The other day someone asked me about the brushes I use for “The Big Brush Exercise”…what kind, what size, and do I switch to a smaller one for small-format work. Questions like that are welcome, mainly because to answer them really well you have to think about your own convictions. In this case the first thing that popped up was the nature of watercolor itself. The second thing that came up is that I like to see the hand of the artist at work.
The nature of watercolor is that it is a fluid, active medium. Couple that fluid nature with the temperament of a painter like me, naturally a bit impatient, and it becomes clear that bigger brushes mean broader, speedier paint passages, and the widest possible window of opportunity to work in those passages while they are workable.
As for liking to see the mark of the tool, the hand of the artist at work, that is a personal esthetic preference that many people, both artists and viewers, share. And of course many others prefer highly-finished sharp focus paintings. I have a chance to get the rough, spontaneous tool marks I like when I use a brush a bit too big to render the detail in my piece…but I render those details anyway.
“Taurus Wagon,” (watercolor on Strathnore Sketch, 9” X 12”) was painted with my trusty 1” nylon wash brush from Cheap Joe’s. With that brush I could have covered the whole page with nine strokes an inch wide. So I had to go bold, I had to work broadly, and I had to trust the medium.
Above, right, are some of my brushes: from left to right, 1.25” and 1” aquarelle, 1.5” wash brush, 2” wash brush (Langnickel), and a 1.25” and a 1” nylon flat from Cheap Joe’s.
Sometimes the most satisfying things I do as an artist are the low-stakes things, such as this “big brush exercise” I did as I was gathering material for a painting. Here’s how the process works: landscape season comes, and your skills are all rusty…analytical skills, observational skills, direct painting skills, all rusty. So you go out and set up your easel and make an attempt. Then evaluate it, and realize something is missing, or it needs a slightly different approach. This time I had an idea that what my piece needed was a couple of daisies. Fortunately they pop up all over our garden, so all I had to do was set my easel up at the end of the Long Border, pin up a piece of sketch paper, and go to it. “The Daisy Circle at Noon,” watercolor on Canson Sketch, 24” X 18.”
That big graceful bird you see soaring above the beach, or floating in the waves, or perched on the roof of a seaside shack, is probably the herring gull. We see them all the time when we're in Owls Head, and they make a compelling subject for drawing and painting. Just as with any unfamiliar subject, you have to practice to get it right, and repeated practice (usually) helps to increase your familiarity. The three sketches above were done from the same photo of a herring gull standing on a piling. Strathmore "Sketch," 9" X 12." And clockwise from upper left: 1. Permanent marker; 2. Graphite pencil; and 3. Gouache.
This picture goes back 5 or 6 years, and is one of my earliest examples of "the wash method." The whole background piece...the north wall of our studio...was in shadow, and the whole foreground was in full sunlight. It was a natural for the indirect, wash-over-wash method. I simply decided that the lightest value in the background piece was that gray-green of the batten strips, then ran a wash of that color over the entire piece, saving the foreground bushes (and a sliver on the windowsill) as white paper. Working this way handed me two big advantages: it ensured that the background piece would have "unity," as nothing in the background would be lighter or more intense than that gray-green. And it simplified the actual painting process...with the color and value of the battens already on the paper, to "make" them I simply had to paint the dark green siding between.
Once the background was finished, I painted the rhododendrons in the foreground in "line and stroke," using the same red/green/blue combination as in the background, but at much higher intensities. "Studio Window," watercolor on Arches paper, 11" X 15."
"The Wash Method: Three Washes, Four Values."
Here's a restatement of a recent painting in the simplest form of the method...no modeling, no soft edges, no paint texture. Just value spots in an alternating rhythm of light/dark/light/dark. With practice, you should be able to do a study like this in a half-hour, including drying times. You can do it before breakfast, as I did this morning.
I said "...no paint texture," but I meant no INTENTIONAL paint texture. Note how the 3 accidental water spots in the planking, lower left, enhance the illusion of the transparency of the cast shadow. That's what I'm talkin' about! "Gull III," watercolor on Arches paper, 15" X 11."
Color is more than just the beautiful skin of a painting. Color is one of the elements of design, along with value, line, shape, etc. And so it functions in the overall design according to design principles. If you're a student of ours you probably have a list of the elements and principles of design around somewhere. If not, this will be a brief sample of three of the principles and how they work.
The first principle of design is unity. A work has "unity" when all its parts work together to present a focused message. Contrast, (or "conflict") the second principle, breaks "unity" up into interesting pieces. The third principle is dominance, which "...resolves conflict and restores unity." (Quote by Edgar Whitney, who prefers the term "conflict").
In "Daisies and Sunlight," above, we have a lot of warm color (dominance), with a few important notes of "cool"...the pure blue areas on the petals that are meant to stand for "skylight"...for contrast. Those few cool notes are made more emphatic by the warm dominance, and provide a welcome relief and surprise for the eye. The picture would be much less successful without them.
My work generally alternates between two "modes"..."study mode" and "production mode." The same is true for a lot of artists, I think, and is the reason we force ourselves to seek out and accept exhibition opportunities---we need the pressure of a deadline to get us out of "study" and into "production."
Sometimes, though, production occurs naturally at the end of a period of study. When we began our Fall/Winter series of classes here at ET Studio this past November I began to put together a program of things I'm calling "Watercolor Essentials." "Harbormaster II," the b/w watercolor above left, is a "big brush exercise" I frequently do to build brushwork and compositional skills, as well as stamina. (See "24 Narcissus," my previous post). In "The Harbormaster," (watercolor on Arches paper, 22" X 15"), above right, I combined the exercise with a luminous background of graded washes, in a technique the California watercolorists used to call "glaze and silhouette." This one, I thought, finally deserved a frame. It's hanging now down at STEAM Works, ( http://www.steamworksscranton.org/ ) at "The Mall at Steamtown," Scranton, PA...where I'll be teaching "Watercolor Essentials" beginning April 20th.
Inhabiting the studio after our student painters left this evening, and listening to my new favorite alto player, David Sanborn..."Hearsay." And John McLaughlin with the Joe Farrell Quartet...Farrell, Chick Corea, Dave Holland, and Jack de Johnette..."Follow Your Heart." My contribution: "24 Narcissus," watercolor on Strathmore sketch, 18" X 24." My term for this kind of spontaneous, direct brush drawing is the "big brush exercise." I'm finding that doing them builds skills, perceptual abilities, and stamina in a lot of areas where a watercolor painter needs those things. For example: the ability to translate "forms" into "flat pieces;" the ability to pre-visualize and map out the placement of major shapes without any preliminary drawing; and of course, the ability to render forms directly with the brush.