Christopher Schink in The Watercolor Painter – Color and Light says, “Deanne Lemley is considered a master painter in both watercolor and oil, which is unusual to be gifted in both mediums and excel at the highest level. Additionally she paints a variety of subjects, landscapes, still life’s, figure, marine scenes and portraits. Many of her works have been accepted into national shows and award credits…” Deanne’s journey reminds us to “despise not the day of small beginnings” as the Old Testament prophet Zechariah puts it (Zechariah 4:10).

Deanne’s artistic passion was nurtured by her parents who provided her with art materials. Later her own children became her willing models.  “I would gaze at my children and envision a possibility of a painting. Yes, there’s Lisa and Rebecca in white frocks engrossed in a book. There is Dixie, with her little blue hat in her chubby hands, standing next to her big brother Dane, who is pointing the way into the woods. Envisioning all of this I quickly rounded up my flock. I knew kids were wiggly but didn’t understand just how much until I tried to paint them, live. I loved the idea of capturing moments in life. One of the things that served my burgeoning drawing skill was painting my kids, quickly. This activity helped me to capture the essence of the person, there was no time to paint eyelashes. 

“Painting is always on my mind and it’s something I look forward to doing every day”.  So even when Deanne wasn’t painting she was still thinking about it, envisioning a possibility for one. In car rides she would entreat her kids, “look at the landscape, look at the light, look at the clouds!” Only to have one of them explode, “Mom! Watch the road!” She is thankful to report no car accidents ever transpired from these road-travel tutelages. Their home in Redmond, WA, bustled with Deanne teaching four classes three days a week. Deanne is one of the two percent of tax paying populous who make their living as an artist – that two percent includes actors, writers, musicians, filmmakers, as well as painters. The thread of family is woven through her story from her irrepressible artistic passion to her enduring legacy of award winning paintings.   

“It’s been an extraordinary journey,” she says.

Encouragement in Art

Deanne was born in Spokane, Washington. Her dad was a big man, playing football on scholarship for Gonzaga University. He was a philosopher in many ways and a brilliant, kind man. Her mother, a tiny Swedish woman, made everything happen at home. She was on it. Monday was wash day. Tuesday was ironing day. Deanne had the advantage of having order and stability growing up. Because there were few children to play with in the country, her parents made sure that Deanne and her brother Stan always had creative materials and tools that would advance their creative thinking. Deanne’s parents fostered her direction in art. Her dad encouraged, “whatever you are good at, nurture it, stay in it, and you will do fine.”  

Artistic passion is like a seed, if it goes into the earth as a rose or daisy seed, that’s what’s going to grow out. Art was in her, and her parents cultivated this. Ever hear of “the good ol days?” Deanne is thankful she lived during a time when parents were not rushing their children off to soccer, ballet and piano etc. “We had a really simple life. We had times of boredom and that is a gift. I tell my grandchildren that it is in those hours of boredom where creativity lives. All the computer games and phone time is a distraction and hindrance to creativity.  Let your children be bored and don’t rescue them out of it because this is where they learn to think for themselves and problem solve.”

When Deanne asked her mom, “What can I do?” her mother would say, “Well, you can always dust.” Deanne resisted, and instead she took up things she enjoyed doing. One of those activities was making paper dolls. She drew them and cut them out. Soon she was making paper dolls for all the kids in the neighborhood on commission. She made them however requested, some had blond, red or black hair.  Going to school, her teachers would say to her mother, “Where does she get her imagination?” Her mother was baffled, she didn’t know either. 

Passion for painting came from her father’s side and the discipline came from her mother’s Swedish side. In the home there was a lot of creativity in music. Deanne’s mother played the accordion. An Aunt played the guitar but there was no history of a painter in the family. Besides drawing and painting, Deanne would spend hours looking at The Saturday Evening Post with illustrations by Norman Rockwell.  Noticing her interest, her parents bought her a correspondence commercial art course titled, Can You Draw This. They saw that art was the direction she was going to take and supported her wholeheartedly.

Her passion for art couldn’t be repressed. She probably exasperated her algebra teacher. He could always tell when she was drawing at the back of the room because her head would tilt in different ways as she looked at an image and tried to get visual distance. He would come to the back of the room, pick up her drawing, and embarrass her in front of the whole class. Her algebra days were sad. Her high school art class was not much better. Her teacher admired Avant Garde, teaching the students to paint in the style Salvador Dali and the abstract movement, which was not the classical direction Deanne was interested in. Still, in retrospect, she has come to appreciate that creative art movement.  

Her talent was noted in high school. She was often called upon to create a poster for a dance or some other advertisement. Teachers and classmates would say, “Deanne can do it.” Receiving acknowledgement, she became known throughout her school as being an extremely talented artist and the go-to person for creating posters and advertisements. 

Reflecting on the state of art education in America, Deanne notes that it must be frustrating for art teachers because students often think, “Let’s take art class. That’s an easy credit.” In the U.S., art appreciation has been diminished in the eyes of the public and student because it’s “an easy course.” “Art is anything but easy,” she says. “It’s called one of the disciplines for a reason. You don’t just pick up a brush, it’s a daily discipline. 

God made a way for Deanne’s passion for art to provide for her family. She points out that art takes a great deal of nervous energy. When her children were little, they would go out in the field where Deanne would paint. She would be distracted by her kids getting into the bees or falling in the water, “all those cartoon things were happening.” Her efforts weren’t wasted. Even if she didn’t come out of the day with a quality painting, she was storing up experiences, lessons and memories that she could draw from in later years. Art has to be something that you love doing enough to make sacrifices. Deanne found a way to make sacrifices for art without sacrificing her family.  

Marriage and Kids

Deanne lived in Spokane and married young. Marriage squashed her art ambition for a time. So did caring for two little children. Then the family moved to Tacoma. There Deanne had two more children, making four in all. For a season there was no time to paint. A saying around the house was, I’m going into the bathroom and my name isn’t momma!” Determined to find her expression again, she attended Tacoma Community College to take art classes when their fourth child, Dixie, was a baby. She appreciates everything she learned there, especially composition design and painting not just the classical style. 

Deanne has fond memories of her willing troupe of children and grandkids, who have modeled over the years in costume.  The days of paper dolls were over. Now she had real models to paint. Still today all of her children and grandchildren are interested in what their mom or grandma is painting, what show she has entered, what is grandma doing now?   

Deanne’s college art instructors encouraged her, one in particular. He was taking a sabbatical and asked Deanne, who was in her twenties, to substitute for him. He believed that she would do a great job teaching his class while he was gone. That was hopeful. Independent as they might be, artists need encouragement too. This was the beginning of the transition from student to instructor as her talent and gift for teaching was apparent. Deanne says: “I recognized the opportunity to develop not only as an artist but as an instructor. The prospect presented itself so I pursued it.”

After college, Deanne began to study with private instructors. Bill Reese, Jerry Stitt, Charles Reid, Rex Brandt, Joan Irving, Robert Wood to name a few. All these amazing teachers had something she could glean from. Studying with private instructors who made a living teaching, showing in galleries, and painting was an inspiration for Deanne to keep at it. They were all big encouragers. Deanne realized that the direction she wanted to go was to be an artist “in the field” who was actually painting and teaching to pay the bills. Now in her late twenties she was painting consistently with other artists, laying much paint to canvas and paper. She was developing a reputation as a talented painter who worked hard. Deanne wasn’t painting for the notoriety, but because she was passionate about this art form; she embraced being in a camp with other talents who toil away unseen and unnoticed doing their work because they have a unified vision to create excellence. In this company of talented artist was Lois McFarlan and Bill Reese who introduced Deanne to Sergei Bongart, the famous Russian artist, known for incredible application of color.

Sergei Bongart

Deanne was one of the students handpicked from Sergei’s private class in Seattle.  He would be her chief mentor and another great encourager. Taking so many classes from him, she has mastered his heavy Russian accent which you will have to imagine in the quotes below.

The first day of class the students had their easels up painting in oil. Taki Hama was a fine painter who was working next to Deanne who tells the story: “In the class we could hear Sergei approaching us as he perused the class critiquing each students work. Sergei he had these boots on; it was clomp, clomp, clomp. Very intimidating. Sergei came up behind Taki who was dotting with his brush instead of stroking on the paint.  Sergei said in his heavy accent, ‘Why you paint like you have palsies disease?'” Deanne smiles and continues, “It’s very funny when it’s not directed at you, but If it is, it can be a devastating. I stiffened and realized, ‘This guy is really going to be serious!’” 

Sergei went right for her weakness with just a few words. “I was painting something in oil. I had not done a good drawing. I was just letting the painting develop. He said, ‘You’ll be good painter. But you must learn to draw.’ I looked at my mushy painting and I thought, he’s exactly right.” Deanne knew how to draw; she’d been doing it for years. But she hadn’t taken the time to sketch her composition before attacking the painting.  Sergei saw her passion and skill. By the end of the week, Sergei wanted her to come to Idaho to paint at his outdoor studio there. This was a wonderful opportunity to paint outdoors for Deanne, there’s something inspiring and exhilarating about painting in nature though it can be a little intimidating initially.

Going to the Idaho workshop taught by Sergei, with two dear friends was the opportunity of a lifetime. “It was so cheap, even I could afford it!” Deanne says. By that time, Deanne was divorced and raising her four children. It’s not easy to get away to a workshop like that. After painting a couple of weeks in Idaho, Sergei offered her another amazing opportunity, a coveted scholarship that all his students sought. As they were painting in the evening class, Sergei called her outside and declared, “I want to offer you student scholarship. Can you come to Santa Monica for two months?” Deanne went blank, thinking to herself: “I have four children! I don’t know how I can do that.” Seeing that she wasn’t rhapsodic and leaping for joy, Sergei countered, “Well, I see you not very excited. But let me know, Yah?!” Because he may have believed her response to be indifferent, (it wasn’t, she was thinking about my kids) he avoided Deanne for a week!

Deanne confided in her good friend Bill Reese for advice. Bill assured her, “Well I’m not surprised. If you have to mortgage your house, go! This is a very rare opportunity.” Her kids were in middle school and high school, which could be a dangerous time to leave. However, Deanne found two Christian women who came and stayed with the kids for two months. Just like her family and friends had before, they rallied around her to offer support and God provided a way, as He always has. Reflecting back Deanne says, “I’ve got to tell you, I’m a poor, white, eccentric, artist lady. But this opportunity was so amazing and I’m so glad I took it.” In Santa Monica she met Delbert “Del” Gish, who is a terrific artist based in Medical Lake, Eastern WA. She also met Sunny Arpinchapong, Ron Lucas and Carolyn Trueblood who were also scholarship students. They all became fast friends. Now, Ron Lucas works for Steven Spielberg, and Sunny works for Walt Disney. They both took the commercial art path. Deanne imagines they are making good money. She quips that for her, “Money talks, it says, ‘bye bye.’”

A couple of years after that summer, Sergei saw Deanne at one of his other workshops. He cried, “Where you disappear to? You like butterfly come out of cocoon and is flying!” She remembers him critiquing Stan Miller who was focused on his watercolor. Stan was finishing one part of his painting, then he moved to finish another part, then another part. Sergei said, “You paint by parts. How can you make the whole painting whole if you paint by parts?” Stan has become an outstanding and respected watercolor painter and is a signature member with A.W.S.  Sergei was brutally honest. But he taught his students well and they loved him for it. For seven years, in different contexts, Deanne was mentored by Sergei. When he passed away, she realized the finality of death and what an incredible gift he had been to his students. He was a larger than life figure and is greatly missed. 

Making a Living as an Artist

Deanne moved to Redmond after she married Jerry Stitt, an accomplished watercolorist. By that time she was equally established as an artist, and they were a leading artist couple. Deanne was participating in the local competitions, and moving in the direction of national competitions. They were still struggling artists, though well-known in the northwest. “Getting to do what I love is a paycheck no one can give.” Sadly, her marriage to Jerry didn’t work out and they parted ways. Deanne knew she had to create income without the help of a soulmate. 

A lot of people were asking her to teach classes. She had observed artists like Bill Reese, Richard Schmidt and Charles Reid who were professional painters successfully instructing. She saw this was a path that she could take. She didn’t want to be an art professor who never got to paint. Professors always seemed to complain about the lack of painting time. As her reputation grew, she was called up on to jury and continued teaching workshops. Her students were amazed that she was able to preserve the family and the keep the wolf from the door. “But it was a lot of work and it took a lot of energy.” 

How was Deanne going to make it with four kids by yourself as an artist? She was teaching workshops all over the state. Her friend, Lois McFarlans, suggested, “Instead of all this traveling to teach why don’t you transform your garage into a studio?” After praying about it, Deanne felt she had the green light. The garage had to have insulation, wiring, heat and dry wall in order to be comfortable and presentable to teach in. Where would she get the money to pay for all this? She bartered with the electrician for paintings and her dad and Harold Craig, who was a member of the Puget Sound Painters group, completed the rest of construction. Setting up seven still life’s, each with a theme and color relations, was first on to do list. Students should have variety to keep their interest. Thankfully Deanne had a large mailing list of students to draw from. Her next step was to mail out an announcement that she would be instructing in watercolor and oil in her studio. Then she waited.  The student’s response was excellent. She never looked back. For the next twenty-five years her classes were always full and she had waiting lists for those who wanted in.  “It was a joy and a privilege to get to teach so many great people,” she says. 

“If you want to live well, don’t be an artist!” Deanne says. But she adds, “Even though I didn’t have financial stability, I had the moral support of my family and Jesus always provided. It was He who I sought for provision throughout my career. I have family members, nieces and nephews that are interested in art. My heart falls because it’s especially hard. What I learned is your children make you scramble. You’re clambering to find your own expression within the household. It’s not easy but if you have that fire in the belly you’ll create, you must create! This is one way you keep your individuality by having your own expression. The struggle though is not worth it for everyone.”

Struggles and Joys of being an artist 

The struggles and joys of being an artist are tied to being a living breathing human being. It is how you perceive your art and your subject. The Lemley Art Studio opened in 1981.  Her house was located on a corner lot so lots of available parking. During the twenty-five years of instructing in watercolor and oil her career blossomed and grew way beyond her wildest expectations. Opportunity’s availed themselves to her which gleaned more exposure and awards. Her students worked from ‘life’ learning to see in shapes, color and value relations, and trying to compose.  “They inspired me as much (I hope) as I did them.  My job was to teach my students how to see beyond the obvious, not just to observe but go to a deeper level of transcription to paint. To transfer all this information can be an overwhelming concern. The play of light and shadows on the portrait or landscape is so beguiling and fleeting it demands the highest form of concentration and its beauty to the viewer. The struggle of painting is to transfer a three dimensional world into a two dimension format, that is the challenge.” 

For Deanne, the joy and exhilaration of creating nearly transcends everything. The years of planning lessons for classes led to enjoying students response in their endeavors to learn. It was stimulating for Deanne to see them grow as artists. “The friends I made are irreplaceable. It was a wonderful time. I cried when I gave it up,” she says. “The why you paint has to do with passion and expression. Everything has to be in play to find that expression. Throughout my life I never lost this drive. Art has everything to do with expressing yourself through the medium which brings joy, satisfaction and exhilaration in the experience. Art should be a positive influence on society.”

Losing her dad was an unfathomably painful time because he was the champion to her life. As no one in her family was an artist nor understood that path, she was just kind of weird. As time rolled on and the accolades rolled in they began to say, “Oh wow, I have a relative who is an artist. She’s really good.” However, her parents believed in her from the beginning and were her first allies.

After her father died, Deanne’s mother, Lily, was alone for ten years. She was a Christian woman with strong faith with a heart for her family and God. From her Deanne had determination, discipline and faith and the passion to do what you were created to do. “Mother was probably the most disciplined woman that I have ever known.” Eventually, Deanne recognized that her mother, who was now in her 90s, could not be alone anymore. She was failing. Independent as her mother was, Deanne knew she couldn’t bring her to Redmond because of the stairs in her home and besides that, the community that her mom had built was in Kennewick. Her roots went deep in church, her friends and doctors were there. “My mother deserved better than going into a nursing home and I wanted to honor her in her last years.” Deanne’s parents were huge in her life, and she is eternally grateful for them. She felt she could never repay them. Writing the letter to her students explaining her resolution to close the studio to be with her mother was difficult because she had built this business into a successful art career. Most of her kids lived in Seattle too. It was a difficult extraction. Deanne reflects on that transition: “It left a big hole and question mark in my mind. I thought how am I going to pick this up again? One of the hardest things was giving up the circle of artists, friends and family living in the greater Seattle area. I gave up everything but in hindsight I gained so much more.”

Deanne prepared her move to Kennewick in 2006. Family came from as a far away as Texas to help. Her brother came from Utah. He was very business-like in the process, down to earth, like their mother. But when he went to Deanne’s storage unit and opened the door and saw all the stuff, he almost fell over backwards. “You know, artists collect things,” Deanne said wincing. As she was driving her van so fully loaded she could hardly see out, Deanne got a clear, physical witness that she was doing the right thing: “It was God’s affirmation. I didn’t want to do it, but I was obedient. A peace settled over me as I drove away from Redmond. I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be.”

On Watercolor

One of the things that Deanne loves most about watercolor is its transparency, its light and reflective. “You get your creative juices from the immediacy of it. Even though you build your painting through a layering process, it is still immediate. It forces the artist to plan well. In painting in watercolor or oil It can’t be a mindless thing. It engages everything; physical, mental, spiritual, the records of your past, the hopes for the future, everything. And your hope is it’ll turn out!”

Painting in watercolor helped her oil painting progress in the planning stages. Its immediacy forced her to think about composition, color, subject and finally the climax of the painting. Deanne’s watercolors feel immediate and fresh, full of energy, life and light; but they are born out of deep thought too. She also likes the fact that watercolors travel well. Watercolor dries rapidly. You can travel by car, boat or plane and it doesn’t get messy. When she’s gone to Europe, taking watercolor was so much easier than trying to transit oils around before they dry. Watercolor engages the spontaneous nature of the artist.  



Like Sergei’s counsel so many years ago, Deanne tells young artists to draw. That is encouragement number one. “What I see a lack of is that people don’t want to draw. They want to paint. They want to throw the color down. They want to not worry about drawing. But drawing gives strength and solidity to your painting, it gives inspiration and knowledge.” Drawing is a necessary discipline to painting. There are two ways to draw. One is for composition, the other is for information. Drawing is a discipline that an artist must not sidestep. 

The second encouragement is to try to work every day. “If you’re not actually painting, then think about: how big is it going to be, its composition, format and colors.” Deanne describes her paintings as little nuggets of thoughts that start out small but grow exponentially. When you get done with the one painting, you’re thinking about your next one. You’re building on a reservoir of paintings. Art is an expanding kind of thing. 

The third encouragement is to get with a group of artists who are interested in drawing and painting. Find people who are interested in taking classes and going to museums. Or find a master artist who you can study under. “I have found you learn more in a group than you do in isolation”. Deanne has been greatly influenced by the Russian impressionistic painters. One of which is Repin who was an eighteenth century painter in Russia. Sergei would quote from Repin. “Painting is really very simple. You put right color in right spot.” Deanne points out that “it may take 50 years to learn right color in right spot.” 

A fourth encouragement is to keep at it and not get discouraged. Don’t get dejected if you haven’t made it from A-Z immediately, that’s not realistic. It’s just not going to happen that way. Painting is a process that is pleasurable; at least it can be if you give yourself time. Aim at painting but don’t take yourself too seriously. So what if your day’s work is not a good painting. Do another one! Consistency pays off. When you see a daring painting that is direct and innovative, it feels like it comes from the gut. You recognize that a deep feeling and passion is there. You can’t copy it. You can’t replicate it. It just is. Consider the possibility of what it could be not what it is. 

Legacy as an artist

Deanne is a signature member of the Northwest Watercolor Society (N.W.W.S.). She is also a signature member of the National Watercolor Society (N.W.S.) and signature member the American Watercolor Society (A.W.S.), the highest honor a watercolorist has is to sign your name with N.W.S. and A.W.S. The N.W.S. is a little more Avant Garde, little more out of the box and not nearly as traditional or conventional.  A.W.S. on the other hand is polished, high end, awesome watercolors. It is an international society, the best of the best. Deanne recently received the Dolphin award given by A.W.S., and her paintings regularly go on tour with their traveling art shows. The story behind her first A.W.S. award is entertaining. Jerry Stitt was in her studio and she told him she was thinking about entering a full sheet watercolor of a model. It was called “Hard Times.” Jerry said, “No, not that one; don’t you have anything else?” But she sent it after all, and it was the first medal award she received at A.W.S. 

Deanne has learned to risk entering shows and not wait for “the next painting that will be better.” She submits the digital to a respective society and “if it gets in great, if it doesn’t, fine, because I don’t have to ship and worry about it.” Being a juror many times she understands that if your painting is rejected from a show that doesn’t mean that it’s a bad painting. “Paintings that are rejected from big shows is not because it is a bad painting but because they have a hard cut to make. There are so many talented artists,” she says.  

Art is a legacy. Deanne would like her students and family to see that if you put your shoulder to the task, the results will come forth. Persistence pays off even in the hard times. When things are going well it’s easy but it’s in the hard times when you’re truly tested and pushed beyond your limits.  The conviction of putting a load of paint down takes confidence, so practice and do it over and over. This applies to whatever gifts you have, keep your dream and keep going!

Deanne hopes that through her life and art she will have left something of value to her children and grandchildren. She feels blessed and favored to have been able to take her family into her world of art.  She hopes that her legacy as an artist was one who pursued honesty, who promoted a feeling of hope and lasting endurance and who was generous. Deanne’s journey as an artist began in family. It continues with her family. Two of her daughters opened a business in honor of her: 

Deanne ends by pointing attention away from herself: “Reflecting on my past I see the guidance and favor of Jesus and I am forever grateful, to Him be the glory!”

Vintage Watercolorists of Washington

  • Vintage Watercolorists of Washington Art Show opens Saturday, March 12, 10am-5pm
  • Meet the Artist Reception, Saturday, March 12, 3:00pm
  • Continues on Saturdays March 19 and 26, 10am-5pm
  • At Sunnyshore Studio: 2803 SE Camano Drive, Camano Island, WA
  • In Partnership with Northwest Watercolor Society (NWWS)

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