Piece by Piece

The pandemic spawned a new direction for Palm Desert watercolor artist Robin St. Louis where art enthusiasts can put together one of her works at home.

June 25, 2021
Story by Jim Powers
robin st louis paintings

Robin St. Louis works in her Palm Desert studio inside her home, creating watercolor art that will become her next puzzle.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM POWERS

When people looked at her watercolor art, Robin St. Louis never heard anyone tell her, “this would make a really good jigsaw puzzle.”

Until it happened just as the pandemic was unfolding. During a Zoom happy hour with Dr. Khoi Le and his wife, Susan St. Louis (no relation), Khoi dropped the comment to her, and Robin St. Louis wasn’t sure she saw the connection between the two. At the same time, the Palm Desert resident was actually looking for a puzzle to gift a friend and was dismayed at what she found while searching online.

“Puzzles kind of got stuck in a time warp,” Robin says. “My feeling about a puzzle is you’ve got to love the art. You’re going to be spending some time working on this, and you’re going to be studying it really closely.

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You’re looking for variations in color. You’re looking for all the little shapes. You’re spending a lot of time constructing this thing, and if you don’t love the art, I don’t get it.

“I just couldn’t find anything that I thought she would really like,” she adds. “There are a lot of photographs. There are some old masters, 19th century paintings that have been reproduced as puzzles. There didn’t seem to be any puzzles that were by artists working now, in a signature style, in their own style.”

The shutdown created moments like these for many people. A chance at self-reflective time. While the outside world was telling you to stay home and restrict yourself physically, the mind was still at work considering alternatives.

“I was kind of looking for something new to do with paintings. I like the idea of when someone is doing a jigsaw puzzle of my painting that they’re really looking at it closely, and they’re spending time with it,” Robin says. “It feels like it’s giving my paintings a little bit more of a trip, a walk, a life out there.”

A year later, Robin has a line of puzzles featuring her watercolor art available online under the moniker Sunlit Studio Puzzles and at a few specialty locations like Kitchen Kitchen in Indian Wells, and First Gallery and Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage. President of the Coachella Valley Watercolor Society, Robin spoke further about this endeavor and the roots of her watercolor art with Palm Springs Life.

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How long have you been painting?

I’ve been painting daily for 30 years. I didn’t start painting really, kind of as my part-time job, until we moved here from Santa Barbara. I kind of made a deal with my husband (Peter, a retired internist from Eisenhower Health) at that time that I would stop doing freelance grant writing, and I would spend my time painting and seeing what happened with that.

I was still pretty much of a beginner, but I started doing portraits of kids on commission, in watercolor. I did that for 20 years. That was great. I knew a lot of kids because all our friends had kids. I always had a long waiting list, and I could just kind of do them at my own pace. Then I stopped taking commissions and just started painting whatever I wanted to without any thought for the customer. When I’m just painting this kind of thing, then I’m just pleasing myself. So, that’s what I’ve been doing for about 10 years.

Did you naturally gravitate to watercolors, or did you try other types and decide this was the best fit for you?

I love the transparency of it, the flow of it, and how it looks when it’s done. I really started as a watercolorist, but I’ve tried oils and acrylics. Watercolor is where my heart is. If you kind of just put the water down and drop the paint in and see what happens, I’m usually happier with the results. With acrylic and oil painting, you have to move that stuff. It doesn’t do anything on its own.

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PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY ROBIN ST. LOUIS
Dinner Plans, a 1000-piece puzzle by Robin St. Louis.

Can you describe your process for creating a painting?

I start with photographs that I take. There’s quite a lot of set up on trying to get the light right and everything the way you want. Usually, the painting ends up being a combination of several of the photographs. I do a drawing, and then what I do first is I cover the whole surface of the watercolor paper with water, and then I drop paint on it and just let it mix. In terms of what I like in watercolor, I like intense color.

I admire other paintings that other people do that are very subtle. I think a lot of people have the idea that watercolor is really watery, pale and kind of wishy-washy, but that’s not my lane. I like strong darks and intense colors. I like it to look like it flows a bit. I don’t want it to look too cut out. I really like to have it be something across the room you’d say, “I want to go take a look at that. I’m interested in that.”

Are you a puzzle person?

Yes and no. I wasn’t a person that had a puzzle going all the time, but from time to time, we’d do a puzzle as a family. Actually, I’ll tell you a crazy story. We have a son and a daughter. Our daughter was in preschool, and we had a puzzle going. It was a hard puzzle. 1000 pieces. We got all the way to the end, and missing a piece. Nobody can not find the piece, and it’s frustrating. You’re like, “I just want to put that right there, and then I can see the whole thing, and it’s done.” We look everywhere. Can’t find the piece. Break up the puzzle. Put it away. Six weeks later, I’m at the playground at the preschool. Before school, moms stood around while the kids played before the teachers called them in. Standing in the sand in the playground, I look down and there is the puzzle piece at my feet. It’s been sprinkled on, and it’s kind of warped and everything, but it is the missing puzzle piece. It’s the weirdest thing. I think it must’ve gone to school in her pocked somehow, and fallen out when she was going down the slide.

So, one of the things I wanted to do with this puzzle company was we have a missing piece guarantee. If you get to the end of your puzzle and you’re missing a piece, it doesn’t matter whose fault it is, or you think we didn’t send it to you, whatever, if you’re missing a piece, you just take a picture of the spot on the puzzle, and then we’ll send you the piece in the mail.

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Robin St. Louis’ studio is full of colorful inspirations.

What are people looking for in a puzzle that your paintings can provide?

People want a lot of variety over the whole surface. One thing that’s really nice about watercolor for puzzles, and it kind of surprises me that nobody’s made watercolor puzzles, is watercolor flows. The color doesn’t really stay the same anywhere. The colors mix all over, and so every piece is really a slightly different color. You don’t have just chunks that are exactly the same, like you do with a photograph or maybe an acrylic painting.

With watercolor, there’s a lot of movement, so I think it makes it more fun to do them. I think what people want is lots of specific items, and lots of pattern and color changes so that they can find things. Nobody wants a big expansive blue sky in a puzzle. That’s just deadly, right?

What was the process like trying to have your paintings made into puzzles?

Originally when Khoi first suggested it, I thought maybe I should submit some of my paintings to a puzzle manufacturer. I started looking up puzzle manufacturers and I thought, “Wait a minute. No, I want to have control. I want to control how it comes out. I want to control how the box looks. I want all of that to be my choice.”

The puzzles ended up being manufactured in Korea. Originally, I wanted to have them manufactured in the United States, but there are very few puzzle manufacturers in the U.S., and they were all flat out, crazy slammed. They were not taking new customers. Apparently, the U.S. makes a lot of the machinery that puzzle manufacturers in other parts of the world use, but the U.S. does not actually manufacture a lot of puzzles, so that was out. The choices were really China or Korea. Korea was more expensive, but I chose Korea because I had a little more confidence in it somehow, and also, our son is a journalist there. When they were doing the production, he was able to go and take photographs.

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PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY ROBIN ST. LOUIS

At any point did you think due to the pandemic, maybe I should wait to do this?

No. The idea was very exciting to me, and once I thought, “Oh, I can do this myself,” I mean, delusionally maybe, rather than send stuff to a company and say, “Would you like to buy this painting to use?” I mean, once decided maybe I could really do this myself, then I was really excited about the idea. I figured the things that I don’t know how to do, I can get help. I’ve had wonderful help.

What does it mean to have your artwork serve a new purpose?

It means a lot. It’s very exciting for me. When the puzzles arrived here, just to see them is very exciting. I like it that people are spending time with them and enjoying them. It’s really fun for me.