Archive for August, 2012

What’s It All About?

Wednesday, August 15th, 2012

Last month I wrote about the artist’s leading question—“Why?” That question addressed the reason an artist works at all. This month I will address the secondary question that an artist should ask about any painting in the planning stages: “What?” Not so much “What is it?” but “What do I want to express?” In other words, “What is it about this subject that makes me want to paint it?” “What is my purpose for painting this piece?”

110305 Fuchsia Spray

The answer can legitimately incorporate any (or many) of a number of reasons. In order to focus effectively and achieve the goal, the artist is wise to select only one primary and overriding response. This will influence how the subject should be approached. The others are secondary.

If, for instance, my subject is a flower, as in “Fuchsia Spray” (#110305) above, my purposes may include pure representation (“flower”), symbolism (what the flower represents, if something beyond its literal meaning), narrative (a story the flower suggests), aesthetic/description (some specific element of the flower, such as the lighting on it, its delicacy or solidity, line, color, form, or relation to another object, that I want to call attention to), a mood or feeling that I want the viewers of my painting to experience, or some other purpose entirely.

These purposes may overlap: Soft lighting on a drooping blossom may suggest restrained hope, set a pensive mood, describe fragility, and in conjunction with other objects in the painting suggest story or make a social statement. But one purpose should be primary.

As I approach the painting, everything, from composition (where my primary subject is positioned and how it relates visually to all other elements in the painting), to lighting, color choices, and even brushwork should be used to achieve that primary purpose. The purpose should influence what I choose to exaggerate or deemphasize. Every other element I include within the painting, or expected elements that I intentionally choose to omit, should support my artistic goal.

Even if it’s just an experimental study, the purpose should still be clear–for instance, “to achieve a sense of depth through use of color variations.” If, in the process, secondary purposes (such as aesthetics, narrative, or mood) are also achieved, so much the better.

Watercolor on Canvas: Cays Sunset

Wednesday, August 1st, 2012

Taking a serious crack at actually using a watercolor canvas (rather than just experimenting with it — see my blog of April 15, 2012), I began by applying three coats of absorbent ground over the pre-gessoed surface of my stretched canvas, allowing it to dry thoroughly after each application. In order to really test the surface, I chose a subject that would be demanding, one that would require several layered applications of various colors.


After running the prepared and dried surface under water to wet it evenly, I applied the initial applications of paint to the sky area, extending it down far enough to cover virtually the entire surface. Due to my method of application, the initial coats turned out streakier than I wanted. While it was still damp, I turned the canvas upside down and reapplied the washes, allowing the paint to run more freely than I had before. The result was more satisfactory. I allowed it to dry.

Subsequent glazes worked well. They didn’t lift underlying colors any more than I would have expected them to do on standard watercolor paper. And, when I chose to intentionally lift color out for the wispy clouds, I was able to do so with no more difficulty than I would have experienced in working on a paper ground.

After the painting was virtually complete, I felt that the upper portion of the sky needed to be desaturated somewhat. I was able to add a cobalt blue wash to mute the saturated orange (a blend of scarlet lake and new gamboge). By applying the final glaze wet into wet on the previously dried surface, I was able to graduate both the value and saturation change with no difficulty. And by turning the canvas, I was able to control the direction of flow to achieve the final appearance I was looking for.

I also changed the size of the sailing vessel, removing some of the color from the first version and painting over it to improve the composition. I was surprised and please with the results.

All in all, the canvas worked fine as a watercolor ground and proved considerably more forgiving than paper when I needed to remove color or adjust the composition. The only negative issues I have with using it in lieu of watercolor paper are that it 1) is more costly than watercolor paper; 2) is more time consuming to prepare; 3) requires more space for studio storage; 4) should be varnished after completion.