Thursday, April 25, 2013

Beginning Watercolor Homework 4/25/13 How wet is the Brush Compared to the Paper?

Many watercolorists assume that they must wait for the paper to be wet to exactly the right degree before applying secondary strokes that need soft edges. In fact, controlling the edge quality of those strokes has much more to do with how dry the brush is than how wet the paper is. Try this quick and surprising exercise, after you read it all the way through:
Make three 6x6” washes of clear water, one just damp, one quite shiny, and one dripping wet. Now load the brush with plenty of pigment and very little water. The paint should be thicker than what you would use on dry paper. Observe how the brush strokes look on the palette. You should be able to see the tracks of individual bristles before the stroke flows back together. Work quickly, so your washes don’t dry. If you were to make a short stroke in the center of each of your washes, what do you think the results will be? Go ahead and try it.. Were the results what you expected?

In the exercise above, the wetness of the brush was kept constant, while the wetness of the paper was deliberately varied.
Now try an exercise where the paper's wetness stays constant, and the brush gets wetter and wetter:
Make a large, damp, colored wash, about 6" tall and 12" wide. It should be shiny, but not at all puddled. Start with a brushful of a saturated, different color that you know is drier than the paper, and make a stroke off to one side of your large wash. 
Now add a little water to the brush, and work it around on the palette. Make a stroke of this wetter color near the first one. Add a little more water, and make a third stroke. Keep adding water, a little at a time, and making a new stroke beside the last one, working your way across the wash, until you lose control of what happens on the paper.

In the first exercise, the look of your secondary strokes is one you will want to use often. In the second exercise, what happens when your brush gets too wet, on the other hand, is something you won't do on purpose very often. Which one would be appropriate for soft-edged shadows?

For the next critique, look for a passage in a scene or an image that could be represented with the kind of strokes you made in the first exercise. Experiment with the wetness of the brush to discover what works to give you the kind of edge you want. Bring in the study and the photo, if you use one.

Intermediate Watercolor Homework 4/25/13 Water as a Subject: Make it Simple

It is not unusual to be seduced by the apparent complexity of water as a painting subject and end up making a multi-layered collection of several hundred brushstrokes. It is natural to want to do justice to the ever-changing subtlety of the surface, but it somehow always manages to elude translation. It can seem, since the subject is so complicated, that there must be something missing from your attempt. And if you look a little more closely, sure enough, there is another element of subtle variation, one more layer of strokes, that might be just the missing ingredient. And so it goes, becoming more and more elaborate, and more and more like mud.
You might conclude from a few experiences like this that water is just too hard to paint, and add it to the list of subjects to be avoided. Living in Seattle, though, you can only get away with that for a little while before the lakes or the sound, or just the wet streets start calling to you. Besides, how can you paint Koi without something for them to swim in (hmmm, now that's a koi painting I might enjoy)
The problem is all about the complexity of the subject, but not with how to match that in paint. Rather, it's a question of how to make it simpler. Instead of focusing in on ever more subtle aspects of the subject, the real task is to step back and look for ways to generalize all that information.
Looking at water as interpreted by master watercolor painters is a good way to begin seeing which, of all those features we can perceive, are the essential ones.
Winslow Homer, in the Adirondacks

OK, it helps when the water is nice and calm. This is treated almost as an upward-facing mirror, reflecting the sky, with just a few strokes to represent the reflection of the canoe and paddlers.  But calm or not, Homer has surely omitted plenty of information. Is it too simple for you? How many layers did the artist make? What did the water look like before the darks were applied? Before the middle values?

Homer, again, in Bermuda.

How many layers? What did the first layer look like by itself?

John Singer Sargent    Venice, The Grand Canal

These are the same three layers that Homer used in his Bermuda scene: Sky, with reserved lights for the reflected buildings on the left, then the middle value reflections of the shadowed buildings on the right, and, finally, a few dark strokes for the reflections of the gondolas and posts.

Anders Zorn

This water, though very carefully done, is no more complex than Sargent's or Homer's. Count the layers. 

All three artists worked from a very general first layer - basically a reflection of the sky rendered with a single, overall wash. The second layer was the next most general statement - reflected buildings or, in Zorn's case, the soft-edged middl-value backs of the ripples. Finally, each painter made a series of hard-edged, horizontal darks to represent the reflections of nearby objects. 

For homework, try copying the water in a master work, like one of the above. Then, look for a picture of water (or go sit beside some real water), and see if you can perceive it as a series of layers, the simpler, the better. Here's a potential subject:

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Intermediate Watercolor homework 4/18/13 A Found Picture

This exercise assumes that everyone lives in a space with at least one window. If that's not true for you, let's talk.
Set up your gear in front of a window. Using the window frame as the borders of your study, move around until the scene out the window makes a dark/light pattern that appeals to you. You may end up working from a standing position, or you may have to sit on the floor. Form trumps function for this project.
Make a quick sketch, in monochrome. This can be a postcard-sized pencil sketch, or a purple watercolor. The important thing is to map out the shapes. It is not necessary to take responsibility for the viewer being able to identify what they're looking at. Just show them the shapes.
Now, where would you like to go with this pattern? A warm/cool arrangement? A soft-edged interpretation, a la Whistler? A geometricized abstraction? Hold on to the dark/light array of shapes, and let go of everything else.

Beginning watercolor Homework 4/18/13 A sequence of layers

Coming to know a new subject in terms of washes and strokes can be a puzzling prospect. Where do I begin? To focus your awareness on the progression of a painted version of your subject, it helps to limit the distractions. First on the list could be color, which is often the most insistent variable. For this exercise, let's just set color aside, and make a monochrome study. Choose a color straight from the tube, so you aren't using your attention to keep matching one that you've mixed. It has to be one that can get dark enough to represent the darkest darks. You will be making a three value study in a single color.

Everyone chose a photo to work from. If you missed class, here is an image that will serve well as a subject.

Start by squinting hard at the image, so that shapes of similar value merge together, and texture dissolves. Assign a value - either white, middle or black - for each major shape. This requires some amount of compromise. You will have to decide whether to round things up or down. Remember that if you make a mistake, the study will still do its job very well. Finding out that a given shape should have been dark rather than middle, for example, is just as useful as getting it "right". The job of the study is to provide answers to questions. It does not have to be a handsome product in its own right.

Locate the white shapes. Paint the entire page middle value, leaving just those whites unpainted. Let the paper dry completely.
Now apply the dark layer, reserving the middle values and the whites. That's the whole story. All that's left is to assess the result. Where do you wish there were more subtlety (such as another value, halfway between black and middle)? Where should there be more specificity (where the picture would benefit from knowing a bit more about what comprises that big dark shape in the corner, for example)?
Make your notes directly on the study.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Beginning Watercolor Homework 4/10/13 Color mixing

Please read this all the way through before launching into the painting.

Select a set of primary colors, one each of red, yellow and blue. These will comprise your entire palette for this exercise.

Paint an array of shapes on a 1/4 sheet of paper using the three colors in their pure forms and in a variety of combinations. You can let the shapes overlap, or keep them separate. There are no rules or guidelines, other than that you should leave at least 1/4 of the paper white.

Now, mix a big puddle of a neutral color in which none of the three components is dominant. Use this to surround the shapes, eventually covering all of the white. If you apply this neutral wash wet enough, you may be able to make the whole background without overlap marks, but it is not necessary to do so.
However it turns out, let it be. There is no right way to do this, so there is also no wrong way. In other words, there is no need to correct anything. If you are dissatisfied with your results, make another one.

Finally, make the darkest color you can using your three components. It should have just enough water to flow on evenly. Too much water will thin the paint, and make it lighter. Too little will leave the paint thick and textured on the paper. You can use a scrap of practice paper to try it out. If it is still shiny even after it's dry, it needs more water. Use this color to embellish your design further. The darks are powerful, so be deliberate in using them.
Have fun

It could look something like this Hans Hofmann

Then, again, it could look like this Vermeer

Intermediate Homework 4/10/13 Simplifying your subject by combining shapes

What we see when we look at a scene as an artist is different from what we see when we look at it as our immediate surroundings. What we need to know changes, depending on our purpose. The pedestrian needs to know where the hazards and the rewards are located, and which is which. The painter just needs to know if the shapes make an appealing pattern. To see with the eye of an artist, it is necessary to turn off the content program and switch to the form-based channel.
One kind of vision emphasizes the differences between objects. The other focusses on the similarities.

As realist artists, a big part of our job is to make the scene much simpler, so that its graphic impact can be easily perceived. We do the work of editing out the optional information, so the rest of the world can  see the essentials. One very useful way to do this is to combine shapes that are similar in value and/or color.

Find an image that interests you. Squint hard at it. Subtle differences in color and value disappear. Texture is absorbed into shapes. The simpler pattern that emerges is what the painting wants to emphasize. Make a quick study of this simplified version of the scene. Take note of what you let go of and what you held onto. Can you afford to simplify the scene even further? At some point, when you have really shifted from differentiating to combining, your treatment will become entirely abstract. stand way back from the image, and see if the content comes back. Please bring in all your studies.
Have fun.