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Painting with Watercolors, Painting with Wool

"Deep in their roots, all flowers keep the light."

By: Mary Michola Fibich
Updated February 22, 2018

Irises, 18" x 24", #3- and 4-cut hand-dyed wool on monk’s cloth.  Designed by Mary Michola Fibich and Katie Puckett; hooked by Mary Michola Fibich, Jacksonville, Florida, 2009.

I wrote this quote on a slip of paper 25 years ago. Since then, I have placed it on my desk in every home I have lived in. Little did I know that Roethke’s words would be the inspiration for the work I would do someday.

I am a rug hooker, painter, art therapist, and poet. Nature has always been the place where I find both solace and energy. As a child in Colorado, I was fascinated by flowers—finding a wild columbine on a mountain hike seemed like a small miracle. And nature images became prominent in my art and poetry in my younger days.

During undergraduate and graduate school, I studied and loved all art mediums, especially watercolors, oil paints, and collage. In the early 1990s, I completed my master’s degree in art therapy from George Washington University and began working in Washington, D.C. as an art therapist in a post-traumatic stress disorder treatment program.  

My workdays were filled with painful images of clients’ traumatic experiences. Art helped them to communicate what was inside, and I was honored to do what I could to help. With a need to unwind and refresh after work, I turned to hiking and photographing nature, yet I needed something more. I often taught watercolor painting in my therapy groups, where my clients and I found that it was grounding and cultivated mindfulness. I started painting more in my free time, and what began as a way to replenish myself evolved into a part-time business creating commissioned flower paintings.

After I married and started a family, painting was not as easy because of interruptions and young hands excitedly joining in. I had always admired and collected antique hand-hooked rugs, and as I was teaching my young son to latch hook one day, an idea came to me. Maybe I could learn this rug hooking craft! I researched rug hooking online and discovered Deanne Fitzpatrick’s website. I immediately called her, asked many questions, and ordered a starter kit. 

I knew I needed more instruction. I found Katie Puckett, a McGown-certified teacher, who offered weekly classes and helped coordinate the rug hooking guild in Florida, my home at the time. Katie taught me the basics of fine-shaded and primitive rug hooking, and for my first original project, I turned one of my favorite watercolors of irises into a wool “painting.” She drew out the pattern and dyed rich shades of purples, blues, pinks, and yellows, duplicating the colors from my painting. Shading and blending colors came fairly easily due to years of working with paint, and with Katie’s help, I learned more ways to use loops to outline, highlight, and create sculptural effects in the flower petals and leaves. When I viewed the finished work, I knew I had discovered the direction in which I wanted to take my art.

After moving to Maine in 2008, I started my company, Mary Michola Hand Hooked Rugs, and focused on creating wool paintings of flowers and images from nature.

A year ago, I picked up a paintbrush for the first time in 13 years and tried painting flowers again. I wasn’t sure if I could still do it, but was surprised to find out that not only could I still paint, but both my skills and style had improved! Pointillism and impressionism had become strong influences in my rug hooking. Like Georges Seurat, I have learned to view each loop of wool as a distinct dot of color that, when combined with those around it, formed shapes, dimension, and images. And like Monet, I strive to be free, intuitive, and painterly with my colors. Rug hooking trained me to notice even more details in flower images and replicate them with my wool. This newfound attention to detail and evolved style showed up in my new paintings.

I find both similarities and differences between my techniques of painting and hooking flowers. I begin both processes by photographing flowers on walks, in botanical gardens, and in plant nurseries. I choose a flower image, create the composition, then decide upon a size. I use 
#4- and 5-cut wool on monk’s cloth. The smaller cuts of wool and the pliability of monk’s cloth allow for more intricate shaping and details as well as graduated, gentle shading. These days I am having fun working larger with #6- and 8-cut wool on linen. I use Arches 140 lb. cold press watercolor paper blocks for my paintings. 

Once the overall design is done, I either draw it on the backing fabric freehand or trace and transfer it with red dot paper. When painting, I sketch the image lightly with pencil on the watercolor paper block.

Before hooking, I look at the flower and, using hand-dyed swatches as well as spot-dyed wool, I handpick the wool colors I see in the image then organize my strips by color and cut size. While the swatches allow me to shade and add highlights, shadows, and depth, the spot-dyes are wonderful for giving the rug a watercolor effect. I often weave the two types of dyed wool throughout my rugs, with spot-dyed wool most often used in my backgrounds. I dye some of my own swatches and spot-dyed wools, but I have been very fortunate to have Katie, Gloria Pierce at J.W. Cushing, and Angela Foote at Fabricfoote provide custom-dyed wool for me. At other shops or hook-ins, I purchase wool that jumps out at me for future use.

When beginning a painting, I examine all the colors in the image and squeeze the watercolor paint onto my palette according to color group. If I need more richness and opacity, I incorporate gouache paints. Working from left to right so I will not drip water on painted areas I paint the inside of the petal or leaf first and move the paint around with water to fill the shape. Further outlining and highlighting are done last.

When rug hooking, I always start in the center of the pattern and work outward.  Each part of the flower is outlined before filling in with loops of color. Shading with wool involves hooking different values and hues of colors next to each other, while shading with watercolors is much easier for me. If an area on a painting needs to be darker, I simply mix in more pigment or layer on darker colors. If an area needs to be lighter, I add water, white, or lighter values. I have a lot of fun mixing different hues of the same colors in my paintings and rugs: a single iris petal may include red violet, dark purple, lavender, periwinkle, magenta, and pale pink paint or wool. One leaf may feature forest green, teal, yellow green, celadon, olive green, and emerald.

If I make a mistake in a painting, I can move paint around with water or carefully sponge it off. A mistake in a rug results in loops being pulled out and trying again.

My paintings are finished and displayed with a mat and frame, and my hooked flowers are whipped with a specialty yarn that complements the colors in the flower and background. I either sew a sleeve on the back for a metal hanging bar or place the rug in a frame. Most of my hooked flower paintings are hung on a wall or laid on accent furniture. 

Currently, I create both hand-hooked wool and watercolor paintings for individual and commercial clients in the United States and abroad. Combining my love of nature, painting, and rug hooking has been a source of joy. I always hope that my art helps others to feel some of that joy and see a glimpse of the light held in all flowers’ roots. 

Painting with Watercolors, Painting with Wool

  1. Clematis ‘HF Young’ (painting), 61/2" x 61/2", watercolor and gouache. Painted by Mary Michola Fibich, Cape Elizabeth, Maine, 2013.

  2. Tulip ‘Menton’ (painting), 7" x 10", watercolor and gouache. Painted by Mary Michola Fibich, Cape Elizabeth, Maine, 2013.

  3. Clematis ‘HF Young’ (rug), 131/4" x 141/4", #4- and 5-cut hand-dyed wool on monk’s cloth. Designed and hooked by Mary Michola Fibich, Cape Elizabeth, Maine, 2013.

  4. Tulip ‘Menton’ (rug), 10" x 121/2", #4 and 5-cut hand-dyed wool on monk’s cloth. Designed and hooked by Mary Michola Fibich, Cape Elizabeth, Maine, 2013.

  5. Dahlia ‘Just Peachy’ (painting), 8" x 12", watercolor and gouache. Designed and painted by Mary Michola Fibich, Cape Elizabeth, Maine, 2014.

  6. Dahlia ‘Just Peachy’ (rug), 103/4" x 13", #5- and 6-cut hand-dyed wool on monk’s cloth. Designed and hooked by Mary Michola Fibich, Cape Elizabeth, Maine, 2013.

  7. Geranium ‘Rozanne’ (painting), 7" x 10", watercolor and gouache. Designed and painted by Mary Michola Fibich, 
    Cape Elizabeth, Maine, 2013.

  8. Geranium ‘Rozanne’ (rug), 10" x 14", #4- and 5-cut hand-dyed wool on monk’s cloth. Designed and hooked by Mary Michola Fibich, Cape Elizabeth, Maine, 2012.

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