Armitage’s table is raised up on blocks so that she can paint standing. She places a patterned stencil over a section of her painting, dips a large square brush into green paint, and brushes the color over the stencil. She then stands back, head cocked to one side. She puts the stencil down again and uses purple, then stops and looks around the room, checking to see if anyone needs help, gently chiding two students for chatting.  Even in the midst of creating her own work, she is aware of everything going on in this room.

A woman raises her hand, asking for a consult, and Armitage puts down her brush and goes to her. Together they look at the student’s painting. Armitage shows her how to “scumble.” She dries the thick brush on a piece of towel, works the brush into the paint in the palette well, hands the brush to student, and guides her, telling her when to use more pressure, less pressure, saying, “It’s hard on the brush, but that’s not an expensive brush, anyway.” The student stands over her paper, scumbling, and Armitage returns to her own table.
On the first day Armitage had explained that each student would pick a subject and produce at least six versions, using exercises in pattern, line, color, and changed shape. Then she demonstrated, using opaque paint to cover previous lines and shapes, talking, changing, explaining her process, showing the students that everything is correctable. At one point she paused, brush in hand, and looked up at the circle of women. “Or, you can always burn it. You don’t have to like everything you do.”

Get to know Ruth

Salem Monthly: How do you keep motivated in the studio?

Ruth Armitage: Deadlines. Deadlines are a big one. I try to produce enough work that I have a selection. I don’t say “this painting is for this purpose.” I need enough to choose from, not that this particular painting has to be good. That way I remove the performance anxiety. If I have some to choose from then I feel better about putting the work out there.

SM: What is subjective color? Is this your own term?

RA: Choosing a color based on personal emotion or response to the subject rather than the local color. I don’t think it is my own term, I think I got it from a class I took from Skip Lawrence. For instance, I did a painting of a woman I was very angry at and I made her skin green and her eyes red and her hair blue. (Laughs) That would be subjective color.

SM: How long does it take for a major life event to show up in your work?

RA: It comes out right away. Other people might not see it. I got a dog and right away I started having dogs in my paintings. I think that’s actually when I started feeling the most satisfaction in my work, when I started allowing that to happen.

SM: What is the most surprising change your work has taken in the last five years?

RA: I’m surprised to see more realism come into my work. I actually thought it would become more abstract. My work has tended to become more complex and I’m struggling against that. Seven or eight years ago my work was fairly simple and that’s what I think was successful about it. I’ve been adding more pattern and more line, and I think I do better when I limit myself to shape and color contrast.

SM: If you could sit down with anyone (past, present, future) who would it be and what would you talk about?

RA: It would probably be somebody who is gone, who is dead. Hard to pick one. Maybe my dad. Maybe my grandmother. You can tell I’m an emotional person.

SM: What advice would you give to an artist just starting out?

RA: Make physical room in your home and go there. Make it a place where you would want to be. Study from a broad variety of sources: books, people, different instructors. Ask a lot of questions. Observe. Not just one way, as many different ways as you can before you really settle into your own.

Ruth Armitage is a signature member of the National Watercolor Society and the Northwest Watercolor Society, and the past president of Watercolor Society of Oregon. She is represented by the Mary Lou Zeek Gallery in Salem and by the RiverSea Gallery in Astoria, Oregon. For information visit

Linera Lucas is a Portland writer.