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East Northport graphic designer paints her way into a second career

Jan Guarino brings a "bold approach" to teaching watercolor classes at the Art League of Long Island, among other venues.

Jan Guarino, 63, a self-proclaimed "logo goddess," has

Jan Guarino, 63, a self-proclaimed "logo goddess," has plunged into teaching watercolor painting in recent years at the Art League of Long Island. Photo Credit: Daniel Goodrich

Jan Guarino, a self-proclaimed “logo goddess” who for more than 35 years helped many Long Island companies build their brands, never thought she’d paint her way into a career as a watercolor instructor.

Over the years, Guarino’s graphics studio — now in her East Northport home — has created logos for brands from Epoch 5 Public Relations and the law firm Lewis Johs Avallone Aviles LLP, to The Pampered Palate deli and “The Howard Stern Show.”

Now Guarino finds herself teaching watercolor classes at the nonprofit Art League of Long Island in Dix Hills and The Artist’s Studio in East Norwich. She also teaches at libraries and has escorted painting tours in Santa Fe, New Mexico; Italy and Croatia. Next is a riverboat tour in France later this month.

Sharing a passion

“There’s something about sharing my passion with people,” said Guarino, 63. “I love the interaction. I love that it opens up their worlds.”

Guarino initially shied from this second career, recalled the Art League’s former program director, Joanne Nielsen, 59, of East Northport. “I saw some of Jan’s artwork, and was impressed. I asked to meet with her, and I could tell she would be a wonderful teacher,” Nielsen said. “She was hesitant. The conversation was kind of funny. I kept telling her, ‘I think you’d be a great teacher’ and she’d say, ‘But I’m not a teacher.’ I finally convinced her to do a demonstration. And that led to her first class.”

Guarino said she was reluctant because she lacked formal training to teach. “I didn’t think I had the goods,” she said. That was in July 2014.

Now, said Vicki Field, 66, of Northport, “Sometimes you can’t get into her class. They fill up fast.” The retired music teacher, who has been taking art classes on and off for about 25 years, was taking Guarino’s Art League class on a recent Thursday evening.

Charlee Miller, executive director of the Art League, where Guarino teaches two classes on Thursdays, said her eight courses a year, generally capped at 12, are regularly over-enrolled. “She has become one of our most popular watercolor teachers,” said Miller, of Melville, who is a sculptor.

A start as illustrator

A native of West Orange, New Jersey, Guarino was named Artist of the Year by her high school in 1973 and went on to the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan, where she got an associate degree in illustration in 1975, minoring in advertising. She moved to Queens, then to Glen Cove, where she operated Guarino Graphics for about 20 years, mostly out of a building that housed her husband’s recording studio. In 1999, she started offering watercolor greeting cards to corporate clients, including dental products giant Henry Schein. The cards blended imagery and inspirational quotes.

As the longtime cover designer-artist for Creations Magazine — which focuses on holistic health and wellness — Guarino began occasionally incorporating her watercolor work. After the magazine’s poetry page consistently featured her work, she began receiving requests from arts group to do “demos” — or demonstrations of her watercolor process. In such demonstrations, Guarino gives a step-by-step how-to while creating a painting herself.

After selling the Glen Cove building as a working recording studio to singer Alicia Keys in 2004, Guarino said, she and her husband, Fred, moved to East Northport. She continued her branding business but sought out teachers to help her hone her watercolor skills in earnest. Those classes taught her what she liked and didn’t like.

For example, Guarino said, one teacher used 2- to 3-inch flat brushes, the kind used to paint a room; she stopped taking those classes. Another teacher, she said, was unkind when a student wasn’t following along or “getting it.”

Guarino-the-student asked a lot of questions and urged teachers to do more demonstrations — a central component of her own courses. Those early classes informed her teaching style, she said. “I built my class on not just what I didn’t like . . . but on what I needed as a student and didn’t get.”

One teacher was Steve Lampasona, who founded The Artist’s Studio in 2013. Guarino took Lampasona’s classes at the Art League along with a number of his painting tours, including in Ireland, Scotland, Prague, Sicily and St. Petersburg, Russia.  

“She wanted a demo every single time,” Lampasona said. “I didn’t think a class demo was needed or warranted, but sure enough, she would ask for a demo. It’s something we laugh about to this day.” Guarino now teaches at The Artist’s Studio on Tuesdays and Fridays.

Guarino said her classes are called Fearless Watercolors because of her “bold” approach. She said that while watercolors can be more unforgiving than oils, acrylics or pastels, “if you allow it, the most wonderful ‘mistakes’ can actually appear and be very special.”

She said most people start timid, but she encourages them to paint in “a more vibrant and color-playful way.”

“It’s the attack,” Guarino said. “I start in a very aggressive way,” quickly adding color to make the painting take shape. “A lot of times the students are aghast at first, and then they start doing it.”

Field, who started taking Guarino’s classes last winter, said, “I like that she lets the paint and water dance out on the paper.” Guarino’s teaching style is accommodating and encouraging, Field added.

Playful and fearless

“She lets students paint as much or as little of the class subject as they feel comfortable,” Field said. “While we are learning specific skills and the process of painting, we are encouraged to be finding our own styles as well.”

Guarino’s teaching style and fearless approach played out a recent Thursday night in a watercolor class where eight women huddled around a white table on stools and folding chairs. The students would be tasked with starting to color their sketches of a scene from the Peconic River Herb Farm in Calverton.

Guarino had her own sketch ready and started painting by first watering areas of the paper. She dabbed a drop of green paint in a corner of the paper and tilted it to let the paint quickly fall into the watered areas.

“That might have scared you, but it lets the paint do the work for you,” Guarino told the group.

The class seemed part social club, as Guarino and the students batted about ideas on color and technique. Every now and then during her demo, Guarino stopped to show her progress to rounds of “oohs” and “aahs.”

Students who had gone to their painting stations to color their sketches hurried back when they saw Guarino begin demonstration using a sketch of an old Chevrolet pickup truck in front of a farmhouse.

“I thought she had been teaching for many years because she is so methodical and accessible,” Field said. “Her concept of teaching finds the artist in people.”

Rosi Berry, 62, of Coram, has attended Guarino’s evening classes for the past few years after work at BAE Systems in Greenlawn. She’s also taken classes with Guarino at The Artist’s Studio and gone on painting day trips around Long Island with her.

“I look forward to Thursday night painting with friends I’ve made in class,” Berry said. “We tend to share the good and bad that go on in our lives, the stresses that we are going through. . . . Jan’s class provides a place where you won’t be judged, where you will have fun, where you can create something beautiful.”

Berry, a sketch artist who had previously taken online classes, was introduced to Guarino when the Art League offered a free trial class. “I had seen an electric guitar [watercolor painting by Guarino] and said, ‘I want to paint like that!’ ”

Reflecting on her transition to teaching, Guarino said, “I just didn’t see it coming. I never looked for it. It was never on my radar, and now I couldn’t be happier sharing my passion for painting as my second career.”

Fearless Watercolor with Jan Guarino

While Jan Guarino’s courses at The Artist’s Studio in East Norwich and the Art League of Long Island in Dix Hills have set schedules, Guarino says not to worry. “There’s really no beginning or end. They’re just ongoing classes.” Here’s where and when you can find her:

THE ARTIST'S STUDIO Eight-week semester started Sept. 4, but check for availability. Tuesdays and Fridays, 1 to 4:30 p.m., $300. Call 516-603-1931  or visit theartistsstudio.org.

RIVERBOAT ART CRUISE Cruise along the Rhône River runs from Sept. 22 to 29. For more information, contact Guarino at 631-368-4800 , or jan@janguarino.com.

THE ART LEAGUE OF LONG ISLAND: Five Thursdays, 12:30 to 3:30 p.m. and 7 to 10 p.m., starting Oct. 11, $260 for members, $280 for nonmembers. Call 631-462-4500 or visit artleagueli.net.

WESTBURY MEMORIAL PUBLIC LIBRARY Saturdays, 9 to 11:30 a.m., Oct. 13 to Nov. 24, $50 for the series; limit 12 students per class. Some experience preferred. Call 516-333-0176 or visit westburylibrary.org.

COLD SPRING HARBOR LIBRARY AND ENVIRONMENTAL CENTER A single class on Oct. 23, 10 a.m.-noon, $35. A five-week course on Tuesdays runs from Nov. 6 to Dec. 4, 10 a.m. to noon, $175; experience preferred. Call 631-692-6820 or visit cshlibrary.org.

-- Carl Corry

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