Award-Winning Watercolor Paintings That Reveal a Glimpse of Pandemic Life

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Within this year’s collection of top-of-class watercolor paintings, we discover emotional imagery that expresses the full gamut of human experience during the COVID pandemic.
Pandemic Paintings: Lost in the Moment by Paul Jackson
Lost in the Moment by Paul Jackson (watercolor on paper, 22x36)

This year’s Splash 23 competition winners had a great diversity of subject and style. And yet, common themes emerged amongst the 100+ finalists. Here, we spotlight a dozen paintings that provide a glimpse of pandemic life—the hardships and celebrations, the challenges and triumphs, the moments of solitude and of enduring companionship. 

Notably, Paul Jackson’s imaginative Lost In a Moment (above) reflects on the heaviness and loss we have endured as a society over the past several years. Other references are more subtle: pets that provided companionship, cleaners that armed against germs, quiet moments and views captured from afar. Read the stories behind the artwork for insight into the artists’ inspiration. Together, they tell of the journey we’ve all traveled—and travel still.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted your art? Has it inspired any paintings or drawings that tell a story of these times? We’d love to hear from you (and see your work!) in the comments below.

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A Glimpse of Pandemic Life

Persevering Through Darkness

Pandemic Paintings: The Night Shift by Frank Koran
The Night Shift by Frank Koran (watercolor on paper, 16x22)

“I stopped in the middle of a New York City intersection during the height of the pandemic to snap a photo that would later become this painting. Two fruit-stand workers were toiling away around 9 p.m., in December, during a nasty rainstorm. Despite what was going on around us, the city hummed on. I wanted to capture that sense of perseverance and hope—and watercolor was the perfect medium for it. Once I got home, I worked through the night and was finished by morning.” —Frank Koran

Watching Chaos Unfold

Pandemic Paintings: Lost in the Moment by Paul Jackson
Lost in the Moment by Paul Jackson (watercolor on paper, 22x36)

“Sometimes I’m driven to paint in order to express what I have no words for. In 2020, searching for a handle on the moment, I chose the perspective of a child, powerless to act, witnessing the chaos and confusion unfolding before us. Protests for civil rights clashing with political mayhem while the pandemic spread like wildfire across the country. Frontline workers experiencing unprecedented stress as the death toll grew. People weren’t able to say goodbye to their loved ones as they died from the virus. Funerals were forbidden including the traditional ‘second line’ jazz processions in New Orleans. 

In Lost in the Moment, a young girl watches the frontline workers rush to save lives while the second line passes in the opposite direction, celebrating the life of someone lost. She holds a sign by her side in defeat. Whatever her message, it was lost in the moment.” —Paul Jackson

Fighting Invisible Enemies

Pandemic Paintings: Ready for Battle by Carrie Waller
Ready for Battle by Carrie Waller (watercolor on paper, 16x34)

“When a pandemic arrives, household cleaners become the most beautiful and indispensable possessions. Ready for Battle is a tribute to my arsenal of COVID-fighting supplies. I compiled household cleaners and removed the labels, then lined them on a table outside in the bright sunlight to achieve maximum color and sparkle.

I wanted the bottles to look like the frontline, standing tall, ready to take on their enemy. I took multiple reference images, selecting the strongest one to adjust its saturation and design elements in Photoshop. I painted my image starting on one side of the paper and completed a section at a time. I established the darkest values immediately to ensure that the painting would maintain a strong play of values. I love how the layered bottles create fun colors and shapes that pop through the supplies standing tall and ‘ready for battle.'” —Carrie Waller

Confronting Health Concerns

Pandemic Paintings: Closed on Thursday by Alisa Shea
Closed on Thursday by Alisa Shea (watercolor on paper, 10½ x 19)

“My husband has early onset Parkinson’s disease. He takes medication at regular intervals during the day, so especially while home on COVID lockdown, his pills were always sitting out somewhere. They’re incredibly pretty, candy-colored little niblets, and as I was admiring them one day I thought, ‘Why not just paint these?’ No props, no symbolism—just the pills in their natural habitat.” —Alisa Shea

Frustration for All Ages

Pandemic Paintings: Zoom Kindergarten by Karen Noll Schaaf
Zoom Kindergarten by Karen Noll Schaaf (watercolor on paper, 22x15)

“One of the worst consequences of the COVID pandemic was the emotional toll that distance learning took on our school-aged children. This painting originated from a quick snapshot of my 6-year-old granddaughter, perfectly capturing her frustration at only being able to interact with her teacher and classmates on a postage-sized screen. As a figurative artist, my favorite subjects are those that communicate a complete story with just one fleeting facial expression, and this one certainly did.” —Karen Noll Schaaf

Exercise and Escape

Pandemic Paintings: Think Tank by Stacy Lund Levy
Think Tank by Stacy Lund Levy (watercolor on paper, 27x25)

“To get some exercise and maintain some sanity during the pandemic, my friends and I treaded water outside every day during summer. While treading, we had hours of intense conversation leading us to refer to the pool as ‘The Think Tank.’

The group agreed to model and I took hundreds of reference pictures; the most interesting and inspirational were those captured below the surface. Although almost silent, the underwater environment was deafening with the intensity of rapidly changing patterns. As the clouds crossed the sun, the blues in the water intensified and created an amazing kaleidoscope of light. It was a flashback to being a kid spending summers swimming at the neighborhood pool.” —Stacy Lund Levy

Comfort Foods

Pandemic Paintings: Sweet Swirls by Judy Nunno
Sweet Swirls by Judy Nunno (watercolor on paper, 16x30)

“During the COVID pandemic, many people turned to sweets for comfort and to lift their spirits. I’m no exception, except that I decided to paint my sweets rather than eat them. Sweet Swirls is one of the first paintings of my series featuring cellophane-wrapped candies and glass containers. 

It was challenging and fun to create the interplay between the textures, shapes and colors. I set up my still life, took many photos, then cropped and tweaked with Photoshop until I liked the composition. After saving the whites of my drawing with masking fluid, I applied multiple layers of transparent paint. The dark background mixture of alizarin crimson, sepia and indigo helped make the candy colors pop.” —Judy Nunno

Beloved Companions

Pandemic Paintings: Family Portrait by Roberta Oliver
Family Portrait by Roberta Oliver (watercolor on paper, 16x14)

“On one particularly sad day during the pandemic lockdown, I just couldn’t decide what to paint. My dog Rocko leaned his furry hip on my foot and looked up at me as if to say, ‘It’s okay.’ At that moment I snapped a photo, began to sketch and continued to paint from both my photo and live model. Capturing my subject’s secret little expressions is always my main goal.” —Roberta Oliver

Self Reliance

Pandemic Paintings: I Got Me Babe by Kelly Eddington
I Got Me Babe by Kelly Eddington (watercolor on paper, 18x24)

“I took the reference photo for this painting in a hotel bathroom on a rare, really good hair day. During the pandemic, I discovered that I’m my own best model. The title of the painting reflects the spirit of self-reliance that I’ve always embraced.” —Kelly Eddington

Changing Views of Work

Pandemic Paintings: The City and Its Tower by Akiyoshi Tanida
The City and Its Tower by Akiyoshi Tanida (watercolor on paper, 14x20)

“Spending more time inside my house due to the pandemic was a good motivation for me to resume watercolor painting after a 20-year absence. I pulled out my old Winsor & Newton watercolors from the back of my drawer and started painting. My previously boring weekends suddenly became much richer. 

Watercolor is an interesting medium in that it has both coincidence and inevitability inside of it. I painted this picture when I had been working remotely for about a year. I was so happy to be free from the hassle of commuting into Manhattan every day, but I also felt sad that I would no longer need an office. So I decided to come into the office on a weekend, take some pictures and paint them. The skyscraper office, a symbol of capitalism, is too arrogant and may be destined to disappear one day like the Tower of Babel.” —Akiyoshi Tanida

Facing Challenges Head-On

Pandemic Paintings: Splendour in the Grass by Mark A. Collins
Splendour in the Grass by Mark A. Collins (watercolor on paper, 48x48)

“When I saw these geese, illuminated by a spectacular, rose-hued sunrise, I instantly envisioned a completed painting. Almost as quickly, I recognized my imagination had leapt over the intimidating realities of what would be required to achieve my vision. Consequently, I resisted the challenge for many years.

I didn’t anticipate—nor did I initially embrace—the realization that a pandemic would afford the opportunity, and, paradoxically, the inspiration to accomplish my goal. The interdependent pair of geese in their resplendent setting emerged as emblems of pandemic-related challenges. The painting process became a comforting meditation and I offered each brushstroke in tribute to those most affected by the pandemic.” —Mark A. Collins

Embracing Love

Pandemic Paintings: Kindred by Cara Brown
Kindred by Cara Brown (watercolor on paper, 22½ x 22½)

“A walk past a neighbor’s garden, with the morning sunshine hitting these succulents just so, was the genesis for this painting. I did much of the work on this painting while at my dad’s side in the last weeks of his life, so this painting carries the sentimental value of the precious time I got to spend with him. These plants nestled in with each other is just how he loved us.” —Cara Brown

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