Archive for December, 2011

Reevaluating the Palette

Thursday, December 15th, 2011

I’ve found that it’s a good idea to periodically review the paints in my palette. Not only do I consider which ones I’ve made good use of and which I haven’t, but I also find it helpful to update my charts that show how they interact with one another. While doing that this fall, I made some discoveries that will help in my paint choices for the coming year. Among other things, I have found that there are several paints that could be dispensed with or be replaced with a more satisfactory alternative.

Palette, December 2011

Of my five yellows, I found that three are very similar in color but behave differently in use. The yellow ochre, a semi-opaque that tends to muddy my mixes, will not be replenished when it runs out. The similar raw sienna is more transparent and poses less of a mixing problem. It provides a more subtle and slightly warmer underwash than the third similar color, quinacridone gold, which is stronger and more lively for mixing with other colors. New gamboge is also a rich, warm, more intense yellow that is good for mixing. And the bright, cooler Winsor lemon is needed for the lightest, clearest yellows applied over reserved white.

In the brown realm, burnt sienna is my standby, supplemented by burnt umber for my darkest darks (often mixed with indigo) and the more red-toned brown madder, which I also love to pair with indigo. I’ve tried sepia but found that that’s another color I can dispense with.

It has perhaps been a mistake to rely too heavily on the transparent reds—permanent alizarin crimson and permanent rose, more recently supplemented with the lovely quinacridone red and quinacridone magenta. Being transparent, these are fine colors for mixing, but I find the quin red a bit wimpy on its own. I need a good rich red to punch up a painting. A transparent scarlet lake is a new acquisition that I hope will fill the bill. It has a warmer cast than the cooler reds I’ve been using.

Though I have a purple (Winsor violet), I seldom use it, usually preferring to mix my own from the colors used elsewhere in the painting. This helps to maintain a sense of color unity throughout, rather than introducing an unrelated hue.

Of my blues and greens, Payne’s grey (which I consider a very muted blue) is my least used. Cerulean, being opaque, doesn’t blend well with most other paints (though permanent rose transforms it to the startling and lovely hue my father used to call “sky-blue pink.”) Cerulean is fine as a sky color but is largely limited to that use. And I find that the hue is very similar to that of Winsor blue (green shade), which is more amenable for mixing. French ultramarine blue and cobalt blue, on the other hand, are both workhorses and must-haves, as they are both useful for skies, water, shadows, and blending with other colors. The muted indigo (a premixed blue blend that can be subtle despite its powerful pigments) has become a personal favorite and almost indispensable to me. A new acquisition is Manganese Blue Nova, a Holbein paint, which creates a lovely range of greens when mixed in varying proportions with quinacridone gold. Though I haven’t used them as extensively, I enjoy the liveliness and mixability of my Winsor blue (green shade) and Winsor green (blue shade), from which I can achieve a good range of aquas and turquoises when blended together. Their transparency seems to lend them both to successful mixing with other colors. Permanent sap green has become another of my workhorses, as it is a good supplement to palette-mixed greens and is, in itself, easy to vary for great foliage.

I like the clarity and vibrancy of the transparent colors, particularly the quinacridones. And I’m less concerned now than I used to be about whether a pigment stains or can be lifted off the paper. So, as you see, as my tastes and needs change over time, I expect my palette selections will continue to change as well, both adapting to and contributing to the evolution of my work.

Taking a workshop

Thursday, December 1st, 2011

When it comes to painting watercolors, there’s always something more to learn. In order to learn some new techniques, I decided to take a week-long workshop this fall with an artist whose work I have admired for many years.

It’s difficult to break away from long-established habits to try a different approach to a recurring problem—the problem, in this case, being how to most effectively portray a given subject. As an artist, my approach to solving that problem produces a typical appearance, a “look,” my style. My eyes have grown so accustomed to that trademark look that it requires considerable effort to critique my own work objectively. But I knew that another experienced painter or painting instructor could call attention to areas in which my work could be strengthened and improved.

Similarly, artists may become overly critical of their own work, particularly in areas that differentiate it from other artists’ styles because it is “different.” We often forget that those differences may actually be strengths, contributing to the beauty and uniqueness of our work. Once again, another experienced artist may be able to offer the encouragement we need to continue building in the direction in which we’ve already begun.

The danger, of course, in taking a workshop with an established and admired artist is that we can sacrifice our own style and, either consciously or unconsciously, adopt something of the instructor’s style. It proves difficult to incorporate the information, techniques, and guidance we’re given without sublimating our uniqueness to the newer influences. So my challenge was to glean what I could from this workshop, absorb the enthusiasm prevalent in the group, listen with discernment to commentary and critiques, and then apply it judiciously and appropriately to my own work, in my own style.

As I worked in class, with the same equipment and supplies I use almost daily in the studio, I felt like someone painting with the wrong hand, and the results looked like it. My colors appeared muddy, and the brushwork looked like a beginner’s. I knew better! Yet this occurred because I was trying an approach that was uncomfortable to me. My mind wasn’t used to thinking in those terms, and my hand hadn’t yet been trained to comply with what it was being told to do.

Late in the week I learned that something as simple as a change of equipment can make a difference. I set aside my favorite round brushes and borrowed one of my husband’s angled household trim brushes—heftier and more awkward than a watercolor “flat” brush. It didn’t solve all my difficulties, of course, since it introduced its own new set of problems, but it broke me out of my rut. Suddenly expectations weren’t involved. I didn’t know what this brush could do with watercolor, or whether it would work at all. Watercolor paint was as foreign to this brush as the brush itself was to me. The size was wrong—both length and width. The bristle composition was wrong–nylon filaments rather than natural hair. But because I had no expectation of what it should be able to do, its “wrongness” didn’t frustrate me. It gave me permission to play, to experiment, and to have fun with it to see what it could do.

I won’t continue to use that borrowed brush for watercolor. Nor will I use all the techniques I learned during the workshop. But I have decided to buy a more appropriate flat watercolor brush. And I have already begun applying some of the techniques I learned at the workshop. I can also evaluate my work in a new light.

That’s really what a workshop is all about—breaking out of our ruts to discover what else might be possible beyond the tried and true.