Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Watercolor Musings: So THEY Say Watercolor is The Most Difficult Mediu...

Watercolor Musings: So THEY Say Watercolor is The Most Difficult Mediu...: So THEY Say Watercolor is The Most Difficult Medium.   I'm not sure where "THEY" live or pontificate, but THEY have a very ...

So THEY Say Watercolor is The Most Difficult Medium.  

I'm not sure where "THEY" live or pontificate, but THEY have a very large presence in lots of commonly believed "truisms." And sadly, most folks believe these oft repeated urban myths precisely because of that repetition which has no rebuttal. Here is my response. 

Just telling yourself that a task is difficult makes it so. Our minds are powerful so you need to get in the habit of talking yourself into expecting good results rather than the opposite. It also helps to be realistic in your expectations. Growth is a step by step process, one building block at a time. No one expects to play a difficult piece of music in one month but somehow that basic wisdom flies out the window when painting is considered. Focusing on the joy of the process rather than the end product will keep the whole experience fresh and fun. If it's not fun, chances are you won't do it with any regularity - and that really inhibits growth as a painter. 

I teach a class called "Beginning Watercolor Bootcamp." It consists of two days, usually weekends, from 12 noon to 4pm. It has proved to be much more successful than the shorter classes which run several weeks. I'm convinced it's because on the second day, there is considerable muscle memory. Practice is easier, the paint and brush better behaved and I often hear, "Oh, I get it!" Students then bounce into other workshops with confidence. Earlier I had a hard time getting them to take anything except another beginning class. 

Here are examples of studies done late on the first day of class. When I tell them that we are about to paint small landscapes, they groan and roll their eyes. But when they are finished, the delight and excitement are contagious. 

Earlier in the day, they practice several ways to apply paint. Flat washes, graded washes, glazes, wet on dry, dry on dry, wet on wet, charging in color, etc. In this exercise, I ask them to work in either a vertical, horizontal or square format using a high or low horizon line. That insures that they will avoid the half and half division of space. 

Some of the paint is applied when the initial wash is dry and some while it's still wet. Sometimes they hold up the paper to get the wet wash to run into areas they prefer and sometimes they touch an area with a repetitive color to bring more harmony, not to mention excitement, to the landscape. 

Putting paint down doesn't mean it has to stay there. Various lifts are explored such as using a tissue as above or blotting with a textured paper or simply drawing with a wet brush to animate an area. These little experiments are only about recipe card size so there is no hesitation to do several. When I take small mats to isolate each image, sometimes adjusting the size of areas, they marvel at the results. They agree with me that receiving a handmade card is very welcomed and I can see that they just might begin working small and even saving a few dollars in the process. 

Here is what I LOVE hearing at the end of the second day of class. "I'm looking at the world in a whole new way!" "That was fun!" "I'm going home to paint!" "You have opened my eyes!" 

One of the things I stress is that as painters, we never get to that plateau where we think we finally have it all figured out. No Nirvana for painters. Rather it is a continuum where effort and practice are rewarded with proficiency and progress. This is something that can be begun at any age and for most, it's an activity that is life long.

Painters tend to have long lives. I believe it's because each day has the promise of new discovery, new shapes, new images and the pure joy of discovery. I was privileged to be with Millard Sheets at a workshop near the end of his life. He said he wished he could begin all over again, saying, "Now I know what it's all about."  Not a month later I was reading a book about Cezanne and his words were almost identical. 

So if you still think THEY know anything at all about anything at all, toss that thought! Is watercolor painting easy? No. Nothing that is worthwhile is particularly easy. If it were easy, it's value would be diminished. Is it fun? Oh, yes! So if you've always wanted to paint, get out that old paint set and have a go. Find a class and if there is negativity, find another class. Don't let anyone get in the way of something so wonderful! 

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Watercolor Musings: Capistrano Mission Sketch - Ink and Watercolor 

Watercolor Musings: Finding Gallery Representation: Capistrano Mission Sketch - Ink and Watercolor         This article was originally written for the National Watercolor Societ...

Finding Gallery Representation

Capistrano Mission Sketch - Ink and Watercolor

 This article was originally written for the National Watercolor Society Newsletter when I served on the board several years ago. I suggested it's inclusion after having artists come into the gallery and seek representation with seemingly no thought for how to do that.  The approach is often so clumsy that the artist gives themselves very little chance for success. Just this morning I received a phone call from a young man wanting to find a place to show his work. After I asked him a question or two I found out that he had never visited the gallery, worked in acrylic and in an abstract manner. Had he visited he would have seen that we are very full with seven painters represented and furthermore we specialize in watercolor with a representational approach. I sent him this article and was glad to hear that we were the first gallery he'd called on his long list. Since I am an artist, I want to do all I can to help those who are seeking gallery representation. Right now, after this long downturn in the economy and the subsequent closing of so many galleries in our area, knowing a few ground rules can be very helpful.

  After spending years learning and perfecting your craft, finding gallery representation might be your next goal. Since there are many more talented painters than there are galleries, it is crucial to know the various ways to introduce yourself and your work so you increase the chance of success.
         I am a painter and teacher and for the last fifteen years have owned and run a gallery with my daughter, Katie, who works in fused glass. Because of our respective disciplines, our gallery specializes in watermedia and art glass. We have watched many artists who desire representation in both media come into the gallery and request representation. Sadly, the majority has not done their homework.

         Do not:
         Walk in to the gallery with your paintings or a book of photographs of your work under your arm and expect an immediate meeting to discuss your intent.
         Expecting immediate attention in spite of a gallery full of guests is a sure way to get a negative response. The person working owes their time and effort to those artists whose work is in the gallery and to the customers in attendance. Even if the gallery has no customers, this is not the way to introduce yourself and your work.
         Go directly to the person in charge and ask, “How can I get my work into this gallery?”
         By approaching the person working the gallery about representation, you are making the big assumption that they are in a decision making position. There are many more appropriate ways to communicate your desire.
         Call on the phone during gallery hours and ask for representation. It is easy to tell if the caller has ever visited your gallery. Sometimes they don’t even know what media you specialize in. Getting a list of galleries and making a phone call to all of them without first visiting is a waste of your time as well as the gallery owner.  
Many telemarketers call during business hours and you do not want to be included in that group!
         Make disparaging remarks about the work on the walls. This should be intuitive, but it is done. If you don’t like the work included in the gallery mix, perhaps that’s a gallery you want to cross off your list.
         Expect your friendship with the gallery artists to gain you entree. Or, for that matter, expect your relationship with a friend of the gallery owner to assist you.
 Knowing an artist in a gallery can be a real advantage in that you can ask them for the appropriate way to approach the gallery owner. Some gallery artists will recommend fellow painters but that depends upon their relationship with the gallery.

         Visit several times and observe the variety of work offered by the gallery. Galleries have “personalities” and probably reflect both the owner and the area where the gallery is located. Pay attention to that. By visiting numerous times, you get a good feeling for the kind of work that is included in the gallery mix and you can observe the gallery personnel interact with customers. This is good information to have before you make a decision about approaching a gallery.
         Be very honest with yourself about the quality of your work compared to the work on the walls.
         Oftentimes artists leave a card and a website address. It is wise to offer that information after you have had some affirmation in the artistic community. Entering shows, receiving awards for your work, and or asking for critiques from well-known and respected artists will give you a good picture of your readiness. Having said that, don’t be so hard on yourself that you wait well beyond a time when you deserve gallery representation. A neighboring gallery owner told me he thinks that 60% of artists are better than they think they are while 40% are the opposite.
         Also, by leaving a card, you put the gallery owner in the position of having to find your website and be responsible for contacting you. It’s likely that your card will be discarded if the owner is either very busy or not interested in new work at the time.
         Take note of the pricing and how it compares with yours.
    Write a letter asking if the gallery is welcoming new artists, including some photographs of your work and a request for a meeting at the gallery director’s convenience.
         Follow up with a phone call, which you have promised to do in your letter. If the answer is negative, ask if they will keep your information on file for the future.

         For this important step, doing at least as much homework as you commonly do for a large painting is a very wise use of your time. Whereas you may have more than one chance to approach a gallery, the old adage, “You have only one bite at the apple,” has some truth to it. What you don’t want to do is get off on the wrong foot at the beginning. Be methodical in your planning and keep good records. And finally, “Good Luck!”

Friday, March 22, 2013

Watercolor Musings: From Whence Subject Matter?

Watercolor Musings: From Whence Subject Matter?:   I teach a class on March Mondays for a group of painters in South Orange County, California. They meet every Monday morning and ha...

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

From Whence Subject Matter?

I teach a class on March Mondays for a group of painters in South Orange County, California. They meet every Monday morning and have a different teacher for each of the months that they meet. They are an uncommonly welcoming and wonderful group – eager for new experiences, new approaches and they treasure their time together.

I have taught, nudged and watched them over the past 5 years during our month together and this last week talked “turkey” to them. It was done with love and concern for their growth as artists but let’s face it, that sort of conversation is fraught with peril. To my delight and thankfulness, they took what I said to heart and thanked me for my candor. What did I say?

Number one, I reiterated my cautionary comments of last year when I told them that by receiving so many views, so often from a group of instructors was tricky business. Having space between and ample time to work is optimum. They then have a chance to take what makes sense for their own work and release that information that does not. Lacking that, they needed to be very choosy about what they chose to include in each teacher’s offerings. Most of these folks paint on Mondays only, which complicates growth by itself.

Then I shared my observation that most of the group used source material from others, whether it was sketches or photos or magazine photographs, the common occurrence was the use of material that was not their own. There is nothing wrong with using other resources as long as permission is granted or if the image is only a jumping off spot for a new work. But too often, the painters were copying someone else’s composition, color choices, value patterns, etc. All the important decisions are made. We have “no skin in the game” if we choose another’s viewpoint. Working from the work of others is fine if it is for the purpose of learning but the issue of copyright looms if the work is a copy of another work and then is offered for sale. Drawing and interpreting is much easier and more pleasurable if the subject has meaning to the artist.

The above is especially true of artists finding their way to their own voice as painters. Subject matter that is familiar and enjoyed frees the artists to “play” with new approaches, color schemes, compositional motifs, etc. With their enthusiastic reception of my comments, I am optimistic and looking forward to see what they do in the future.  

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Drawing & Painting and Learning about them

Pears drawn with pencil, white charcoal pencil on pastel paper
If you wanted to learn a new skill, what would you do? Take a class? Go to the library? Look for online classes? Of course! Would you expect to know all about the subject matter before teaching began? Of course not!
Why then do people expect to know how to draw or paint before the first class? I've had students "practice" before class because they didn't want to look stupid. Others talk about not having "talent" so they won't venture to try. Quite a few of my junior high students would say upon entering the classroom, "No one in my family can draw a straight line without a ruler."
My responses in order: If you're supposed to know all about a class before the first meeting, what exactly is my role? If you think that you have to be imbued with TALENT to participate, please read my earlier blog, "Who gets the Creative Gene?" And about rulers and straight lines? I told the kids that straight lines were boring so they would be fine.
For this blog, I'll confine my comments to drawing and how I approach it. Here is the deal, drawing is not magic, nor is it limited to those talented few. It is a learned skill that can provide years of enjoyment with limited materials and reasonable cost. The more you draw the better you will be. That is a certainty.
When you first begin to draw, do yourself a favor and look for subject matter that fits these three criteria - choose a simple shape; pick a familiar form; draw from life, not a photo. By beginning with a simple, recognizable shape, you go far in establishing a sucessful drawing experience. Once you master simple shapes, more complex ones will seem easier to tackle. By drawing from life, you can touch and smell as well as see your subject. The opportunity to look at various positions and views allows you to choose the most pleasing to you. Photographs do not allow this intense scrutiny and the varying angles are not available. Being familiar with your subject is a real bonus when drawing. If you work with shapes you have seen for years you don't have to spend time learning unusual aspects of your subject.
The drawing described here will be natural forms. I have illustrated the pear for the examples shown but you can just apply these suggestions to another still life subject. I used two different pears, a Bartlett and a Bosc. There is nothing special about my choice as many would suffice, but I find the pear shape to be beautiful and graceful, hence the choice.

The contour of a shape describes the edge of form. Think of the shape as a silhouette - you will draw the edge of that silhouette. Learning to do a contour drawing is essential for painting. Often I am attracted to a subject but until I do a simple contour drawing, adjusting the image to my liking, I don't really know if it will work. Often I do several of these small thumbnail drawings to see what arrangement is the best. 

Top row: Blind Contour  Bottom row: Pure Contour
When you are first beginning to draw, the blind contour will encourage your close attention. This is all about training your hand to draw what your eye sees. Place your pencil on the paper and draw the contour without again looking at your paper until you have finished the form. This is not a race and you'll be more observant if you go slowly and carefully. Don't worry if the drawing is a bit wacky - you're goal is to really, truly look at the shape.
Pure Contour: Draw the same object you used for the first exercise. This time, place your pencil on the paper and draw the shape while looking back and forth as much as needed. Go slowly and keep your pencil firmly on the page. The line should be continuous and not sketchy.

Bartlett Pear

Bosc Pear
 The Bartlett pear (above) was just about as wide as it was tall. When I measured with my pencil I compared the height to the width. In this case the measurement was very similar however that may not always be the case. The Bosc pear was about 1 1/3 times taller than it was wide. Notice the slope of the "shoulder" of the fruit. After you have an accurate contour drawing, which should do much to describe your subject, you may begin to add shading or value.


The addition of shadows will change your flat contour drawing into a seemingly 3-dimensional object. To see the shadows, shine a light on the subject to create a shadowed side. An old desk lamp will do but you do need a light fairly close to the subject so sharp contrasts are visible. To enhance your observation, squint your eyes almost shut and the darks and lights will be obvious. By adjusting the pressure on the pencil lead, a range of values, or grays, can be created. Add the details of stem, bud end, bruises and texture as needed.
By shadowing the background on the light side of the pear, it appears lighter and stands out from the background. 

After I drew the pear from one angle, I went on to draw it from other views. Once you get to know a shape, draw it several times. Put that knowledge to use.

Remember, drawing is not magic. Anyone can do it with a bit of direction and time to practice. This is something you can enjoy for your entire life. The more drawing you do, the more observant you become and more skilled at replicating your subject. Now go out there and discover the wonderful, beautiful world - you will see it in a whole new way!

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Watercolor Musings: The Value of Asking “What If"

Watercolor Musings: The Value of Asking “What If":         ...and the importance of building personal scaffolds Early Bak ersfield School House  Recently I had a fascinating conver...

The Value of Asking “What If"

        ...and the importance of building personal scaffolds

Early Bakersfield School House
 Recently I had a fascinating conversation with my sister who after retiring from the classroom is presenting at conferences for teachers.  We come from a long line of educators going back to our grandfather who graduated from Bowdoin College in Maine in 1900 and after being a teacher and principal finished his career as Superintendent of Schools in Redlands California. Most of our family’s four generations of educators taught in grades K-6, but since my credential was a Special Secondary in Art, I had a different group of classes than those teaching elementary school. As my sister was describing her new training, she also mentioned “scaffolding,” a term I was unfamiliar with in the classroom setting.  She said it’s the concept of the teacher presenting material just a bit ahead of each student’s level, encouraging growth smoothly from one building block to another.
Well, I didn’t recognize the term in this context, but the concept was utterly familiar. I have been doing that in my artwork for years by giving myself problems to solve, asking “what if“ regarding working processes and trying out new materials or using old materials in a completely new way.  I also find that conversations with fellow artists who share your curiosity helps create even more “what ifs.”
Some favorite supplies

Robert E Wood, a fine watercolorist and teacher gave one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten from a workshop leader. He admonished us to keep ourselves on the edge of comfort, approaching discomfort, to refrain from painting the “same painting over and over.” By focusing on a few goals to solve in the creative process, the learning expands and quality improves because the artist is actively solving problems rather than painting “pretty pictures.”
All artists recognize that “itchy” feeling that foretells a growth spurt in your work. Not an especially comfortable feeling since you have to figure out what it is that you want to change and where it is that you are heading. And to go from comfort and confidence into the great unknown takes its own kind of courage. But it also brings excitement and anticipation and joy, which is why we keep at it.
My sister commented that one of the real losses in schools is the growing absence of art and music in the curriculum. The students lose the chance to interact with instructors who automatically think in the “what ifs.” I distinctly remember a class of seventh graders who were instantly engaged when I described a method that I’d been thinking about but had never taught before. I asked if they’d like to try it. It was an overwhelming success and they dove into the work with great enthusiasm. All of us had a wonderful time.
As an educator, I am committed to arts education and it’s importance in the curriculum. As an artist, I’m convinced that we all need to build our own scaffolds for life long learning. May your New Year be full of engaging and challenging scaffolds!