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.
With another lovely day to enjoy, it was time today to join the Maryland ‘plein air painters’ again. This meant crossing over the Potomac River and setting up a watercolor easel in a lovely small suburban park near the old town center of Kensington. Plenty of shade and breezes made it a pleasant way to spend a Sunday afternoon.
Everyone worked in their medium of choice, whether pastels, oil, acrylic or watercolor–there’s no right or wrong here, and nothing to hear but the sound of water falling from the fountain in the middle of the park.
(A note on materials: These days I am finding the Canson Heritage brand of watercolor paper nice to work with and, perhaps surprisingly, on a par with the Arches brand (and, unfortunately, just as expensive). I picked up a higher end version of Hahnemühle watercolor paper while in Germany and found it to be quite outstanding, allowing for brilliant colors but perhaps subtly with less “sizing’ than Arches or Canson. This latter paper is hard to get in the U.S.
Regarding brushes, the German-made DaVinci Kolinsky Red Sable watercolor brushes seem to do a good job with keeping a very fine point; I have a #6 and a #8, and can tell that in the hands of a professional, they would more than meet the tasks at hand. And for me, certainly, they are more than adequate.)
My younger brother, who has been mentioned in the last few blog posts, never understood my fascination with art materials. (Indeed, he privately might have viewed it as a disorder; well, once he did say “that’s crazy,” so there’s a clue.) He used the first sketchbook (Stillman&Birn Alpha series) I gave him for the last two years, and was on its last pages during our recent trip in Europe. He was captivated, however, by the fine flow of the Platinum Carbon pen, and also the practicality of the water brush, both of which were gifts from me. He had none of the interest others have in whether this or that paint is “student” or “artist” grade, nor in trying different sketchbooks (I’d supplied him with some backups). He wanted his sketches to be in chronological order in the original sketchbook, and never wavered from this. As an artist, he had a beautiful, light style–and even mischievous style, as in a few sketches of people (possibly even us, his family members, but he would not say) on the beach at the Outer Banks. He also used sketches in his work. He could carry his entire art kit in a small zipper pouch designed for a looseleaf folder, and he never set foot in an art supply store, so far as I know. (He wasn’t much a shopper, to put it mildly.) My brother believed in “quality not quantity” and lived this. Special memories, may they live on forever.
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.
While taking a break from work this week (as well as from the always overwhelming news especially with the tragic reports this week from the already unimaginably devastated Syria), I came across four colored bottles perched side-by-side at the back of a shelf in a store. As they were priced to sell, I bought them with the thought that they’d be great for watercolor projects. Painting glass objects is something I see watercolor artists do all the time–at least online– and many of them exhibit a great deal of talent in their work. This seemed like a good exercise for me at this point. So I propped them up on my angled drafting table, where they picked up the daylight, and considered what would be involved.
Today I decided that I’d use the new-on-the-market L’Aquarelle Canson Heritage 140 lb. hot press paper. I’d noticed in the past month that it takes watercolor very well without being too absorbent so I hoped to achieve a more transparent look with the bottle project. As with any paper, it takes some testing to figure out how much paint to apply for different results.
First, though, I did a draft on a smaller piece of Canson cold press watercolor paper in a sketchbook I’ve come to like for carrying around outdoors; the paper quality is great and the spiral notebook opens flat and is light. As I did this, I considered how to match the colors of the actual bottles.
The amber-yellow glass bottle in my small collection suddenly reminded me of the largish tube I have of the so-called “brown pink” watercolor paint by Sennelier. I know that this paint, despite its storied history as a favorite of the likes of John Singer Sargent, is controversial due to its suspected or proven problems with lightfastness. I have not tested it but I did want to use it for this watercolor as I suspected that the “brown pink” shade would come close to matching the yellow-green tint of the glass bottle, and I was right.
As you can see, I do have a lot of the brown pink paint (which says right on the tube “N.R.”, meaning “not rated” (for lightfastness) and, fortunately, I discovered that I like its effects on paper very much.
Today’s experts on watercolor paints would probably advise against using it at all, but certainly for art you are not selling–and art you are doing in the privacy of your own home!–it must be ok. (The reason experts advise against using such “fugitive” paints is that they have a reputation for not holding their color under prolonged exposure to light. Introducing paintings into the art market using fugitive paints tends to compromise the ability of other watercolor artists, who don’t use fugitive paints, to get the best prices for their art work, according to these arguments.)
Following some sketching to get a bit more confident drawing the bottles, I turned to the larger sheet of watercolor paper, taped to a strong board. I used a bit of masking fluid to hold some small spaces white on the bottles, and also used some drafting tape to cover up the surface of the drafting table depicted in the drawing.
Toward the end of the day, my painting looked like this (photo below). The project held my attention as I am not accustomed to trying to achieve the transparency of glass in watercolor. The bottles also have some decorative effects which I tried partially to capture. I will keep the bottles handy to practice more transparent watercolor painting–perhaps even fugitively, with my one or two of my favorite fugitive watercolors.
On what seemed likely to be the last unseasonably warm day of the year, it was great late last week to have some time to get out and sketch along the banks of the Potomac River not far from the nation’s capital. With barely a cloud in the sky, temperatures hovered around 70 degrees–T-shirt weather barely a month before winter’s official start. The scene was placid without even a ripple breaking the surface of the water along the docks of the marina where I chose to sit–something to appreciate for as long as it lasted.
Unseasonably warm weather and bright light this weekend added to the joys of walking through the fall colors wherever we were. People strolled in the streets everywhere including in this neighborhood of Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, where the scene (below) in the private garden attached to a historic mansion demanded to be painted.
At every turn in this colonial-era town not far from Washington, D.C., it was impossible to ignore the symbols of our rich history as a still great, if troubled, nation. And it was impossible to forget that this very week, we will be facing a most consequential election .
And yet, when literally everything is on the ballot, the path ahead couldn’t be more clear. As one young voter wrote in an opinion piece today, this moment “can be a moment of all those who hope for a better future, who believe in American leadership and who know that our best days are still ahead.” Clearly, current and future generations here and abroad depend on us to engage constructively, and not cynically, with this moment, and thereafter to engage similarly with the process of governing. There is no other path ahead.
Inspired by the outstanding exhibition now on at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. featuring the ink sketches, watercolors, and oil paintings of French 18th century painter, Hubert Robert (22 May 1733 – 15 April 1808), I’ve gone back to experimenting with waterproof inks and watercolor more intensively than ever (as per examples included at the very bottom of this post.)
Hubert Robert’s fantastically detailed watercolors (including use of gouache) are astounding. Accompanying placards in this exhibition note that such watercolors tended in those days to be sketches done for more finished oil paintings. In Robert’s case, however, the watercolors often were at least as detailed as the oil paintings he later produced based upon them. (Modern urban sketchers will appreciate the fact that Robert filled dozens of sketchbooks (I’ve forgotten the exact number) and one of them is on display in this exhibition; every page, front and back, is filled with wonderful ink sketches done in a deft but loose style.)
In another innovative departure from the times, Robert inserted human figures in many of his paintings–to help give a sense of scale to the structures–and adapted the fantastical “capriccio” style (or painted architectural fantasy) for his technique of juxtaposing paintings of ruins with other statues or bridges not actually co-located with the ruins in real life. In addition, he included more modern scenes, including those of contemporary laborers, artists and sketchers, and occasionally probably even himself, at work in the ruins.
Robert grew up in the midst of formal world-class art instruction from an early age, and it certainly shows. During the French Revolution, when he was thrown in prison due to his professional associations with his aristocratic clients, he managed to keep painting (and also managed to survive the ordeal); one of his dinner plates from prison is in this exhibition, with the surface painted with an ornate landscape. In addition, his paintings provide a visual record of life in the prisons during the Reign of Terror; the exhibition includes his paintings of a prison warden, a member of the aristocracy in his cell, and families entering the prison to bring their relatives food. Seeing paintings from this horrific time cannot help but remind one of the power of art, and wonder how much power still remains untapped in our modern times.
In addition, seeing such sublime art might make one want to throw in the towel, or the paintbrush, as it were. But it’s just as likely to make you want to learn more…and more…
Even if most of us can never achieve a tiny fraction of such mastery, it is still wonderful to experiment with the elements of such imaginative painting as Robert’s, and envision the possibilities down the road.