Columbia — A blank sheet of paper waits for Jerry Thompson’s wet paintbrush in a neatly organized studio built above his garage. In two hours, the white paper transforms into a watercolor painting of a foggy pasture scene infused with light and and color.
Spending time before a sheet of watercolor paper is Thompson’s idea of a beautiful day.
Recently retired from his architecture firm near Columbia, Thompson took a step back from the rigid office hours to be a full-time painter. He is still in his office, part of which is the studio, just as early in the morning, but he has more freedom during the day to do what he likes.
“When I am not painting, I am usually doing something around the house,” he said.
His self-designed home is situated on 20 acres that Thompson uses to his advantage. This includes taking walks around the property with his wife, Ruth, or sitting outside to sketch the neighbor’s house. “I am constantly looking for a painting,” he said.
The constant search for the next painting has led him to Ireland, Germany, Switzerland and Austria with his wife.
“It is kind of a joint thing, but he always takes his artwork,” Ruth Thompson said. “It is dual-purpose for him. He does his thing, and I just go and see the sights. It doesn’t bother me.”
Thompson is not seeking to create a realistic picture, but a believable one.
“Painterly work is more enjoyable,” he said. “If you want a realistic picture, you can take a photo. Even then, it is just an image on paper. It is not about what you are viewing, but what image is on the paper.”
He does not think you should depend entirely on a camera during a vacation; rather, bring a sketch pad with a pencil or a pen and watercolor supplies.
He always carries a small sketch pad with him. Thompson is the quiet man on the side sketching store clerks or the carousel ride at the mall.
“I just sit and look at them,” he said with a hint of a smile. “People generally don’t know what I am doing.”
As a member of the Columbia Palette art club, Thompson travels with a group of six women around Columbia to sketch or paint things on-site, in places such as Rock Bridge Memorial State Park and Cosmopolitan Park. When the weather is too cold, the group members take refuge inside coffee shops or malls. This year, they were able to sketch while near the top of The Tiger hotel.
Thompson is considered the unofficial leader. He said he thinks it’s only because he knows how to send e-mails, but his group thinks otherwise.
“We lean on him. He is the glue,” said Nancy Springer, a Palette member. “You could even say he is the hub and we are the spokes.”
Sitting in the Cherry Street Artisan on a Wednesday morning, the women of the group discussed Thompson’s style of painting as they sketched their own. “When I look at his images, it just makes me smile,” Springer said.
“If I only painted as much as him,” Kathy Mitter mused, trailing off into thought. Mitter likes Thompson’s fresh, clean style. The women have a high level of respect for Thompson and his work.
In creating a painting, Thompson often goes through a specific procedure to implement his own techniques and style. He begins by sketching a rough outline. Then he calls on his architectural skills of studying the light and structure of an object or scene.
Before putting brush to paper, Thompson sprays or brushes water onto his specialty watercolor paper. This allows for a blended color background for items such as distant trees. As the paper dries, he draws more definitive lines and shapes with harder edges to indicate items that are closer to the viewer. This is called atmospheric perspective.
The love and connection Thompson has for painting is evident through his time and commitment. He has taught art classes at MU’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. This center focuses on people 50 and older. The goal of the institute is to encourage people to continue to learn and to use their brain while having fun.
“Research has shown that development is constant through the lifespan, and one of the factors of later life development is that you understand more things about your own dynamics and personalities that you have encountered in your life,” said Lucille Salerno, Osher’s director.
Salerno is amazed at how many people want to attend a watercolor class.
“All of the watercolor classes fill up immediately, and his class is no exception,” she said. Thompson makes sure to devote a lot of personal attention to each painter, only allowing 20 people in a class.
At the institute, Thompson brings in a watering can or flowers for his students to draw. He then talks to each person to give him or her specific feedback on how the image can be changed or improved.
“Some people in the class say that they never thought they had any talent,” Salerno said. “His philosophy is that everyone can draw.”
Thompson’s artwork is on display in the main hallway of the institute. Every few months, he swaps them out with new creations. He also displays his work for sale at the art store Poppy, The Tiger hotel mezzanine and Cherry Street Artisan. Enlarged watercolor prints are on permanent display in the reception area of the Center for Advanced Medicine addition of Boone Hospital Center.
Thompson has painted a number of watercolors of landmarks at MU, such as Memorial Union and Jesse Hall. The paintings have been copied into open edition offset prints and occasionally have been given away as retirement gifts by MU.
Next on Thompson’s list is to travel to Costa Rica in January 2009 to teach a watercolor class. He was invited by Mary Kroening, the coordinator of the Missouri Master Gardener program at MU. The trip hinges on whether others sign up to go, but if they do, he will have another chance to do what he loves most: spend a few beautiful days painting.