Innovation, Risk, Surprise, Uncategorized, Watercolor Painting

A Brown Pink Bottle in a Window

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.

Colored bottles in a window photo

Illustration: Photo of colored bottles in a window

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.Canson watercolor sketchbook

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.

Brown pink paint

Brown pink watercolor paint

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.

Bottles in a Window

Illustration: Watercolor, gouache, and pen and ink, “Brown Pink Bottle Et.Al.”,  by Black Elephant Blog author on 9.1″x12.2″ L’Aquarelle Canson Heritage hot press paper (April 2017)

Innovation, Risk, Uncertainty, urban sketching

Learning from the Masters cont’d- “S” for Sargent and Signac


Illustration: Watercolor, pencil and charcoal copy (approximately 9 x 12 on the new Canson Heritage Aquarelle hot press paper) by Black Elephant Blog author of Paul Signac’s watercolor (circa 1926?) of the town of Bourg-Saint-Andeol

In times of uncertainty, there’s no question that a hobby can be helpful! So amid the swirl of information which responsible citizens must keep on top of somehow (greatly taxing the “left brain”), it’s important to make time for that hobby.

It can be relaxing–I imagine sort of like those “zen-tangles”–to take on the task of trying to copy a painting by a master. The beauty of this approach is that you don’t need the perfect day weather-wise–you can try this almost anywhere.


Illustration: Watercolor copy (on a quarter sheet of Arches cold press) by Black Elephant Blog author after John Singer Sargent’s “Simplon Pass” (1911, oil on canvas) at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

To serve as my model will either be a photo I’ve taken of the original, as in the case of John Singer Sargent’s (1856-1925) “Simplon Pass” painting in oil, or simply a painting selected from an art book, as in the case of the Paul Signac watercolors I’ve found in a beautiful book, Paul Signac: A Collection of Watercolors and Drawings (Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers in association with the Arkansas Arts Center, 2000).

Signac (1863-1935), like Sargent his contemporary, is best known for his oil paintings, but I came across a couple of watercolors of his during a recent visit to the Barnes Collection in Philadelphia.Signac’s style, known as neo-impressionism, intrigued me as did his compositions, mostly of port scenes with lots of ships and masts. It seems he was an inveterate ‘urban


Illustration: Watercolor with charcoal copy (approximately 9×12 Canson Heritage Aquarelle hot press) by Black Elephant Blog author of Paul Signac’s “Still Life” (c. 1924 or 1918)

sketcher’ as so many of these watercolors clearly were done ‘live’, as it were, at the site.

One learns almost by osmosis about composition, color, and light effects when trying to copy the masters.  It is an elaborate and structured form of doodling as you don’t have to do as much planning but you can still relax and have fun.  There is more pressure when you are doing your own work, from start to finish.  Copying from anyone else, even the masters, is still just copying…–and  not something I want to do as a matter of anything other than as a learning exercise.  As all good teachers will tell you, it’s important to do your own original work, which means using your own photos, if you are using photos, or take the step to obtain permission from the owner of the photo you’d like


Illustration: Photo of book cover

to use.  But in the case of learning from the Masters, there’s nothing like copying to try to re-trace their thought processes and choices (really strategic decision-making!) in composing their works of art. In the end result, usually:   The destination  remains elusive for all but the rarest of artists but the journey’s worth taking, familiarizing me a bit more with individual works of art by the masters.

Risk, Surprise, Uncategorized, Uncertainty, urban sketching

Pictures at an Exhibition: From Sketches to Paintings

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.

San Miguel Draft 2

Illustration: Photo of painting in progress

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!

San Miguel watercolor

Illustration: Watercolor and pen-and-ink, “San Miguel de Allende (v1)” on Saunders Waterford paper by Black Elephant Blog author


Innovation, Risk, Surprise, Uncategorized, Uncertainty

Profiles in Watercolor

An out-of-print book, called Watercolor Solutions, by Charles Reid, is proving helpful in slowing down enough to grasp some important concepts related to watercolor painting! The book can be borrowed at a local library or you can pay about $50 for a used copy.  Reid is a highly respected watercolor artist and teacher who has an excellent way of explaining things; there are a couple of his lessons on YouTube.

In his book, he explains things as basic as how to hold, wet, and shake water off a brush. In addition, he explains how to mix colors on the palette and directly on the paper.  There are exercises in drawing profiles, portraits, and figures.   Reid recommends abandoning sketching, and to instead do contour drawings by keeping your pencil on the paper and doing one line (outline), stopping only to check on your location, but not lifting your pencil from the paper.

Here is one practice watercolor I did based on his instructions:

Portrait 1

Illustration: Watercolor and pencil sketch on Arches 140 1b CP paper by Black Elephant Blog author

and another based on Reid’s explanation on “Adjusting Values from Photos”.  This latter section inspired me to try my hand at practicing the values by trying to copy Reid’s own method of  painting of John Singer Sargent  at work painting.  What is fascinating in this section is his description of how to “lose edges.”  It means focusing exclusively on shadow shapes and not, for instance, where the edges of an umbrella or neckline or coat are; the purples below thus sort of run together, per Reid’s own painting example on p. 85 of the hardcopy of his book.

Portrait 2

Illustration: Copy after “John Singer Sargent” by Charles Reid in watercolor and white gouache with pencil underdrawing on Arches 140 lb CP paper by Black Elephant Blog author


From this experience so far, it is clear that there are good habits to work on developing, related to how much water is on the brush and how the colors are mixed and used.  Aside from all the lessons in the book, another challenge is not to ruin a library book with paint splatters.  Reid’s explanations are so helpful; it’s clear that complementing class instruction with a book like this is the way to go, at least for me (and maybe for some others!)


Innovation, Surprise, Uncategorized

Sketch Experiment with Bistre Ink

If you know about Rembrandt, you probably know about bistre ink. This ink was the go-to ink of the masters so when my bottle of it arrived in the mail all the way from Germany the other day–the same day I looked again at the John Singer Sargent oil paintings on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.–of course I had to test it out almost immediately. (The figure in my sketch, which I did first in pencil at the museum, is looking at the viewer–which is NOT what she is doing in the John Singer Sargent painting–there, she is looking away, as if ill or disconsolate.)

The ink is delightful, as I discovered when  combining a wash with using a pen and nib to try to recreate–inevitably way imperfectly but what is life without a challenge!–the feeling the Sargent created in his oil painting of “Repose”–reportedly done at a time when he viewed portraiture as a “pimp’s profession”–so this was his rebellion against formal portraiture.

Anyway, imagine traveling without all the acoutrement of a watercolor kit–just a bottle of this ink. The possibilities are really amazing!

Illustration:  Bistre ink wash and pen (Rohrers Ausziehrusche Bister) sketch of John Singer Sargent's oil painting known as "Repose" in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Illustration: Bistre ink wash and pen (Rohrer & Klingner “Rohrers Ausziehtusche Bister”) sketch of John Singer Sargent’s oil painting known as “Repose” in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. by Black Elephant Blog author