Kent painter creates ‘Best Watercolor of the Year'

“Empty Nest” is the painting that won “Best Watercolor of the Year.”

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Kent painter creates ‘Best Watercolor of the Year'

'This is my time,” said Deborah Chabrian, still basking in the glow of winning “Best Watercolor of the Year” at the PleinAir Convention in Cherokee, S.C.

Her painting “Empty Nest,” depicting an empty birdcage in front of her South Kent studio window, with a view of Schaghticoke Mountain behind it, was chosen as the ultimate winner in the watercolor category after a complex year-long competition.

The process saw 11,000 paintings submitted by 3,000 international artists in 20 different categories. Each month between April 2023 to March 2024, first, second and third winners were announced in each category, winnowing the number of contestants down to 276 semifinalists.

Chabrian was a semi-finalist in four of the categories. Her “View from Cabin #2,” a painting of the porch of the cabin the family rents in Maine each year, won “Best Plein Air Watercolor” in April 2023. “Gussie,” a painting of a plush black-and-white cat, won the “Best Animal & Bird” category in May 2023, and “Sunset at Kuerner’s Farm’’ won Third Place Overall in March 2024.

Thirty finalists for Yearly Winners in the different categories were selected in April 2024, and were announced at the Plein Air Convention & Expo in Cherokee, NC, in May. Her “Empty Nest, first selected as “Best Still Life” August 2023, was chosen as “Best Watercolor of the Year.”

“I’m honored to be among the top winners,” she posted this week. “I think it has finally sunk in and I am so grateful for the honor. What an incredible art experience; it will stay with me for a long time.”

Chabrian and her husband, artist Ed Martinez, moved to Kent 37 years ago from Long Island seeking a quiet place in which to work. They found a 200-year-old farmhouse and settled down to paint and raise their family. “We just bought into the whole lifestyle in Kent,” she said.

Working cheek-by-jowl, they nevertheless followed different artistic paths, with Chabrian working in watercolors while exploring her fascination with architecture and vistas, and her husband pursuing portraiture in oils.

Chabrian said she never envisioned a life other than as an artist. “I knew by the time I was in kindergarten that I wanted to be an artist,” she said. “In grade school, high school, even at Parsons [School of Design in New York] we were cautioned it would be hard to make a living as an artist, but I always stuck with it.”


Deborah Chabrian Kathryn Boughton

As younger artists, both Chabrian and Martinez did commercial work, but she confesses she never “feels the same way” when creating something on demand. Her work appears on more than 500 book covers.

“I have done a lot of work I didn’t want to do,” she said, “but we haven’t done commercial work in a while now.” Both will work on commission, however.

She said she is now “pushing a little more with competitions,” something she did not do much when her family was younger. “It takes time and money,” she explained. Nevertheless, over the years she has been awarded honors from The American Watercolor Society, The National Watercolor Society, The Portrait Institute, The National Academy of Design and The Society of Illustrators.

Both Martinez and Chabrian previously entered a competition that would send 10 winners to the Forbes Trinchera Ranch in Colorado. Amazingly, out of all the contestants, they were both among the 10. chosen for the honor. “It was the first time I was immersed in plein air painting,” she said. She says plein air painting can be “tricky” because the light is constantly changing. “You sort of have pick and choose the experience. It teaches you to see and respond in ways you don’t get from photographs.”

She says she likes to return to a painting site on multiple days while her husband is “annoyingly fast” while working in the open air.

In Kent, Martinez and Chabrian interact with other local artists, occasionally working in plein air, feeding off each other as they observe other techniques. “There has been an explosion of workshops in recent years and competitions help, too, because you see other people’s work,” she said.

The Plein Air conference was a six-day session where every day was filled with painting demonstrations and lectures followed by a “Paint Out” at various sites—the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Cherokee Indian Village, a farm, a nocturne at the crossroads in Cherokee and at the Biltmore Estate. “It was a very stimulating and exhausting experience,” she reported.

After all these years and all her successes, Chabrian says she finally feels she has “gotten to the point where I have a certain amount of control over my chosen medium.”

It would seem the judges agree.

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