WILLMAR — For people who have held dreams of doing something different or learning something new, Mary La Patka has two words: “Do it.”

La Patka, who’s worked in the business office for the Kandiyohi County Health and Human Services Department for 30 years, has a long list of hobbies and talents under her belt, including a black belt in judo. But up until four years ago, she had never painted a picture and didn’t consider herself an artist.

Today a collection of her paintings that bring the intricate details of science to life through watercolor is on display through Jan. 31 at the Willmar Education and Art Center, which is currently closed to the public because of COVID-19.

Artwork by Mary La Patka featured in the Willmar Education and Arts Center.

Submitted photo
Artwork by Mary La Patka featured in the Willmar Education and Arts Center. Submitted photo
The collection, called “The Beauty and Science of Botanical Art,” is available for viewing in a virtual exhibit by going to WEAC’s website at www.willmarareaartscouncil.org and clicking on "gallery."

The paintings are works of art, to be sure, but they are also depictions of plants and insects that are botanically correct and could be used for scientific identification and study.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

Before photography, creating illustrations is how early scientists recorded their observations and research. The painting typically includes seeds, bulbs and roots of plants, along with an overall view, to provide an accurate identification of a plant or insect.

La Patka, of Willmar, became interested in this style of painting after attending a lecture and workshop four years ago at the Minnesota School of Botanical Art in Minneapolis. She’s been taking classes there ever since, including virtual ones during the pandemic.

“It’s really been fun,” said La Patka. “It’s really been my thing.”

Using watercolor paints is less expensive than other types of mediums, including acrylic paints, she said. But the investment in time is considerable.

Artwork by Mary La Patka is featured in the Willmar Education and Arts Center.

Submitted photo
Artwork by Mary La Patka is featured in the Willmar Education and Arts Center. Submitted photo
Because the paintings include 30 to 40 layers of transparent watercolor paint, she can easily have 50 hours of time into a single painting. Her painting of a white pine branch took nearly 100 hours.

“When you really like something, it’s easy to do,” she said.

She uses just six basic colors: cadmium red, quinacridone gold, cerulean blue, permanent alizarin crimson, lemon yellow and ultramarine blue, which she mixes to create multiple colors.

Because this style of painting is scientifically based, the illustrations are life-sized, she said.

A painting she did of a Scotch bonnet pepper is 3½ by 3 inches, she said. Most are about 15 inches tall.

A watercolor palette guide is placed near Artist Mary La Patka's painting station at her home Monday in Willmar. 

Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune
A watercolor palette guide is placed near Artist Mary La Patka's painting station at her home Monday in Willmar. Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune
“They’re accurate so you can identify the plant or animal from the drawing,” she said. There is no “deviation” and artistic license isn’t permitted in botanical paintings.

Even the lighting is standard procedure for botanical paintings, with light coming over the left shoulder to create a uniform look, said La Patka. The structure and format of how the paintings are presented and even how they are matted and framed for display must meet the standards of the Society of Botanical Artists.

Artwork by Mary La Patka is featured in an exhibit at the Willmar Education and Arts Center.

Submitted photo
Artwork by Mary La Patka is featured in an exhibit at the Willmar Education and Arts Center. Submitted photo
Although the paintings of plants start with a live specimen, a plum isn’t going to stay intact to endure a 100-hour modeling session. La Patka said she takes numerous photos of the subject to make sure her paintings accurately depict such things as the veins on a leaf or how a leaf is joined to a stem.

“I just like the small, detailed work,” she said.

Although capturing nature in watercolor is scientific, it is also beautiful, she said.

This is the first exhibit of her work.

La Patka said she intends to keep taking classes to expand her skills as a botanical artist and is on the lookout for the next plant or insect to paint.

Artwork by Mary La Patka featured in the Willmar Education and Arts Center.

Submitted photo
Artwork by Mary La Patka featured in the Willmar Education and Arts Center. Submitted photo
But she may also be on the lookout for a new venture to add to her regular hobbies of curling, knitting, judo and bell choir.

“I’m a firm believer in trying new things,” she said.

If there’s something that interests her, La Patka said she’ll jump in and give it a go — which she encourages others to do.

She said it doesn’t make sense to sit and think about doing something for three hours or three days or three years. “Just do it,” she said.