Califonia Bountiful

A feast for the eyes

July/Aug. 2010 California Country magazine

Artist finds inspiration in fruits and vegetables

Kathrine Lemke Waste’s watercolors celebrate the rich agricultural bounty that surrounds her. She is an avid gardener and an avid cook—as well as a loyal patron of the farmers market near her Sacramento home.

Watercolor artist Kathrine Lemke Waste clearly remembers a shopping trip to an early morning farmers market in Sacramento. She visited the Vue family's stall where she bought several bunches of red scallion-type onions, their long green tails still attached, plus a bag of bright green snap peas and a bunch of heavenly scented sweet peas in shades of violet and pink.

"I tumbled them together, drew them and then painted." After she was done, the onions and snap peas became part of the evening's dinner, the flowers a table decoration. "I'm a thrifty person, so it's nice to be able to eat the still life after you're done painting it," she said.

Joking aside, Waste paints fruits, vegetables and flowers because she loves gardening and she loves cooking. She loves how the joyous colors of nature inspire people, make them smile and bring a touch of real life to bare walls. She loves the way light reflects on the surfaces of fruits and vegetables, and she likes to pair them with objects that reflect right back.

Waste paints in layers, building up from the yellows and oranges to the darker colors. This process, which can result in up to a dozen layers of paint, gives colors a rich look and adds depth to her paintings.

Inspiration for her luminous, color-rich paintings is just outside the door in the garden or a short trip to the local farmers market. In fact, most Sunday mornings find Waste and husband Bob casually strolling through the stalls at the under-the-freeway farmers market in Sacramento. She peruses each table, sometimes stopping to get a closer look. She'll pick up the produce, turn it over in her hand and perhaps chat with the farmer. "I like to know where the produce was grown," she said, and she'll often ask how to select the best artichokes or for advice on the best apples for pies. They may talk about the many ways to cook squash or which are the tastiest tomato varieties.

Waste never knows what will catch her eye, but it's certain to be colorful and interesting. All of the produce gleaned from the morning's shopping trip will end up part of dinner and some will be forever captured on paper, celebrating the bounty of California's rich agricultural legacy.

It could be red chard stems growing alongside lime green and dark purple lettuces in the raised-bed vegetable garden her husband built in their backyard. Or perhaps it's a farmers market purchase of purple-black grapes casually strewn across a slice of orange-fleshed cantaloupe. One summer day a display of bell peppers in a collage of colors—soft yellow, pumpkin-orange, racy-red, even common green—caught Waste's eye. She arranged them in a simple metal dish and captured on paper their lush colors.

Waste considers her kitchen an expansion of her studio space. She often develops design concepts there, pulling produce from the refrigerator and dishes from the cabinets.

"Life is too short for negative subjects, at least for me," she explained. "I do smaller-scale domestic works I want somebody to fall in love with, take home and hang on their wall and be happy when they look at it. I feel joy and affection for my subjects. It makes me happy to paint them, and that's reflected in my work."

Waste's watercolors aren't the stereotypical swoosh or wash of pale colors on wet paper. Her colors are clear, bright and full of definition. She uses thicker than normal paper, leaves it dry and paints with lots of pigment. She builds up from the yellows and oranges through the reds to the darker colors in layers, one on top of another. It may take as many as a dozen layers of paint to get the color and reflection exactly right. The process gives colors a richer look and adds depth to the paintings. The produce in some of the paintings is theatrically lit with studio lighting, while other paintings feel like sunlight at different times of the day. She focuses closely on objects, zooming in until you are right next to them. She studies the texture and the composition, and she uses all the colors on the color wheel.

Her layers of brilliant colors lure you into the painting. The details make you smile. In a painting called "Ratatouille," Waste positioned a group of deep purple eggplants on an old flour sack dishcloth she found on the Internet. "The printing on the dishcloth was faded, but if you look closely, you'll see the words ‘are guaranteed' next to the vegetables. I love the juxtaposition of old faded graphics with fresh produce." And who would know the plate beneath the painting of the grapes and cantaloupe belonged to her grandmother?

Inspiration for Waste’s luminous watercolors is just outside the door—especially during weekly trips to her local farmers market.

She delights in hearing how her paintings affect people. "Whether a painting, a poem or a piece of music, as the creator you put whatever you want to bring to the piece, but you have to let go of the meaning and let the transaction that occurs between the artwork and the viewer happen. It may be different than my view, but it's wonderful."

It can also be surprising. She'd painted a loaf of Wonder Bread with the spots falling off the wrapper onto the tablecloth below and was in Texas when the work was being shown. "I was standing next to an apparently wealthy older woman decked out in a fur coat, lots of jewelry, lots of makeup and a little dog in her arms. She looked and looked at the painting, then finally turned to me—not realizing I was the artist—and asked why in the world would anyone want to paint a loaf of Wonder Bread. I said, ‘Well, you know the artist is from California.' The woman sighed and said, ‘That explains it.'"

Until recently, Waste said, watercolor artists weren't taken as seriously as oil painters, for example. "We've always been a bit of an underdog in the art world, but technology has made some huge advances and things are changing." Mainly, she explained, manufacturers have improved the chemistry of a tube of watercolor paint so the colors aren't so fugitive. They're much more permanent; the paint holds up better over time. The medium has gone from being considered not "real art" to being accepted in large, mainstream galleries.

© Kathrine Lemke Waste 2010

Although Waste has painted and taken art classes her whole life, she's been a full-time artist for the last dozen or so years since her family moved from Chico, where she worked as a teacher. In Sacramento, she set up a studio in the detached one-car garage of the 1930s-era home she and her husband bought.

"The driveway and garage weren't big enough for today's cars, so turning it into a studio was the perfect idea." She equipped the studio on a "pay as you go" basis, trading artwork for shelves and finally being able to install heating and air conditioning a few years ago. "Until then I had to wear several pairs of socks and layers and layers of clothes to be able to work during the winter."

In addition to painting, Waste teaches workshops, travels to schools to help teachers incorporate art in the classroom and helps corporations and nonprofits learn to use creativity and art to solve problems. Her goals for this year include working on some watercolors of human subjects, as well as a large painting of the white clematis that covers her fence. A more practical goal includes saving up for a skylight in her studio.

Fruit Plate © Kathrine Lemke Waste 2010

Occasionally the painter in Waste takes a temporary back seat to another passion: cooking. One farmers market day, several growers offered the most luscious berries; she bought enough to make a fruit tart. After preparing it, she decided it was too gorgeous to eat and forget, and so turned it into a painting called "Chiaroscuro Tart."

"It took about ten coats of paint to get the shine and nooks and crannies on the berries just right," she said.

A print hangs on the wall of her kitchen. It's a reminder, she says, of how simple pleasures, like a trip to a farmers market or harvesting vegetables from your own garden, can bring so much joy.

Pat Rubin is a longtime gardener and garden writer. Send questions or comments to her at

For an up-close look…

Chiaroscuro Tart (from the Freeport Bakery) © Kathrine Lemke Waste 2010

Sacramento watercolor artist Kathrine Lemke Waste's work is on display at the Elliott Fouts Gallery in Sacramento, Calif., and the Bonner David Galleries in Scottsdale, Ariz.

The artist also has a new solo show called "From Farm to Table" set to open at Nestware in Davis, Calif. The show runs from Sept. 1 through Sept. 30, 2010, with an opening reception on Sept. 10 from 6 to 9 p.m. The gallery is located at 204 G St. in downtown Davis.

Visit for more information.

Ratatouille © Kathrine Lemke Waste 2010

Melon and Grapes © Kathrine Lemke Waste 2010

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