‘Keep the White Space’ And Other Life Lessons From This Watercolor Painter

The story of an artist with no time to paint, but found a way to change that.  

By Lindsey O'ConnorMarch 29, 2016 10:23 am

Kathleen McElwaine paints iconic images of Texas: longhorns, old trucks, cowboy boots. Her art studio in Georgetown is covered in watercolor paintings of bluebonnets and cows, even cows in fields of bluebonnets. She’s known for her whimsical longhorns, rendered in splashes of color with loose black pen outlines.

The story about the original Texas longhorn started with a bit of artistic desperation. McElwaine had been painting since childhood, but it wasn’t her career. As a girl, she copied drawings and paintings of Rembrandt and Russell and would sketch sitting on the front seat of her daddy’s ’54 Chevy truck on their quarter horse ranch in Tulsa.

By 2007, at age 56, she had put away the paintbrushes. She never had creative time. Then she had a revelation on her long bus ride to work.

“I’d given it up until I got on the bus with that kind of time,” she says.

She figured out a system to paint on the bus. The key was a water brush she’d bought at an art supply store in London. It had a plastic tube you fill with water and a screw-on top with bristles. With that you didn’t need a container of water to paint. She made a portable laptop easel from a canvas board, velcro, watercolor paper, and a tray of pigment.

“So an hour and a half there and an hour and a half back I would paint every day,” she says.

For two years, she filled drawers with her bus paintings. These years of painting in her unconventional “found time” led to her bestselling, trademark longhorn paintings. She painted everywhere she went. One day on a train she created the picture that would change her life.

“This is a longhorn that I figured out one day with a big Texan sitting across from me,” she says. “I sat under a beautiful shade tree and painted an oil of a field full of longhorns and realized that when they look at me they all look the same. So when I got on the train that day I was trying to remember what that look was.”

A fellow passenger watched her work on it.

“And he was so trying to figure out what I was painting. And when he figured it out I have never heard anybody laugh like that man laughed,” she says. “And I thought I am going to paint this thing for the rest of my life.”

McElwaine took that painting to the campus bookstore at the University of Texas at Austin and asked if they’d be interested in selling greeting cards of the cow. They were, along with T-shirts. That day she sold her first licensing, and she was off.

Finding the time to be creative – and rewarded – was satisfying, but more and more she wanted to help others overcome the same hurdle. People who came to her as she was painting out in public.

“They would stop and they’d say ‘Oh I love watching you do that. I always wish I’d learned how,’” she says, “as if their life was over and they’d ever get another chance.”

She wanted to teach. She developed a kit so anyone could learn to paint a watercolor step by step, anywhere. She created templates to copy so you don’t have to be able to draw, and the kits include a water brush, paper, pigment and layer-by-layer instructions. Think Bob Ross, but with watercolors instead of oils.

McElwaine sees her art as a calling, driven in large part by her faith. In her classes, she loves to guide beginners.

“In no time at all you could just see the stress leave their face and about then I’d tell a story and it just grabs ’em and they’re crying, not talk talk talk talkin’ , they’re listening,” she says. “They are still and I know it’s the Lord doing the work. And that’s when – sorry for the tears – that’s when ‘Keep the White Space,’ in your watercolor paintings and your day – the name of my books – came to me.”

“Keep the White Space” isn’t just the name of her books – it’s also her philosophy. A reminder to be still and listen: to find, and make, time for creative opportunities. Kathleen McElwaine’s art is currently on display at the Bullock State History Museum.