Sandra Walker is an American, but she married an Englishman and has lived outside of London for the past 14 years. Soon after her arrival she saw a notice for the Singer & Friedlander/Sunday Times Watercolor Competition. Deciding she has nothing to lose, she entered. To her amazement, she took First Prize. With a laugh, she explains her win by saying her painting was probably the only one that wasn’t of hillsides and pastures. Her work stood out, she says, because Photo Realism is unusual in Britain. As much as Walker considers herself an artistic oddity in England, she is an elected member of the prestigious Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolour, an honor she finds surprising because she is a woman and an American – and because membership is limited.

Architectural city scenes are Walker’s passion; the older and more decayed the better. “There are enough other people who do pastoral scenes, especially in England,” she says. “I don’t have to get in on their act.” Because the scenes she prefers are intricate, she takes many photos, draws loose sketches, and makes color notes rather than working on site. Then she lays out her photos and studies them. “Something will emerge, and I’ll say, ‘Yes, this is the view I want to paint.’ I know it when I see it.” She explains. “Usually it has a lot it do with shadows.” By arranging her prints in a collage, she creates exactly the scene she wants. First she decides on the focal point, then how much of the surrounding area she intends to include. She also edits out trees or traces of greenery. Photos, she says, are a good guideline but should never be slavishly copied.

If the angles in the scene are particularly tricky, she lays out a grid on the photo and paper first. But she always sketches very carefully, pointing out that “if something is out of kilter in an architectural subject, you are in trouble.” Walker draws using a triangle and does a great deal of measuring, but she’s never been tempted to do this tedious work on a computer. After deciding the dominant color mood of the work, she begins painting in whatever area interests her most, laying in washes lightly. “Sometimes,” she notes, “I don’t know until the end if the painting will work because shadows are everything, and they go in last. I also never know when to stop. I keep wanting to add other things or splatter more.”

Splattering, in fact, is Walker’s secret to creating the look of old bricks and stone. Whereas layers of paint would appear flat, she creates texture to give the painting a three-dimensional look. She taps a fan brush – a large one heavily laden with wet paint for big splatters, a smaller, drier brush for smaller ones – against the handle of another sturdy brush. Many of he splatters are multicolor; for instance she splatters red, blue, and green, to produce the convincing look of old bricks. For the basic color of old bricks, she mixes burnt sienna and raw umber with a touch of Payne’s gray. At times she splatters on white or uses white to create graffiti on the bricks. Occasionally Walker is commissioned to portray brand new buildings but claims “there’s no thrill, no heart, no soul in new buildings until I get there and splatter.”

Besides splattering, the artist uses razor blades, sandpaper, crayons, old credit cards and medical syringes to create the look of old brick. Or, She plays with Windsor & Newton Aquapasto gel to achieve the required texture. As for isolating certain area during the process, she says, “I have a love-hate relationship with masking fluid. I hate it but will use it for a length of wire along a building, for instance. Usually it’s not worth the effort of masking out whole sections. It looks contrived. I can paint around almost anything.”

Walker is adamant about the quality of her supplies, “Never use cheap paper, paint, or brushes,” she advises. “They undermine your work.” She uses one kind of paper – 140-lb Arches hot pressed – explaining that even though she paints old buildings with a lot of texture, she still likes the smooth, hot-pressed surface, which she roughs up. She insists on Nos. 3 and 4 sable brushes for most of her work, and a No. 10 for larger areas. Her palette consists mainly of burnt sienna, raw sienna, yellow ochre, Payne’s gray, raw umber and lamp black.

Normally she has two or three paintings going at once. It takes weeks to complete one painting, although Walker admits that she is painting smaller now for practical reasons: Rooms in English houses tend to be smaller, and there isn’t an active market for large paintings. Certainly she need not worry about her place in the British art world. It seems she is well established, considering former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher commissioned a scene depicting the Houses of Parliament.