Tag Archives: watercolor workshop

The editing process: a pain in the…

I had the chance to visit Ellicott City on my trip to Maryland last June. While there was no time to actually paint en plein air, I was able to take pictures in this remarkable town.
(the name is a bit misleading, it is definitely a small town)

Ellicott City was founded in 1772, so it is quite old by American standards. It is nestled in a narrow valley and unfortunately, that contributed to a devastating flash flood a few years ago. But the people are resilient, have battled their way back and rebuild their dreams!

I was immediately attracted to all the odd views of old Architecture, hilly terrain, beautiful craftsmen and Victorian style buildings. Busy streets and storefronts and some nice galleries as well.

In fact, finding a paint-able scene was quite a challenge, because there seems to always be too much in the viewfinder. Too much and all stacked up! Arguably one of the hardest things to find is a scene that can actually be good painting material. I did find a few eventually but not without doing some pretty drastic editing first.
Side note:
On the day I was there it was actually cloudy. Fortunately, my painter friend Thomas Bucci was able to take pictures the day before when it was sunny. This picture was taken by him and he was kind enough to let me use it.

This is the reason why I wanted to write this blog post: How do we edit scenes with way too much information in them? As with everything else in art, there is no easy answer.

A good way to think is like this: First, what is essential to the scene, what elevates the painting? What has to go in so you can ‘say’ what you have to say?

Second, what does not help the scene? What can I change and still say the same thing?
In this case, the building on the left has a very long extension to the right that does not all have to be there. So I shortened it. Needless to say I didn’t want to paint the trash cans.

The right side is also too complicated: the truck takes up too much space. I added people instead which, in street scenes, always seems to help develop a focal point. I changed the format to vertical and made the scene more mysterious by adding clouds and the background hill which is really not visible from my viewpoint.
Color harmony was created by the repetition of the red and by playing with shadow angles throughout I think I was able to paint an interesting, engaging scene.

As a final thought: these design problems have to all be worked out in advance. As should be pretty obvious, once we start putting pigment and water on the page it would be too late to try to resolve all of this. Time well spent before painting!

More vine charcoal drawings

Doing many of these charcoal studies that may or may not develop into a painting! Drawing skills are so important! Watercolor is a drawing medium, so most watercolor painters know how to draw.

Drawing also has another purpose: it lets you get to know the subject and pick up what goes deeper than the surface appearance. Usually it is an emotion, that something that gives it life. Not just in portraits but landscapes or anything else!

If we don’t pick up on this ‘undercurrent’, we end up just painting shapes and pushing pigment around. That, in my opinion, is the real crux of painting or of art in general.

There are so so many artists out there who miss this completely. They are great draftsmen and even have amazing technique but their art lacks life and emotion. Painting is a lifelong pursuit but to have that force of life in your work is a goal that few ever attain. I hope I’ll get there eventually…

Technique, therefore, must be seen as a tool. It must be mastered in order to have the ability to muster this sort of expression in painting. Time spent drawing is time well spent. Understanding form, design, balance, rhythm is essential. Every time I draw I am surprised how much I don’t know and can’t do instantly. Out comes the eraser: start over, change, alter…it’s ok, that’s all part of growing.

These are done with General Pencil Co. Vine Charcoal and Pitt Artist Pastel Pencil in 101 White.

Robert Henri put it this way in his book The Art Spirit: ‘The student must learn to read the state, temperament, action and condition of their subject through the outwards signs, and use the same as a means of expressing and making special what is important to them in the subject.’

Horses!

Drawing and painting horses is a challenge. Horse anatomy is quite difficult. One of the mistakes I always did was to make the neck too short and the body, or the flank, too long. Most important is to get the curves of the rear, the back and the belly right. Often, in landscape painting, the horses we paint are quite small so as long as it looks right, we’re good. It does not actually have to be right. There is a difference! I should trademark that..

As Richard Schmid rightly says, you don’t actually have to know anything about the thing you’re painting. But it is imperative to spend time observing and drawing it! In the end, the only way to fully understand an object, whether it be a horse or a car, is to draw it many, many times.
Only then will we ‘get it’ and I am not talking about intellectually getting what a horse is all about, just referring to drawing skills here. Horses are more challenging to draw than cows, don’t you think?

I recommend charcoal drawing for the simple reason that you can take it anywhere you go. It doesn’t weigh much and it’s a great way to improve drawing skills. I use Faber-Castell Charcoal Pencils and General Pencil Co. Vine Charcoal. These come in different hardnesses, from the super hard to super soft.

Here are a few good links:
~ Think Like A Horse is a great website covering horse anatomy
~ A Horse for Elinor has good pictures of dressage training
~ Equitherapy has horses galore

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!

My new Sienna set-up

I used this custom-made easel for years and years but it started to fall apart, so it was time to get something new! I wanted a set-up that I can use for both watercolor and oil painting.

There are many choices out there, most of them prohibitively expensive and with someone’s name attached to it. I don’t like that so much, that’s why I went for this simple and reasonably priced Sienna Plein Air Artist Pochade Box Easel, size Medium. It is quite easy to set up. More importantly, it holds painting sizes up to 14″ x 18″, which is as big as I would ever paint outside. The angle is adjustable and I can still use my sunshade. (Another big plus for me!)

While you can use any tripod, I ended up buying the coordinating Sienna Tripod Easel as well. If you have a good tripod already, you don’t need to. I tried my old one for a while but the whole thing was just too wobbly. A stable and light tripod is, unfortunately, quiet expensive but it is money well spent: the easel has to be rigid enough for drawing and withstand some wind.

I also like that my Holbein Metal Palette 500 fits exactly into the box opening! I definitely lucked out there… It comes with a tray to store a water container or painting medium and brushes. I don’t like having to hold a palette in my hands while painting, so this is one of its best features.

A note about the weight: The Pochade was advertised as 3.5 lbs, but I weighed it and it is definitely more than 4 lbs. I can’t say I like that, but it’s still acceptable as that weight includes the tempered glass. So no complaints here. I bought the medium, which is really a small size. Overall, I good product that I would recommend to a painting friend.

Color harmony

Happy New Year, Everyone!

Today I thought I will post about color. Using color in a painting is a very powerful way to make a statement, but it’s complex nature makes it hard to understand. Color, like value, only makes sense in context. A color by itself has no meaning. Now, there is this concept that all colors are inherently warm or cool but that only makes sense if we compare it to other colors of the color spectrum. Let’s say you’re only looking at cadmium yellow, cadmium orange and cadmium red. Which one is warmer? You see where I am getting at? If we compare it to Cobalt Blue, then those colors are much warmer.

Many painters rely on formulas, mixes they fall back on no matter what is being painted. While I agree that certain colors are used more than others (simply because they do mix well with others), using general formulas for every painting is not going to work if we are truly painting what’s in front of us. (Just to be clear, I am talking about the experience of painting from life here.)
Here’s why: Predetermined color schemes do not produce an authentic version of the harmony in a subject matter. You cannot predict the colors that will be needed in a painting. Your own perception is going to dictate what you will use. How will you know what you will be seeing before you see it?

Understanding the phenomenon of color temperature is key to painting well. Colors do appear either warmer or cooler than their adjacent colors (!) The temperature of any color changes when we lighten or darken it, when the adjacent color changes, or when another color is being mixed into it. As if that’s not enough, colors change when the light on them changes. I remember when I was maybe 10 years old and tried to paint the hair of a blond woman, painting an acrylic portrait. I tried and tried but I just didn’t get it right. What I neglected to see was that she was standing under and next to green palm trees. Her hair picked up the green sheen of the palm trees! Of course it would! It was very subtle, but I didn’t see it because I didn’t look right! Her hair, the way I painted it, looked out of place!
How could you ever paint this correctly if you come into the painting with a predetermined color mix for blond hair?

Only by painting many paintings will we learn about subtleties like this. There just isn’t a good substitute for the real thing. Go out and do it. Paint from life!

Design in painting

A painting starts in our heads. An idea or something we see that ignites our inspiration. Then the design part follows, which means placing shapes and objects in a way that makes sense. We need to consider how to divide the space, how the patterns and lines relate, what to leave in and what to leave out.
The editing process can be quite difficult since nature usually supplies too much information.
For me, the best way is to ask myself whether the object supports what I want to show or not. If I am not sure, I usually leave it out.

Developing a focal point is certainly important but we wary of rules of any kind: there are plenty of ‘don’t do this, do that’ rules out there that were, over the course of painting history, often ignored by successful painters. In fact, the rule breakers were often times trail blazers for something new. Andrew Wyeth’s work (again!) comes to mind. I remember one painting where he put the subject (the girl he painted) on the bottom edge of the painting and cropping her half off. Yet, his painting worked just fine.

Following painting rules too closely can inhibit one’s creativity. Am I saying there are no rules? Not really. When we look at a painting we certainly know whether the design works or not. It’s easy to see when it doesn’t work. However, sometimes paintings don’t have large simple patterns, strong and connecting lines or the lightest and darkest values right where the focal point is. Yet they look amazing!

The only right place to put a focal point is where ‘you’ like to see it, not where a teacher told you because some lines intersect. Again, that may work but if you find another solution I would recommend going with that. It’s your painting, not theirs..

Having ‘a path through the painting’ is another tricky thing that may or may not work. There’s absolutely no guarantee that a person looking at the work will see it the way you see it.
I think educating ourselves about design is important. We need to know what has been done and what works. It’s a good idea to analyze paintings you really like and try to figure out ‘why’ you like them.
Once you know you can add those aspects to your own painting!