Yesterday evening I returned to sitting on a bank of a nearby lake on the day we all got the horrific news of the largest mass shooting in U.S. history which had occurred overnight in Las Vegas. And the view in front of me did not disappoint; perfect for a respite from the social media space of constant updates on the tragedy, I faced a tranquil scene as the sun slid ever more behind the trees at the far end of the lake. The lake surface reflected the bright yellow of the leaves in the evening sun, making a sharp contrast with the dark shadows of the trees. A very confident kayaker dressed in a flowing white shirt seemingly more suitable for dining al fresco on the Piazza Navona stroked briskly by right in front of me, with the brilliant red of his kayak dominating the scene. Before too long, he was out of sight, and it was all I could do to try to recreate the impression he left. After about an hour, it was time to go; the light was fading, some bugs were biting in the tall grasses, but the effort was well worth the time spent.
Now that summer is coming to an end, it’s time to complete a series I’d started some time ago of watercolors of Lake Constance (or “Bodensee”) surrounded by Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. Standing near the harbor of Lake Constance as the evening sun sank lower in the sky was like being in a watercolor, and I vowed to try to capture the magical lights and colors. This was water in many colors, framed in the background by mountains on the far end of the lake. Ferries depart from the pier and paddleboats are lined up in the water near the Stadtgarten.
It’s been a busy time lately with travel and painting side-by-side with must-do’s, but I found myself recently on the banks of a roaring stream, conveniently located next to the best place to be in the small town of Val David, Quebec: a microbrewery-cum-quaint-inn–a true jewel of a find. (It is called “Le Baril Roulant MicroBrasserie” should you wish to look it up.)
Being in places different from one’s usual world is always great for curious people, and this was no exception. About an hour outside of Montreal, Val David is perfectly situated for a weekend get-away. There are several choices of places to stay, like this place (below) seen from the bike path.
There’s always so much to absorb–great museums (with a tremendous exhibition on Chagall), wonderful sights, and sounds–in Montreal. Layers upon layers of new impressions mix in with older assumptions, and it is quite clear suddenly that new approaches must be tried as soon as one gets home: this is always one of the benefits of travel.
On the first official day of winter, it’s time to bring the outdoors painting indoors, and experiment with some of the methods for ‘textures in watercolor.” The scene here is one of the view a few days ago from a platform overlooking Great Falls from the Maryland side of the Potomac River. This is part of the U.S. National Park system, which is the celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. There are ecological wonders in this area found few places elsewhere in the world, and just a short drive from the nation’s capital.
In real-life, this was a misty scene of blue-grey and Indian red with wildlife, including blue herons, nearby. With some masking fluid to keep the paper dry for the areas of waterfalls, and some thin strips of drafting tape to preserve the impression of tree trunks in the distance I tried to recapture the scene. A bit of watercolor seeped under the drafting tape pieces, in the end, but the impression oddly may be more realistic. In the actual scene there were grays, greens, blues, ochres, rusty red, and white, as well as browns, proving that even “a gray day” has lots of color!
During a plein air competition this week hosted by The Arts of Great Falls, Virginia, I had the opportunity to work on the grounds of one of the top French restaurants in the Washington, D.C. area, L’Auberge Chez Francois.
Braving unseasonably hot days (over 90 degrees!) was made easier by the very attentive staff of this deservedly highly-rated restaurant, who came outside to the patio dining area several times to offer a cold glass of sparkling water or iced tea. This was very thoughtful, and probably outside their job description as their paying customers were inside the air-conditioned restaurant. As it happened, I had my own ice water with me so did not need to accept their offers but their hospitality made what could have been a somewhat uncomfortable setting (due to the heat and occasional biting bugs) more pleasant.
The competition continues (and ends) today but a day already in this heat has left me content to submit only this one watercolor now on sale at the sponsors’ art gallery. (There is something satisfying about going straight from the field to a gallery even if it is not a juried exhibition!)
This experience is yet another reminder that ‘plein air’ is dominated by oil painters, it seems. The history of watercolor’s admission into the ranks of accepted mediums for serious art is a fascinating one on which I started a blog post some months ago, and may try to finish soon. These on-site ventures out into the world of artists (and gracious restaurant staff) are fun tests of one’s ability to frame and execute a concept quickly. My approach was to go out one day and scout the place for a scene, and then to sketch it in pencil. The following day I set aside three hours to do the watercolor. My hope was that the white tablecloths of the scene would provide a brighter contrast; the end result was less effective in this regard than I wanted, but dissatisfaction can be a powerful motivator. In any case, I popped it into a frame and the sponsors now have it on display. How fun! And I will be happy to take it home again, if it doesn’t sell, as a memory of this experience.
As the summer winds down, it’s time to prepare for an opportunity extended to local artists to submit about 10 paintings each to a “solo exhibition” through an Art-in-Public-Places program. Of course, nine or ten pieces are quite a lot when most of your work is inside sketchbooks. So, I’ve decided to see if I can convert some of my sketches from earlier in the year into a piece or two which could be included in the final selection of pieces to display.
Inevitably some of the “freshness” (and free-style/sloppy look) of starting a sketch right on-site, especially in a spot so beautiful as the one below, gets lost in the translation process to another sheet of paper far from the scene. Though, it must be said, there are advantages too of this post-sketch revision, including no exhaust fumes from the local bus lines laboring up the steep road behind you, no tourists impatiently waiting to take your spot, and no surprisingly rapid drying of your watercolors in the heat of direct and intense sunlight.
In any case, here to the right is a photo of a recent attempt to re-do a sketch into another piece. The sketch at the top of the easel is in a sketchbook and crosses the dip between pages. It is from earlier this summer when overlooking the Mexican town of San Miguel de Allende . Below it is the work-in-progress.
This latter attempt is seen in a more finished state in the photo at the bottom of the post. This is on Saunders Waterford paper (a popular U.K. brand) which I’m finding appealing but seemingly a tad more ‘thirsty’ than the Arches brand, relevant when it comes to issues of transparency raised in the previous post. (Update: I am close to completing a v2 of this view on Arches hot press.)
As time goes on, I try to factor in lessons I’ve picked up from the reading I’m doing. For instance, finding those dark values is the first order of business, according to Charles Reid in his book Watercolor Secrets, and then you can move to the lighter values. This makes sense but is still counterintuitive and even contradicts what I’ve learned in some classes. (If you need to go back and pump up some lights, there is also a fairly expensive liquid Arches “paper” as a form of white-out for watercolorists–it comes in most shades of watercolor paper whites. It seems a bit like cheating until one reads that John Singer Sargent no less resorted to white gouache rather liberally for similar reasons. More on gouache and “body color” (and British and American watercolor practices in history) in an upcoming post.
Achieving a balance of transparent and opaque watercolor effects requires skill not only with a brush but also familiarity with the interactions between the types of paper, the amount of water, and the characteristics of the paints you’re using. Jim Kosvanec’s book on Transparent Watercolor Wheel (discussed in the previous post) is sure to sensitize any reader to the different qualities of both papers and paints (as of the book’s time of publication in 1994). And, a heightened awareness of the “staining” and “attacking” qualities of some pigments when they are mixed with transparent ones brings to mind at least metaphorically some real-life situations. Whether we are dealing with pigments or policies, it seems we must concede (in plain English) that some things just don’t mix: they create “mud.” Come to think of it, such interdependencies are the stuff of life itself, ever more so given the interconnectivity of everyone and everything on the planet these days. (Who knew that the art of watercoloring might translate to a still larger stage?) Maybe the next time I’m at this overlook, I’ll be able to apply what I’ve learned so far right there in ‘plein air’. That would be terrific!
At last, while rummaging around in an art supply coop in Montreal last week, I found a tiny sketchbook that is proving to match, or beat, the Stillman &Birn sketchbook series for on-location watercolor sketching. This is the Pentalic 3.5 by 5.375-Inch watercolor journal, which opens up, as you might figure, to about 10.5 inches. (It has a tiny loop at the top for a tiny paintbrush too.) As someone who has experimented with many papers (including Arches, Bockingford, Saunders, Fabriano, Moleskin, Stillman &Birn, etc.), and continues to do so, this one has been a pleasant surprise relative to all other sketchbooks I’ve tried, including Moleskin and Stillman & Birn. It has 140 lb. cotton rag cold press paper with a nice light texture; really comparable to the big names in the field, so far. It also has a nice quality hard binding, opens flat, and has an elastic band to secure it when closed.
There are huge advantages to going small when sketching, moreover, and–if you’re using water-based media– all kinds of good reasons to choose the best paper (as any serious sketcher will confirm). This is a sketchbook that can literally fit in your pocket or a pocket of briefcase. (You could even take it to a meeting without drawing (oops!) much attention, and sketch the participants as a way to pass the time.)
Drawing small sketches can compel you to try to get those shadows on the faces or in the pulled-back hair of a figure with merely a dot of paint. Drawing small leaves you with more energy for the larger pieces done later inside when it’s raining. So far I have three little watercolor sketches in my tiny Pentalic watercolor journal using M. Graham, Daniel Smith, and Yarka paints, as well as ink. (It’s been very hot and humid in this area lately so that people (and animals) are moving slower and generally are easier to sketch.)
The paper handles washes and heavier watercolor applications perfectly, so I thought I’d jot this down here while thinking about it. The sketchbook is only a bit bigger than my small travel palette, which measures 4.75″ x 3.75″. So between the two of them and a paint brush, a bit of paper towel and some water, there’s a complete studio-to-go, unbelievably small and light-weight but with no compromise in quality.
Anyway, a small sketch kit is sure to make those meetings at work more interesting! And hopefully the day is not far away when sketching in meetings will be regarded as a sign that you’re paying appropriate attention to the proceedings. Sketching is a form of seeing, and clearly can enhance our powers of observation and sensitivity which anyone could tell you these days we all could use more of…