Archive for March, 2010

The School of Oops

Monday, March 22nd, 2010

There’s a lot to be said for learning on the job—in other words, learning from mistakes. I’ve learned a lot that way, and I’ll pass some of that along to you so, if you choose, you can learn from my mistakes rather than making quite so many of your own.

My first major mistake as a painter was to allow myself to be talked into participating in a small community art show before talking with anyone else about it. Oops! I soon discovered that the other participants were professionals, with much more polished and mature work than I had to offer. (My first clue of trouble should have been that they asked me to participate—the organizers’ choice of qualified participants was obviously limited. The pros all agreed for the sake of the free exposure in that immediate area.) All was not lost, however. Not only did I learn almost instant humility, but when I confessed my plight, I was taken under the sympathetic wing of one of the pros involved. Joan, bless her heart, mentored me patiently, encouraging my strengths and gently suggesting ways to improve my work. She loaned me how-to books and industry magazines, introduced me to wonderful supply catalogs and websites, and offered me tips on mounting, matting, and framing.

When I first agreed to participate in the show, I had almost no work available to display. Oops! The rapidly approaching art show provided me with not only a strong incentive to improve my skills but also to develop a reasonable body of displayable work in a very limited time frame. Over a period of a couple months, I turned out vast quantities of gradually improving paintings. With each attempt I learned some small lesson and gained some worthwhile experience. (Fortunately, the show was eventually canceled, so I was saved the humiliation of exhibiting still very amateurish work within that elite company.)

As you saw in my “Color-Contrast Catastrophe” (March 8, 2010), I’ve encountered other Oopsies along the way. So now and then I may admit to yet another Oops, and pass along the lessons it imparted. You’re welcome to audit my classes any time at The School of Oops!

“Painting” white

Monday, March 15th, 2010

One of the challenges of using watercolor is that, unlike the opaque white paints that oil and acrylic painters use, white in a transparent-watercolor painting is not applied as paint at all. Any white that appears in a transparent-watercolor painting is the white of the paper itself. It is that same underlying white that makes transparent watercolors seem so lustrous.

Once any paint is applied, the paper is stained to some degree and the color can never be entirely removed from it, however carefully the artist may attempt to lift it out. So the purest whites must be reserved from any application of paint.

Reserving the white of the paper can be done in any of several ways. The first, most basic method is to simply paint around the area that is to be left white. The artist must be able to visualize the finished painting before it has even begun in order to know where the whites must be preserved. This visualization must be maintained through the entire painting process to avoid misplacing a brushstroke. Color and shadow are added sparingly, allowing the reserved white to act as highlights or to represent the local color.


Variegated Ginger

The white of my “Variegated Ginger” (#100301) was reserved using this method. I only used light pencil outlines to remind me where to reserve the white paper.

Another method is to cover the area to be reserved. A paper or adhesive mask, called frisket, is used to protect most of a large area from unintentional paint application. But with this method there can be leakage and wicking of the paint, especially around the edges and anywhere the covering may be torn or not tightly pressed against the watercolor paper.

I sometimes use liquid frisket, a third method, to preserve the paper’s white in very small areas. Liquid frisket is similar, in both behavior and odor, to rubber cement. The fluid, also called masking fluid, or masque, is applied something like a paint, typically in a very limited area, to keep paint pigments off the paper. It can be lifted or gently rubbed or rolled off and brushed away after the surrounding paint is thoroughly dry.

This last method does have some drawbacks of its own, however. The fluid can have a slight yellowing effect on the underlying paper, and erasure (to lift the dried frisket) can lighten the surrounding application of paint when the frisket is removed. The surrounding paint also tends to collect as it dries, to form a fine, dark line at the edge of the frisket, which leaves a hard appearance when the frisket is removed. This edge can be softened by gently lifting some of the concentrated color with a damp brush, but the softening process tends to carry some of the color over the edge into the formerly reserved area of white, thus compromising the purity of part of the white space.

Another problem with using frisket is that the larger the area over which the frisket is applied, the more likely it becomes that the underlying paper will be damaged when the frisket is removed.  In an upcoming entry, I’ll give some hints about using liquid frisket.

A color-contrast catastrophe

Monday, March 8th, 2010

In my last entry I wrote about incorporating contrasts to provide dimension and depth. One of the lessons I have learned is that not all contrasts are beneficial. To be truly effective, any contrast should satisfy a definable purpose.

When I first painted the picture of my daughter costumed as a Munchkin for a school production of The Wizard of Oz, I wanted her colorful costume to stand out from a contrasting background. At that time, when I thought of contrast I thought almost exclusively of contrasting colors. I knew that green, being opposite red on the color wheel, would contrast with the red skirt, so I decided to use a green wall as the background. This seemed appropriate for the context, since an off-stage waiting room is traditionally referred to as “the green room.”

"Standing By..." with the original background

The green wall did indeed contrast with the red skirt, but the shocking value of the wall color drew attention away from the focal area rather than enhancing it.


"Standing By..." after background revision

When I realized my mistake, I applied over the entire wall a light wash of the same red that had been used in the skirt. The red wash counteracted the green, muting the overpowering intensity of the background and providing a more effective value contrast that made the wall recede and allowed the child and her costume to take center stage. In this case I discovered that the more effective contrast was one of value than of hue.

You can also find the finished painting, “Standing By in the Green Room” (#081003), in the Faces and Figures section of the Gallery.

Light and contrast

Monday, March 1st, 2010

One of the elements that attracts me to a watercolor subject is the way light interacts with it.  Sometimes the light glances off the subject, almost obliterating what is sometimes termed the “local color.”  Other times the light shines through a portion of the subject, and I feel challenged to depict that translucent glow in my work.  The play of light on texture often makes the two seem inseparable, daring me to depict both the light and the texture appropriately.  In other situations, light seems to reflect back and forth among various objects, reverberating around an area in an almost tangible way.

Yet light alone provides no sense of depth.  Neither does a “pretty picture” necessarily illustrate the richness of the subject.  For a sense of depth, either physical or emotional, we need to see contrast.

Contrasts may appear in many forms.  On the surface, we often think of contrasts between light colors and deeper colors, or highlights and darkness or shadow.  Yet who says shadows are necessarily dark?  Shadows are not always dark but are often filled with reflected light and color.  The colors we discover in shadows can suggest an exciting sense of liveliness and vigor in the subject.

Diverse textures, shapes, sizes, and values can also be contrasted to add dimension to a painting.  Even contrasting a subject with the context in which it is placed can suggest something about the subject that might not otherwise be apparent.  Does the color of the background suggest a hidden side of the subject?  Does the variety of brush strokes or the juxtaposition of colors suggest an unanticipated mood or hidden attitude?   One of the challenges I am learning to address is to use contrast in the painting’s context to reveal something extra and perhaps unexpected about my subjects.