The Story Behind the World’s Largest Watercolor Painting

By Jennifer Nalewicki
June 22, 2017

The massive artwork marks the opening of the MASS MoCA’s new 130,000-square-foot wing, which makes it the largest contemporary art museum in the U.S.

Watercolors are among the least forgiving mediums for artists to work with. Not only are they relatively transparent, runny and overall precarious, but mistakes like an errant brushstroke are often difficult to cover up. Still, when the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) approached celebrated contemporary painter Barbara Prey about creating what would become the largest known watercolor painting in the world to celebrate the opening of Building 6, its newest wing located in North Adams, Massachusetts, she was up for the challenge.

Over the years, numerous government agencies and institutions have tapped the Fulbright Scholar to take on significant art projects—including the White House, where Prey is one of only two living female artists to have their work on display in its permanent collection (she also designed its Christmas card in 2003), and NASA, which commissioned her to create four paintings.

In other words, Prey is no stranger to completing high-profile art projects. For MASS MoCA, it took her about a year from start to finish to complete the massive watercolor painting, which measures 8 feet by 15 feet, or 120 square feet, and is a detailed replica of the second floor of Building 6, a former textile mill, as it looked before renovations began to transform it into a museum.

The finished piece includes painted facsimiles of the sprawling building’s columns, windows and endless layers of paint. But bringing the painting to life was the easy part. It was gathering the materials to start the project in the first place that proved to be the most difficult.

Building 6 Portrait: Interior, Barbara Ernst Prey, 2015-2017

Building 6 Portrait: Interior, Barbara Ernst Prey, 2015-2017

Prey wound up doing much of her work onsite in Building 6 before renovations commenced, studying the space’s light throughout the day, while also reading up on its history as one of many mills that made up the industrial town.“I spent a lot of time in the building, doing about 48 sketches using pencils to larger color studies,” she says. “I would go back and forth and compare paint chips, and I would sit on the floor doing color studies of the columns. It’s a very mystical and magical space, but also dirty and gritty with dust on the floor. But that sense of space I couldn’t have gotten without working there.”

 In a move to help solidify a connection between building and painting, Prey incorporated dust from the floor as well as ground paint chips from the columns by adding them into her paint, lending a mixed-media element to the work.

“That created a real connection with the building,” she says. “I also had to make sure that I got all of the lines straight, since this had to be a portrait of the space.”Prey’s piece is the first thing visitors will see before entering MASS MoCA’s new wing. It’s on display along with select works by artists James Turrell, Robert Rauschenberg, Jenny Holzer, Louise Bourgeois, Laurie Anderson and Sol Lewitt. With the recent addition of roughly 130,000-square-feet of gallery space, MASS MoCA is now the largest contemporary art museum in the United States.

The World’s Largest Watercolor Goes on Display at MASS MoCA


by Andrew Nunes

— Barbara Ernst Prey’s gigantic painting is on view at the North Adams institution.

MASS MoCA just unveiled Building 6, a massive addition of 130,000 square feet of exhibition space, and to inaugurate the new wing, more than a dozen exhibitions by a powerful array of blue chip artists are on display, one of which is something of a meta-show. Barbara Ernst Prey‘s Building 6 Portrait: Interior consists of a singular work—a giant, framed, 8′ x 15′ watercolor painting depicting the pre-renovation version of the same space the piece is housed in.

An unusual (but quite interesting) commission to say the least, the painting is something of a cultural preservation of an older America. “Building 6 had been vacant since the early 1980s. It has seen so much use as a bustling epicenter to American industrialism, yet when I did a walkthrough of the empty space with MASS MoCA director Joseph Thompson in September 2015, you could hear a pin drop,” Prey tells Creators. “The eerie silence of the cavernous space combined with the way the natural light hit it was otherworldly. Before it was to be repurposed again, I wanted to capture that ethereality, and the best way to do that was by using the dreamy, delicate-yet-technical medium of watercolor painting.

MASS MoCA Building 6 , installed

MASS MoCA Building 6, installed

Prey’s painting, the result of a two-year endeavor beginning in 2015, is also notable for a variety of reasons beyond offering a historical slice of an iconic building. For starters, Building 6 Portrait: Interior is quite literally the largest-known watercolor painting ever created in terms of total square footage. Its sheer size is more than just visual grandeur; it’s also an incredibly technically challenging feat to accomplish, considering how watercolor dries much quicker than other forms of painting, and how mistakes are near-impossible to cover up in this particular medium.

Historical photo of Building 6 Courtesy of MASS MoCA

Historical photo of Building 6 Courtesy of MASS MoCA

This is precisely the reason why the painting took Prey such a long amount of time to complete. In order to fully attune herself with the space and the painting to-be-made, the artist embarked on a long series of spatial studies of the disused building, before creating an initial structure drawing of the space, a process which, in itself, took an incredibly long time.

“Once MASS MoCA commissioned me, I was granted a few months to be able to spend time alone in the empty building to create these on-site studies,” Prey explains. “I wanted to capture how the light hit the industrial beauty of the building’s architecture, combined with the sheer emptiness of this formerly bustling factory hub. One can only imagine the constant mechanical and conversational cacophony it housed for two centuries.”

Painting in the studio

Painting in the studio

“My approach to painting has always had an extremely technical core, but with an interpretive, site-specific execution. So, in this case, I did 48 advance studies and a to-scale base sketch with perspectival accuracy, but executed the work itself in varied layers of watercolor washes with paint chips and site debris mixed in,” she adds.

Even Prey’s initial studies involved a multiple-step process. “I initially began with small studies working out the composition and value and, in this commission, choosing which view I would paint of the vast un-renovated space,” the artist reveals. “After the pencil drawings, I moved to color studies. They began small, as I was unsure of the saturation of the color, and then I moved to larger studies. The last study was 32×40″, which is tacked up on the wall as a reference for the final painting.”

Detail of Building 6 Portrait: Interior, Barbara Ernst Prey, 2015-2017

Detail of Building 6 Portrait: Interior, Barbara Ernst Prey, 2015-2017

Beyond the cultural significance of the work, the whole process was something of a spiritual journey for Prey. “On a personal level, this was all about exploring uncharted territory. But perhaps the most important thing to remember was that I really couldn’t make a mistake, which is the scary part about watercolor. It is the most unforgiving medium, and working in it on such a grand scale was an endurance-based process.”

Portland Press Herald: Prey's paintings from her world travels are on view

'On Site: Barbara Ernst Prey Travelogues' will be shown in Port Clyde through Sept. 5.

Gordes , 2015, Watercolor on paper

Gordes, 2015, Watercolor on paper

Barbara Prey Projects on Main Street in Port Clyde is opening a new exhibition, “On Site: Barbara Ernst Prey’s Travelogues,” a selection of travel paintings from Europe, Asia and South America that haven’t been seen before.

The exhibit will open Tuesday and run through Sept. 5 in the upstairs gallery.

A press release about the exhibit says it brings together unique reflections and memories of the world seen through Prey’s eyes – works that reveal her intense study and examination of different cultural and art historical heritages.



She spent four years in Europe studying the lines of early Renaissance drawings, Gothic sculptures and architectural sketches. Upon returning in the early 1980s, her artwork was published in The New Yorker and other magazines for over 10 years.

Prey is always looking for new sites to work en plein air. Recent travels have taken her to France, Switzerland and Peru. The work featured in the exhibit includes a picturesque row of houses in a French village, snow covered Swiss mountains and colorful cityscapes of the Peruvian Andes.

Prey, widely considered a key figure of 21st century landscape painting, is a member of the National Council on the Arts, the advisory board of the National Endowment for the Arts.

For more information, call 372-8087 or go to

Portland Press Herald



A Colorful Life: Barbara Prey paints landscapes that reflect both an inner and outer world


 by David Masello

White Wash,  2014, 22 x 30 inches

White Wash, 2014, 22 x 30 inches

The moment Barbara Ernst Prey applies a brushstroke to paper, the swath of color she leaves behind is something simultaneously both brand new and old. “I paint every day with my mother’s brushes,” the artist says from her bright third-floor studio in the turret of a Victorian house on Long Island’s North Shore. “My mother was head of the design department at Pratt (Institute) and she knew to take very good care of her brushes. I really can honestly say that I feel her spirit in them. We would often paint together, en plein air especially, and those brushes I watched her work with, I now work with.”

Prey’s brushes are always in action, especially as she applies watercolors to large surfaces of paper—the medium for which she is best known. Prey may be one of America’s most visible artists, in that her work is shown not only in galleries and museums, embassies and presidential libraries on earth, but also, in a way, in outer space. Among her vast palette of awards and accolades, Prey was commissioned by NASA to execute paintings for their permanent collection—ones that virtually redefine life on this planet. Her depiction of the Columbia astronauts who perished in the disaster in 2003, along with works showing the international space station and the shuttle Discovery are part of the NASA Art Program tradition, one in which Norman Rockwell and Robert Rauschenberg were also invited and participated.

There are few artists working today of whom people ask for their autograph, but Prey is one of them. And she is used to being among the well known and well-pedigreed (collectors of her work include members of the Mellon, Rockefeller and Phipps families). President George Bush commissioned her to paint the official White House Christmas card and when Prey was only seventeen, she sold two works to then New York Governor Hugh Carey. Her paintings, chiefly landscapes, which she insists “hover between representation and abstraction,” are decidedly accessible and beautiful, certainly the best attributes of any good representational art. When asked why her typical large-scale scenes stand out from other artists who might paint similar scenes—rowboats bobbing in a harbor, winter sunsets in Maine, the interiors of New England meeting houses coursed by beams of sunlight, American vernacular houses on country roads, marshlands, fields ablaze with autumnal color—Prey says, matter-of-factly, “I like to think my work is really good. I’ve been described as an artist’s artist, though I know I wouldn’t be regarded as that were it not for my mother. She had such high standards for her art. I grew up in such an artistic home, with my mother hanging reproductions all over and taking me to all of the museums. I wouldn’t be the artist I am today without those experiences. My mom really helped inform my vocabulary.”

But still, Prey’s fame and sheer popularity as an artist derives from other traits, too, the chief one being her use of color. While watercolors are often noted for their muted cast on paper, Prey’s works dazzle with color, as if she is some kind of alchemist of the medium, able to transform a particular hue into a bolder, deeper, almost three-dimensional version of itself. “My work is all about color,” she admits. “Color speaks to your soul. No one else does what I do, which is use a saturation of color. I’ll labor on a work, applying layers and layers—not only of color, but also meaning.”

Indeed, the hues of a patchwork quilt drying on the line in her White Wash, the blocks of colors of grasses fronting the lighthouse in Quadricentennial and the cobalt water and bright yellows of her Bonfire are so dense with hue that the works verge on becoming something unreal, not of this world, yet they remain rooted in reality. “I’m always pushing with the colors,” says Prey, “but also taking on traditions and staying true to them, akin to Winslow Homer.” She recalls an early admiration for the works of Maxfield Parrish, a colorist extraordinaire. “But when I really started looking at his works up close, I thought, no, the colors can be too strong. Of course, he was an illustrator, too, and that’s the reason for some of his overuse of color.”

Meeting House , 2012 21 x 28 inches

Meeting House, 2012 21 x 28 inches

As for her preferred medium of watercolors, Prey admits, “My mother painted in oils and she was so good with them that when I was about seventeen years old, I realized that there was no way I could compete with her. So, I took to watercolors.” Prey says that watercolors appeal to her, too, because they require a certain ceding of painterly control. “You have to be a little bit of a free spirit because you can’t control watercolors. But you do have to know where it is all to go at the end, what it is you want to paint and convey.”

Bonfire  ,  2014, 28 x 40 inches

Bonfire2014, 28 x 40 inches

Prey works everywhere she goes—in her home studio in Oyster Bay, Long Island (a rambling house built by Theodore Roosevelt), at another property in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where she also teaches as an adjunct professor at Williams College, and at yet another in Port Clyde, Maine, where she recently purchased Blue Water Fine Arts, a venerable arts space that had begun its life as a village inn there. The old frame building had been owned for years by Paige Rense, the former editor in chief of Architectural Digest and her (late) husband, the painter Kenneth Noland. Prey has transformed it into Barbara Prey Projects, a cultural space in which she will showcase her works during summer months (the season debuts with a two-week-long exhibition of Prey’s, opening July 1).

Prey learned early on to paint and draw wherever inspiration struck and where material presented itself. Soon after she graduated from Williams College and, later, Harvard University where she earned a masters degree, Prey did freelance work for the New Yorker magazine, churning out scores of the small black-and-white line drawings that still appear on the pages of the magazine. She would bicycle around Manhattan and when struck by a particular scene or object, would stop and sit on a park bench or perch in a plaza to render a spot drawing. Her subjects might include roosting pigeons or a bubbling fountain or a subway entrance. “I would draw and then ride my bike with my finished works right to the magazine’s office and just drop them off. They’re putting together an archive of them now. I didn’t know at the time how lucky I was to be able to have that kind of relationship with the magazine and to be an artist whose work gets published right after it’s done.”

Shades of Blue  ,  2014, 28 x 40 inches

Shades of Blue2014, 28 x 40 inches

Prey admits to preferring to work, whenever possible, en plein air. “That’s when you really see the colors around you and you get a full sense of the story of the subject. You can assume a dialogue with your subject that work in a studio doesn’t allow.” When at her Williamstown studio, it is not uncommon to find Prey perched atop Stone Hill on the grounds of the Clark Art Museum as she paints details of the surrounding Berkshires, sometimes accompanied by her students at their easels. “I love teaching. You learn so much as you see things through their eyes.” She adds, “I am a painter inspired by landscape and that is my context. I don’t just go out and paint a sunset to paint a sunset,” she says, referring to Field of Dreams. “I had been seeing this sunset in this Maine locale for ten years, but it took that long for me to suddenly understand the composition I wanted to capture.”

While her paintings include an uncanny poetic sense of detail and narrative, people rarely make an appearance in the scenes, unless it is a portrait (she recently completed a portrait of James Watson, a Nobel Laureate, in addition to having done a number of commissioned portraits of European princes, notably the Lobkowicz family). The pews in her Meeting House are empty. The roadway in Beyond the Rise contains no pedestrians or residents on the porches. Fishermen are absent from their boats in her Shades of Blue. The lights are on in the houses in Early Risers, but no one is seen at the windows. “I don’t put people in because I want you, the viewer, to put yourself in the picture,” she says, in what might best be considered a generous painterly invitation. “A person in the scene suddenly makes the picture static. It stops the picture. To see people in the boats would be to write a sentence that just ends.”


Prey "Parade Route" Prints Help Support Historic Voyage of Lafayette’s Ship Hermione to Castine, ME July 14 - 15.

Barbara Ernst Prey, Parade Route, Watercolor on Paper, 24 x 40 inches

Barbara Ernst Prey has donated a series of signed and numbered limited edition prints of her original painting Parade Route, currently on exhibit at the U.S. Embassy in Hong Kong, in support of the historic voyage of The Hermione.  A portion of the series will go to Friends of the Hermione-Lafayette in America as part of the Raise the Flags campaign to support the voyage and a portion will be donated to the Castine Historical Society.  The authentic replica of the 18th century ship the Marquis de Lafayette arrives in Castine, ME July 14 – 15 for the visit.

Artist Proof of Prey’s Parade Route print are included in her current Exhibition "Barbara Ernst Prey: Prints and Drawings" at Blue Water Fine Arts through July 20th. A portion of the proceeds from the sale will go to support the ship’s Castine visit.

Prey states “My Painting Parade Route is currently on exhibit at the U.S. Embassy in Hong Kong as part of the U.S. State Department Art in Embassies Program.  The painting depicts the Annual Maine Schooner Race and serves as an important focal point at the embassy.  There is a good correlation with the Franco-American friendship exemplified by the Hermione voyages, past and present.  As I have deep family connections to this region at the time when the original Hermione made her first visit, it’s exciting for me to support this project.”

Barbara Ernst Prey was appointed by the President of the United States to serve on the National Council on the Arts, the 14 member advisory board of the National Endowment for the Arts.  Members are elected for their established record of distinguished service and achievement in the arts.  She was invited by The President and First Lady of the United States to paint the official White House Christmas card. Barbara’s paintings are in many of the nation’s most esteemed museums and collections including The White House, The Brooklyn Museum, The Smithsonian National Museum of American Art, Kennedy Space Center, New York Historical Society, Dartmouth College and are owned by private collectors and celebrities including: Nobel Laureate Dr. and Mrs. James Watson, Ambassador and Mrs. Craig Stapleton, President and Mrs. George W. Bush, Prince and Princess Johannes Lobkowicz, Orlando Bloom and Tom Hanks. As an artistic Ambassador, her artwork is displayed in more than 100 Embassies and Consulates worldwide through the U.S. Art in Embassies program including Paris, Madrid, Oslo, Prague and Hong Kong. As a NASA artist she joins an elite group of American artists who have documented space history.   Barbara is the recipient of many honors and awards including the New York State Senate Women of Distinction Award joining Eleanor Roosevelt and Susan B. Anthony. The New York Times writes, “Prey is going where icons Rauschenberg and Warhol have gone before”. A graduate of Williams College with a master’s degree from Harvard, she was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship and a grant from The Henry Luce Foundation. She is Adjunct Faulty at Williams College and lectures on American Art both here and abroad.  



Twenty years ago, a small group dreamed of reconstructing an exact replica of General Lafayette’s 18th-century ship called the Hermione. Today, the majestic vessel is the largest and most authentically built Tall Ship in the last 150 years. The Hermione has set sail in France, launching an adventure that comes to the USA this summer for an unprecedented voyage.



The Castine Historical Society Castine, Maine, collects, preserves and exhibits materials that illuminate the rich history of the Castine-Bagaduce River area and, through it, that of New England and America, from pre-Colonial times to the present. In doing so, the Society seeks to engage residents and visitors of all ages in the exploration and stewardship of Castine's diverse historical resources. The Hermione visited Castine in 1780 on a reconnaissance mission to gauge the British strength at Fort George, which was located in present-day Castine. For more information, please visit:

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