My name is Karolina Szablewska, and I am a Polish-Canadian interdisciplinary artist. I’ve been painting ever since I was small and I started by using whatever was available – my Dad’s old printer paper and a good ole HB pencil.
I now use watercolour, ink, oils, acrylics, pencil, charcoal, dry pastel and do some textile art as well. I work in video production, so narrative is an important part of all my art. Nowadays, I like to broadcast live from my studio and take people along on the journey thanks to new technology.
Why I Paint Outdoors
As a kid, I remember looking at character illustrations in video game manuals and marvelling at the simple and concise strokes of colour blending into perfect shadows. It inspired me to find a way to recreate the look many years later with watercolour. Ultimately, the look of little puddles, blooming washes, and smooth, rich gradients drew me in over acrylics or oils.
I never liked how art forced me to spend time indoors because it can easily become cumbersome and messy. One of my favourite ways to spend an afternoon has become doing en plein air art with watercolour, which in the urban context is referred to as urban sketching. When I paint with watercolour, it’s the speed at which I can capture light, colour, form, and atmosphere that I find most appealing. Few other mediums offer so much, so efficiently, and so compactly.
I can buy a coffee, sit on a patio, and sketch a whole scene in a matter of a few hours. I usually will photograph the scene before and after for the lighting changes, in case I need to add the final details or refine the painting further at home. Typically, I spend 5-15 minutes sketching a base, then paint a general sense of the light, then moving or changing elements, such as people and vehicles. In the end, I have a window into that afternoon and what happened in the city.
Watercolour is a way to document a fleeting moment of life as a permanent memory. Whether it’s the way light passes through a leaf, the way snow piles on a stairway, or the atmosphere of a busy spot in town, these are all ephemeral moments and unlikely to repeat the exact same way again. Sometimes, I have trouble being in the present moment and taking in the sights and sounds, so painting the surroundings helps me focus my attention. It makes it easier to appreciate the architecture, the culture of the area, the weather, and the energy of the location.
I could just take a photo and call it quits, however the way I capture light feels truer of reality and the process is more personal. Even when I photograph a flower or animal and paint it later, there is something I remember that fails to capture in a photo and finds its way into the painting.
How I Use Watercolour
Watercolour has become a special medium for me for its rebelliousness. It never quite does what I expect, and that helps calm the control freak in me. It teaches me to not be a relentless perfectionist, to not focus on unimportant details, and to not set rigid expectations. The element of surprise is a thrill and the process is meditative.
Over the years, I also marvelled at the use of watercolour in graphic novels, which showed that watercolour wasn’t only for landscapes and flower paintings. I paint portraits, still life, landscapes, cityscapes, conceptual art, figure drawing, comics strips, and fantasy and sci-fi illustration with watercolour. I feel it’s appropriate for many different looks and subjects.
My painting style is informed by drawing and painting with a variety of mediums, so the way I handle watercolour may be different from what’s conventional. Sometimes I like to build watercolour up with washes to a thick, dense colour, sometimes I like to leave it delicate and soft, sometimes gestural.
I mostly use 140lbs Canson and Fabriano paper; I personally prefer this paper because of the faster absorption rate of the pigment into the fibre as I like to paint quick. The paints I use are a mix of Holbein, Daniel Smith, and Winsor & Newton and tend to lean on vibrancy. I’m not tied to any particular brand as long as the quality is in the paint. I need strong, concentrated colours without grainy pigment.
For my brushes, I use Chinese calligraphy brushes. A dear friend of mine who is a Chinese brush painter showed me how to use them, and I fell in love with them. They can hold just the right amount of water, hold pigment, and paint lines thick to thin without having to switch brushes. For my palette, I actually prefer a hot mess… I use ice cream lids, tins, plates. A conventional palette causes the control freak to rear its head, and I actually find myself recycling the dirty brown and grey messes because they’re perfect neutrals.
I like to use colour as an emphasis for light, atmosphere, and emotion. Many of my paintings have a yellow underpainting to tone the paper and enrich the vibrancy of the colours on top. Many artists protest against my use of salt, but I love the texture it creates! I like to experiment rather than stick to the “rules,” so I might use different colour inks, pastel, coloured pencil, or embroidery even.
Another element unique to my art is I use watercolour even for lines, and I like to use either contrasting or analogous colours to outline a form. You can usually see this in my pet portraits.
Overall, it’s a great contrast to the methodical way I compose images, by testing them over and over in my sketchbooks before arriving at a final idea.Recommended3 recommendationsPublished in
Creator of Doodlewash®, founder of World Watercolor Month (July), World Watercolor Group™, and host of the Sketching Stuff Podcast. Sharing daily watercolor illustrations and stories while proudly featuring talented artists from all over the world! If you’d like to be a guest artist on Doodlewash.com, contact me!