Steve Hanks, Master of Figurative Watercolors

When I first saw this painting I thought it was a photograph. After I realized it was a painting, I assumed it was done in oils or acrylics. Wrong again: it’s watercolor!

I’m no artist, but I do know watercolor is a difficult medium – especially when it comes to figurative realism. Who is this artist, and how did he/she achieve such incredible mastery in this challenging genre?

Hanks in his Albuquerque studio.

Steve Hanks (1949-2015) was a California native born into a military family in San Diego. His dad was a highly decorated WWII Navy flyer. 

Growing up, Steve was more passionate about sports than art. He particularly enjoyed tennis and surfing along the beaches of Southern California. He would retain a spiritual connection with the ocean for the rest of his life.

Surfing had a strong influence on my paintings . . . The ocean made a strong and lasting impression on me. It was good for the soul to be out in the water—surfing, swimming, or simply getting in touch with its mysterious power.

Early on, Steve’s teachers recognized his artistic ability, but he refused to do the required assignments in his high school art class. To prove he was good, he did a one-man art show and sold his first painting to another art teacher.

When Hanks was a junior in high school, his family was transferred to Albuquerque, New Mexico. After he graduated, he returned to California, where he took summer session commercial art classes at the Academy of Fine Arts in San Francisco. Though he did well in his commercial art classes, it was a life drawing class that really captured his interest.

He focused his energies on studying anatomy and figurative drawing, then transferred to the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, where he would earn his BFA. 

He then returned to New Mexico, where he worked as a caretaker at a Campfire Girls’ camp. Though the pay was minimal, he lived there rent-free and had the winter months off. For the next four and a half years he experimented with many media: oils, watercolors, pencil, acrylics. His paintings were impressionistic, while his drawings were realistic.

If I hadn’t spent so much time perfecting my drawing skills, I would not be the painter I am today.

After developing an allergy to oils, Hanks began to experiment with watercolors, using techniques he’d learned in other mediums. He was able to create watercolors as “finished” as oils, employing a skillful control of washes, edges and layers, informed by his knowledge of the properties of water and pigment.

He eventually became recognized as one of the best in his field, earning the National Watercolor Society Merit Award and the National Academy of Art Gold Medal. Starting in 1993, he consistently appeared on the list of top ten American artists compiled by U.S. Art Magazine. In 2000, he was also one of five winners selected to the U.S. Art Hall of Fame.

Hanks’s primary subjects are women and children. He called his style “emotional realism.” He left the faces of his subjects obscure or turned away to leave the faces to the viewer’s imagination and to allow the entire figure to express the emotion. His wife and three daughters appear in some of his work.

Backlighting is also a signature element of his style.

Sunlight has become one of my favorite subjects. I’m fascinated by how it filters through things, how it floods a whole room with color. Often my paintings are really more about sunlight than anything else.

As far as inspiration, Hanks was deeply affected by the emotions, shifting attitudes and music of the 60’s. He would often listen to Bob Dylan while working in his studio. “I’m probably more affected by songwriters than I am by painters because I grew up in the sixties.”

Rather than trying to convey a specific message through his paintings, he sought to explore emotions and memories. 

Art comes from a deep inner sense of direction. It starts with a re-evaluation of your own life, from a search for the source of the impulses and the mystery of it all. I think of myself as an emotional realist. Emotion is what I want to portray. Realism is just my way of doing it.

Hanks also painted beautiful nudes. Women occupied a special niche in his sensitivity. He felt they expressed more storytelling ability – “there’s more magic in them.”

Just for fun, and in an effort to unwind from working on his serious paintings, Hanks drew on an Etch A Sketch. He had played with this toy just like so many other kids of his generation. In adulthood, he became one of the premier Etch a Sketch artists in the country. He’d often carry one around with him (this usually attracted immediate attention), sometimes trading finished drawings for meals or simply giving them away. He also developed a method of “freezing” the drawings, but liked leaving their fragile existences to chance.

Whatever the subject, each of his paintings reveals a personal challenge, pain, or joy. “I want my whole body of work to tell a story when I’m gone. It will tell the story of my life emotionally.” Hanks died from complications of cancer treatment in 2015.

Limited edition fine art prints are available online at sites such as Artifacts Gallery and Amazon. Originals may be purchased at J. Watson Fine Art.

Enjoy these short videos. The first is an old interview with Steve in which he discusses his book, Moving On, and the second showcases more of his art.


*Copyright © 2022 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.

17 thoughts on “Steve Hanks, Master of Figurative Watercolors

  1. Jama–I love this post so much I shared it with other poets before I even finished it. This painter’s work is amazing. Thank you so much for introducing me to it. I love the videos. I totally consider this an artist date today.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I was totally blown away when I first saw his work — and then again when I learned they were done in watercolor. Thanks for sharing the post with friends — lots of inspiration for poems in his art, right? 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but Hanks’s work is pure emotion.
    Thank you for starting the day in a beautiful way.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Holy cow. I’d heard of the Etch-A-Sketch artist (LOL, we see the low quality of my artistic ability) but I had ZERO idea he was a watercolorist nor one of such renown. Whoa. This has been eye-opening. Thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Well, I hadn’t heard of his Etch-a-Sketch work OR his watercolors, so you were ahead of me. It would be hard to logically connect one with the other as they’re so different.


  4. Just when I thought I couldn’t be more astonished, I got to the Etch-a-Sketch section. The art is simply beautiful. Every one. I particularly love the girl in the rain at the rail station. Just amazing. Thanks so much for introducing me to this artist.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Love his work!

    I’ve kept a framed copy of “Bookends” ever since college – one of my favorites! Softly lit books, plants, and cats, a peaceful pause that gave me a ‘window’ to the outside world in a small space.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Well, just that one print! I had seen it hanging in a frame shop and my friends chipped in to buy it for me as a birthday gift. In the pre-internet days I never imagined one would be able to ‘google’ an artist and see more of their work!


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