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Watercolorist finds joy in plein air painting


July 3, 2020

Jana Peterson

Julia Jaakola's watercolors are on display at the Knot Gallery in Cloquet's West End this summer.

For the next two months, the Pine Knot Gallery will exhibit Julia Jaakola's watercolors, with an opening and in-person (socially distanced) reception on Thursday, July 9.

How did Julia become an artist?

"I always had a lot of time on my hands," she said, explaining that her family moved a lot when she was growing up. "I drew pictures to pass the time. My teachers encouraged me, and I loved all the art supplies."

After graduating from Cloquet High School, where she spent many hours in Dewey Johnson's studio, Julia went to art school in San Francisco, aspiring to be an illustrator.

After college, Jaakola returned to Minnesota. She hoped to join an agency as an illustrator, but the industry was switching to computer art. She freelanced, got married and had a son.

Then she "had a calling to teach to help make the world a better place." She earned her Bachelor of Science in education, graduating summa cum laude, from Bemidji State University and worked as a substitute art teacher for Anoka Hennepin School District for 15 years.

Eventually bridging her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in illustration and education degree, she managed to meet demanding accreditation standards to become an art teacher. She loved teaching, being compassionate and learning from every child. She'd rely on nature to get them to develop art ideas by asking questions such as "What did you do over the summer?"

She hosted a week-long classroom residency by a plein air watercolorist who made the outdoor style of painting - which aims to capture the light and movement in landscapes at that particular moment in time - seem like fun. Julia started planning and training herself.

At her first festival, she sold everything. Most exhibitors at these shows are oil painters, and maybe only 25 percent paint with watercolor or pastels.

"Watercolor painting is an ongoing quest to be who I am, putting some of my spirit on paper," she said. "It's the energy and spirit of the watercolor coming through on the paper. It's the freedom."

At fairs, where all of her paintings usually sell, she makes sure everything is hung.

"If it's not hung, it's not selling, because people can see it and can see themselves living with it," she said.

"They choose a painting because it conveys something personal that appeals."

What are the artistic challenges? "I'm constantly trying to figure out how to be freer, not to overwork a painting."

Julia's favorite color is the light teal color of the Caribbean Sea. "It's the seaglass colors that look like stone." She loves to travel and get out to see nature, full of its many textures and colors.

She'd like to travel more. "I'd like to get to those waves," she said, rattling off a wishlist. "See the light in the south of France. See rolling pastures and be able to paint them."

She doesn't paint from pictures - that would ruin the purity and freedom. She doesn't take photos of possible subjects home to her studio, feeling that any mechanical intrusion stagnates the flow of the feeling that goes into the viewer's heart. "There are lots of different colors you can see without a camera."

Her paints? "I'm experimenting," she says. "I've only been plein air painting for a short period of time. I favor good pigments that are natural versus dry cakes. I squeeze all of a tube on the palate, put a drop of water on it and start painting." She's still experimenting, watching a lot of demos online while she hunkers down during the pandemic, wondering if she should try longer skinnier brushes and explore more paints. "I still have so much to learn."

Jana Peterson

Julia Jaakola's watercolors often depict water.


Art opening

Come see watercolor paintings and talk with Julia Jaakola 5-7 p.m. Thursday, July 9, at the Pine Knot Gallery, 122 Avenue C in Cloquet. Call 218-878-9332 or email [email protected] to request a half-hour time slot (5-5:30, 5:30-6, 6-6:30 and 6:30-7) as we are working to ensure social distancing. Drop-ins are welcome, but there may be a wait if we are at capacity. Refreshments served. Please wear masks. Come in and see the works in person. Those who can't make the opening are welcome to stop by anytime during the workweek the next two months. You can also visit Jaakola's virtual Pine Knot gallery at


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