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Retired landscape architect returns to his first love: art
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Retired landscape architect returns to his first love: art

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If you’re going to Mulberry Creek Farm’s Autumn Artisan Market on Oct. 23 and 24 in the town of Catawba, look for Zan Thompson. The Conover resident, award-winning watercolor artist and art instructor will have some of his paintings for sale. He’ll also have information should you be interested in learning watercolor painting from a teacher who has an awesome resume.

Zan, an Atlanta, Georgia, native and graduate of the University of Georgia, was a landscape architect and urban planner for 44 years, the last 25 of which he managed his own firm, ZT3 Placemaker Studio in Atlanta and then Macon. Zan designed places such as golf course communities, residential neighborhoods, apartments and office parks.

“If man builds it, I probably designed it,” said Zan, who explained that landscape architecture is so much more than deciding where bushes and trees will go. There are the design and engineering of roads, for example, and grading and utility plans. Zan pointed out that there’s much overlap between the work of a landscape architect and that of a civil engineer.

Art’s been in Zan’s blood since he was a small child. Both his parents painted, so art supplies abounded in the spaces in which the young Zan lived. “I could paint and draw before I could walk or crawl,” he offered. When he headed for college, he planned to major in art and acted accordingly until deciding after the first year to shift to landscape architecture. He liked the idea of a career that took him outdoors much of the time while offering him an outlet for his creative side.

Zan fully retired six years ago and went back into art, he stated. “I always loved watercolors the most,” he responded when asked which medium he preferred. However, he’s done it all: pottery, pen and ink, oils, etc. “[Watercolors] are the most challenging of all the painting mediums,” Zan suggested. “It’s the hardest to learn.”

“There are more ways to manipulate the paint to get the visual effect you want,” Zan continued. “The colors are more translucent.”

Zan’s studied under a number of people, but he learned much from his parents.

Speaking technically for a few moments, Zan explained that watercolor painting requires letting each phase of a painting dry before moving on to the next phase. Using easy-to-recall analogies, he described the process as having five steps of paint consistency: 1) tea — mostly water with a little pigment, 2) coffee — a lot of water with more pigment, 3) milk — equal water to pigment, 4) cream — a little water and a lot of pigment, and 5) butter — no water, just pigment.

The “butter” phase is “when you want the details,” said Zan. “You don’t want the paint moving on the paper.”

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While Zan talked, I glanced around his living room. Above the sofa were all sorts of paintings. Some were his; some were the work of other artists. He pointed out work by his mother and father in other parts of the room. Little did I know at that moment that I’d soon be heading upstairs to Zan’s studio and along the way would see what amounted to a gallery of artwork by not only him and his parents, but also a sibling. Those genes were powerful!

Zan teaches at a variety of places and under different conditions: art studios and galleries, people’s homes, and so forth. COVID-19 has affected the gathering of groups indoors for Zan’s classes, but the virus hasn’t stopped him from choosing one of his favorite working and teaching settings: outdoors, or, as the French would say, en plein air.

“That’s the most fun way to paint,” Zan proposed. “It’s very popular. You have an easel sitting outside. You’re standing in front of what you’re painting. It involves all the senses.” Painting a downtown scene might offer the aromas of bakeries, coffee shops, and restaurants, for instance. A mountain depiction is created while hearing rushing water, possibly, and birds singing while breezes proffer scents of plant life. “And you’re more in tune with what the sun is doing, the shadows,” Zan added.

While he hasn’t taught an indoor group class in two years, Zan does continue much one-on-one instructing. Among his offerings is guidance in watercolor painting, of course, but also other methods, such as drawing.

I wondered if some pupils were beyond help. I was thinking about myself. My stick figures aren’t even clever. Zan laughed. Yes, he does have the occasional student with great intentions and a strong willingness to learn but zero talent. “Some people, bless their hearts, really struggle with applying paint to paper,” he admitted, but emphasized that no matter the learner, “I guarantee improvement in one or two areas.”

Then there are those who might become decent painters if only they could develop the skill of mixing colors. Zan pointed out that he’s never had a bad review from one of his students.

When Zan and I talked, he’d just returned from exhibiting his work at Sandy Springs Artsapalooza in Atlanta. He calls himself an “observer of place.” In these places he finds scenes he paints en plein air or from sketches with accompanying notes or from photographs he takes from various perspectives. In addition to natural landscapes, Zan paints a lot of old buildings, “vanishing landscapes,” he called them: old family farms and the architecture of small towns that are disappearing, to name a couple.

Because he never knows when he’ll come upon something that catches his interest, he carries art supplies with him wherever he goes. As said, he’ll take pictures if need be, “but the camera loses some details,” he believes.

Zan does commissioned work of homeplaces and so forth, and he’ll paint pictures of people’s pets, but he doesn’t do portraits. He’s won a number of recognitions and awards from watercolor societies, most recently an honorable mention from the 42nd Georgia Watercolor Society Member Exhibition for a painting Zan titled “Grounded on Point.”

Zan and his wife Peggy moved to Conover six years ago, choosing the area after Zan did some work here and liked it and its proximity to the mountains. Peggy is a brand specialist, an expert in a type of marketing strategy. She works with companies to get their logos on all sorts of things: apparel, promotional products, pop-up tents, “anything you can put a logo on,” said Peggy. She’s currently working in the home’s downstairs office while Zan paints upstairs in what has got to be the most organized art studio I’ve ever seen. Remember when he said landscape architecture shared traits with civil engineering? There’s definitely an engineer inside the very talented mind of watercolor artist Zan Thompson.

See lots of Zan’s artwork and learn more about him at, email him at, call him at 478-284-1224, or head for the Autumn Artisan Market at Mulberry Creek Farm (4777 Old Catawba Road, Catawba) 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Oct. 23 and 24. Admission is $10.

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