This has been a year for the books for Tom Hempel.
The 69-year-old Davenport watercolor artist is celebrating his 40th anniversary as a paid artist, at the same time as his first coffee table book, "Boats, Barns and Bungalows," an alliterative roundup of his favorite subjects, is being released this week.
It has already received second-place honors for art book by the National Indie Excellence Awards.
Largely in his own words, Hempel — who was born in his parents' car as they were on their way to a Chicago hospital, and moved to the Quad-Cities with them at age 2 — talks about his love of watercolors and those three-B subjects from the kitchen of his Spanish-style home in east Davenport.
"Forty years ago I did my first sale.
"I had quit painting for 12 years after I had graduated (Bettendorf High School). I got married, told my wife about my love of watercolors and she said, 'Paint me a watercolor.'
"So I went down to the Village of East Davenport and I painted Boyler's Ornamental Irons, stood out in front of the fire station and did a painting of it.
"Before I even got it home, a gentleman wanted to buy it. I laughed him off. I told my wife about it when I got home and she said, 'Are you crazy? Call him back.' He gave me his card.
"We called him back. He said, 'How much you want for it?' My wife and I looked at each other and shook our heads. We didn't know anything about selling art work.
"He said, 'C'mon, c'mon, give me a number, zero to a hundred.' My wife pops up and said, '50 bucks.' He said, 'OK, now I want you to paint my house.' I painted his house, he gave me another $50. A little light went off in my head, and I said, 'This is too easy.' I had started working at J.I. Case Co. in Davenport and had both jobs going at the same time. I'd do my artwork when I came home from work.
"It was non-stop in the last 40 years. Luckily I retired about 15 years ago.
"It has slowed down because of the economy, but it's just enough. I don't want to be too busy anyway."
"I joined an advanced art class when I was 12 years old at Bettendorf High School. I just jumped in with a bunch of juniors and seniors, and we did everything — acrylics, oils, watercolors, pen and ink, chalk.
"Watercolors just seemed to me to be the easy fit because it dried so easily. When we went out to do demonstrations during class, everything was in watercolor. It was just the perfect fit for me, and I stuck with transparent watercolors all my life."
Watercolors aren't as forgiving as other mediums, he said, but they still can be manipulated.
"I've learned to do a lot with watercolors.
"Others will say, 'You've ruined the watercolor, what are you going to do? You can't paint over it.'
"You can scratch it off with sandpaper. I've sanded off one-quarter of a watercolor before, and taken it down to the white of the paper. It takes two or three hours to sand it off, but you can start it all over again instead of tearing it up, especially when the other three-quarters of it is gorgeous. Then you have to go back and build your layers as you go.
"After 40 years of learning little tricks of the trade, I'm sure there's other tricks out there I haven't learned yet. That was just a perfect fit for me."
By the book
"I am really, really happy with the book. ... We started with a publisher just down the street, who talked me into doing a book five years ago. I took him a painting every week with a little story every week. This drug on for about five years.
"I met another publisher in Ann Arbor, Mich., ... he's my wife's best friend's husband. He said, 'Give your neighbor guy two weeks, and if he won't do it, I will.' I went down and knocked on his door and sheepishly worried that he would blow up and be mad at me, but he just said, 'Yes!' (with a downward fist motion). He was really happy for me.
"They got me a book in four months."
Selecting the art
"I asked, 'How many can I have (for the book),' and they said, 'As many as you want.'
"I picked 148 of my favorite paintings. Books usually have 30-35 paintings, but since this five-year thing went on and on, I was able to add more recent paintings. It was a good thing it drug on. We just put them in random, no set timetable. When I did them, they weren't in order, just thrown all in."
"I started off 40 years ago painting peoples' homes. Homes, businesses here and there.
"Then I started looking at barns. We'd get some orders for some of those, and I just fell in love with barns. Then I did (Q-C environmentalist) Chad Pregracke's tugboat. He put that on his website. That was another love for me.
"Now I love doing boats and barns more than I do bungalows. But there's not a whole lot of boats here, just an occasional tugboat."
"This isn't a slowdown or anything. I'm just getting going now. I've got my eye open for a lot more different venues. Hopefully take trips and do some open-air boat painting somewhere.
"I'm just getting going. This is in no way my swan song. As long as I've got my eyesight and my hands don't tremble, I'm looking forward to some great painting in the future."