Ox-Bow School of Art


Summer in Texas is a time to daydream about northern lakes. In August, a last-minute opening in a watercolor class I’d long wanted to attend aligned with a hole in my work schedule. I snatched up the opportunity to spend a week immersed in art making near Lake Michigan.

Peggy MacNamara is a professor at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, and Artist-in-Residence at The Field Museum of Natural History. When I’m frustrated by watercolors I look at the work of experts like Peggy, so I knew I could learn a lot by watching her. A delightful bonus was that she’s hilarious, peppering her instruction with life observations and showing how to quietly maintain your own interest in the work and make space for it. “I don’t ask ‘Why [am I doing this]?, or ‘Who cares [about my work]?’ I just try to do a good one again the next day.”

Under Peggy’s direction I used color straight from the tube, diluted to whatever degree seemed right, laid it on, and waited for it to dry completely. Another layer goes on after that, and another, another, and another. She believes that color is secondary to form. So I learned to boldly apply color and build form. This is a big departure for me, as I tend to want to mix color on the palette until it looks right. With Peggy’s method you just keep working and layering complementary colors onto the paper–and waiting until each layer is completely dry–until past the time when it feels “done”. Look how my great horned owl looks like a freaky bat during the initial layers. About a gazillion layers later, the form and color are both more lifelike.


Because each layer needs to dry completely, it’s advantageous to work large, and to work figure and ground simultaneously. I drew this fox (from a stuffed specimen from The Field) on a 22 x 30 inch sheet of watercolor paper and set him in a landscape derived from reference photographs. On a sheet this big, there’s always an area to work on while another area is drying.


Having delivered a watercolor map (which I really like, more on that later) just before leaving for Michigan, I could see how Peggy’s methods might find their way into my map work. More color, less fear of things going wrong.

For more than a century, Ox-Bow School of Art has served as “a haven for the creative process through instruction, example, and community” and boy, do they have it down. It’s an amazing treat to have a devoted kitchen serving up three healthy squares (and any-time fruit, toast, and tea) each day while you concentrate on learning and making. After a full day of instruction, evening options include swimming in the lagoon–an ox-bow formerly part of the Kalamazoo River–canoeing, hiking through woods and atop dunes, attending lectures by resident artists or scholars, finding a perfectly quiet spot in which to read or draw, or heading back to the studios, which are open 24/7.

Part of the experience is meeting artists in other disciplines and peeping in on?their work and process. Ox-bow offers classes in paper making, printmaking, photography, ceramics, glass blowing, sculpture, painting, and other areas. All accommodated in charming studios tucked into the woods off the lagoon.


View from a dune; Peggy and Leonard pouring color boldly; an evening paddle on the lagoon; a peek at marbling on the last day of the paper makers’ class.

I hope you’ll make time to visit Ox-bow and join the community. Maybe my notes will help you pack.

Things I’m Glad I Brought
  • earplugs
  • eye pillow
Things I Brought but Didn’t Need
  • white shirt (what was I thinking?)
  • my own tea
Things I Wish I’d Brought
  • the good camera
  • yoga mat