Goldfinch and Coneflower
One of my former teachers once looked at a precisely realistic painting and said disdainfully, "Now, that's done by the kind of guy who washes and waxes his car every day and keeps a fantastic shine on his shoes!" This good fellow was a realist himself, but of the loose variety. I, for one, did not agree with his observation and had long before learned that there is nothing more contradictory than an artist. Years have passed since that time, and I have grown closer to precise realism, yetI probably have not washed and waxed car or shoes in 18 years. In fact, some of the sloppiest people I know are precise realists.
Disregarding the conflicting observations of various artists and teachers, but with a sure knowledge of their view, I find my watercolor work is concerned with atmospheres wrapped in precise realism. After many years of working in various styles and modes of painting, I've come to feel I'm serious only when I'm painting realistic images. Perhaps this attitude can be explained by my personal feeling that only realism involves all the elements I've formally studied (such as drawing, painting, color, composition) and does not weigh too heavily toward just one or two of those elements. Watercolor, by its fast-drying properties, lends itself quite well to this mode of expression in letting the artist proceed steadily with continuity of thought. A feeling for atmosphere has always been ideally suited to the beautiful flows and washes of watercolor.
A large (20 x 30) watercolor often takes me three weeks to a month of full eight AM to four PM work days to complete. This is perhaps a bit more studied than the usual watercolor, but drawing, involvement with textures, and planning for the paper to be the only white area require forethought and time. However, I don't think of myself as a slow artist, since I paint quite rapidly.
It is my preference that watercolor be handled in a "pure" watercolor sense: transparent color with no use of opaque whites or opaque white mixed with color. I tend to think of watercolors used in this latter fashion as gouache. These days of "aqueous medium" watercolor shows seem to be 50% gouaches and acrylics. I don't believe this quite fair, because one can get a true glaze with acrylic, which puts true watercolor in another medium category. Perhaps my attitude stems from the training I had in Philadelphia before acrylic made its appearance; still, I tend to feel a transparent watercolor is something into itself.
Handy's Wheel Dance created the mottled textures of the tree trunk by pressing his arm into damp pigment and then working in additional texture by scraping and fine brushwork. The side of his palm- the effect depends on whether it is open or closed- was also used.
Handy's Wheel struck me as a possibility when my family visited an elderly couple's farm near the Blue Ridge Parkway in Patrick County, Virginia. Mr. Handy let my two sons ride his pony and look for arrowheads in his garden, while I looked for watercolor subject matter. This tree was pruned and gnarled, and it looked as if it had battled the harsh winters of this mountainous area for some years. The elements constantly challenge things on a farm such as this? the grinding wheel has collapsed since this painting was finished? but it is just this quality of weathered change that keeps me returning again and again to such a farm in search of new material. The "image" of this lone tree near the grinding wheel struck me, and it is this first "atmospheric" impression that I use to guide me to the finish. This mental impression exactly pictures what I'm trying to achieve, and the process from then on is trying to achieve this goal on paper.
After several bad outdoor experiences with people, I avoid working on location and paint strictly in my studio. Since it often takes me a month to complete a painting, I don't have to contend with weather, rapid light changes, people, or angry bulls. At times I will work from one or a combination of pencil studies, memory, black-white photographs, or a still-life setup in the studio. Usually I don't get too involved with numerous studies for the painting, as I feel this saps my enthusiasm for the actual work of painting. Often I will launch into a watercolor with no study but with a precise idea of what is desired. I find the memory of my first impression the most helpful element in achieving what I want.
The black and white photographs, should I use them, are an aid to getting the construction of an object, whether mechanical or architectural, correct. I am mechanically minded, and it is important to me to get such things as the construction of a wooden boats correct because I respect the builder just as I admire his boat. Compositionally, photographs are of little use, because I simplify, distort, and generally don't refer to them in placement of masses, and color photographs are useless to me as color reference because their color is unnatural. A memory for color or color notes serves me much better and leaves me free to improvise.
My paper is usually 400 lb. French hot or cold press. Occasionally I use a 400 lb. English paper I was lucky enough to find recently at a stationery store at 1968 prices. I use two-inch masking tape to adhere this paper to a 3/4 inch thick drawing board. The painting is carried right up to the edge of the masking tape, but when the tape is pulled up, there is a white border around it. When mounting it, I leave a 1/4 inch gap of white paper between the painting and the mat. This is done in the same manner as a print and seems to add a spark of life to the painting. Having matted woodcuts this way for years, it seems natural to do the same with my watercolors.
Earth colors usually dominate my paintings: occasional accents of brighter color keep things moving. The palette I use includes ultramarine blue, Davy's gray, yellow ochre, raw umber, burnt umber, raw sienna, burnt sienna, Permanent Pigment's Sepia-Umber, and olive green. On rare occasions I will use alizarin, cerulean blue, cadmium red, and cadmium yellow.
My brushes include the usual round red sables in Nos. 00, 1, 2, and 5 for detail work. Once I am painting I don't consciously select the next brush I'm going to use and could probably get as fine a point on a No. 2 sable as on a No. 00. Also, I use flat aquarelle brushes in 1/2", 3/4" and 1" for broad areas and spattering. Equally as important to me as brushes are arms, hands, and scrapers.
The next step is one I consider perhaps the most important to arriving at a passable watercolor. Most unsuccessful watercolors I've seen failed before the watercolor pigment touched paper. You can fool yourself by launching into a painting before a well thought-out drawing is there to guide you. This does not mean a detailed drawing, but a simple, correct placement of the elements in linear form. Watercolor is seldom successfully corrected if something goes wrong, so the drawing has to be correct from the very start. One should be very hard on oneself in this drawing stage and correct mistakes or, even better, not make mistakes on this type of paper. I use a No. 2H pencil, held very lightly, for the basic drawing. Should I need to erase, I use a kneaded eraser very lightly. The pencil lines formed by such a technique usually disappear with the wet pigment.
Handy's Wheel is fairly simple compositionally, but I turned the small shed in the background 90 degrees in order to simplify and frame the light grinding the wheel in a dark area. I painted the sky first with a very light wash. Sometimes I will use Miskit at this point in the painting if involved elements lace into the sky. Masking agents are used with great care, however, since when they are lifted they can harm the paper enough to ruin future washes. Though some artists bring a painting along by progressing each element at an equal pace, I often choose an element and finish it to 90% completion before I move to the next element. This method is not generally recommended, but, as some of my teachers observed, "If you can do it that way- why not?" As I said previously, the first atmospheric impression is what I'm trying to get on paper; value-wise, color-wise, and texturally, I know what I'm shooting for.
After the sky came the tree. On a broad area such as this tree, I will often lay down a thick wash and wait for it to dry to a semi-moist state. Then I press my entire forearm into the wash and lift it up, hoping the combination of translucent and dense areas that have not been picked up will create an interesting texture on the paper. Before this texture is completely dry, I will work into it quickly with torn pieces of old sponge and with scrapers. The most useful scraper I've found is a good mechanical pen. With this instrument you can scrape broad areas or incise thin linear lines. The technique of using your arms and hands can get very messy and cake, and this is one more good reason for me to work in my studio, where I can occasionally wash the stuff off.
The grinding wheel, shed, foreground, and background were semi-completed next. Handy's Wheel is a small watercolor, and by this time about two weeks had passed, and all the elements were 90% complete. The remainder of the time was spent balancing up these elements and completing the last details. Should I feel the need to scratch out white areas, I do so at this time, using a No. 11 X-acto blade. I am very careful with this scratching, as nothing else can ruin a painting as quickly if overdone.
Now is the time to look at the painting and decide if it is bad enough to tear up. If I cannot decide, I tear it up. Often this decision is reached immediately after the sky has dried, or shortly thereafter. Don't be discouraged if the painting does not live up to that first impression you were trying to achieve; no painting does. Watercolor is very tricky; it fools you before you know you've been fooled. I generally tear up about a third of my attempts and wish I had started this destruction a long time ago. Count yourself lucky if you do one you consider passable once in a while.
After having talked with several watercolorists, I have observed that we seem to share a common strangeness. If I haven't done a watercolor for, say, one month, the first few I do after such a layoff are not up to snuff. But the more I do in continuous succession, the better the medium seems to handle. Perhaps it is mental, but I've never had the same problems with the other media I've used. It could be that watercolor is so exacting and requires such planning ahead that the first few paintings after a layoff fool you into a false confidence.
I will often keep a watercolor in which I feel good things have happened as as "yardstick" to judge others by. Perhaps it has a loose passage I like or a simple subtlety I stumbled into. These paintings are never exactly what I strive for, but they contain elements to reach for.
Those who think of watercolor as a secondary medium and who dismiss paintings under glass should hold their criticism until they try this thing a few times. I can think of no other medium as fresh or as frustrating. My approach to the medium is not that of a sketch medium, but that of an involved, finished painting. Not everyone should try this approach, but they should try to handle the medium in a way that satisfies themselves. It is its variety.
article originally appeared in American Artist magazine.