Less is more

This is a head study of a girl. Doing these in watercolor is just great! So much fun with the stuff running all over the paper, me desperately trying to control it and make it go where I think it should. Did I say it’s a ton of fun? I must be nuts..
If you look closely, you’ll notice all the techniques the medium has to offer. Soft, uncontrolled washes to hardest edge and drybrush and everything else in between. I particularly like how her mouth came out, since I didn’t really paint the left side at all. I got a highlight by painting around a section on her lower lip with the second glaze and as I squinted to check my values, I noticed that the mouth is already there!
I painted some of this at Studios on the park, where I am a visiting artist this month and some of the other painters came in to look. They all said, ‘don’t do anything else – it’s done’.. They were right!

Watercolor is at it’s best if you manage to make it look as if there’s something there. The more we paint every little detail and try to make it look more like the photograph or model, the tighter it starts to look and pretty soon it’s overworked. Makes you wanna run back to oil painting, doesn’t it? Not really…

Girl portrait

Skin tones are tricky business. It must not look like a doll or lifeless. The light situation, the person’s ethnicity all plays a role, of course. Base colors for skin are cobalt blue, magenta and hansa yellow. Multiple glazes must be applies to achieve depth and shape. Facial features are applied with a cross-hatch technique, almost like in graphite drawing. There it is again, the good ol’ drawing skill…
The lightest light is the white of the paper; all around the girl, her shoulders, hand and hair. I applied the background and some of her dress with gouache paint.
In portraiture, the important part is to capture the personality or character of a person. Likeness is important as well, but the former more so.

I feel these can still be much better. I also like to do more with the backgrounds and the story. The farmer is such a painting. Small time farmers are a dying breed. Like the landscapes we paint, they slowly disappear. Landscapes turn into ugly, gated McHousing developments and farming is run by huge corporations who push family farms out of business. Don’t get me started..

Figurative work and portraits

Portraits are mostly done in oil and pastel. Watercolor not so much.
Historically, watercolor has been the sketch medium. It wasn’t until the British watercolor movement in the 1800’s that you would see artists paint a watercolor and consider it a piece of art in it’s own right.
We do have an appreciation for watercolor today, but the status quo really hasn’t changed that much. Oil rules the world of art and it probably will never change. Especially in Portrait painting. Oil paintings fetch a lot more money, there are no size limitations, it is easier to control and possibilities in texture are not as limited. So why bother with watercolor?

The things I personally like about it are the qualities that makes artists move to oils: you can’t control it 100%, it’s hard to fix mistakes and you can’t layer. Yes, you can glaze but that’s different.
When a watercolor comes out nice, it is luminous (oil paints are not) and spontaneous. It feels natural, unforced.
That’s why it is so important to paint it all quickly and decisively with as little brushwork as possible. It then retains that character. As soon as we start layering up too thickly, mixing too many similar washes and even pressing too hard with the brush, it all goes away. All of a sudden, it’s looks dull and tired. How did that happen? We’ve all been there many times!
It takes a sensitive brush stroke and a keen eye to know where the turning point is. Sometimes, about half way through the painting you can feel the doubts creeping in. To me that’s my personal alarm bell that tells me to back off! The Gods of watercolor are sending me a friendly warning…they say, ‘a bit more of this kind of thing and this one will go into the garbage can, so be careful, you!’

Painting Portraits is something I have done a lot in the 90’s. It was supplemental income when I worked as an illustrator for a design agency. Back then I was not proficient in watercolor, but gouache was my medium. It is watermedia but I used it like oil paints. The challenge now is to find a way to do it in watercolor and with atmospheric effects. Maybe even include gouache or acrylic. There are certain things you just can’t do with transparent watercolor. I am excited! I will still paint my usual subject matter, but you will see more figurative work as well.

More thoughts on painting

Last catch of the day!

Often enough, we see paintings in international competitions that are 1:1 copies of photographs. Often they win big awards. It is interesting to note that most non-artists identify ‘great art’ by how realistic it is painted.

I once was gallery sitting and there was a huge painting of a tree right at the entrance of the exhibition.
The tree was hyper-realistic, it was just like looking at a photograph of it. The artist must’ve spent weeks or even months painting every leaf of it. Only when you’d move up close could you see that it was actually a painting. This one guy came in on a couple occasions while the show was up, always making it a point to tell me that that tree was the best painting he’s ever seen in his life! He was blown away by it. He couldn’t get over it. He loved that painting.

I thought about this for a long time. Who gets to decide what good art is or what art is in general? Would I contradict him and say I disagree with his assessment? Of course not. I just smiled and thought ‘whatever’.
Usually the jurors of competitions decide what painting makes it into a given exhibition. Jurors have opinions, just like the guy who loved the tree painting. It says that a certain person likes it, that’s for sure. Does that mean it is good art? Does it mean anything? Or is it just one person’s opinion?

One person’s opinion: the person who buys the painting, the juror who judges the painting. One person loves it, the other one hates it. It is the same in music, isn’t it? That’s why it is hard to have a discussion about art or music!

Having said all that, I have come to notice that there *is* a certain consensus about what’s good and what’s ..well, bad! If a painting is beautiful, everybody will notice it and 90 percent of visitors will agree. It will stop them in their tracks and have them take another look. Here’s an analogy: the beauty of a women. (hey, I am a guy)
While it is highly debatable if a woman is beautiful or not, there is a man out there who thinks she is and another who thinks she’s not. But when it comes to sheer beauty, almost everyone agrees. Most men and women from all walks of life would agree that Audrey Hepburn (just an example that came to my mind right now) was beautiful.
Going back to music, it is the same there. Some music is just sublime and there’s not much discussion about it. Bach, Mozart, Britney Spears maybe..

So, generally speaking, it’s all relative. But then there’s the beauty, the sublime, the awe inspiring – and most of us agree! What is your take? Am I right, am I wrong? I want to know what you think! Leave a comment, if you have a couple minutes. It is an interesting topic!

Thoughts on painting

Good painting is very dependend on good observation. When we grow up as kids, we learn to see what we know and the knowing often gets in the way of seeing ‘right’. We don’t really look, we think we know what it looks like! (i.e. ‘if I paint a car I have to paint four round wheels’)

When I first started painting (longer than I care to admit here), my artistic mind was on the quest for realism. I was obsessed with technique and how to paint this and that. I recorded places verbatim and got lots of encouragement with favorable comments from people around me. “Oh, good job, that looks so real..”etc.
As I grew as an artists, things started to change. I no longer looked to paint something as realistic as possible. The correct and scientific rendering of something before me couldn’t possibly be the goal of my art, I could just take a photograph. I started looking for more, something else. I started seeing how objects relate to each other, how they interact, the quality of light and the interconnectedness of everything on the planet. There just isn’t a ‘car’ on a ‘street’, but the interaction of different entities that relate to each other through light, shadow, color, mood. In short, I became obsessed with light and mood.

The paintings I paint now are more of a visual notation that *imply* reality, hopefully like a poetic statement. The tools of the craft and technique have long moved to the subconscious.
It’s an ongoing process. You never stop learning and it is the truth when I say that every watercolour teaches me something. I am by no means there… maybe I will never be ‘there’, whatever ‘there’ is! As the Zen master teaches us, the journey is the destination.
On that note: back to painting…

Copying a masterpiece – why do it?

Studying a master’s work by copying it can have beneficial effects on our own work. It can help us through a tough time, like when we’re not sure where our art is going. It can inspire us to get to that next level! It can help understand about the painting process he or she used, the palette and color mixes. Learning by copying was done throughout the history of art.

Students would go inside museums to paint. Painters would copy each others work.
Last century, just like today, many painters painted similar subject matter. Whatever was ‘en vogue’ to paint at the time. Sargent, Sorolla, Zorn and a few others all painted models with parasols, girls bathing or naked children playing on the beach. Sadly, some would most likely be called perverts in today’s world, but that’s an issue for another post.

Today, many artists paint street scenes, en plein air. It has become ‘cool’ again, to be out on the street or in nature and paint from life. We add all things of modern life, cars, figures glass buildings, back buildings and alleys. This is our time, our place, no reason to act like they are not there…
I wanted to copy these two paintings for a long time. I greatly admire Zorn’s work. I spent hours inside the National Academy in New York this spring, looking at the 30 or so watermedia paintings, trying to understand! I was blown away, still am..
You’d be hard pressed to find anything of his caliber work anywhere out there today. Yes. There. I said it! Of course, it’s my opinion and I am not going to elaborate.

From looking at Zorn’s work and copying the woman with the bedsheets (I forgot the title of the piece) I learned how to suggest facial features by use of multiple, transparent washes.
From Sorolla (his was actually an oil painting but I did it in watercolor), the woman bathing the child, I learned how he mixed his purplish blues and his use of warm and cool colors in such subtle and delicate ways. Very inspiring!

Workshop: Schroeder Gallery, Orange CA

Last weekend I had the pleasure of teaching a two-day plein air only workshop at the Schroeder Gallery in Orange, California. Thank you, Judy, for hosting my workshop and taking great care of me!

We had fantastic weather, not too hot and not too windy, more or less perfect conditions. The group was 10 painters altogether, so no problem finding enough space for everyone to paint. Downtown Orange is a wonderful place for plein air work. There are countless subjects, all within a five minute’s walk from the gallery and we could’ve easily added another day.

Maybe next time.

Thanks to all my students for taking my class, see you all next time! Happy painting!