Archive for March, 2015

The Art of Serendipity

Sunday, March 15th, 2015

Serendipity contributes in large part to watercolor success.

If we try too hard to control watercolor to achieve the results we started out imagining, we can easily destroy the appearance of spontaneity that keeps a painting looking fresh. We try to correct shapes, fill in outlines, erase “goofs,” and otherwise fiddle with what we’ve already put on the paper.

This can lead to loss of “sparkle” where the paper shows through, or muddiness where paint has been rubbed off but has already stained the paper or where it has been overlaid with too many other colors. It can lead to trying to stop or correct inadvertent blooms and bleeds, which usually only makes matters worse.

We need to recognize where to adjust (without “correcting”) what has been happening on the paper, and when to let the watercolor do what watercolor does.

150115w Strawberry

In “Strawberry” (#150115w, above), my goal was to show the temptingly delicious form and texture of the fresh berry.

I reserved the highlights with frisket. Starting with red/green complements, I blocked in the sepals and the shaded side of the berry, building it up with glazes and gradually extending color into the lit side.

Concerned that the shadowed side was actually too dark to indicate any reflected light, I lifted some of the color out of the area where I wanted to show reflected light, leaving only enough to keep it in the shaded-values range.

Meanwhile, the green sepals needed to be contoured with glazes. It was at this stage that I painted in the shadow area below the sepals and retouched the darker side of the strawberry where I had lifted out a little too extensive an area for the reflected light. Because I was using a mixture of red and green in the shadow, I used the red of the berry to shadow the sepal layers and allowed it to bleed across the edges, while some of the green seeped up into the berry. This had a unifying effect and minimized hard edges in the shaded areas.

After it had all dried, I removed the frisket and dropped in spots of yellow and dark green for “seeds.” The result appeared too hard-edged, so I used a couple of weak washes (one pale blue, one light green) to soften the entire shaded side, and a light yellow wash over much of the lit side (both of which lifted most of the still-damp “seeds” I’d just applied) and reapplied more limited seed spots into a still-damp surface. I didn’t attempt to retouch any hard edges where pigment had collected.

The actual berry, on which I’d modeled the painting, didn’t have a crease on the near side. Serendipity allowed this to happen. I could adjust the color, but I couldn’t have done this by trying to strictly control the paint. And any hard-fought efforts to “correct” the form would have made no improvement over this painting. It’s a lesson I try to always keep in mind.

Familiarity Breeds Carelessness

Sunday, March 1st, 2015

We’ve long known the old adage that familiarity brings contempt. Contempt may not always be apparent, but when we become too comfortable in our endeavors, it can show up in a certain amount of ambivalence or carelessness in our work. I’m no exception to the rule.

A friend whose artistic opinion I trust called my attention to it in my artwork. When I showed him a watercolor sketch I had recently completed, he pointed out that the work could easily have been simplified and that the juxtaposition of high and low values displaced the intended focal area.

He was absolutely right.

Any form of contrast is an important element of composition, one of the principal early lessons I had learned. And I had overlooked it!


The subject was an orchid, held upright by supporting stakes. Ideally, at least one of the stakes could have been omitted from the painting. Even worse, the low value and hard, straight lines of the primary stake were in sharp contrast with the soft, curvilinear sweep of the high-value plant beside it. This multiple contrast cried out for attention so the viewer focused on the stake instead of on the flowers.

Although there was little I could do at that stage to entirely remove the offending detail, the distraction the stake caused, as well as the related value problems, could both be modified to improve the composition.

I decided to do just that. I began by raising the value of the stakes and reducing the contrast between them and the high-value plant. There was little I could do about the straight lines’ contrast against the curves of the plant, but I softened their edges somewhat, which mitigated the effect.

The other half of the problem lay in the area of the flower itself. The low contrast surrounding the pale blossom couldn’t compete with the high contrast that the primary stake created.


Lowering the value of the background surrounding the white flower increased the contrast there. This, in conjunction with the reduced contrasts surrounding the support stake, shifted the focal area from the stake to the blossom, where it belonged. At the same time, the low saturation of the background called attention to the highly saturated red and yellow at the orchid’s throat, reinforcing the focal area and identifying a clear focal point within the broader focal area.

While adjusting values, I also exaggerated the shadows separating the petals to provide a greater sense of depth within the focal area. The remaining composition was left loose to suggest the other blossoms without providing unnecessary or distracting detail.

The question remains: In the future, how can I avoid manifesting contempt for the principles that underlie good composition? I expect that, just as I must consider my subject with fresh eyes before I ever lift a brush, I need to consider every painting from the dual perspective of an artist who is familiar with the subject and the fresh eyes of a viewer who is unfamiliar with it and has not seen the work previously.

Taking the role of an unfamiliar observer will allow me to become objective enough to evaluate whether it is as effective as it should be. And by stepping back into the role of the artist, I can determine what steps are needed to bring it closer to what it could be.