Archive for the ‘watercolor technique’ Category

I was standing in the lobby of the Metropolitan Museum of Art with my artist friend Bernie bemoaning the fact that there were no watercolors by Sargent or Homer on display in any museum in New York City in spite of both the Met and The Brooklyn Museum having huge collections.   He immediately asked what was stopping me from asking to see them.  He clearly wasn’t going to put up with a “poor me” attitude.

Thus challenged I asked at the information desk to whom I should write.  This led to an e-mail correspondence with the curator of American Art who said that they did indeed have a great collection at the Met and that I was eminently qualified to look at them (!).  However, she was very apologetic that, because of the construction associated with building a new American Wing, there was no space for me to do so.  When I asked, she gave me a name at the Brooklyn Museum to whom I immediately sent an e-mail.   This, in turn led to an appointment with Karen Sherry, the assistant curator of American Art in the Brooklyn Museum, to see Homer’s work.

Ms. Sherry could not have been nicer or more professional.  She said that there was going to be a Sargent show in 2013 and therefore all the Sargents they had were being kept in the dark at present because of the light exposure which they will sustain during the show.  However, no such restrictions applied to the Homers.  She e-mailed me an illustrated list of the 24 Homers they have from which I chose three although she did not restrict the number. (I had been given only an hour to view them.)  My strategy was to pick fairly late ones in which Homer’s style had evolved from his early more or less English style.  The three ones I choose were the following:

Road in Bermuda

In The Jungle, Florida

End of Portage

The way it worked was that they were wrapped in translucent paper and laid on a table.  I was not allowed to touch them, but Karen Sherry was there to unwrap and move them for me, and we chatted as I looked.

Before I saw them I was a little uncertain what benefit I would get from seeing the originals over seeing reproductions, but afterwards I had no doubts.

The most prominent observation, which I think is only possible from the originals, was how heavily the paint was applied in a lot of places.   For the most part there was layer after layer of paint in the fairly prominent dark passages.  Most of the passages were not transparent at all.  Homer clearly put down large area of the lightest paint such as yellow or greenish yellow, waited for them to dry, and then applied another darker layer over that, and repeated the process over and over again.  For the most part the “glazes” were never completely over the layer below them.  There were little” windows” left through which to see the paint below.   There was some use of a damp brush to take off some of the top layer for things like tree branches.  However, the glaze itself was almost never transparent .    A lot of areas were heavily worked over, glazes, scrapes, lifting off, etc.

It was difficult to tell if Homer used the equivalent of friskit, a resist, on any of these paintings which at the time was a chalk paste which was taken off by bending the sheet of paper over and edge, called counter rolling.   Chalk resist was invented by the English watercolorist Francis Nicolson (1753-1844).   If it had been the rubber cement-like stuff we use today, I think I could have seen the hard edge it tends to leave.  I could see a lot of pencil marks.  In each of the paintings there was a small red element like in the belt of the guide in the front of the canoe in End of Portage.  I always thought it was vermillion which was on his palette, but it look more like carmine now.  Perhaps it had faded.

The paint in these heavily glazed areas was what would be called “bronzed” in watercolor parlance.  That is, it was heavy enough to be what some call “scabby” and had a dull and flat matte look.  Today this is considered a mistake:  over worked, bronzing, etc.   (A corollary of this is that there were not many wet in wet areas.)  However, it did not leave me with that impression.  First of all, it was Homer playing off against the “inanely pretty” work seen today and in his day (which a reviewer pointed out).   Seeing the watercolors “in person” at the Brooklyn Museum I would have to agree with the statement in Scribner’s  that Homer’s watercolors were  ” direct, simple, crude sometimes –never “pretty”–they [have] the unmistakable look of nature . . . such drawings as these are a judgement upon the easily discerned tendencies of some other artists –toward the sentimental, the gorgeous, and the inanely pretty.” (quoted in Helen A. Cooper “Winslow Homer Watercolors” Yale, 1986).  (Watercolors were called “drawings” in those days and the brush, believe it or not, was called a “pencil” in the old days — “drawing” are done with “pencils”, after all.)

The heavily painted areas with the windows to the previous glazed layer suggested a depth and mystery to the nearby woods and forests that every woodsman would recognize.   That is to say, the environment is not completely revealed, and modern eye-tracking studies would suggest that viewers are going to search by instinct behind every tree and into every bush for possible “dangers.”  It’s  holds the eye in the painting. See James Gurney’s discussion of viewers’ eye movements looking at a painting of his with a dinosaur in a woods here.

It, also, looked to me like a deliberate strategy to make the isolated wet-in-wet or more fluid “splashy” passages standout as special.  That is, rather than make an entire watercolor wet-in-wet bravura brush strokes and splashy with lots of blank white paper like, for example, Charles Reed, Homer has chosen to draw the eye to a few such passages which by contrast to the more bronzy passages make them seem every more delightful.   The heavy passages also make for deep darks and intense dark colors.

Because there is always a well-drawn and more delicately painted center of interest, the paintings are easy to get in a superficial way if you’re just strolling by, but the complexity of the background of the paintings can also draw you into them.

I had never really thought deeply about Walter Benjamin’s work about “mechanical reproduction” of art before this, but seeing the real thing and seeing reproductions on the internet were completely different experiences.   There is no way one can pick up the”direct, simple, crude sometimes” quality that makes them great (and very modern, now that I think if it.)  However, with high definition reproductions (which entail both the image and the monitor) that all may change.  I certain hope so.  It’s hard to see a real Homer or Sargent these days.

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How To Draw

Drawing is more a eye thing than a hand thing
The type of watercolor I like to see and like to make is one in which there is a good drawing as a center of interest with a background that is much more abstract.    It’s the type of watercolor that Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent made.  Homer tended to have animate objects as the center of attention, people, dogs, fish, etc and Sargent did this also but could be more subtle with fountains as center of interest.  For example he also might use a door as a center of interest and then get more abstract in the building around it (as in some of his Venice watercolors.)  Homer’s backgrounds were more watery done by multiple washes that pooled, and Sargent’s had some pooled washes but he often had the bravado super gestural brush stokes in them that he used in his oil paintings.
There is a good example of Homer’s on the “masthead” of this bog, The Blue Boat.  For Sargent, you can see the emphasis on gestural brush work when you see one of his watercolors in person, but here an example.

Tommies Bathing 1918


Both could clearly draw very well.  Sargent often drew with the brush and Homer tended to do a tight pencil drawing.
This post is a twin with the post on HOW TO MAKE GREAT WATERCOLORS here.   I’ve separated out the drawing piece because it’s an entirely separate discipline.  Watercolor, at least the kind I’m taking about builds on drawing, so I felt I should write something about it.
Drawing is a visual memory skill
Here are some quotes on the subject followed by an article in ordinary English about the cognitive science behind them.  The quotes just argue that seeing is the most important skill, but the article narrows down what that means (it really means short-term visual memory.)  Take a look at the article to really get help with the how to of drawing.
These quotes  were gleaned from the twice-weekly email newsletter by Robert Glenn here.
The painter draws with his eyes, not with his hands. Whatever he sees, if he sees it clear (sic), he can put down. The putting of it down requires, perhaps, much care and labor, but no more muscular agility than it takes for him to write his name. Seeing clear (sic) is the important thing. (Maurice Grosser) 

Paint what you see, not what you know. (Charles Hawthorne)

When you paint, try to put down exactly what you see. Whatever else you have to offer will come out anyway. (Winslow Homer)

Fundamentally, art is a way of seeing rather than of doing or making. (Alan Jarvis)

My work isn’t about form. It’s about seeing. I’m excited about seeing things, and I’m interested in the way I think other people see things. (Roy Lichtenstein)

It takes time to really see. Seeing is in itself an art. Perhaps that is what art is, the crystallization of a vision. (Mary Jean Malleux)

Any fool can learn how to paint. The trick is to learn how to see. (Dorothy MacCarthy

On the face of it, the easiest of all activities should be seeing what we see. In reality, it’s the hardest. (Charles Movalli)

If only we could pull out our brain and use only our eyes. (Pablo Picasso)

The thing known and the thing seen are not the same. (Harriet Shor)

The mind stands in the way of the eye. (Arthur Stern)

the article

It is commonplace for beginning artists to be advised to paint “not what they know but what they see. ” The problem is understood to be that the novice has a “literal” approach versus the “visual” approach of the advanced artist. The argument goes that we “think”, for example, that trees are round green forms, and therefore the beginner paints them the color and shape he thinks them to be: the tree is portrayed as something that resembles a green lollipop. This misperception of the object in spite of visual evidence to the contrary so impressed psychologists Cohen and Bennet in their article “Why Can’t Most People Draw What They See?” that they suggested that it was delusional in nature. (footnote 1) What’s equally as delusional is the explanation put forth by current day art instruction which I just summarized.
Paradoxically the advice to “draw what you see” is hard to follow. Beginners struggle with it assuming that they are just so accustomed to relying on words, a “literate approach”, rather than vision, a “visual approach”, that they can’t abandon their old habits. It is hard to understand why anyone would believe that the word “tree” should influence the beginning artist to draw a green lollipop. However, like a great deal of theory taught in art school this notion of the literate versus the visual is, at best, based on obsolete 19th century ideas. For unknown reasons the art world and the world of scientific studies of vision and cognition have remained isolated from each other. Much could be gained in both fields by more discussion between them.
To begin with, identifying the problem as one of “seeing” or not seeing as the case may be, just isn’t accurate. What an artist making representational art is doing is looking at the subject, turning away and looking at the canvas, and then making a mark. This is not about a visual (seeing) task or for that matter a verbal (word) task. It is a memory task. It involves what is called visual memory as opposed, for example, to verbal memory. Hence my somewhat reversed title: ” how to draw what you see” is wrongly put. “How to remember what you see in order to draw it” is more to the point. 

But what’s so hard about remembering what you see for the minute or two it takes to “attack” the canvas with brush and paint? The hitch is that there are two types of visual memory, short-term visual memory and long-term visual memory, and here’s where the contribution of cognitive science comes in. It is only in short-term visual memory that an accurate, specific, and particular visual image of the subject is held. In contrast, long-term visual memory stores simplifications and interpretations of images like the lollipop tree that are not appropriate for making realistic representations.  The lollipop tree is what most people use to store the image in memory.  It’s still an image but a icon  or “cartoon” of a tree, and just about all trees get stored with the same icon.  In computer terms we store long term images as ativars, the simpler the better because a simple icon takes up less storage space.

Unfortunately short-term visual memory is really short and limited, so short that the image is lost soon after one turns to the canvas and so limited that it can hold only a small bit of the subject. So it is not that art students are substituting what they know, “verbal memory”, for visual memory. They are  visual memory simplifications and interpretations for short-term visual memory. To repeat the major task of making a likeness is a short-term visual memory one. You have to act before the memory goes into long-term storage.

The importance of grasping this way of looking at the problem of making representational images lies in the fact that it can explain what beginning artists need to learn to do, why and how certain techniques work, which ones seem to be better than others, and, perhaps, generate new exercises, methods, and research. 

Short-term visual memory
Short-term visual memory has three drawbacks. It cannot record all the visual information that bombards us, that which it stores it does so for a second or two, and it is not generally “interested” in the minute detail that an artist needs.

It simply would be impossible to store “photographic quality” images of all the real world scenes that fall on the retina any more than this could be done with a camera. It would not take long for both the brain and the camera to run out of storage capacity. In fact, short-term visual memory is quite limited in what it can hold. It cannot hold the entire image that falls on the retina. It holds a surprisingly small area of the scene in front of us. Drawing an eyebrow in one study involved looking at it three times to refresh short-term visual memory. So short-term memory’s first drawback is the limited amount of real, accurate visual information it can store long enough to be useful to the artist. 

Short-term visual memory’s second drawback is obvious from its name: that what it does store deteriorates rapidly, in fractions of a second, and has to be refreshed often.  It’s best to set up your drawing board in line with your subject because you have to look back and forth from one to the other many times a minute.

There is a third drawback to short-term visual memory. When we look at a scene we tend to “scan” it whether it’s a landscape, in which case we seem to be scanning to make sure there are no predators lurking about, or a person in which case we are trying to obtain from body language or facial expression as much information as we can about them.  Just ask any woman about this. The point here is that, to look three times at an eyebrow or anything else in order to depict it in our art work, we have to resist the tendency to look all over the place. This is much harder to do than it seems.

Long-term Visual Memory
It is in long-term visual memory that the image is stored pretty quickly in such a way that it can be held for a long time and retrieved easily. Unfortunately, to do so the image is transformed from a specific representational image of which an artist would want to make a copy into a generic interpretation sometimes called a “schema”. A schema resembles its subject in much the same way that a map resembles a landscape and like a map, although it is very useful, it is not a “picture” of the thing mapped. The satellite image does not resemble the map. This transformed image which we remember “seeing” often resembles what children draw.

“Schematic Pressure”
The problem, of course, can be subtler. Schemas can creep into small parts of drawings, and it is a never-ending task to be alert to them. For example, if short-term visual memory is not constantly refreshed and held focused on particular passages, an artist can easily slip and make the iris of an eye round even in three-quarter view or profile.

Fundamental to making representational art is to realize that there is a constant tendency to use the image (schema) we have in long-term memory rather than the more limited and fleeting one in short-term memory. One way to put it is that there is a kind of pressure from schemas to get out and into our art work. If we look at a tree, we can keep in short-term memory only a fragment of that tree for only a brief moment. If we are drawing a limb, we have to constantly return to each new segment of that limb to refresh short-term memory. If we don’t, the “schematic pressure” from long-term memory will substitute a simplified and cartoon-like image of tree limbs in place of the real thing. 

Representational artists have learned to use short-term or what is sometimes also called more aptly, “visual working” memory. This would at its most simple form require looking many times at small areas of the subject. They must have also learned to not use the long-term memory schemas. But how do they do it and how did they learn it? Answers can be divided into those that are related to improving short-term memory and its rate of refreshing and those that related to decreasing the power and simplicity of long-term memory schemas. The following is not intended as a comprehensive survey, but merely illustrations of how the paradigm suggested above might be applied.

Refreshing short-term visual memory
There is some evidence to suggest that short-term visual memory can be improved by practice. There is an apocryphal story of a French teacher of painting who posed a model on the ground floor and had students set up their easels four stories above it. They had to run the stairs over and over again trying to hold in short-term memory what they wanted to paint. Whether it was better for their cardiovascular conditioning or their art-making is debatable. The opposite, however, is clearly helpful. The less time there is between the look and the putting of a mark down on the artwork the better. John Singer Sergeant’s portrait technique would be a case in point. He put his canvas directly beside the subject, somewhat like we do with the sight-size method, and stepped back quite a ways to get visual information in short- term memory. Then he would rush forward to put a mark on the canvas before the short-term visual image deteriorated.

The admonition of one of my teachers that a brush is not an “automatic weapon” and should be used only once before being “reloaded”, also seems apt. Here, by restricting oneself to one mark before looking again and refreshing short-term visual memory, it is easier to prevent substituting long-term memory schemas for short-term memory image fragments. “Three looks, two thinks, and one mark” is how it is sometimes said.
It is not only a question of what to do but, also, what not to do.  With enough practice, the artist learns not to move his pencil if he’s going beyond what is or was in short term visual memory and to look again.  When to stop the line and look again is the critical moment of insight in drawing representational images.
In drawing a likeness some teachers suggest drawing what might be called a vector diagram. Even if the aspect of the subject to be drawn is a curve, these teachers suggest drawing from point to point and smoothing out the shape later. Helen Van Eyk’s reason for suggesting this approach to students was “They look more often” because they break the image down into multiple segments. We now know that means that they refresh short-term memory more, and it is this that recommends this technique over all others. 

Contrary to the standard advice thinking “verbally” about what you are looking at seems to help. People with no artistic training tend to scan with a free-floating attention even when they are specifically instructed to make a realistic image. For example, if they are asked to make a portrait of a face, they still do not look at any one form. Studies of which part of the brain is active do not suggest that they are thinking about anything in particular. Paradoxically the visual part of the brain is most active just as the standard advice suggests. On the other hand when a trained artist is asked to make a portrait, he or she tends to zero in on one particular form, and the thinking part of the brain is quite active. This has been demonstrated by having an artist and several non-artists attempt to draw a portrait while simultaneously having a functional MRI of the brain which can determine what parts of the brain are most active.

It is much easier to keep focused on a specific part of a subject if we can think of questions about it, questions that often come from the canon of proportions. If we can look longer, we can hold the image in short-term memory longer. If you try looking at a small part of an image, you will be able to feel the urge to move your eyes to other parts of the form or subject, to fall into the scanning mode. On the other hand, if you are thinking about a question such as “Is the upper lip half as wide as the lower lip?” (From the canon of proportion) you can focus your attention better.
Reducing or Improving Long-Term Visual Memory Schema
Knowledge of the canon of proportions whether it is of the figure or the artistic anatomy of trees will enrich long-term memory schemas. It will change the green lollipop into a more complex cliche but not into an image that looks like the tree before us. Just depending upon the canon of proportions, of course, will produce a realistic-looking “academic” image but not a portrait image. The resulting image will look better, but it will suffer from the same problem of schemas replacing realistic images. It is not useful for the purposes of making a representational image by itself.

If, when painting a portrait, we focus on depicting the shadow shapes, the darks, and focus intensely on them, we are not dealing with anything that is stored in long-term memory as a schema. The shadow on the side of the face over the eye socket and down the side of the nose is a one-of-a-kind form. Because we are not drawing the nose or the eye, but the shadow shapes pressure from schemas is greatly diminished. There may be some pressure to make squares and triangles out of the shadow shapes, but this is much less powerful than the schemas in long term visual memory of the eye and nose. In addition we have to look more frequently because there are no prototypes in long-term memory to fall back on, and there are no canon of proportions for shadows. The portrait emerges in the negative spaces. Emphasis on drawing or painting “the light” rather than the forms has the benefit of bypassing the simplifications of long-term visual memory schemas.

Final thoughts

The artist does not employ short-term visual memory in order to make what a photograph or a plaster life cast would display. It is not an exact portrait or what has come to be called a “photographic likeness” that the artist should be after but a “super portrait”. The artist is capable of making an image of a person, tree, or landscape that reads to the brain more like the image than the thing itself. Once one has mastered the “how to look”, this is the next challenge. And cognitive science has something to contribute to this as well.
1 Cohen DJ, Bennet S why can’t most people draw what they see? J Exp Psychol Hum Percept Perform. 1997 Jun;23(3):609-2

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The first step:  ridding yourself of the idea that it takes inborn talent, and then committing yourself to practice

If people knew how hard I worked to achieve my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful after all.   Michelangelo.

The first step is to get rid of the idea that to make beautiful watercolors depends on your inborn talent. It depends on practice, a lot of practice, and what is missing in art instruction and watercolor instruction in particular is a set of  practice exercises that makes sense.

I will try to address the very practical issue of acknowledging the need for practice here briefly before getting on to designing a practice routine.   Skip this section if you already have come to this conclusion.


I think what distinguishes humans more than anything else is that there are some of us that can perform amazing demonstrations of skill that are not necessary for the average person in his or her daily life.   We are entertained by these people.  As a completely random example of what I mean, there is a boy of about 12 in New York’s Central Park that rides a unicycle in complex patterns while juggling three pins.    He performs a great variety of other juggling demonstrations as well, gathers a crowd, who drop money into a hat. There are endless other illustrations of these skills like playing an instrument, singing, and various athletic skills like playing basketball. Art making is one of these extraordinary skills, and right across the path from the juggler are several artists making pencil portrait and/or selling art.

These skills invariably look effortless  and mysterious  to those of us who cannot do them.  In fact, there is something to this. They are not done by conscious effort.     These skills are on automatic pilot, so to speak, and are therefore effortless if by that we mean “conscious effort”.  For example, even as a child I could sight-read piano music and, to my surprise and puzzlement, conduct a conversation with someone at the same time. That was because sight-reading did not require any conscious effort. I had to look at the music, but I didn’t have to make the effort to think. I did not say to myself that’s a C followed by a F.   In fact thinking about it would completely throw a monkey wrench into what I was doing.   I couldn’t think as fast as I was playing.

This leads people to be mystified by how the skills were acquired, and to attribute it to talent, some inborn difference from other people.  Some people, particularly in recent times,  encourage this mystification by invoking the idea of inborn talent and the idea of specialness.  “You can’t ever do this, only I can.”  Artists have, I believe, been some of the major culprits here. So, when I meet someone who says that he or she cannot draw (because they do not have the talent), I am always upset and annoyed because they have  accepted the  talent myth. It’s ignorant, and it’s ignorant about something I am devoted to.  I usually make an effort  by asking, for example, did they know that before the camera was invented everyone was taught to draw in school and expected to learn how competently in order to make graphic records of things.

So many of these effortless skills that  impress us (like tight rope walking and juggling) are actually the result of extremely extended practice of certain exercises (with clear feedback). This kind of practice shifts the skill from consciousness to parts of the brain that are automatic, fast, and can multitask easily. In fact, typing this is on automatic pilot for me. I am not looking at the keyboard and I am not thinking about what my fingers are doing.  It is not because I was born with special hands, but because I practiced.

But here is the bad news. The amount of practice necessary to be at the very top for many of these skills amounts to 3 hours and day for 10 years. You can sort young violinist seeking education into those who will be soloists, those who will play in orchestras, and those who will be music teachers basically by how much they have practiced.  Soloists have practiced 10,000 hours (3 hours a day for ten years. )   Of course, typing doesn’t require this amount of practice, and, at this stage of its development, making a watercolor may not either.

An essential part of this practice is having some idea of what you are trying to accomplish and to be able to break down the goal into specific steps to practice.  For example, in tennis one practices the serve and/or returning the serve over and over again.  Just mindless repetition is not the goal or everyone driving a car for over ten years would be an expert.

I would suggest reading Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success by Matthew Syed  (see here) to read more about the evidence for this assertion. You may be of the “talent” must be necessary school, but I really do not intend and cannot dissuade you here.  I think reading the book will do the job.   It is in your best interest to learn about this if you want to be really competent at making watercolors.

Not only is practice necessary to obtaining various skills, and we are thinking of course of watercolor, it is necessary for the maintenance of the skill as well.  Paderewski the famous violinist said “If I don’t practice for one day, I know it; if I don’t practice for two days, the critics know it; if I don’t practice for three days, the audience knows it.”   I don’t know about you, but I want to get to that level of proficiency in watercolor.

Before you groan about practice, most people who succeed in practicing this much do so because they like what they are doing, and this is because they focus on the practicing itself, the process,  rather than the results.  If they have a good teacher/coach that’s the first thing he teachers. What happens is that you start to have certain sensory inputs from the practice.  If you’re practicing tennis serves, you begin to have an amplified sense of the feel you get when you hit the ball correctly.  If you are doing scales on the piano, you begin to connect your finger sensation with the sound in a new way that is pleasurable.  The teenage doing piano scales is “bored”, meaning he or she is getting no information from what he is doing and his or her mind is wandering.  If you’re doing watercolor washes, you really like the wash you just put down. (You’re not trying to complete the picture.)  The way I heard it said in athletic training is “Athletes love their sweat.”

I think this is as far as I want to go here to argue for practice.  What I really want to do is to talk about designing a practice regimen.  If you not yet convinced, fine.  Take a look below and see if you’d like to do it.

practice routines:  the “assembly line” system of practice

Repetition is not all that is required for the type of practice that leads to developing the skills, rather than the knowledge, necessary to be really good at watercolor painting.  Repetition is, however, a part of it.  The type of practice necessary to get good at something is called sometimes “deliberate practice” or “purposeful practice”.  In addition the skill practiced  has to be outside of your current realm of reliability and outside of your comfort zone.  You have to attempt something you are not good at.  But you have to break it down into units.  In tennis, you practice your serve over and over again, and you practice all the other elements of tennis one at a time (backhand, etc) before you put it all together into a game.

1.  You find something at which you’re not good.

2.  You break it down into its elements.

3.  You do that element over and over again.

The only book I have ever read that discusses something like practice is Hawthorne of Painting.  Charles W. Hawthorne was a legendary teacher of oil painting in Provencetown, Cape Cod, and single-handedly turned it into an art colony.  He encouraged his students to do what he called “starts” as many as they could.  His point was that they were not going to do masterpieces and to labor over a poor start for days was futile.  Kevin Macferson has picked up this idea and suggests students do 100 starts when doing plain air oil paintings.   This would be something like a block in.

In watercolor this is not particularly possible.  Here’s my idea of how to practice and what I have begun doing.  I call it assembly line practice.

But before I begin I want to say that the type of watercolor I want to get really good at is one in which there is a well drawn center of interest and a very abstract, splashy background.  Basically Homer and Sargent did this type of watercolor  (and it goes without saying that they practiced it day after day).

Drawing has to be practiced continually and independently of watercolor painting to become competent and to stay competent.  I go to various live model drawing sessions in New York City, trying for once a week attendance.  Sometimes I use a pencil and sometimes just watercolor wash.  I should say that I have a background in drawing and oil painting (a MFA), so this is to keep sharp not to learn how.  I also draw in the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Natural History with friends.  I have a blog post on the science behind drawing which you should look at if you’re interested here.  The skill is a short-term visual memory one not in the hands incidentally.  ( I mentioned that I have an MFA; I also was trained as a psychiatrist (I have an MD.))

A perfectly acceptable alternative is to copy a center of interest thus bypassing the need for drawing well.   Use a photograph,  print it, and use graphite transfer paper to place it on the watercolor paper.    Since you will probably have to print it on 8 by 11 paper and you may want it larger, you should know about splitting and tiling software.  Tiling is splitting the image and printing it on several sheets of 8 by 11 paper that can be placed next to each other and taped together, like tiles on the kitchen wall.   You choose the size of the final image to fit your paper.  Transfer paper comes in large enough sheets to fit under the entire tiled image if you are using the usual size watercolor paper.  Imprint Studio’s tiling software is freeware, and I find it very easy to use.  See here.

It’s the watercolor exercises I want to discuss.  What I have developed for myself concerns the background more than anything else not the drawing.

I work on 1/4 imperial sheets (11×15) of water color paper  both front and back. which I tear off a full imperial sheet.   Right now I’m using Kilimangaro paper from Cheap Joes because I have a lot of it around.  Another good paper is Bockingford which is often used by pros in England even ‘though it’s made from wood chips not cotton.  But it is probably best to use paper that you will continue to work on because every paper is different and you have to learn about each one works.

What I have been doing is lots of  landscapes of a sky, some trees, and a field with grasses, maybe a house and some water. I improvise the scene, but I do  them in a particular way.   I do them in what I call an assembly line way.    I do each element of the scene  one at a time over and over again. That is I practice a lot of skies, on the front and back of sheets, and let them dry.  Sometimes after one wash has dried, I pick it up and do another over it as is necessary with certain types of complex skies.  So I have a scattering of small watercolors drying on all the surfaces in my studio as I knock out skies one after the other.

It’s like I were on an assembly line, and my job was to do the sky and pass it on to the next guy whose going to put in trees, etc.  This means, of course, that I am practicing skies over and over again.

I usually try to look at a prototype while I’m doing this of Sargent, Homer, or something else that has caught my eye.  I can scan it and put it on a computer in front of me.   This is the feedback part.  I can tell when and how what I do, my sky. differs from my model.  I don’t expect to really mimic what I’m looking at, but I can tell when I get something that’s close to it or not.  I also put my results next to the model and sit back and look at it for a while, sometimes writing on my work what’s wrong with it.  You can’t just do skies without feedback.

I find it takes a while of looking at the difference between my model and my copy to see certain things.  It’s a process that is also out of consciousness and it is helpful to involve your conscious mind in something else like talking to a friend or just sitting a thinking about anything while keeping your eye on your work.  Suddenly for no apparent reason you spot something.  So this differs from a real assembly line because there are no time constraints, and it’s better if you take your time.  People who really practice like it.

It is also helpful to line up a whole bunch of these skies, etc and see which one is the best.

I do two types of sky.  There are skies with simple clouds and there are skies with very complex clouds.  Winslow Homer’s skies are amazingly complex and worked over.

The simple clouds I do with a 1 inch cheap commercial paint brush bristle with which I paint the negative spaces around fluffy, white cumulus clouds and then put in shadows clouds in front of clouds.   This is something like what Suzy Short recommends on her website and her CD.  see here.

I do complex skies with a mop brush a la Winslow Homer.  This is a dark, stormy sky with many washes, blotting out, rubbing, etc.  Each passage has to be dry before doing another one.

Before long I have a pile of sky paintings.  I then put in trees.  But it would be enough to start with as practice doing about 100 skies.   That would be on the front and back of 50 1/4 imperial size paper.  That would use up about 12 full size sheets of watercolor paper.

It is not that after this 100 sky exercise, you stop and go on to another exercise.  No.  You do this kind of thing whenever you haven’t got anything else to do for the rest of your life.

I have since added something to the initial drawing (if there is one) which is going to be reserved white paper.  I usually put a square, rather large, somewhere which is going to be the front of a house and sometimes a rock shape in the foreground, varying the position so I have to think about where I am not going to cover with the initial wash.

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