Flora & Fauna: Watercolor Artist Inslee Fariss

Fariss captures beauty and whimsy in her delicate paintings of flowers, figures, and animals.
by Hampton Williams Hofer | photography by S.P. Murray

A photo album at Inslee Fariss’ parents’ house shows pictures of a diapered toddler scribbling with crayons: a drooling smile, a mess of dark hair — at a glance, a familiar scene. But look a little closer and you can see the precise positioning of the baby’s fingers on the crayon, the intricate detail of the lines in her drawing. “Now that I’m a mother, I realize it was unusual,” Fariss says, of her early affinity for drawing.

Fariss’ gift for drawing has morphed over the decades into her signature whimsical water-colored artistry. Her art has caught the eye of brands like Anthropologie, which sold her hand-painted plates, and LAKE Pajamas, whose signature holiday pajamas featured her work this past year, and popped up everywhere from the home of Meghan Markle to boxes of Nest candles.

Fariss had no formal training in art. As a child, she studied ballet seriously, drawn to classical music and creativity, and dreamed of moving to Russia to become a ballerina. Every year, the dance studio in her hometown of Leesburg, Virginia, held a ballet competition. In the lobby was an art show. Fariss would practice her pirouettes for weeks, dedicated and meticulous, but she never won anything in ballet. What she did win — year after year — was the lobby art show, even the year she sketched a dancer on a napkin.

Fariss’ early work featured delicate, elongated models in artful gowns. “I was 16 when I fell in love with fashion illustration. I came of age in an era where painting skinny white women worked — I didn’t know anything other than clean cut, fresh, and girly,” she says. During her junior year at Washington and Lee University, she started a website to showcase the fashion illustration cards she was making on the side. Right after graduating college in 2008, the director of public relations at Oscar de la Renta in New York discovered Fariss’ work via social media and became such a fan that her assistants asked Fariss to paint her portrait. Fariss delivered the art herself, landing an internship on the spot.

Her fashion figures were such a hit, so essential to the basis of her initial brand as an artist, that she still gets emails frequently, asking why she no longer draws the models. ”I appreciate where it got me started, but I’ve moved away from the models for so many reasons, one of which is coming to terms with who and where we are culturally, no longer wanting to celebrate gaunt fashion models in clothes we can’t afford,” she says. “When I started having younger eyes on me, as a parent, I wanted a different message.”

For a decade in New York, Fariss took commissions to pay the rent: requests to paint dogs, nursery art, brides in their gowns. “Ten years of my life was applying fashion illustration to wedding photos, and I felt almost backed into being a portrait artist.” Then, as the people she had painted as brides started to have babies and request little animals and flowers for their nurseries, Fariss discovered that “this is where I’m happy.”

Fariss and her husband Anderson, who is from High Point, considered both California and Charleston when it was time for their growing family to leave New York. In the end, they chose North Carolina. “Raleigh feels so much like a small town with big city gravitas, so much richness, cultural texture — it’s a special alchemy,” she says. They have settled into a historic home near Lassiter Mill, where the front room serves as Fariss’ studio. Natural light floods a wooden desk, shelves covered in little glass bottles of paint, and stacks of her original prints of curling lizards and sprouting lemons.

Fariss has created an art destination on her popular Instagram account, where videos show her loosely gripping a delicate paintbrush, using watercolor on pressed paper to spin out fantastical florals, foxes in scarves, even an octopus giving side-eye. She also uses the page as a realistic peek into her own life with humor and humility, as she records her spirited toddler doing taekwondo in swimming goggles or lying face down on the field in the middle of his soccer game.

Her process depends on the project: In the fashion days, she sketched first with ink pen to create clean lines, later adding paint. Now she prefers freehand. Her botanicals are all done without any guide. Fariss’ studio wall is lined with watercolors: “I like liquid concentrated paints for their vibrancy,” she says, “or tubes of gouache. Sometimes I mix in acrylic — all the paint!”

Christina Smith remembers when they were teenagers, and Fariss sketched each of her friends on their birthdays. “It’s been a gift to witness Inslee evolve as an artist — her curiosity and love of life are always evident, even as she delves into new subjects and techniques,” says Smith, who has gone on to commission Fariss for everything from her wedding invitation to her daughter’s birth announcement. “Her outlook on life inspires me to move through the day-to-day with joy, recognizing everything as part of the big adventure.” 

One of Fariss’ biggest local collectors, Whitney Otto, owns dozens of her framed prints, which Fariss sells directly to consumers on her website. Otto also gifts Fariss’ popular yearly calendar to her clients each holiday season. “Inslee’s botanicals remind me of my beloved grandfather’s backyard garden, where my sisters and I spent endless hours in our own imaginative world,” Otto says. “Her watercolor details — things like insects with whimsical winks — are simply impeccable.”

Fariss paid her dues to get here, to the point where she draws what she wants, blending work and pleasure in that little front studio. “There’s inspiration everywhere,” says Fariss, whose mind is creating even while she’s packing lunch boxes and picking up LEGOs. “It’s hard to say what the future is — I’m just at the beginning.”

This article originally appeared in the May 2022 issue of WALTER Magazine.