My interest in art started as a North Carolina kid fascinated with comic books. I spent much of my early teens trying unsuccessfully to emulate the comic artists of the day. But, I wasn’t one of those kids who was drawing and painting from the day I could hold a pencil. I really wasn’t interested at all until I was about 11 or 12.
Eventually, I took art classes in high school and considered art as one option for college and career. Of course, I chose something completely different because who does things the easy way? Within a few years though, even that career path – that of a newspaper writer and photographer – brought me back to art in the early days of computer graphics and desktop publishing.
While I don’t do as much with graphics as I used to, it is still a part of my day job. Earlier this year, I created all the posters for the 2017-18 season for a local little theatre in a combination of traditional and digital techniques.
During those first few years in newspaper, and later in the printing industry, I didn’t completely lose interest in traditional art. But it was more of a way to kill time than anything serious. Around 2004, I decided to get serious again and began exploring acrylics for a while. I found I preferred to use acrylics more like watercolors than oils and realized I was drawn more to the watercolors of other artists rather than other media. So, I tested the waters, so to speak, and haven’t looked back.
I’ve loved cars since I bought my first one in the 1980’s. My fascination with them from an artistic standpoint – mostly the rolling sculpture of Detroit’s golden age in the 1950’s – started with the success of my first car painting in acrylics. Of course, shiny sheet metal, chrome reflections and rough rust are a very different story in watercolor. But once I figured out various techniques to get those textures right, I found it to be a lot of fun, especially rust.
So, I’ve got a lot of car paintings floating around. But, I see too many artists who seem to be one-trick ponies; they only ever paint one subject. Sure, they usually do that one subject very, very well. And, I understand they paint what they get paid to paint. But, I can’t imagine they don’t get bored.
I certainly get bored looking at the same thing over and over on their websites. Instead of falling into that trap, I’ve tried to explore other subjects – landscapes, figures, portraits, and still lifes. I’ve been especially successful with musical instruments, shoes, figures, and horror-related subjects. The last few years I’ve been concentrating on landscapes and portraits.
I’m also trying to get away from photographic realism by studying the recent British Impressionist watercolorists, my favorite being John Yardley. It’s too easy to get bogged down in details that don’t tell the story of the painting in question. And, I see too many paintings in which everything in the image is razor sharp and finely detailed.
Having spent some time as a professional photographer, I’m well aware of the ability of a well-crafted photo to direct the eye with depth of field, leaving unimportant portions of the image out of focus. I’m trying to bring that capability and technique to my paintings, especially my landscapes. It’s part of a technique I’ve taken to calling loose realism.
That’s really just another way of describing what most people are talking about then they use the word “painterly.” In loose realism even main subjects need not be photographic to be convincing. Backgrounds and foregrounds can be loose, wet, and indistinct. One method I use for achieving this, and for forcing myself to see a reference photo more simply, is to use Photoshop or other programs to modify the photo, defocus some areas, obscure details, and often brighten colors.
One of the things that has always fascinated me about watercolor is how the simplest images often can be the most effective. That doesn’t necessarily mean they were simple to create, though some are. It just shows that complexity, unerring detail, and edge-to-edge focus aren’t a requirement for a pleasing and effective painting.
The biggest problem with loosening up is that most people, at least in my area, are more interested in photo-realism, especially when looking for car paintings and commissions. So, I’m walking a tight rope between the looser paintings I want to do and the photo-realism the public wants, i.e. sometimes I too paint what I get paid to paint.
Technically, I’m pretty straight-forward these days. In the past though, I’ve used a couple different, somewhat unusual techniques.
Early on I used a grisaille-type underpainting that I learned while using acrylics. I don’t see many people using or even talking about this technique with watercolors, but I found it quite effective. To do this I painted what most people would consider a value study with a very thin, watered-down Payne’s Gray. Once I had a good grayscale painting done, I added transparent color washes.
Since Payne’s Gray is a staining color and I kept it very thin, it didn’t lift when I added the later washes. If the underpainting was too heavy, though, it could have lifted and altered successive washes and made a real mess. I suppose any staining color can be used for the underpainting. But, a thin Payne’s Gray is nearly neutral, so the transparent colors laid on top are only affected in value, not color or hue. By the time I completed the painting, only I knew there was an underpainting layer.
Another technique I had a lot of success with – and also learned while using acrylics – is using charcoal as an “underpainting.” This technique starts by doing a complete, finished charcoal drawing of at least the main subject if not the entire image. I spray one thin coat of workable fixative over the charcoal drawing. It might sound counter-intuitive at first. But, without the fixative, you’d have a mess when you started adding watercolor washes.
Anyway, after I let the fixative gas out at least a couple hours, I painted with watercolor as normal. I had to lay it on a little more heavily. But, with practice and patience, watercolor will soak through the fixative and adhere to the paper.
I haven’t used either of these techniques for a few years. These days I’m just using good old Da Vinci paints (mostly) in a fairly limited palette of ultramarine blue, cobalt blue, phthalo blue, permanent rose quinacridone, a warm and cool red, a warm yellow, yellow ochre, raw umber, burnt Sienna, sepia, sometimes manganese blue, and neutral tint or Payne’s gray. No, I don’t use a cool yellow because over time I found I just didn’t use it. My color mixes just never went that direction. So, now I just don’t bother.
Arches and Canson’s Moulin du Roi 140 lb. in cold-pressed and rough are my favorite papers. In the brush department, I’ve used everything from natural sables and squirrels and faux sables and squirrels to natural/synthetic blends and full synthetics. But, right now I’m really digging the super-cheap Snap! synthetics from Princeton. I’ve always liked a good amount of stiffness and spring. Snaps definitely cover that while also holding a lot of water/pigment.
Over the years, I’ve found that if I really wanted to get better, painting had to become an obsession. When I’m not painting I’m thinking about painting. The best advice I can give to someone just beginning with watercolor or any medium, or just wanting to get better, is to paint. Paint often. Paint every day. Paint something, anything, even if it’s just color swatches. The more you have a brush in your hand the more natural it will feel.
Actually, now that I think about it, color swatches are a great idea. Not only will they help with brush control and water control, you’ll also learn how each color looks and feels with varying amounts of water. I keep one of Da Vinci’s full-pan paint boxes at work and spend a few minutes before work and at lunch every day painting small 5”x7” and 8”x10” figures, portraits and landscapes. It’s great practice; it’s relaxing; and I’ve actually sold several of these paintings.
They aren’t always quick; most take two or three days to complete. But, many of them are good finished paintings, not just sketches.
That also brings up another great aspect of watercolor; you can set up and clean up in a couple minutes making it easy to paint on a moment’s notice. As for me, some days those few minutes at lunch might be the only chance I have to get a brush wet – and that makes all the difference.