DUNEDIN — Dr. Debra Thomas-Weible has focused on eyes for most of her adult life.
An ophthalmologist for more than three decades, the Clearwater physician retired last August with her sights still set on eyes — this time, though, with a paint brush in hand.
In an array of watercolors, the doctor-turned-artist brings the eyes of animals and children to life on canvas.
"I never feel like a painting is talking to me until I put in the eyes," she said. "The eyes make the animal come alive — as if it is human."
On one wall of her home hangs a painting of the striped head of a zebra seen from the side. A sleepy brown eye peeks out from heavy lashes.
"Without that eye, the painting would be boring," she said.
What started with a basic watercolor class at the Dunedin Fine Arts Center 10 years ago has resulted in a passion for Thomas-Weible, 63, whose walls reveal the fruits of her labor.
In one painting based on a photo the artist took while visiting Botswana in Africa, the head of a lion in repose is framed by a sun-streaked mane. The animal's golden-hued eyes staring straight ahead appear tranquil, perhaps quelling any fear a sightseer might have upon encountering the mighty beast.
In another watercolor, two rabbits rest in a cage. A plump white one faces forward, one red-rimmed eye looking askance at an unseen object or person.
On a closet door of the studio hangs a vertical arrangement of three different human eyes — one hazel, one brown and one deep blue. Together the three eyes, all painted from Thomas-Weible's imagination rather than a photo, comprise a study in eyes. The lashes are delicately painted as are the caruncles, or small pockets of pink tissue in the inside corner of each eye.
"The first thing you look at when you look at somebody is the eyes," she said, "but many artists omit the caruncles."
The artist's small home studio resembles that of many artists, with containers of brushes, several palettes, tubes of paint, and computers for storing and mailing images. In this studio, though, Thomas-Weible works with a high slanted mirror directly over her worktable.
"When you look at your painting in reverse you catch errors in your drawing," she said.
The mirror also enables her to see the values — dark, mid and light colors — and how they come together.
On the worktable one recent morning lay a photograph of a small boy holding a chicken. Thomas-Weible photographed the farm child in rural Oregon. The artist said she loved the way the light traveled through the boy's face, his large blue eyes staring joyfully through the sun's rays.
"You never try to reproduce exactly what you see in the photograph, though," she said. "Once the drawing is down I just go with it and make it the way I want it to be."
Mastering watercolors has been a long process for Thomas-Weible. Under the guidance of one particular teacher, watercolorist Pat Weaver of Dade City, the budding artist and mother of two sons learned to deal with the challenges of her chosen medium.
"Watercolor is unforgiving," she said. "You can't paint over mistakes and the paint runs or blooms."
Still, Thomas-Weible is sticking with the form she has practiced for so long. She has participated in past exhibits sponsored by the Florida Watercolor Society and currently has paintings on display at Ruth Eckerd Hall and the Nature Center on Honeymoon Island. On July 20 and 21 she again will display her work at the Cool Art Show at the Coliseum in St. Petersburg.
The artist, who lives in Dunedin with her husband, Dr. George Schaefer, is thinking ahead. She hopes to attend more workshops around the state and do some teaching of her own.
"I also would like to branch out a little more and not get stuck in just one thing," she said, in spite of her love for animals and children. "I want to keep on learning."