Category Archives: Portrait

On the road to Baiwucun Village (2018)

On the road to Baiwucun Village (2018)

The Quotidian (2018)

The Quotidian (2018)

This blog post was originally published in my newsletter earlier in March. Edited for clarification.

Being invited to the inaugural 2018 Huize Watercolor Exhibition in Qujing, China, was a big honor for me. I did not expect it. There are plentiful outstanding painters in the watercolor world, and I was surprised (and flattered) to have been invited. Our Western contingent hailed from Australia, Brazil, Italy, Ukraine, Russia, the US, and Germany. The Eastern contingent arrived from Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, and over 50 Chinese nationals from all over the country. I met so many first-rate, virtuoso painters, it was intimidating and especially inspiring! After 20 hours’ total travel time (San Francisco to Chengdu to Kunming to Qujing) I fell dead asleep in bed. Let me tell you, the airport at Kunming is regarded as “medium-sized”, with just over 150 gates. This was my first hint that It’s Different In China (and it wasn’t the last). Everything is big. People are everywhere. It took time to get used to that!

As this was a plein air event, the group of artists were shuttled to various painting locations: traditional villages in the heart of a bustling town or in a sweeping valley (It’s Different In China), a river surrounded by mountains, a factory in the countryside. Painters were given a choice of locations, and my selections, as a first-timer in Asia, were based on curiosity. As with painting outdoors, the first step is finding a scene. By the time you’ve decided, an Asian artist has already finished their first wash. While you’re waiting on your first wash to dry, they’re on their second painting. Some of the Asian artists were fast!

Portrait of a Chinese Girl (2018)

Portrait of a Chinese Girl (2018)

The work I saw were impressive explorations of composition, perspective, and proportion. Interpretations of scenes ranged from graphic to naturalistic, wildly imagined to actual color. The variety was exemplary. Not to mention the artists themselves who, despite the language difference, were affable. Art transcends many barriers: visual and visceral, it extends a hand to everyone, reminding us we are all the same inside.

There were other things to do, of course. A first-night opening ceremony was followed by a group painting demo and an East-West seminar the following night. (Yours truly croaked out a few jetlagged words.) An outdoor picnic the third night preceded a bonfire and celebration. I participated in jurying a student show on the fourth night. On the fifth and final day there was a public paint-out (a long strip of paper was rolled out and sectioned on a long table, and artists were invited to paint a section), followed by a closing ceremony and a public exhibition. Because this was a government-sponsored event, the care and detail with which they coordinated the last day was breathtaking. The only time we (as in Westerners, really) do something on a similar scale is during the Olympics. Yes, I am exaggerating, but not by much. As my Australian friend and fellow painter Herman put it, “in our countries they only sponsor football players”. Sad but true, the Arts are always the first thing scratched in most budgets…

Factory Mining Town (2018)

Factory Mining Town (2018)

Boulevard of Lanterns (2018)

Boulevard of Lanterns (2018)

On that last day, the Chinese held a public presentation at the Huize Hongse Culture Exhibition Hall. There were dance performances and gifts made by children in the local schools, professional singers, and celebrity MCs (It’s Different In China). There was a short demonstration of watercolor painting and calligraphy writing. Speeches were made by government officials, after that came a presentation of the results of the juried student competition. All the artists involved in the day’s earlier paint-out were invited onstage to stand behind their section of painting. Finally, everyone was invited into the Art Museum to view all the work submitted by the painters. Back at the hotel, one last dinner with multiple toasts from various officials and organizers concluded the event. Perhaps it was just coincidence that the Chinese Lantern Festival ended that Friday; at any rate, fireworks later that night were a very appropriate ending.

Three weeks later, I am still processing my thoughts on China. I’ve started posting images on Instagram (and Facebook), and I’ll continue through the end of the month. China was interesting on many levels, to put it mildly. Art is given attention that cannot be compared at a public (as opposed to privately-funded) level: travel and accommodations taken care of in advance; readily-available shuttles and cars to drive to painting locations; intriguing or eclectic painting locations; good, local meals; and engaging interpreters. The climate in southwest China is similar to California. It was very dry and sunny, not ideal for watercolor painting but not bad either. Thankfully it was not hot. I was able to take a break one day to walk along the streets, a brief respite from painting. Outdoor markets, the sound of children over the constant barrage of cars, stray dogs, people hanging laundry out to dry. Slices of life, a familiar refrain around the world.

Factory paint out!

Factory paint out!

That is not to say there aren’t problems in China. There needs to be better education about trash disposal and pollution in general, environmental problems to the scale of 1.3 billion people. Often the beautiful countryside is littered. People also smoke everywhere, inside and outside, like it used to be in the US 25 years ago. On our way home we flew into Shanghai, and true to all the rumors about air quality, the city was having a foggy day. Well, it wasn’t fog… But I digress. You’re here for the art, right?

Final thoughts: Personally, the best part was connecting with the people in the villages we visited. At one, an old man was so happy to have me painting outside his home, he invited me in for tea! A smile, an offer to watch my easel while I wandered looking for other painting spots, an impulsive gift of rosehip tea in a bag. The Chinese people are joyful and friendly, and despite not having much of anything, open their house to you. It was a humbling experience.

A gift of rosehip tea

A gift of rosehip tea

Would I go to China again? In a heartbeat. Once you get past politics and policies you always meet wonderful people wherever you go in this world.

There is still a lot to paint in China.

 

 

 


My heartfelt gratitude goes to Mr. Li, Mr. Tu, and all the organizers of this inaugural 2018 Watercolor Exhibition in Qujing-Huize, Yunnan, China for extending the invitation to me. To the hotel staff, the Tea Lady, our drivers (!), and the various people who turned out each day to watch plein air painting, thank you. Last of all, thanks to Dande and David, whose English skills were honed during those 7 days. Xièxiè!


A VERY, VERY BRIEF TREATISE ON PAINTING IN CHINA: The watercolor tradition in Chinese painting goes back as far as 400 BC. We are all familiar with the traditional style of Chinese painting: calligraphy, court/royal vignettes, grandiose landscapes. Exposure to Western art and artists, from the late 19th century onwards, gradually influenced subject and technique. Today, invitations extended to international watercolorists maintain that creative exchange, and the benefits can be witnessed on both sides.

 

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Watercolor portraits

Almost like formal portraiture? Not really. While painted somewhat formally, I am mainly experimenting with expressions.

These come from photos I have taken of people on the street. Some look lost in thought, sad, haunted, sometimes expressionless. Commuter robots (comm u-bots). When walking around downtown or places like NY you’ll see them everywhere…

I don’t like photographs of people posing. Especially in portraits you see people pose a lot. They are too aware of the camera. It looks staged. I like the candid photos, where people look more natural, unaware that someone is taking a picture. These portraits are not very big. The face of the girl with the long blond hair is only 3 inches long. The other one is bigger.

As for technique, these take multiple glazes to get the right color and value. Direct painting (alla prima) is, unfortunately, not really possible in watercolor so I normally prefer to do work like this in oil. As in oil painting I only used black, white, cad red, raw sienna and ultramarine blue. That’s it.

It is a nice challenge and these can certainly be improved. Always something to learn! As artists I think it is very important to keep evolving, keep pushing. I am considered a landscape painter in watercolor but I refuse to be put in some drawer. Never be static and predictable. Or known for one thing. It’s too easy to burn out!

The art world is becoming increasingly homogenized. The only way to stand out is to do your own thing, not copy other painters’ styles and subjects. Workshops can help only if you get the guidance to find yourself (your own voice) or at least be helped in that direction. Pick workshops carefully! Ask the venue about the instructor and their teaching style. Don’t fall for reputation. There are some with big names out there but they don’t know how to teach you a thing!

#52artworksin52weeks

People who have met me know I’m not exactly fond of social media, but the appeal of Instagram is its dedication to the visual and minimal words. Given that I’m not exactly a gifted wordsmith, I’m all for it. This year I thought I’d give Instagram a decent chance. And by decent chance I mean no more unfocused, badly-cropped pictures and half-assed captions. I would post sharp, nicely-cropped, squared-up paintings, make engaging captions, and even work in some clever hashtags. (Ha.) To dig a deeper hole, I vowed to post frequently, thus creating #52artworksin52weeks.

So far I’m up to #06of52, which happens to be this. Parents, I’m sure you’re all familiar with that look on her face!

 

And mind-bogglingly, #01of52 happens to be the most popular. Really. And it occurred to me: am I in the right genre? Should I be painting more animal portraits, less landscapes? More bichons, less barns? Someone thinks so. (Still waiting for AWS, TWSA, NWS, and CAC on their input…)

 

Last year, people were really drawn to these San Luis Obispo county landscapes. Central California is gorgeous, isn’t it? I’ve been thinking of doing a local workshop here… Watercolors and Wine. Or should it be Wine and Watercolors?

 

Finally, this city scene from Florence brings back some good memories… I conducted workshops in Tuscany in 2013 and 2015, and will be back again this year.

 

If you’re on Instagram, please drop by and say Hello! Hold my feet to the fire and make sure I get to #52of52! (And thanks for all your support.)

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.