My name is James Nyika and I’m originally from Nairobi, Kenya in East Africa (currently residing in Maryland). Many years ago in my teenage years, I recall pouring myself into watercolor artwork in a way that I could neither explain nor resist. I had initially discovered great works of art at the British Council Library in Nairobi – a (possibly) embassy funded public library in the heart of that city that sought to help Kenyans hoping to study abroad in the ways of the British and American universities.
Some of the works I recall vividly include Constable’s “Hay Wain”, Vermeer’s ‘View of Delft’ and Caravaggio’s ‘Calling of St. Matthew’. All these works, while not watercolors, had one common thread – unbelievable light treatment and eye-popping color and realism. Watercolor however, offered a very different treatment of the same material when I could find it.
These were, after all, the days before the internet and all I could find were a few watercolor books with the works of the watercolor giants. But they were amazing. I wanted to be that person, who could produce the same kind of work.
In about 2012, I was looking for a hobby that I could take up that I was going to fully apply myself to. I remember my excitement at discovering watercolor in my youth and decided to explore it further.
A few searches on the internet revealed amazing bodies of work by my favorites such as Sargeant, Alvaro Castagnet, Herman Pekel, Joseph Zbukvic, Eugen Chisnecean, Keiko Tanabe and David Taylor. Keiko Tanabe’s story was particularly poignant because it illustrated that it was possible to transition from a busy employee role to a full time artist career. So I leapt into my new hobby and I have never turned back.
Energized and determined, I started painting in earnest in 2013. I could afford better materials and I was wiser about the need to set up a schedule in order to truly improve along the trajectory that I wanted. So as not to lose my momentum, I chose to focus very narrowly on subjects that interested me and that I would not open to judgement, not from anyone else, including myself. I schedule 1 painting a week and when possible at least 2. Each painting was done on a quarter sheet (larger sheets were too intimidating).
Each painting session had a few crucial rules
- (Most important) No matter how dire it seems, you are not allowed to leave it unfinished.
- No painting was to be discarded, no matter how much I did not like it.
- Each painting should take no more than 1 hour.
- Each painting focused on a theme, or specific lesson I wanted to work on.
Progress was slow and sometimes it still feels that way. I bought almost all the DVD video lessons from the greats mentioned prior and I would watch them repeatedly, listening for new details each time – while I did the dishes! To my complete and utter surprise, the painting improved. Since then, I have sold many paintings, received commissions and am now trying to broaden the knowledge of the work.
I consider myself an impressionist landscape painter. My goal is to render one perspective of any reference scene I want to paint. It is only an interpretation but one I hope others share and like. I also like technical subjects such as aircraft and, in recent weeks, I started painting more and more airplanes at the most exciting moments of flight. I have found that there is a great response to these and if enough people want a workshop, I might arrange one.
I begin by capturing reference material – photos mainly using my camera and from travels. I will then perform preliminary sketches and print out grayscales to better see values but not always. These days I can see the value changes quite well. I then decide what my focal point will be and then work the painting from light to dark, back to front.
I usually try to finish a painting in 3 washes. First the underpainting, a light series of washes to set the main chromatic hue of the painting and underlying colors. The second wash fills in shadows and darker tones and values. The third wave is really about using dry technique and vibrant color to recapture highlights and create interest.
The most difficult things for me are:
- Remembering and sticking to having a focal point. Cannot tell you how serious this can be.
- Remembering to let the water do the work for you. It is watercolor after all.
- Avoiding flat dead color – There is no such thing as a flat color, even in nature. The light will vary the hue. Shouldn’t you?
- Returning to basics – review your color wheel every so often. Repaint basic scenes again and again to (re)discover a principle you forgot.
- Managing Fear. This will never go away. Learn to recognize it and put it back in the box.
Materials I Use
Paints: Sennelier Professional Watercolor Paints (they activate easier than any other in the industry). For some esoteric colors, I use Holbein (Cobalt Turquoise, Lavender, Pyrol Red) or Daniel Smith’s Perylene Maroon.
My base palette: Ultramarine Blue, Royal Blue (sennelier color), Neutral Tint, Perylene Maroon (Daniel Smith), Yellow Ochre, Burnt Sienna, Indian Yellow, Titanium White, Indigo, Dioxazine Purple, Burnt Umber, Raw Sienna
Special highlight colors: Cadmium Red Light, Pyrol Red, Lavender (for getting warm greys with burnt sienna), Cerulean blue (the color of sky.. Like no other)
Brushes: All kinds but my standbys are Princeton (you need stiff brushes to do some of the detailed aircraft work), Alvaro Castagnet’s Neef brushes for washes, Isabey Mop brushes (squirrel) for my day to day washes and Pro Arte sword liners for fine detailed work.
Paper: Almost exclusively either Arches 140lb / 300gsm Rough paper in Pads or Loose 22×30 sheets or Saunders Waterford 140lb / 300gsm Rough paper in Pads or Loose 22×30 sheets. I have never used Cold Press or Hot Press paper.
- Hotel Key cards – I travel a lot and I save these to help me with making marks on paper for buildings.
- Spray bottles – minimum of two – you need these to add water liberally to allow the water to do its work
- Paper towels – help achieve fading effects and catch messes before they ruin a picture
- Pencils – a range of lead types but a good professional mechanical pencil is a must. Go for a Rotring as a starter.
- Tracing paper – Technical subject are best traced if you want them to look good. Get a good tracing paper and graphite transfer paper.
- Gatorboard – Light but strong for holding your work.
- Tripod – I do not yet do as much outdoor plein air but I am going to be getting a ball head tripod for holding the gatorboard.
Some of my Guiding Principles
I have a few guiding principles with the work I produce…
First, painting in general, and watercolor specifically, provide an outlet for me. I believe that I do paint for myself. Others benefit because I am open to sharing my work, but ultimately, I first try to please myself. It helps me relax and takes my mind off of computers and software.
Second, the objective with all paintings is to evoke an emotional reaction – a fleeting memory of something past, interest, awareness, fear, – anything! If the painting does not do that, then it is merely an illustration (in the general banal sense – I am not knocking illustrators.)
Third, human beings are imperfect and so are paintings. A painting is a fiction. It is an illusion. It is something designed to evoke an image in your mind’s eye. For this reason, I generally believe that imperfection in paintings, and especially watercolors, is one of their main draws. As one of my mentors once said, ‘Paintings are the perfect expression of the perfect imperfection.”
Fourth, practice, practice, practice. But make it fun. Pick subjects you like, Make time to do the work and have no expectations other than to learn something new each time you paint.
Parting Words From Inside The Net
Here is the bottom line. Talent is truly overrated in my opinion. While we do have some very naturally gifted artists out there, they are the exception – not the rule. I have come to believe that you can achieve amazing work with patience, fortitude, a dedicated schedule, professional materials and good learning materials. It is truly up to you.
Take the leap. Believe. And do not stop. No matter what. Ever.