Thursday, January 31, 2013

Beginning Watercolor 1/31/13 Damp into Wet

Staying aware of how wet the brush is compared to the paper will keep you out of all kinds of wetness trouble. What is traditionally called "wet-into-wet" painting should really be called "wet -into-wetter"'

I find it much easier to tell how wet the brush is than the paper. I can always try out the flow of the brush on the palette, or on a piece of practice paper, whereas, until I commit to a stroke on the actual painting, I can't be sure how wet that piece of paper is.

It will take a little while before you have a good sense of how long the paper will stay wet in any given set of conditions, so, for now, I recommend making it too wet. you can adjust how thick the paint is on your brush to compensate for the wetness of the paper, and still get roughly the kind of edge you're after. The density of the paint on the brush is another range of possibilities you will come to know better and better with time. Since so many painters make much paler paintings than they intend, here, too, let's err on the side of too much pigment.

To practice this balancing act, look over the photo you brought home, or find one of your own, and identify a passage that will require wet paper to achieve the edge qualities you see.

This sky is made up of nothing but soft edges. Wetting the page would be the logical first step. How many applications of paint would you need to make while the paper is still wet?

Make a study, or two (or five) of a soft-edged area of your photo, and make notes as you go. Try to identify the source of any difficulties. Was the brush wetter than the paper? How did that happen? Did you get hard edges where you wanted soft? What will you do differently?
Remember, we're not making paintings here. We're making mistakes. The goal is to learn as much as you can. Embarrassment is your ally. As long as you come away with plenty of evidence to sift through, you can't lose.
Have fun.

Intermediate Watercolor 1/31/13 Follow Through

You've probably noticed that I consistently emphasize the importance of process over product; "It's more important to be painting than to have paintings", "The piece of paper you're working on now is not a painting", "To succeed, you have to be willing to fail ".

You might get a little tired of this.
"What are we doing all this painting for", you may ask, "if not to to make paintings?"

Well, there is a place where process and product come together. Your painting practice, that is, the focus and determination you bring to your painting time, leads directly to refinement of your efforts.  If you keep at it, you can count on improvement. Better paintings, in other words.

So, why does the first attempt so often seem to be the best of the bunch? Because determination without focus is just repetition. Every time you start another version, have a clear idea of what you are doing differently, and limit the experimentation to one thing at a time.

For example, In the image below, the first layer of the trees is a single, overall green wash. Despite the lively pattern of second and third layer marks, the whole area seems flat and lackluster. I could try adding more shadows and trunks, which would not require a new piece of paper, but I think there are enough strokes. I'll go down the list:
Color; well, that shape is all one color. What if I had varied the color of the wash when I first applied it?
This is a very promising idea. Maybe I could even glaze this version...
This is enough to take on for the next step. It may not solve all the problems there are on this piece of paper, but it will help me realize my true goal...

Please write down your thoughts. What remains uncertain? Which single thing will you now try to resolve? How? What were the results?
Imagine if you kept a diary of the refinement of every image? Not that I expect anyone to actually do this, I never have, but it would probably help get the learning to stick. And wouldn't it be grand if Sargent and Zorn and George Post had left their diaries behind for us?

Thursday, January 24, 2013

beginning watercolor homework 1/24/13 gorgeous paint

For this exercise, use good 100% cotton, 140# paper, 1/4 sheet (11x15") minimum. Bigger would be fine. It may be a good idea to read these guidelines all the way through before starting. Twice. See if you can visualize the process while you read it the second time.

Make two or three large washes as a first layer, and let them run into each other on the page, so that their edges flow together somewhat. There is no need to correct anything. Whatever happens will be fine. The only requirement is that all of your washes and strokes be fluid and transparent.

While the washes are still wet, make a series of strokes with your biggest brush, so that each first-layer area gets a second layer of marks. If some of the washes are already dry, just carry on with the strokes anyway. Use as few or as many colors as you like.

Now make smaller marks that touch the big strokes. They can overlap as much or as little as seems right to you. Let the paper dry completely, so that it no longer feels cool to the touch. A hairdryer is useful.

Now mix up a puddle of a color that contrasts with one of your original washes, and lay it on top of part of the first wash. Leave some of the first layer unglazed, so you can still see the original color. Do the same for the other first-layer washes.

You might be tempted to "improve" your page by removing paint. Instead, consider making a second version, and bring them both to class.
Have fun.

intermediate watercolor homework 1/24/13 designing your preliminary studies

After observing everyone in class yesterday, I can now say definitively that I am not the only one who wants to skip the preliminary study phase and jump right to the long overdue "lucky break" phase, where all my uncertainty magically disappears just as the brush touches the paper. This is a little like the guy who backs out of his driveway without looking because he's tired of always waiting for the traffic to clear. Sometimes we do get lucky, but the odds, as you know, are against it.
I really do want to replace the habit of recklessness with a more thoughtful approach. I am convinced that the spontaneity we all value in a great watercolor comes more from certainty than from fate. And it definitely won't come from mastery. Not yet, anyway. I am simply not a good enough painter to rely completely on my "chops". I have to do the work of finding the territory within which I can make my marks with the certainty that they will work just fine.
If this sounds too cerebral to you, remember that I'm not talking about taking total control of the movement of the paint or the brush. In fact, I want to give the paint as much room as possible to go its own way. When I don't have a clear idea of the guidelines that are really necessary for my brushwork, I am much more likely to be too careful.

In this Sargent watercolor the blue strokes on the right are not at all precise, but they are correct enough to tell us all we need to know. Once he had decided on the color and value, the artist only had to make sure that the strokes were roughly horizontal, and irregular in their distribution. Some of the marks are hard-edged, some are soft, but Sargent did not have to be in control of which, or how many. A little of each, however it turned out, would be fine.
OK, in Sargent's case the study turns out to be museum quality, but the important thing to remember is that, to him, it really was just a study. We have to be willing to produce lots of pieces of paper that we do not even hope will become "paintings".

Identify the aspects of your scene that fill you with uncertainty. Plan a study that will provide you with the answers to your questions. Is your confusion a wetness issue? Color? If you're not sure, try painting just the tricky part, not the whole scene. See which kind of trouble you get into. Then, practice until you see how much and what kind of control you need, and let the paint do the rest.
Have fun.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Beginning Watercolor Homework 1/18/13 Seeing your subject as layers of light, middle and dark.

To review the exercise we did in class:

Working from a photo, make a study of just the middle values.

Begin by mixing up a puddle of a single color that is halfway between black and white in value. Try to estimate how much paint it will take to do the job, and mix a little more than you think you need. Be sure to use a color that can get dark enough to represent the strong darks you’ll be adding later.

Draw the profiles of the shapes that are very light, and paint everything else with your middle value wash. You will be painting around the lights, leaving the white paper to represent them. It will probably be necessary to round the middle values up or down to make them all the same. The idea here is to over-simplify the subject deliberately, to get an idea of which information is essential and which is optional.

What you have done, basically, is to reveal the pattern that the lightest lights make, which allows you to stand back, and assess the extent to which the lights alone realize an illusion of believable light, space and substance.

When the middle value layer is dry, paint in the strong darks with the darkest version you can make of your color.

Where would you like to see more subtlety or specificity? Where is this oversimplified treatment surprisingly satisfying?

In class, everyone got to the stage where the lights and middle values were visible. Finish this study by adding the darks, and then make another one from an image of your choice.

Intermediate Watercolor Homework 1/18/13 The role of the darks

To review the exercise we did in class:

Working from a photo, make a study of just the strong darks.
Paint in monochrome, using black, or a color that can get dark enough to represent the darkest darks.
Stand back, and assess the extent to which the darks alone realize an illusion of light and space and substance.

When the darks are dry, paint in the middle values, leaving the strong lights pure white paper. Use just one wash for all the middle values, rather than differentiating between dark middle and light middle. You will have to round many values up or down to homogenize them. The object here is to see how letting go of subtlety affects the illusion and the overall feeling of the page.

Where would you like to see more subtlety or specificity? Where is this oversimplified treatment surprisingly satisfying?

All of you did all this in class, so it follows nicely to use the information you gathered to guide a full palette version of the subject. If you prefer, make another study, this time painting the middle value pattern first, then applying the darks. Don’t forget to assess the study when it has only the middle values and the whites. It can reveal how much work the lights do by themselves.