Frank Lloyd Wright famously said, “The mother art is architecture.” It should not surprise us then that a mastery of architecture and architectural illustration would be a launch pad for becoming a fine artist. That is the story of Bill Hook.
Beginnings in Architecture
Bill Hook started out in 1947 in Denver, where he and his older brother were active in scouts and were introduced to construction when they helped his family build a brick garage. Bill recalls that “Dad let me lay a half dozen bricks.. and after that I was happy to mix mortar the rest of the summer”.
Bill’s dad was a weatherman, a meteorologist, back when they used to plot the weather information by hand on big maps for the airlines. His dad would bring home those maps and Bill drew on the back of them. “I was always drawing castles and sailing ships,” he says.
He was starting high school when his parents got transferred to Chicago, Illinois. By that time he had pretty much zeroed in on being an industrial designer or an architect. That was a given; so he gave up on art and took all of the mechanical drawing classes he could.
When he went to the University of Illinois and majored in Architecture he felt like his real life had finally started. He immersed himself in architectural design and put in over twenty all-nighters studying during his first semester. “You could have tattooed a capital A on my forehead,” he says. In his fourth year of a five year degree, they had a study-abroad program for a semester in the south of France. He bought an old BMW motorcycle. “It was ancient then, and I still have it,” he recalls. For that program they had an assignment. The students could either do a research paper on urban planning or something like that using French resources in the libraries. Or they could do one hundred sketches. Bill chose the sketches. He spent all his time on his motorcycle exploring and sketching the little perched villages in southern France above Nice and Cannes. That assignment not only helped him develop his drawing and observational skills but allowed him to study how people used their public spaces. This experience had a major influence on his designs throughout his architectural career.
After graduating in 1970, Bill worked in the Chicago Loop on some very large and exciting projects but still wanted to see more of Europe. After three years and having received his architectural license, he quit his job and returned to Europe for six months. Then he came back and worked for a few more years, then took a couple of months off again but eventually travel opportunities just turned into all work.
He met Sandy Boyle after he returned. As much as he loved working in Chicago, he realized that he really wanted to get back to the mountains so he and Sandy decided to move west. They took three months traveling and interviewing but when they got to Seattle everything felt right so they got married and moved in. It was in the mid 1970’s when they arrived and they’ve been here ever since. Bill worked as an architect for another ten years. He found a position with Olson Walker, a small but very strong design firm which has since become Olson Kundig Architecture. With his Chicago background, he was able to focus primarily on the design end of their projects rather than construction. There were years of flourishing, when the firm grew; and years when it had to shrink. During one of the slow times the principals didn’t want to fire Bill but they couldn’t pay him either. So they offered to rent him a desk. Gordon Walker still continues to be a great friend and major influence in his design work and illustrations. Bill started doing illustrations for other architects. In those days it was still ink line work or colored pencil on yellow tracing paper which was what everyone else was trained to do. He realized that if he wanted to stand out as an architectural illustrator he would need to do something different. So he started adding watercolor to his ink drawings. That’s when he began to teach himself watercolor. But it would be many years before he launched his career as a watercolor artist.
Bill says “I got lucky” in his career as an illustrator. The fact is that Bill worked hard and gained a reputation as a master of architectural illustration. He was part of a lot of great projects like the renderings he did for Safeco Field and Benaroya Hall in Seattle and numerous projects for the Universities of Washington, California, Virginia and Michigan. He did a fair amount of work on the east coast too, including some work for the Smithsonian Institute, the National Institute of Sciences and several Museums including a large aerial view of George Washington’s Mount Vernon Plantation along the Potomac River. His painting was seven feet long and three feet tall stretched on a big piece of gator board. It had to be historically accurate, including the gardens, the tombs and the mansion with all of its windows. The painting was printed twice its size and is now featured on the wall as you go into the interpretive center.
“I’ve worked on a lot of fun projects,” Bill reflects. It was hard work packed with deadlines and pressure with typically a one or two month backlog of work that lasted for a good thirty years.. He was paid well but he says, Regarding those years Bill says: “I was very fortunate; I didn’t have to do any marketing. It was all word of mouth. I got to work with a lot of really good architects. They make you look good if you make their designs look good. The down side was that I was swamped and never had time to stop and think or experiment with something different”
Path to becoming a watercolor artist
Bill “found art” in mid-2007. Here’s that story.
In 2007, Bill received a two month fellowship from The Civita Institute to live in Civita di Bagnoregio, an ancient hilltop town just north of Rome. It’s a tiny town with thirteen residents officially, but there were only five or six when he was there. You can’t drive to it, you had to walk up a very steep bridge over a gully. All the food he ate had to be bought at the next town two kilometers away. It was great exercise but he had to make sure he didn’t buy more groceries than he could carry back up the hill. He loved the slow pace of life and the place where he stayed.
The institute was founded by Astra Zarena, a world-renowned architect and teacher at the University of Washington. In the 50’s she made a name for herself as the first woman to receive the Rome Prize, one of the top prizes for an architect, and she won it two years in a row! When she found this little village and bought a house, she started taking her students there for a summer of “full immersion” in the Italian lifestyle. Since then it has grown to include several residences and is now managed by the Civita Institute which offers fellowships to students and professionals that wish to find time away from their professions to think and re-evaluate their lives. Besides hiking to get groceries, Bill spent most of his time painting in Astra’s studio, which was an ancient room with walls lined with books on every subject from urban planning and architecture to art museum collections.. all in big bound editions. Bill says, “All you had to do was to reach out randomly, open a page, and immediately be intimidated. It was inspiring to say the least.”
Bill was there to paint period. That was the first time that he got away from clients and deadlines. He had no schedule but worked as hard as ever and he loved it. It was there that he decided that it was time to move away from illustrations and start doing what he wanted. Since then, that’s what he’s been doing. He still takes on a few projects. Occasionally he’ll get someone who calls up and says “this is a project that you will really enjoy being a part of…” But he picks and chooses carefully. And they are few and far between. Mainly what he does now is painting for himself.
Influences in Illustration
As he made a transition from being an architect to becoming an illustrator, Bill studied works by other illustrators but most of his learning was on the job. “It was much like grad school where you were given an assignment but in this case you got paid to learn.. but I never told my clients that they were my teachers…” Bill recollected. There were many other illustrators whose work inspired him like Cyril Farey, Ted Kautzky, and Sam Chamberlain (from Aberdeen, WA.). Hugh Ferris was also a great influence… “His images are so powerful. You can’t look at them without being hit by the immense power and presence of the structures or the cityscapes he drew.”
A major influence was Tom Schaller in New York who had just started reintroducing a style of watercolor that had its roots in the golden era of illustration in the early 1900’s. Schaller’s work had a strong graphic quality that was complimented with beautiful luminous watercolor washes. His work inspired Bill to start doing more with big, graded washes, from yellow to violet to blue. Bill learned that you could tell a lot with a single wash. Then Bill ran across woodblock prints by Hiroshi Yoshida who traveled all over Europe, India and America doing amazing woodblock prints that looked like watercolors. He would do multiple prints of the same scene similar to Monet. Bill was intrigued that it was the same image, but Yoshida captured a totally different mood and a sense of time just with color choices and in how he applied the ink. Bill learned a lot from him about color that he applied to his illustrations.
Bill was the president of the American Society of Architectural Illustrators (ASAI) which gave him a large group of contemporary peers to share experiences and techniques with. These friends and colleagues inspired Bill in his architectural illustrations and continue to have an influence in his artwork.
Breaking Free from Illustrating to Fine Art
As an illustrator, you had to be able to accurately represent an environment or structure that didn’t physically exist except on paper or in the mind of an architect. It required a highly developed ability to construct perspective images and an understanding of how buildings would look in their environment. They always had to be pretty pictures of finished buildings for the client. You could not afford to make a poor drawing because your client was depending on your image to sell a project and your reputation if you failed. It was not a work environment that encouraged experimenting with techniques or different ways of seeing.
Rather than the finished buildings, what Bill found himself drawn to as an architect and artist though, was the positive energy and chaos of the construction process when you could look between the floors and see all the scaffolding and cranes.. interesting things are happening everywhere.
When they finish up and cover everything with a nice glass facade they lose that dynamic energy and become just another boring piece of the environment. Bill wasn’t able to portray the construction of a building as an illustrator. But he finds now what he’s really passionate about is capturing the projects when they are interesting either under construction or demolition. People kid Bill that his signature is an orange cone from all the construction paintings that he’s been doing. He likes recording something that we’ll never see again.
Bill says, “I find I’m drawn to demolition sites as well but with a certain sadness as they record a loss of history. There were two large collegiate gothic churches that disappeared from the University District just this last year. They were monuments of that era and key landmarks in the district. Now they are gone and no one remembers them.
He did a whole series of paintings of the demolition of the Viaduct in Seattle. He found the big machines that he calls monsters or vultures, fascinating as they chewed up the concrete structure.
In the end as an artist, Bill is still an architect at heart. His subject matter is still driven by man made structures and the urban landscape. Now he is free to explore how to represent what he loves in as many lighting conditions and settings as he wishes… “That’s what draws my interest these days…That’s kind of what I do.”
Artistic Mentors and Influences
Since he didn’t have an art background, Bill began studying the work of other fine artists and taking workshops when possible but most of his learning was by just experimenting and practicing. In architectural illustration, everyone basically was doing the same thing, just different styles. In fine art, suddenly the field of creativity and expression was unlimited. Whenever Bill goes to an art show, he sees what people are doing and is always inspired: “everywhere I look I see paintings and ideas that amaze me.” When he first started doing fine art he still focused on watercolor but found that he needed to completely change how he painted.
He was very fortunate to take workshops with some of the worlds’ greatest painters practicing today. “I learned more from Joseph Zbukvic in a one week workshop than I had learned in 30 years.” No one paints with the energy and fearless confidence of Alvaro Castagnet. Jeanne Dobbie introduced him to understanding how colors mix. He learned how to create a painting that is both realistic and abstract from John Salminen and Mark Mehaffey showed him how to paint an entire painting just by lifting highlights from a background. Tom Schaller and Iain Stewart are still major inspirations and his best painting pals.
For Bill, art has never been about competition or being better than everyone else. Awards and recognition are important and nice but what drives Bill is always to challenge himself to do his best and get better. “I don’t ever want to be at the point where I’m the “best” because what is left to achieve?everything from there is down,” he states. When you start painting there’s lots of room to grow. If you did a good figure in your foreground, or maybe had a show and someone bought a painting, or you won an award; you remember these successes. But when you gain a level of mastery, you always expect to work at that level and at that point, the whole dynamic changes and successes are measured in tiny steps but you remember your failures. “I always want to have something to strive for…”
Struggles and Joys of Watercolor
For Bill there was a big change from using watercolor in an illustration to watercolor painting as a fine art. He reflects that Illustration was all about staying between the lines, having a prescribed design or something you had to draw to someone else’s standards. “I got very good at that. At staying between the lines. And knowing what I was doing.” But when he started doing his own painting, doing watercolor as fine art, all of a sudden he realized that everything was so uptight. His work didn’t breathe. He needed to paint outside the lines. That was very hard for him to do. He’d been drawing using perspective and accurate detail for close to fifty years. When he walks around Seattle he knows exactly where the horizon line and vanishing points are. It’s in his DNA now and consequently, he says, “It’s very hard for me to move away from that level of control, to step back and say, I’ve got to do something that I don’t fully know if I’m going to succeed at. It’s that fear that makes me learn.” That training as an illustrator allows him to create new ways of seeing his subjects in his paintings and not needing to rely entirely on photos to use as references.
The other thing he had to break free from was that as an illustrator he could not afford a bad drawing. It doesn’t mean that all his renderings were all great drawings. That work environment did not encourage Bill to experiment and he certainly didn’t want to go home and paint for fun after a few all nights spent on renderings. It was not about the Joy of Painting…That’s what he’s doing now: experimenting. It’s like he’s a graduate art student learning on his own. There’s so much to learn about composition and what different mediums will do. These are all things Bill would have learned in art school. But the hardest thing for all artists – whether those trained in art school or self-taught, is to “let go,” to let the brush do what it wants, to let the paint do what it wants.
Bill shared one example of “learning to let go” with his painting “Formwork Series #6”. He had been painting some very complex scaffolding for an overpass and was trying to “loosen up.” He liked the energy of the painting but it looked absolutely horrible. It was horrendous. He didn’t know what to do with it so he dipped his hand in water and threw some water at it. Then he dipped his brushes in water and threw more water at it. Then in frustration, he left the room. When he came back the next morning he says, “Wow, it was like magic”. There was this wonderful blossom of yellow in the sky that blended with the orange. And it pulled all those loose strokes into balance with a new energy. Walking away was important because if he’d stayed in the room he would have wanted to tinker with it and try to control it and it would have been a disaster. The result expressed the feeling and chaos of the construction site far more effectively than if he had accurately drawn everything the way an engineer would have designed it. Architecture is in his DNA, but Bill is still trying to learn to keep himself from being in total control. Watercolor is a medium that works best when you step back and let it do it’s own thing.
Another lesson that he is still learning is that implying or suggesting detail is far more effective than painting every detail. It is important to engage the viewer’s interest. If every detail is shown, the viewer doesn’t have to think but if you leave an edge undefined or only show a few details, the viewer will fill it in with their own experiences or memory.
For a long time, Bill has loved the glowing washes you can make with watercolor; from a golden yellow to a blue violet all in a single wash. Although he finds those colors almost too pretty for him at times, he still loves how a single watercolor wash can quickly define the light quality and mood for an entire painting, especially with plein air work where time is critical. Where he’s currently going with his art is to explore how to capture the power and strength of the industrial structures that he loves. When he sees a bridge he doesn’t want to portray it in the distance as a nice little line on the horizon. He wants to get up close underneath it, to feel the size and presence of that bridge or structure. Bill uses strong dark shapes to help express this power in his watercolors. In fact, he’s moving more and more towards things that would be easier to do in oils and acrylics. He’s starting to use gouache now which allows him to come back after it dries and add highlights to darker areas. It also allows him to get that feathery edge you see in oil paintings where the sky and the foliage interlock. This effect is challenging to do in watercolor. So Bill is also experimenting with water soluble oils. These mediums allow him to do things that he couldn’t have done with a brush such as using Starbuck gift cards to scratch out highlights and spread paint around. Bill likes the challenge of pushing watercolor to its boundaries and beyond. He’s currently being inspired by more abstract painters like William Wray, Patrick Lee and David Sharpe . He’s learning from artists who can do magic with a single shape or a line with one stroke. “I look at Carolyn Lord’s watercolors, and she can do a simple big shape of a cliff in the water, and it just glows and it has such power. When I try something similar, I find myself adding rocks and trees, and it all falls apart…” Bill is working hard to find ways to stretch watercolor to its max. If he doesn’t live long enough to figure that out, at least he’s tried.
Lessons for Younger Artists
Bill counsels younger artists to be careful about technology. He knows that he’s a dinosaur in this regard and he appreciates the power of the computer and technology but he knows that it also can bypass your creativity and make decisions for you. Artists need to always use it as a tool not a solution. The ideas for art have to start in your head. Even the real good architectural designers that he’s seen start with their ideas, then they put it down on the computer using modern modeling. For him a computer generated imagery is real trickery. He admits that when he was doing watercolor illustrations it also was “a lot of smoke and mirrors.” Still he warns that it is easy to be tricked by something when you are not directly involved in its creation.
That’s why he encourages young artists to master drawing skills. “The thing I would recommend most for artists is to learn to draw. I find a lot of really great artists who are frustrated because they didn’t develop that ability.” Drawing is a skill based on how you observe your world, how you look at and think about your environment. Bill is thrilled by the movement of the urban sketchers. It’s getting people out with their sketchbooks. Even things like drawing your coffee cup a hundred different ways can be great training because you’re using your head and hand together. Drawing is the most basic skill for the artist. And in that regard the artists and architects worlds merge into one. Both begin with drawing whether on a napkin or sketchbook.
Bill’s legacy might be in the unique way he merges architectural bones with loose washes for powerful watercolors. It might be in how his mastering of drawing blossomed in the artistry of painting. It might be in his humble presence and service with the Northwest Watercolor Society to which he belongs as a master signature member. It might be in his skyrocketing reputation in the art world as a master watercolorist. It probably won’t be in his selling his paintings. He’s decidedly not into that. He’s retired and has a good pension. So he’s glad he doesn’t have to paint for money. He paints because of his passion, his love for the forging of art and architecture into a powerful, potent image and the challenge of learning more and experimenting with different techniques.
2022 Vintage Watercolorists of Washington Art Show
- Opens Saturday, March 12, 10am-5pm
- Meet the Artists Reception: Saturday, March 12, 3pm
- Continues Saturday, March 19 and Saturday, March 26, 10am-5pm
- Besides Saturdays March 12, 19 and 26 the Gallery is Open By Appointment: Call Jason 317.209.6768
- @ Sunnyshore Studio: 2803 SE Camano Drive, Camano Island, WA 98052
- Sunnyshore Studio is pleased to partner with the Northwest Watercolor Society (NWWS) to bring you the Vintage Watercolorists of Washington show these past four years.