Thursday, February 27, 2014

Intermediate Watercolor Homework: Making Big Changes

The best time to make big changes in a painting is before you pick up a brush. We've all heard the same advice from every book and every teacher, "make a thumbnail study first".
I confess I don't always take the short time needed to consider the value pattern and the composition before launching into a first attempt, but I know (and you know) that it makes good sense.
In less than 5 minutes, you can try out several variations of placement and relative values of the major shapes.

Unloading the brick kiln, San Agustine Yatareni, Oaxaca

 Imagine that you can change anything you want to make this scene a better painting. The distant mountain, for example, looks attached to the kiln, sort of like a light blue hat. What if it were taller, and extended beyond the brick structure to the right? Easy to find out.
What if The narrow shape of the opening were much darker, so that the worker (Jose) stood out more? Or, would it be better to make Jose darker, so he seems more enveloped by the opening? Both options can be tested with a pencil and a scrap of paper, and two minutes time.
Look for an image that has a few overlapping shapes, or use one of these, and consider what you might change to enhance the sense of space, or simply to enliven the picture plane. Bring in your sketches, and the photo, if you can. Feel free to paint the scene, once you've made your decisions.

Market day

Monday night and Wednesday Morning Homework: Asking the Questions

Copying is a powerful tool, but it can also be confusing. The work we've been doing studying and copying passages of landscape paintings is all about focusing awareness on the choices an artist makes. The idea is to make similar choices regarding wetness, color, value and composition.
This is a different activity from making a painting that looks just like the original. If you notice, for example, that the artist chose to wet the paper before applying the first wash, and then proceeded to make big, confident, fluid strokes, you should do the same. If you make similarly bold strokes, they WILL NOT be identical in appearance to the original. How could they be? The only way to get them to look just alike would be to make many, many, very small and extremely careful strokes. I repeat, the purpose of the exercise is to understand the choices that an artist made. That, and to practice asking the questions that make your own choices deliberate.

Ballston Dunes
Take a look at the shadows the grasses cast on the dunes in this beach scene. As brushstrokes, they all begin at the base of the grass clump and sweep downward at an angle. In a copy of this painting, it doesn't matter much exactly what the angle is, but it is important for all the shadows to be at the same angle. Similarly, the color relationship of the grass and the shadows is more important than the specific colors. As long as your copy shows warm grass and cool shadows, the spirit of the copy will be like the original. It's more about the intensity of the light than the actual palette.

Look for a watercolor landscape that you admire, and take your time tuning in to the artists choices. What matters most? Make a version that feels like the original.
Have fun

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Do you know Soutine's work?

While we're on the subject of letting go (and when are we not?), take a look at these guys. Chaim Soutine:

and Frank Auerbach:

please pass the oil paint.

Intermediate Watercolor Homework: More Trees

The tree painting session was fun and effective! Thank you, Peter, for that idea. I think we should build on the confidence that was beginning to appear in your brushwork. At some point it would be good to move from copying paintings to working from photographs. You decide when you're ready for that.

Start by finding a couple more painted tree passages that you like, and copying them until the technical demands are in your grasp. Next, look for a landscape photo that includes trees, and decide how you'd like to treat them: hard edges, soft edges, or both? Value range? Color? Composition? Don't forget to consider the role the trees play in the big picture. You may decide to change some aspects of them to better support the feeling you're after.

If you find that one variable or another keeps giving you trouble, devote some time and some decent paper to practicing that.
Here are a few image that may appeal to you:

Cathe Gill

David Taylor

Elliot O'Hara

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Monday night and Wednesday morning classes: The discomfort zone

Let's see, what can we let go of today?

I've been working primarily in watercolor for 40 years, and I still cling to various crutches - devices that help keep the paintings "safe". Even in abstract work, for example, I tend to make shapes that mostly touch the edges of the frame. This provides a guaranteed structure, which is mostly a good thing, but it also seems limited. As I often say in class, "When you keep doing what you already know, you are not learning much."

Plus, forty years is just too damn long to keep holding on to the edges of the pool. I'd like to encourage everyone to dive into the deep end and see what happens, sooner, rather than later. 

In the case of the still life set-up we worked from in class, we were asking when we could be carefree and when we would need to be careful. Will a later layer make sense of the one I'm making now, or do I need to make sure the shapes are meaningful right from the start?

If you can't quite see in advance when it's appropriate to give definition to the separate entities in your painting, the best way to find out is to let go. 

First of all, this means letting go of the notion that this particular piece of paper should become a good painting. Be willing to fail. Then, you're ready to find out how far you can really go. That's the real goal. 

Can you let go of the edges between shapes? Let go of outlines. Let go of the differences between things, and start by painting the similarities. 

Alfred Henry Maurer                  Abstract Still Life
What did Maurer let go of? When did he give the shapes their identity?

This usually involves venturing outside of your comfort zone, but, really, what's at stake? How often, as adults, do we get to fall on our faces and get up, unharmed, and try it again? 
If you discover that  the darks or the middle values can't pull the whole mess together, you have used up one side of one piece of paper, but you've gained essential information. That's a net positive. 

One of these pictures relies on accuracy for its appeal. The other is more approximate, and displays the fluidity of the medium more obviously. I have a preference, as you might guess.The pear study is more fun to look at, because it gives back some of the control to the paint (I could do without all those spatters, though). 
Set up a still life for yourself, and paint a few versions. Stretch yourself. Write down somewhere what you were letting go of. Everyone is holding on to something. The pear painter, above, could have made his fruit blue, after all. 
Have fun!

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Intermediate watercolor 2/5 You asked about water...

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 somethingmissing 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:

Monday Night and Wednesday a.m. Class: Revealing the layers

Let's take advantage of having a full class by each bringing in an example of the sequence of layers that make up a simple watercolor. With a wall full of step-by-step demonstrations, we should strengthen our understanding of how a painting progresses from light to dark, and from general to specific. You can do this exercise in monochrome or in a broader palette, depending on whether the addition of color would distract you from seeing in layers.

After choosing or finding an image you'd like to paint, look "through" the darks and middle values to see what the first layer of just the lights would be. Paint 3 separate versions of that layer, all roughly the same.

Now put the second layer on two of the three, leaving one showing only the first layer.

Finally, put the third layer, the darks, on one of those that have two layers. You should end up with three sheets. One has just layer #1, one has #1 and #2, and one has #1, #2 and #3.

You can see a similar step-by-step process in this article from an old Daniel Smith catalog:

It's a lengthy piece, worth reading someday.
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