Actual painting, not talking about painting, is what makes you get better. That student bought in to that. She painted every day and still does. Joan was impressed with how quickly she improved.
Joan has won her fair share of awards and honors. She’s a signature member of the Northwest Watercolor Society, founding member of The Sky Valley Artists Guild, founding member of The Arts of Snohomish Gallery. Besides being named the Artist of the Year by the Schack in 2014 she’s also received a First place award at the Northwest Watercolor Society & Pacific Resources in the Major Arts in 1988; her paintings have been included in 6 Foss Maritime Calendars, 1999 NWWS Purchase Award, 1995 Edmonds Art Festival Mayor’s Purchase Award, 2005 West Coast Paper Art Exhibitions 2nd place award, 2006 NWWS Waterworks Shows South West Watercolor Society’s award, 2008 West Coast Paper Art Exhibitions 2nd place award.
The very best reward she has ever had was the ability to do paintings of her four grandchildren. Paintings she hopes are treasures that will remain in the family.
At the end of the day, Joan is a person who learned to see the beauty around her as a child and had the desire to capture a moment in time as an artist. The love of working she learned in childhood served her well. She’s blended that work ethic with a vibrant faith in God: this gave her courage to make the decision to be an artist, open and run a gallery, paint full sheet paintings Plein air, cultivate friendship with other artists, and create striking transparent watercolor paintings that point to the beauty of the ultimate Creator.
Joan Pinney will be one of six legendary Washington Watercolorists showcased in Sunnyshore Studio’s Vintage Watercolorists of Washington art show.
- Saturday, March 7, 10am-5pm
- Meet the Artist Reception, Saturday, March 7, 3-5pm
- Show continues on Saturdays, March 14 and 21, 10am-5pm