Archive for the ‘My way of doing it’ Category

En Plein Air – Quick-Sketch Tips for Watercolor

Sunday, July 1st, 2018

When doing very quick watercolor sketches en plein air I find that it helps to keep the sketches small, use a limited palette, and lightly sketch out a simple composition in pencil before I ever begin painting.  This is particularly true when planning to do more than simple studies with pen and a loose wash.

"Sister Bay Marina Light" by Charlotte Mertz (4"x6" watercolor, #180605w)

“Sister Bay Marina Light” by Charlotte Mertz
(4″x6″ watercolor, #180605w)

In this simplified sketch of the marina light in Sister Bay, Wisconsin, I also simplified the palette, using only two blues (cobalt and indigo), two reds (scarlet lake and brown madder), burnt umber, lemon yellow, and permanent sap green.  It could have been simplified even further, but I like to work with warm and cool versions of the primaries.

Rather than using frisket to reserve white, when working this small, I often simply paint around areas I want reserved as white, such as the sunlit portions of the marina light and the masts on the far side of the harbor.

The quality of my sketches usually improves as I continue to paint more pieces in the same outing.  There are several reasons for this:

1) First, I am usually over-eager to begin actually painting, so don’t always take time for accurate drawing to undergird my initial watercolor sketch.  However, the longer I work, the more relaxed I become, the less pressure I put on myself to work fast, and the more accurate the drawing tends to be.

2) Working as quickly as I am inclined to (particularly at first), my wet colors often bleed and shadow areas have a tendency to lose definition,  If I can stay on location long enough to allow the paint to dry sufficiently, I can retouch the darker areas to compensate for the loss of definition or any value lost in the drying process.  But this is not always possible when working quickly on location due to legitimate time constraints, such as encroaching weather.

3) The earliest sketches help me determine how quickly (or slowly) the paint will dry in the pervading atmosphere, allowing me to judge and apply color values more accurately in subsequent sketches.

4) When pan paints (or tube paints that I have allowed to dry in the palette) are first used, they tend to release fewer pigments into the water, but as they soften with use,  they release their pigments more readily.  This affects the proportion of pigment to water, ensuring application of stronger colors in later paintings than in the initial efforts.

So for several reasons, it’s often advisable to take time to do a few warm-up sketches before tackling the more important scenes.

Plein Air Priorities

Friday, June 15th, 2018

I had hoped, in touring some of the western National Parks this past May, to do some plein air painting along the way.  However, as I had found in the past, guided sightseeing tours do not provide many opportunities for full-fledged painting setups, and by the time we got settled into our hotel rooms at the end of each day’s excursions, I was too tired to head out on my own.  (Yes, I know that many would say that if I were a true die-hard, I would venture out to capture the sunset or some iconic view of the locale.  More power to those who can!  But at my age, I’ve learned to be realistic about my physical stamina and need for adequate rest.)

“Grand Tetons” by Charlotte Mertz (4″x6″ watercolor, #180510w)

Although I was able to do a very small, quick watercolor in the Tetons while the rest of the group watched an informative film, most of my output was in the form of even quicker pencil sketches, for which minimal setup and time were required.  Sometimes I could snatch a moment during a lunch break.  At other times, while waiting for the bus to get underway, I would sketch the scenery directly from my coach seat.

"Jackson Hillside" by Charlotte Mertz  (#180509p)

“Jackson Hillside” by Charlotte Mertz
(#180509p)

Would I discourage others from taking sightseeing tours?  Definitely not!  And here’s why.  I was able to accrue innumerable reference photos during our travels, saw sights I probably would not have seen, and learned information I probably would have missed if I had been traveling on my own.

And the short sketching stints encouraged me to look for the essence, such as the overall silhouette shapes, intertwining textures, and interplay of values within this stand of firs.

"Yellowstone Firs" by Charlotte Mertz  (#180512p)

“Yellowstone Firs” by Charlotte Mertz
(#180512p)

However, I would recommend, for anyone who wants to spend considerable time painting, that you establish your own schedule and priorities.  Arrange travel time around your painting time, rather than trying to squeeze the painting into a pre-scheduled tour itinerary.  If you want a tour, look for someone local who can fit a bit of sightseeing into your painting schedule, preferably one who can provide guidance to promising painting sites, as well as offer insights into regional lore.

 

Sidetracked by the Muse

Thursday, February 15th, 2018

As I look ahead to adventures planned for this coming year, I have also been looking back at our travels from 2017.  A camera gives me an opportunity to “relive” travel experiences, recalling the imagery of specific moments.  But painting from those images also allows me to recall the atmosphere and the specific elements that attracted my attention, that drew me to capture at least the visual scene in the photograph.  Through painting, I can more freely interpret that scene, drawing out from the overabundance of visual information only those key elements that mattered to me and minimizing the extraneous detail that might detract from it.

So, despite my recently-stated intent to narrow down my focus for now to figurative work, when I felt inspired to work on a specific project that did not conform, I found myself following the muse.

I had photographed a prickly pear cactus as a memory from my youth, when I had spent several years at various locales in the American Southwest. The plant has a rhythm in the linking of its lobes, a characteristic texture of its surface—with obvious spikes … and less obvious ones that (as I  learned early) can prove quite as troublesome if you brush too close…, as well as delicate, tissue-like blossoms that spring out in glorious color in the midst of the dusty, sun-baked surroundings.

“Prickly Pear” by Charlotte Mertz (8” x 8” watercolor on Arches hp paper, #180201w)

Using watercolor pencil, I sketched in the plant against a background of dried desert grasses.  A subsequent water wash couldn’t bring out the play of color the subject demanded, so I treated it as an underwash, following it up with multiple glazes of QoR watercolor to provide greater depth of color and contrast.

Prickly Pear is not a plant I want in my Florida garden, nor as a potted specimen on my Wisconsin deck.  But in the vast expanse of the desert lands of the Great Southwest, I found it an enchanting and rather nostalgic sight.

2018 Watercolor Classes

Monday, January 1st, 2018

A new year marks a good time to take a fresh look at the methods and approach I will be taking in teaching my watercolor classes this year, as well as to redefine my goals for them. I look forward to starting my new 5-session series of beginning watercolor classes next week in both the Verandah and Pelican Preserve communities here in Fort Myers.  I want to give my students more than bragging rights for a “refrigerator magnet” style one-time souvenir.

Instead, I have two goals.  The first is to provide my students with the basic understanding of the medium, technical know-how, and confidence to be able to begin painting in watercolor on their own, from an unlimited choice of subjects, for the rest of their lives.  The second is to instill in them a joy in painting so they want to continue developing their skills and understanding, increasing in both confidence and satisfaction in their ongoing efforts.

"Still Life with Ixora Blossom" by Charlotte Mertz (171207w detail)

“Still Life with Ixora Blossom” by Charlotte Mertz (171207w detail)

As I review my course syllabus, I know the information to be covered in each class session will lay a groundwork upon which any further learning can be based.  But more important than that is the enthusiasm I hope to express as I talk with my students and demonstrate my own joy in painting.  Enthusiasm (or lack of it, unfortunately) is contagious.  So I want my joy to always be apparent both in my own work and in my attitude toward the students and each topic I present, so each group of students bonds into a supportive community, enthusiastic and encouraging toward one another as we learn from both our successes and that inevitable “School of Oops,” from which few of us ever entirely graduate.

Art is one field in which we can never “know it all.”  It’s a wonderful subject for those of us who consider ourselves “lifetime learners,” because it poses a never-ending challenge to exceed whatever our current level of skill and expertise might be.  No matter how innately “talented” we may be even without instruction, or how developed our skills become through extensive education, there is always room to learn more.  But without a sense of enjoyment and satisfaction we will probably feel little impetus to maintain a long-range drive toward excellence.

So that is my primary goal for these beginning classes—not that I necessarily start my students on a road to becoming great artists, but that they feel motivated with an inner sense of pleasure and satisfaction to pursue their budding interest in watercolor painting and carry it as far as they will.

While maintaining an atmosphere of camaraderie and encouragement, my subsequent 5-session series of Continuing and Intermediate classes in both communities will continue to build on the basic skills learned in the Beginning classes.  The Continuing and Intermediate classes will focus more on general artistic principles, which contribute to a sense of perspective and reality.  Although my classes will address how artistic principles can be applied specifically to watercolor work, understanding them can enhance compositional design in any medium.

Will you be joining us as we begin our classes next week?

Winnowing the Yield

Friday, December 1st, 2017

One of the plights an artist faces is what to do with the vast amount of “product” that accumulates in the studio.  If we are skilled and in demand, much of what we create sells promptly and clears the way for further work.  Although I’m not quite at that point yet, I intend to keep working at it.

As we climb the stairway toward greater success, years’ worth of practice, studies, and still-immature work tends to accumulate, gradually encroaching on the working environment, consuming shelf, drawer, wall, floor, and other storage space until there’s scarcely room to move.  So sometimes we need to glance back down that stairwell to see that though what we achieved at each step succeeded in teaching us something to carry us a step further, that we had not yet reached our destination.  Just as I did in this depiction from several years ago of an unusual natural-wood stairwell configuration.

"Spiral Stair" 11"x15" watercolor (#130702w)

“Spiral Stair”
11″x15″ watercolor (#130702w)

Even knowing that my own work has not always lived up to my hopes or expectations, I often find it difficult to discard what amounts to ideas.  (Surely they could be useful to me sometime in the unforeseen future.)  The problem is that the material accumulation of unsuccessful or unfulfilled “ideas” can interfere with my continuing work in the present and even deter fresher ideas from coming to fruition!

So as we approach the end of another year, it’s time for me to winnow out the chaff—those earlier efforts that reaped no rewards beyond experience (a good enough reason in itself to have painted those pieces) to make room for more mature work.  Three stacks soon accumulated:  discards, salvageables, and keepers.

“Salvageables” fell into several categories—those that require only minor work to bring them up to acceptable standards; those from which I would like to make another attempt of the same subject, usually in a different medium (Oh dear, there are those ideas again!); and those from which I can reuse the canvas or framing materials, if nothing more.

The decisions aren’t easy.  (I can be ridiculously sentimental about some of my work.)  But as a professional, why would I want to waste space on pieces of much lower quality than I can currently produce?  I mustn’t!

Certainly, selling it might bring in a bit of immediate revenue, but it wouldn’t help reinforce the brand quality that I want to project.  So some “tough love” has had to come into play.  And some forthright frankness with myself about what lives up to, or at least approaches, my current level … and what simply doesn’t.

The job of culling the crop isn’t finished yet, and may not be before the end of the year … but hey, … I can already see a little open rack space again!