Monday, September 15, 2008
Watercolor painting is a lot like herding hamsters with a unicycle. There are lots of little critters to control simultaneously and only one brush with which to do it… and plenty of obstacles.
A number of people have told me that, although their washes are clean and luminous, their finished paintings still look lifeless and two-dimensional. Others are stuck in a “color rut.” They still use the same color combinations they were originally taught by instructors or technique books.
I’m no watercolor Einstein, but I do know that if you have reached a certain level of competence in avoiding mud pies when mixing color and still have a relatively flat painting, it’s time to leave the nest. It’s time to test your wings beyond your instruction and begin possessing your own life as an artist… your own art. I’m still in awe of many watercolorists, both masters and unknowns, but I’m also surprised when I look at some of the technique books from which I learned the craft as a beginner. The technique may be good, but the finished pieces are… well, boring. It’s like vacationing in London and taking thoughtful pictures of manhole covers.
Leaving The Nest
Let’s try something as a first step toward independence from your well-meaning instructors by removing all color from your source image.
Although nothing can replace painting while looking at the actual three-dimensional subject, this is an exercise in freedom from what you see, and into the joys of seeing what you want to see (phrase borrowed from Charles Reid)… by using only a single black and white photo as your subject source.
Study the black and white image. No really... study it! Want more contrast? Shade the photo with a pencil or black marker. Study the photo and forget the rules. Which color combinations are your favorites? Decide where you can put those colors to work. Forget reality, what color is YOUR sky going to be? Study it! What colors are going to make up YOUR apple? How dark are the shadows on YOUR windows? How much, if any, yellow will be in YOUR sunflowers? Again, STUDY it.
Study it. Trust your eye. Decide. Do it.
Then do it all over again with that subject or another.. then do it again.
The first attempt may look like something your pet orangutan painted, but (mixed metaphors aside) I’ve never seen a bird leave the nest gracefully on a first flight.
I promise, if you give it a chance, it will give you a push toward becoming a first-rate you, instead of an inferior imitator of someone else.
Now get out there and fly!
Tuesday, September 9, 2008
What are we afraid of as we hold the loaded paintbrush over the pristine white paper?… Be honest.
We’re afraid of screwing up.
We’re afraid that the time we spent on the painstaking drawing is going to be wasted within the first few strokes. The brush will jiggle over the lines we drew. The color we tested on the scratch paper will be twice as dark as we expected. We’re fearful that we’re about to create another controlled, stiff, lifeless watercolor. We’re anticipating the creation of a brand new lexicon with never-before uttered cuss words… and we’re so tense, you couldn’t pull a pin out of our butt with a tractor.
May I put your mind at ease once and for all?
EVERY watercolorist screws up something on EVERY painting he or she attempts… every one, and…
YOU will goof up something on every painting you attempt.
So, How Do I Begin Fearlessly?
Start your painting by screwing it up… intentionally. Holding a brush loaded with a color you have chosen for your painting over the white paper, simply fling the paint at the surface without concern for the drawing or subject. You won’t believe the freedom that results from the knowing that your potential masterpiece is lost.
You’ll then be free to “let ‘er rip.” Your strokes will suddenly become confident and smooth. Your penciled lines (which were really only suggestions to begin with) will no longer be your cruel over-lord. If your burnt umber / ultramarine wash is too dark, who cares… you’ve already screwed it up? Also, you'll be surprised how often that initial fling of paint adds something artful to the painting.
You ultimately may not like the painting when you’re “finished,” but I promise there will be something on that paper that will make you stop and study. You’ll think aloud, “Wow, look at that. How’d I do that?” Sure, it’s not what you had planned; the farmer’s face is green and golden retriever is the splitting image of a constipated hyena… but look at the side of the barn! Look how the pigments created something you would not have envisioned. They captured both the light and the subtle value changes. Look at you… you’re a genius!
You will mess up every painting, so get it over with and get free to paint!