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.

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10 thoughts on “Figurative work and portraits

  1. Pam

    Beautiful portrait, and thought provoking article, Frank. My question still is, why hasn’t watercolor finally come into it’s own, why hasn’t the status quo given watercolor it’s due recognition and value? I too love oil and it’s beautiful qualities, but like you stated, watercolor has a special, unique, spontaneous, fresh and luminous character. Your tips on what to avoid when working in this medium are spot on, and well stated! I’ll be looking forward to seeing more of your figurative work in the future.

    1. frankeber Post author

      Good question! I wish I had an answer, but since it hasn’t changed in the last 100 years, I am afraid it won’t change in the next 100 either, no matter how much we’d like it to be otherwise…

  2. Jody

    You just described so well why I love the watercolor medium and continue trying to become a better painter. I’m going to keep your words in my head and listen for the voices of the watercolor gods, too.
    Beautiful portrait painting with an interesting composition. Thanks for these thoughtful posts. Jody

  3. lesliepaints

    I love viewing watercolor portraiture, Frank. I also like painting them. The points you make, above are true but have found many fellow artists who come running back to watercolor, lately. When I ask them why, they mostly say that it is freeing. I think too many artists get too tied up in the “shoulds” and “should nots”. There are so many ways to paint what we see and feel. Watercolor can be used so many different ways and with so many different mediums. I feel like it opens doors instead of closing them.

    1. frankeber Post author

      It’s true, Leslie – you are right, of course. Didn’t Andrew Wyeth once say ‘no medium has a limit, the limit is the artist’. I drink to that!

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