America, Herb Olsen once said, probably leads the world in the number of excellent watercolor artists. He was certainly among them in the last half of the 20th Century, producing paintings for the covers of magazines, winning dozens of awards, writing five instructional books on the subject, and winding up in museum collections.
Olsen started out a traditional oil painter. His move to watercolors came at around the same time the latter were gaining full acceptances as a fine art medium — many traditional artists had considered watercolors a medium of illustrators rather than artists.
Herbert V. Olsen was born in Chicago, Ill., in 1905 and studied at the Art Institute and the American Academy of Art, where he also taught for 10 years. In his younger days he painted almost solely in oils, but in the early 1940s decided to switch to watercolors, preferring the fast-drying characteristic of the paint.
Olsen lived on Peaceable Street in the 1940s and early 1950s. He and his wife, Doris would head out into the Connecticut and New York countryside on many weekends, looking for subjects he could use for his landscapes. She would drive and stop the car so that he, in the passenger’s seat, could do a quick sketch of a scene — or, if it was a fairly busy roadway, snap a picture with a camera. Sketches and photos would be used later in the studio for inspiration.
“Like most watercolor painters,” he said, “I once believed that a watercolor should be painted on the spot — directly from nature in one sitting — to have freshness and authenticity. I was wrong. The effectiveness of the final painting is not determined by where it is done or how long it takes to do it, but by how well the painter knows his business.”
Olsen became a widely recognized watercolorist, and taught many courses locally and regionally. When art museum founder Larry Aldrich moved from New York to Ridgefield in 1939, he worried that his wife, Wynn, would be bored in the country; he hired Olsen to teach her how to paint, and she went on to be an accomplished artist.
His paintings appeared on the covers of and as illustrations in Reader’s Digest, Collier’s, Good Housekeeping and other magazines.
Olsen’s books, including “Watercolor Made Easy,” “Painting the Figure in Watercolor,” “Painting Children in Watercolor,” and “Herb Olsen's Guide to Watercolor Landscape,” were published by Van Nostrand Reinhold, and were popular in the 1950s and 60s. Doris — who had trained as a concert pianist — helped with the text of each book.
Olsen won more than 70 major awards — including first prizes from the Salmagundi Club and the National Academy of Design — and he was elected to academy as well as to the Society of Royal Arts in London.
He had more than 60 one-man shows, and had been exhibited in many museums in the United States. He was one of 57 living American watercolor artists who was represented in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Smithsonian American Art Museum maintains a collection of his papers.
In the mid-1950s, the Olsens moved to Westport where he died in 1973 at the age of 68.