Archive for January, 2016

An exercise in technique

Most instruction in watercolor is in the form of a step-by-step demonstration.  I don’t find these particularly helpful.   Very often what the artist says is the color he or she is using.   What particularly bothers me is the step-by-step demonstration begins after there has been a very careful drawing on the paper.   So the demonstration is really about coloring a given drawing.  Furthermore, the teacher is often a very accomplished draftsperson like Joseph Zbukvic, and, until you can draw like him, you will never have a painting like his.  John Yardley is another person who draws well and then puts what looks like sloppy washes over it.

There are two major schools of watercolor:  1.  the Three Washes  School starts with light wash over most of the drawing while reserving dry paper for the lightest light and highlights. This is left to dry very completely.   Mdark swatchesaybe this first wash is divided into a top and bottom wash.  Then mid tones are put in and finally the darks.  The point is that the drawing is “colored” inside the lines.   I’ve not been very detailed about this because  I am not talking about that sort of approach here although I appreciate it, particularly historically since it goes back to the origins of watercolor in the Romantic Era in art (after the Neoclassical era.)

2.  The Wet-in-wet. “juicy”, “watery” approach.  This is the approach that I am interested in myself.  It is, more or less, post-impressionistic  like Matisse, Cezanne, Bonnard, Vuillard or even the fauvists.  That is, the neoclassical approach that “rounds the form” by carefully creating a shadow side is not followed.  Cezanne is commonly said to have changed hue rather than tone to indicate a shadow-side of a subject.  That is, he did not darken the “form hue” to make a shadow, he changed the hue on the form.  Bonnard tried to always use warm and cool hues in every passage in his approach although Cezanne did not.

It was also discovered that you can use “spots” of color and leave a lot of reserved paper blank (white).  That is, it didn’t matter if you didn’t finish “coloring” something like a nose.

Once you have a dark enough outline to a form what was discovered was that inside and around that contour line you could play with color to make combinations that were attractive, and it read just as legibly as if you had studiously tried to capture a color likeness.  Cezanne and Bonnard worked on many canvases at the same time because they could then use a color that they had mixed and liked everywhere.

In addition, what is being emphasized is the light (with lots of reserved paper even little sparkles of white pits all over) not the dark.

So if that’s the case, you can skip the step-by-step and just play with watercolor.  There are two approaches I’ve tried to developing for myself an exercise.  One is making colored swatches (a suggestion I found buried in the massive oeuvre of Charles Reid) or use the tried and true tradition academy approach of an exercise of working on a sphere, cylinder, or cube.  As most people are aware the light on a sphere has been worked out it detail in the Academies.  It is called sometimes, sculptural light.   It requires a single light source.  Anyway, I’ve tried it and found it very useful.  I have  visual examples above.  I suggest you try it.  But beware, you must have thick paint on your brush.  “Activate” your pans so that the point of the brush can penetrate the top layer.  I followed this approach:  First put down a core shadow on the sphere.  Then I washed out the mid-tones in the light from that with a watery brush reserving the highlight  (which may be a little big).

core shadow jpeg

I followed this approach with the sphere.  First I put down a “core shadow” on the sphere (between light and dark), not labeled as such in graphic but visible in my examples.  That is put down the dark in fairly thick paint right from the pan. I think I’ve noticed little hunks of pure pigment sticking to Charles Reid’s brush in some of his videos.  Then I washed out the mid-tones in the light from that dark first passage with a watery brush reserving the highlight  (which may be a little big).  You can make all sorts of complex variations of value that suggest an underlying form.  I then tried a wet-in-wet for the dark part of the sphere, playing around with “dark” paint (an intense red is dark in this sense).  Sometimes some of the paint looked like reflected light and sometimes forms a rim. But it looked good to me.  “Playing around” means I blot and pick out with a “thirsty brush” from the initial mark if there seems to be too much of the same look to a passage, and I add a different paint into the wet or place it side-by-side and let them run into each other.  The paint can’t be too wet or it will just mix to a solid one color. (so shake the brush off a few times).  Don’t forget the cast shadow with its three different tones (a very dark right under the sphere, a dark, and then a “penumbra” of washed out weak shadow further away which gives you a lot to play with color and how watery something looks.

Image 010Then transfer this approach to a drawing.  Here’s an example.  I like the face and do not like the hair, and some other passages but it dried on me for some reason or other.  But, in fact, I don’t think wet-in-wetters are too upset about mistakes, drips, splashes, and “blossoms” or back-runs.  It’s not a painting but an extension of the sphere exercises.

The point is to try to develop an aesthetic sense of what looks good to you.  First the contour drawing and then the splashy, juicy, watery color.

So, I should end by mentioning you are trying to make a painting that people who see it don’t say “that’s a pretty girl” or  “I wish I knew her”, “but that’s a beautiful painting. Who did it?”   You want them to look at it as an object of art, and then at the signature.


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