Artist Sophie Tivona talks translating the world through watercolor

Illustration of artist / Cal alum Sophie Tivona painting jellyfish over a watery background
Angela Bi/Staff

Related Posts

As a clean paintbrush damp with water glides across a fresh piece of watercolor paper, it creates a glossy finish that shines apart from the rest of the page. Touching the tip of a pigment-dipped paintbrush to this wet surface produces a ripple of colored veins, bending into movements free from the artist’s direction.

This is just one of the many exercises that watercolorist and illustrator Sophie Tivona draws on in her art classes, inviting the personality of watercolor paints to enter into a unique dance with each of her students.

“I always think about watercolor as a very fickle mistress,” Tivona said in an interview with The Daily Californian. “People look to control it, but the beauty of watercolor is when it’s not controlled. Sometimes I feel that my work is so precise that I lose a little bit of that unpredictability and that fickleness, but watercolor is my forever muse. I will never tire of it.”

From painting botanical flowers to detailed seashells, the UC Berkeley alumna teaches a range of classes that center on the natural world. However, Tivona’s passion lies in color theory, a class she recently brought to the Berkeley Art Studio.

“Color theory is something that can help guide people through life in a better way, (to create) a better understanding of what we’re seeing,” Tivona said. “It kind of changes the way your brain works, when you start to unpack color and are able to see that these things match.”

Rose-colored flower petals and intricately patterned insects are just some of the natural elements that Tivona brings to life through her representational artwork. Featured in her line of paper products, her paintings can easily be mistaken for photographs.

When asked about her attraction to photographic realism, Tivona mused, “I wonder that about myself: why would I want to re-represent something that already exists in this world? I’m a little bit of a brat and kind of antagonistic to things in general, so for me it’s like fighting against the idea that photography is the only way to see something exactly how it is.”

Tivona adds a touch of her rebellious spirit to class, tuning into each student’s individual abilities and perspectives in order to cultivate an environment that acknowledges the boundless approaches to creating art.

“I’m not somebody that forces people to follow rules or stay within a very narrow confine of how to do things,” Tivona said. “For example, if we’re doing color wheels and somebody makes it square, I’m not going to say that’s wrong or anything like that. Promoting people from where they are and helping to uplift them from whatever experience level they are at is something I work on a lot.”

Whether it’s inviting students to muse over each other’s work or clearing emotional space by having students mix a color that represents their present mood, Tivona is unafraid to step away from her lesson plan in order to fit the energy of the room. Her ideas are usually drawn from moments with her mentors or her late-night imagination.

“I do my best thinking when I’m trying to fall asleep; that’s when my brain becomes the most active and sharp,” Tivona said. “There’s something about that quiet moment before you go to sleep that allows your brain to think a little bit bigger and to expand beyond what you’ve read or what you’ve been told.”

Tivona also brings this creativity to the business side of her practice, understanding the importance of self-advocacy in order to support herself as a working artist. Along with in-person classes at the Berkeley Art Studio, her persistence has led her to teach online classes through San Francisco’s Jenny Lemons, Case for Making Friends and Patreon.

“You don’t need to be formally taught to teach if you have a natural inclination to sharing information,” Tivona said. “If you really want something, you should ask for it. Don’t be afraid to take risks and advocate for yourself. That’s how I’ve gotten my best jobs: I go, I self advocate, I push.”

Open to UC Berkeley students, faculty, staff and community, Tivona’s next watercolor class at the Berkeley Art Studio begins June 21. Entitled Watercolor: Details of Nature, the class will invite students to form their own relationships with the unpredictability of watercolor paints, incorporating color theory as a means to reflect the ways individual students see their natural surroundings.

“Somebody once said that artists are like a coffee filter and the world is the coffee; it comes in and we distill it into something different,” Tivona said. “Sometimes what I filter from the world is a single color — it’s an emotion, a memory, a feeling or maybe I’m just making a color palette for a job, but I’m still translating. That’s my mission, to translate everything I see into watercolor as much as I can until I expire, because that’s what I do.”

Contact Amanda Ayano Hayami at [email protected].