A Fine Balance - Preeti Bhatnagar

Preeti Bhatnagar (@samanilai) was walking home from work one day when she decided to buy a set of watercolor cakes, brushes and a sketchbook. That one decision led her to where she is right now. When I ask what drew her to painting watercolors, she says “I feel that Watercolors have a mind of their own. They have a nice flow to them and they tell their own stories” When she started she did experiment with acrylics for a while, but felt that they didn’t have the fluidity and dynamism of watercolors.

Her Instagram page is chock full of her art, ranging from themes like animals lounging in the wild, displays of tantalizing food, architectural marvels that hold your gaze, and many more. It is truly a treat to behold. She says that she usually picks a theme and paints a series of painting within that theme.  One of the recent themes that she has taken up is ‘profession’. It shows people like weavers, workers at tea plantations and rickshaw pullers. She depicts their life with such fluidity and vibrance that they almost come alive on the canvas.

Another such eye catching series of paintings would be the motion series, which as the name of the theme suggests, depicts people in motion. A skier making his way down a snowy mountain, skateboarders hurtling down a tree lined highway, a surfer lithely balancing himself on the chaos of the waves, all of them are captured in media res. Until now she has done nine paintings in this series, the last one being a bike rider negotiating a sharp curve. “I wanted to show the dynamic aspect of an act through watercolors. And,” she adds “I wanted to see if I could do that. I always push myself to try something new”

She also experiments with watercolors. She had painted a few psychedelic skies that were a blend of the abstract and watercolor styles. She was inspired by another artist on Instagram and using her works for reference and a fat brush she came up with her interpretation of Christina Mckeown’s art. The result is nothing short of spellbinding. For her no canvas is too small, as evidenced by her painting on a tiny, accordion style journal. “I got the journal from another artist friend, and I wanted to paint something that unraveled like a story. So I decided to paint the exterior of Hogwarts castle at night with a few Dementors lurking in the corner.” Though this is the only fantasy related painting, she tells me that she might plan to do a few more in the future.

A trip to Europe also served to broaden her creative horizon. She wanted to paint using the photographs she had taken as references. “I was fascinated by the beauty of Europe and the architecture of the buildings there. So for a while I was hooked on painting buildings” Her knowledge of perspectives from studying architecture came in handy when painting these, she explains. She also carries a small kit with all of her painting essentials when she travels, so that she can sit and paint if anything catches her eye.

When I ask her how she came by the name of Samanilai, she explains that an architect friend of hers had the habit of naming her projects with Tamil words, and Samanilai was one such word that stood out in her vocabulary. “Once I heard that word it stuck with me, it seemed very poetic and I resonated with it.” The word means balance and she chose it for the balance that painting brings to her life. “Painting calms me down and it brings a balance to my mental and emotional states” She adds that she fell in love with the Tamil language and she has watched a ton of South Indian movies during her stay in Auroville. “You could say that I’m a South Indian soul trapped in a North Indian body” she adds with a chuckle.   

Preeti tells me that she learnt some technical aspects of drawing in college, but when it comes to painting she is mostly self taught. She tells me that she taught herself by reading books on painting by Millind Mullick. Among her other influences she cites Uday Bhan, Raghunath Sahoo, Prashant Sarkar and Monali Haldipur, Andrea Orr and Adam Clague.

We eventually get to talking about the workshops that she has conducted, and it turns out that she has conducted three workshops so far. “My first workshop was a huge learning curve for me, I asked the students to paint the burning cathedral of Notre Dame, which was a bit of an advanced subject for a class that had beginners who were taking up watercolors for the first time.” But she learnt from that and in the subsequent workshops she learned to adapt to the level of the students present. She teaches them the basic techniques of the medium and also how to use tools like sponges and alcohol to improve their paintings.

She advises future aspirants of watercolor painting to invest in good paper. “I began by painting on cartridge paper and I struggled with it. If you choose the wrong kind of paper you might end up hating the medium.” She also advises to paint from light to dark and to work with multiple layers. “Which is unlike what you do in acrylic painting” she adds.  

Preeti isn’t a full time artist, she has a day job teaching design and visual arts for architecture students, and she is also involved in a few construction projects. She admits that her job can get frustrating at times, especially when she is on site. “It’s tough getting through to a forty year old construction foreman and some days it takes everything out of me. I have to regroup and gather myself in the evening. That’s where painting comes in” Apart from her architectural endeavors, she is also involved in a small non-profit organization called ‘Yellow Circle’ which is involved in vaccinating, feeding and providing foster homes for stray dogs. She tells me that ten percent of the proceeds from her paintings go towards taking care of those adorable balls of fur.

She tells me that her students are very supportive of her work of her art. What about her parents? “At first they were astonished at what I was doing. Because they had no idea that I could paint!” But they are very supportive of her artistic endeavors, especially her father, who is very proud of what she is doing. Recently at his request, she had put together a few of her paintings to be made into calendars to be given to relatives.   

I ask her if she plans to take up painting full time, “I don’t know about that. All I know is that I don’t want to stop what I’m doing and I want to do more of anything that comes my way”. With an attitude like that, the sky is the limit for Preeti Bhatnagar.

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