Artist’s vibrant paintings are best sellers

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Robert Friedman

Yolanda Koh’s “Tulips” demonstrates the vibrant alcohol ink medium in which she works. The Columbia artist and architect sold 50 paintings over the last nine months at the Ellicott City HorseSpirit Gallery. (Unfortunately, the gallery was badly damaged in the recent flood.)
Courtesy of Yolanda Koh

Local best-sellerdom has come to Columbia resident Yolanda Koh. She is not a writer, but an artist who works mostly in watercolors and a new medium known as alcohol ink.

In nine months, Koh has sold 50 works to area art collectors via the HorseSpirit Arts Gallery in Ellicott City. That’s a considerable number of purchases in any gallery for one artist. (The gallery, located on historic Main Street, was badly hit by the recent flood. More on that later.)

“It’s really phenomenal to sell that many original pieces of art in that period of time,” said gallery owner Robin Holliday. Koh “is really talented and able to integrate the colorful [alcohol ink] works with her decades of experience as a watercolor artist.”

A new, vivid ink

The “50-plus”-year-old, who describes herself as primarily a watercolorist, has been dipping into alcohol ink, which has recently caught on with young artists, to create intense works of vibrant color.  

Alcohol inks are described as highly pigmented painting inks that look a lot like watercolors, but dry more quickly and have more natural variation in color and texture. Koh describes the ink as the type used in Sharpie pens.

“The ink blends and dries in as fast as ten seconds,” she said. This allows for “a very fluid and liberating kind of art that is unpredictable. I love the vibrant colors and the spontaneity….The outcomes are often surprising and limitless.”

In the Baltimore Sun, art critic Mike Guilano described her works in alcohol ink this way:

“Exhibited works in this medium include ‘Impressions of Tulips,’ in which purple, orange, green and blue push up against each other; and ‘Purple and Magenta Irises,’ in which those two colors and patches of green offer a sense of these flowers that is more emotional than strictly representational.” He has also written that Koh’s watercolors “are able to immerse you in flower gardens and other outdoor settings.”

Koh said her newly “emotional” works have more to do with the ink and alcohol medium than with any message her inner being is sending her. “My water colors are still representational,” she said. “The expressionism or the realism in my works depend on the medium.”

Koh, who graduated from the University of Illinois College of Fine and Applied Arts, said she was sure that if artists like Picasso and Matisse — or even realists like Manet or Winslow Homer — were still living, they would be experimenting with alcohol and ink.

Experimenting in art is also of major importance to the Taiwan-born Koh. “When I first started, I painted traditional watercolors,” she said. “Soon after, I experimented with watercolor on yupo [a synthetic non-porous paper that remains perfectly flat, which Koh describes as a kind of a plastic surface]. Next thing I knew, l was doing alcohol ink on yupo.

“Then I moved to doing alcohol ink on wood and granite. I’m constantly revolving and exploring new combinations of tools and techniques. I enjoy the discovery process of art.”

An architect as well

Koh, who also does traditional Chinese brush painting, is a staff art instructor at the Columbia Art Center, teaches classes at the Chinese Language School of Howard County and Michael’s Art Stores, and has had exhibits at watercolor shows and in galleries around the county.

Yet, she notes that she is not a fulltime artist. “I’m an architect by training,” she said, pointing out that the majority of her time is not spent at the easel, but drawing up plans for new labs and offices at the National Cancer Institute.

Regarding the recent flooding in Ellicott City that damaged the HorseSpirit gallery, Koh said that at least 80 of her 88 or so pieces on exhibit in the gallery have been saved.

Fortunately, the only losses seem to be of her hand-painted greeting cards and other small pieces that were on the gallery’s first floor. The larger works were on the second floor and were rescued by gallery owner Robin Holliday.

Holliday told National Public Radio that she was in her gallery at 9 in the evening when the flooding of Main Street began. The flood waters, she said, “came into the gallery so fast, it was unbelievable.                

“In 10 minutes, there were several feet of water in the gallery. The water was under my armpits, the front door was smashed in, I went upstairs, water was coming up five of the steps. I’ve never seen anything like that. It came so quickly and out of nowhere,” said Holliday, who is working to restore the gallery and has set up a Go Fund Me page to solicit help from the community (see

To learn more about HorseSpirit Gallery, visit See some of Koh’s work at and at