By Sawyer Smith

Michael Onyon

The title for this article comes from one of my favorite things artist Michal Onyon said during our conversation—from which there were many great quotes by the way. She told me, in the most loving tone of voice, that “watercolor workshops are like herding cats.” 


I loved this sentiment in particular because of the nature of how watercolor paint itself travels across a canvas. In my limited experience with watercolors, I know them to be fickle and unpredictable, similar in a lot of ways to cats. Depending on how much water you mix in or how hard you press the brush down on the page, the color—and the project at large—can go in all the wrong directions. 


But what Michal was referring to in that moment was the artistic freedom she offers those who attend the river rafting trips in which she facilitates watercolor workshops. More on that later. 


Artist Michal OnyonHer own watercolor creations, along with the creations made by her workshop attendees on the river, are described as ‘en plein air.’ 


“That’s what you do when you paint on the spot, outside,” Michal explained. “All of my watercolors are just outside. [Plein air] is a technique for really observing and being present to the space you’re in. A little bit of a mediation… I can look at a watercolor and remember the sounds, the air, where I sat, the feeling of it, because I was so present. That’s the beauty of doing these watercolors on a trip like this. You are really observing one spot for one small amount of time.” 


If it sounds like Michal really knows what she’s talking about—it’s because she does. She has a degree in art and painting, and works in graphic design. She was even awarded a spot in an artist residency program in Zion National Park. But her love of watercolor stretches back even further than college, to when she was a kid.  “My parents used to go out and watercolor. They’d take a van and they’d watercolor something for a week.”


Michal, however, didn’t have that kind of time on her hands in her adult life. Michal Onyon Watercolor“I had two kids and worked, but I wanted to keep watercoloring,” she said. “I would just have my husband drop me off on a dock or a ledge, and I would do a little two or three hour watercolor. And I wouldn’t even do that many—just on vacation. But I did that for twenty-five years. Now I’ve got a little collection. I’ve honed my technique, I kept at it. It’s a testament on how consistency creates something bigger.” 


A Piece of Something Bigger — What to Expect for the Trip 

In the same way that the Holiday river guides don’t expect trip attendees to be expert rafters, Michal doesn’t expect those taking her workshop to be brilliant painters. She understands that everyone is coming in with different skill sets and experience levels, which is why she encourages her pupils to do what feels right for them. 


“It is kind of free for all in that way. I will set up examples, do a short tutorial if people want it. If people want to do their own thing, that’s fine. We might have critiques, or I might show them how I do the river landscape.” 


At risk of being too on the nose, Michal is really just prepared to go with the flow. She expressed to me how much she truly does enjoy teaching, and is always excited to show people the basics of watercolor—but at the end of the day, she wants it to be peaceful, not obligatory. Although, after hearing her describe why she loves painting the river in particular, I can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t want to sit down and give it a try themselves. 


“It’s lovely because the river rushes by and you’re just so aware of so many things. You’ve got your own little space… It’s a very free space to create, and also a good place to journal and do little sketches. We’re not doing big, grand watercolors—these are little nature studies.” 

So if you’re wondering what you can expect from attending this trip down the San Juan river in June, just know that Michal isn’t pushing for artistic perfection. “I really attempt to give [attendees] some knowledge on how to simplify, how to flood a space. You’re going on this trip and going to learn some techniques for creating in the space. You’re using the river, you’re listening to the water, it’s all part of the flow of things. And it forces you to look at the landscape a little bit differently.” 

A Tradition Forged in Trade and The Right Priorities 

As we were coming to the end of our conversation, Michal happened to mention that she’d attended many Holiday river trips in the past—not as a facilitator, but as a rafter along for the ride. 


“I worked for a shop that designed t-shirts,” she said, beginning the story of how she first came to meet the people behind Holiday. “And John Wood came into the shop to get a t-shirt. I think we just had a rapport, and I worked for a friend of his, so I ended up doing the catalogs that promoted Holiday River… I traded the work I did for the trips. In the span of our lives, those trips have been more meaningful than almost anything.” 


She laughed and joked about how there were times she wondered if she would’ve rather have had the money, but looking back now she knows she made the right decision. “We treasure the river and our time on it as some of the best times of our lives. It’s a family thing, it’s our love of the West, our love of the rivers, and our friendship with Holiday.” 


Sawyer Smith WriterSawyer Smith is a Utah native currently residing in St. Louis, Missouri. When she isn’t working as a freelance writer or hiking through sections of the Mark Twain National Forest, she is planning trips in her head back to her beloved state to once again climb on the red rocks and ski down the snowy mountains.