Draw what You See

Artwork By Joan Grommes Franzen | Story By Barb Howell

It’s a cold, January day when I reach Joan Franzen by phone at her winter home near St. Petersburg, Florida. Her greeting is warm, her enthusiasm is immediate and the conversation is easy. I met Franzen last fall when we discussed some of the watercolor paintings we’d be featuring in this issue of At The Lake, but this is my first chance to learn about her creative process and her long, successful career as an artist and instructor.

Many of you are probably familiar with Franzen or at least her artwork. She’s participated in Lake Geneva’s Art in the Park since its inception and is a member of the Geneva Lake Arts Foundation. In addition, she’s shown her work at the Williams Bay Fine Art and Craft Fest for over 40 years, even organizing and running it for 12 years. She’s done dozens of commissions of homes and boats around Geneva Lake, painted portraits of people and their pets, and of course, sketched and painted the landmarks and scenery that dot the landscape in a place she’s called home for most of her life.

Franzen’s introduction to Geneva Lake came at an early age when she and her sister took the train from Chicago to Williams Bay to visit an aunt and uncle. By the time she was 7, her parents had purchased a lot in Cedar Point Park and built a home. She’s visited the lake every summer since. “I love it up there,” she says. “If it wasn’t for the snow, I wouldn’t be anywhere else.”

Franzen didn’t have dreams of becoming an artist, she explains, “I was too busy swimming and boating and having fun and didn’t really think about what I wanted to do.” But her father insisted she and her sister attend college, which led to the University of Wisconsin- Madison and a few art courses.

After two years at UW–Madison, Joan transferred to the prestigious American Academy of Art in Chicago, where she was fortunate enough to take classes under the tutelage of William Mosby, an exceptional painter, who she says, “taught her the secret of art.” She explains that Mosby preached one thing over and over, “Draw what you see rather than what you know and you’ll always get it right.”

That one expression has served her well as she’s implemented this process in her own work and relayed it to others in the dozens of art classes she’s taught. “People use their imaginations as they’re painting, when really they should just paint exactly what they see,” she says.

With degrees in commercial art and fine art, Franzen has mastered several mediums — oil, pastels, watercolor and colored pencil — and she’s also incredibly efficient, completing portraits in as little as two hours. She estimates her body of work includes over 10,000 paintings.

Franzen believes that working as a commercial artist at companies such as Carson Pirie Scott, when she was first married, taught her speed and efficiency. “They gave you so many things to do and when you got them done, you could go home. I realized I was always taking the late train home,” she says with a laugh.

After her second son was born, Franzen ended her career as a commercial artist and turned her attention to oil painting and then pastels. But watercolor is the medium she loves most. “For me, it’s faster and easier than other mediums. It’s fragile, though. It doesn’t last — eventually colors fade,” she says. “Pastels and color pencil last forever.”

Her creative process begins by taking a photo — when the lighting is best — of the subject she’s going to paint. “I either take a picture first or sketch it,” she says. “Sometimes sketching helps you, because your eyes see more than the camera, especially when there’s so much detail.” She then paints at home with the time to compose from beginning to end based on the complexity of the subject.

Franzen has taught painting, specializing in pastels, watercolor and colored pencil, for over 40 years, although the pandemic has forced her to decline requests during the last year. She is a true believer that anyone who really wants to paint can. “If you have the vision and drive, anyone can do it. As Mosby said, ‘Draw what you see, rather than what you know,’ and you can be an artist.”

For more information about Joan Franzen and to see more of her work, visit artworkbyjoan.com.

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