Tuesday, September 8, 2015

God Bless the Gremlins in the Flat File!

Since I've been painting a long time and know lots of painters I've decided I'm entitled to declare certain artistic truths. This post is about one of those truths that is almost magical in it's concept.

If you are unhappy with a painting or a sketchbook page put it away. Close the book. Just plain get it out of your sight...for awhile. After several days (or longer) take another look and by golly (!) you will see your creation anew. Those wee beings that inhabit the spaces in artist's storage areas have worked their magic and shazam, it's not nearly as hopeless a piece of work as you thought!

The sketch done in San Diego's famous Balboa Park is my most recent example. I was anxious to draw that lovely, complex tower as well as the palm trees which framed the towers so nicely. I was using a new fountain pen which held water soluble ink. The watercolor was added after the drawing. 

Sketch of Balboa Park - Ink & Watercolor
I left the park discontented with my sketch. The ink was much more fluid than I had anticipated and I lost most of the light patches in the top portion. Basically I was a bit grumpy with the whole thing. I closed the sketchbook and had a lovely dinner with my sketching buddy Brenda Swenson at my nephew's restaurant very near the park. I didn't open up that sketchbook for at least a week.

Balboa Park - San Diego
By the time I re-visited the sketch I found my attitude about it had improved greatly. I was able to look at the sketch itself and NOT what my mind had envisioned at the start of the drawing. The simple base of the tower with it's sunlit side was a nice contrast to the complexity of the tower top. I added more dark greens, scattered some of the orange color found on the tallest palm tree in areas around the page, added the border on the upper right corner and included the story. Thankfully I had left that blank so it was perfect for the text. And that important white spot on the tower base? If I had left lots more light on the top portion, that space would not be so lovely. 

I can't begin to recall all the times this has happened and I hear others talk about it too. We need distance to be able to judge what we have, not what we don't have. Until we get to that stage, it does no good to address design problems. I now expect this to happen and stop before I've mucked up the whole thing. Distance is a good thing is many respects and very much so in painting. As for those dear little gremlins? I'm grateful they inhabit my flat file!

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Loosen Up!

Loosening up is a common topic of conversation amongst my students - as in "I want to loosen up!" When I ask them why, they have a hard time articulating an answer but it has something to do with what they think watercolor painting should be. I suspect it has more to do with the ease of brushwork in experienced painters rather than a method of applying paint. So I try to gently talk to them about the goal of painting - we each have to find our own language as a painter and to find that takes LOTS of painting. As in everything in our fast-paced world, beginners want to "get there" asap. Too bad it doesn't work that way. Or rather, isn’t it lovely that it works that way. Painting isn’t a new craft that you learn and do for a week or two and then move on to the next new fad. It’s such a demanding, fulfilling, fascinating journey that it can last an entire lifetime.

There is an exercise that I recommend if new painters are wanting to find a way to work that feels more unstructured. You really can't get too tight when you use the wet-into-wet application of paint.

After drawing the subject on watercolor paper, either immerse the sheet in a tub of water or sponge water on both the front and the back of the paper. With the former, wait several minutes so the paper is thoroughly soaked. Grab the sheet by 2 corners and let the water sluice off the page. Then turn it diagonally so more can drip off. Then "walk" the paper down the board - a board that is non-absorbent. By walking I mean laying the paper down from the bottom to the top making sure that each area is right next to the board. If there is a soft wrinkle, lift the nearest corner and walk it down again Watch for areas where the paper seems to have a bubble beneath the paper and if you see any, lift from the corner and lay it flat again. Any air beneath the watercolor paper will make it more difficult when you begin to paint. If you have used a sponge to wet the paper, do the same method of adhering the paper to the board.

You’ll need to wait for the glisten to leave the surface before you begin to paint. Sometimes I’ve been successful at hurrying up the drying time by blotting the paper surface with a towel but there is a danger of taking too much water off. You have to experiment with this part…what is too dry and what is too wet. Experience will tell you what the surface should look like for the optimum time to add paint. 

Pewter Teapot & Radish

You want to paint on a flat surface at the beginning - no angle on the board. If you forget, you’ll see the paint run to the bottom so that won’t happen more than once. By remembering that in watercolor the water is our “white paint”, you’ll reach for more concentrated pigment for the first washes. Brush on color in the places you want it to be and don’t worry about the blurring of the areas as this is what you want - undefined shapes. If the color is perfect, add more pigment since the color will fade at least 20% when it is dry. Then you wait for it to dry. No dryers since it will move the paint all over the place. Later on when you are more experienced, you might like to experiment with that but for the first experiments, just let the paint do it’s thing.

After the surface is completely dry, you can begin glazing colors over the initial washes. For this step, having your board at an angle is perfectly fine. The example above shows how the study worked after the first wash on wet paper and the same study shows how it might be finished. It could have been done in many other ways, this is just one example.

Try lots of studies - in each one you will learn something new. Keep a notebook next to your materials so you can jot down things you want to remember. It not only will help you remember, the very act of writing something down helps your recall.

So if looser painting is your goal, then assign yourself a solid week of painting wet-into-wet. Repetition each day is important since you carry muscle memory as well as mental memory when you paint often. At the end of the week you’ll have studies that are much “looser.” You’ll also be much more content with your work since the practice and repetition will cause your brushwork to be more confident. Win win!