FROM FREDERIC WHITAKER’S BOOK WHITAKER ON WATERCOLOR

CHAPTER 14. A BRIEF HISTORY OF WATERCOLOR

 Transparent watercolor as we know it was developed in England toward the end of the eighteenth century.  The nearest approach to it before that time was a method of sketching in ink and tinting the drawing with watercolor.

In the eighteenth century, an English painter named Paul Sandby (1725-1809) worked out a technique of straight watercolor painting, without ink, which was carried on by Alexander Cozens (d. 1786) and his son John R. Cozens (1752-1797) and perfected by Thomas Girtin (1775-1802).

The new method was called aquarelle.  No opaque color was used, the lights being achieved by thinning the pigment with water.  This technique is the one generally followed throughout the British Commonwealth to this day.  American watercolor, until recently at least, has followed the British approach.  In other European countries, watercolor developed in a somewhat different manner.  In France, for instance, gouache  became the accepted form and relatively transparent work has been produced.

Sandby and his followers were the precursors of a talented British school, among whom Joseph M. W. Turner (1775-1851) was the leading lights.  His work demonstrated the full capacity of his medium.  He was an early student of Cozens’ painting and he worked with Girtin until the latter’s untimely death.  Turner’s early pictures were low in tone and gloomy, though forcible and convincing.  His best were his Venetian aquarelles, painted on the spot.  Occasionally he used gouache or pastel with the watercolor, or accented his work with pencil or pen.  He never revealed to anyone the secrets of his technique––a technique which, combined with his great artistic intellect, made him, in the opinion of many, the greatest watercolor landscapist the world has known.

In 1804 the Old Water Colour Society was founded.  It later became the Royal Society of Painters in Water Colour.  The Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colour was established in 1831.  These organizations have great impulse to the art.  Among the greatest watercolorists of the early school were Copely Fielding (d. 1855), Richard Bonington (d. 1828), John Cotman (d. 1842), Peter De Wint (d. 1849), Samuel Prout (d. 1852), David Cox, master of architectural painting (d. 1859), and J.F. Lewis (d. 1876), known for his Oriental genre paintings.

Bonington died at twenty-six, but he exerted a strong influence on early British watercolors and it is claimed that he was the first to show the French the possibilities of the medium.  While studying in Paris, he became friendly with Isabey and Delacroix, who was one of the first to sense the genius of the Englishman.  It is said that a painting by Bonington in a Paris window inspired Corot to take up painting.

In the 19th century, two great English painters of animals, Sir Edwin Landseer (d. 1873), and G.L. Taylor (d. 1873), achieved notable success in the field of aquarelle.  Other eminent British watercolorists of the period were George Cattermole (d. 1868), F. Walker (d. 1875), Sir John Gilbert (d. 1897) and the Pre-Raphaelites, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (d. 1882), Ford Madox Brown (d. 1893), Sir Edward Burne-Jones (d. 1898), W. Holman Hunt (d. 1910), and Sir John Everett Millais (d. 1896).  British aquarellists of the early 20th century included Alfred East, Sir. W. Russell Flint, Arthur Rackham, Arthur Wardle, Lamorna Birch, Frank Brangwyn, and Dame Laura Knight.

Watercolor reached its heights in France with the Oriental sketches of Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863).  Guillaume Descamps (1803-1860) was one of the best colorists and most original painters of the mid-century French school, and Gavarni (1804-1866) produced powerful genres that created a sensation even among the reserved Britishers.  Other outstanding exponents of watercolor in France were I. B. Isabey, J. B. L. Hubert, J. Ouvrie, Eugene Sué, Simeon Fort, and Pierre J. Redouté.  Redouté was considered the best painter of flowers in watercolor that France has produced.

The practice of watercolor painting spread over all the world during the 19th century, though never with such outstanding results as in the English- and French-speaking countries.  Today, of course, with our more closely knit world, the painting of watercolor is based firmly upon British method and outlook.  The practice of aquarelle was quickly translated to this country after its British inception and has been an important aspect of American art.  Thomas Cole, Asher Brown Durand, and other members of the 19th century Hudson River School executed gems of watercolor after the style of the best master.  Among the early great painters of the West, Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran were outstanding watercolorists.

Undoubtedly Winslow Homer has influenced American watercolor more than any other individual.  Great as has been his reputation in oil, many consider his watercolors his finest contribution to art.  Certainly they left an impress that, directly or indirectly, has influenced every American watercolorist since his time.

Homer was an early member of the American Watercolor Society, which will celebrate the centennial of its founding in 1966.  This organization was patterned after the Royal Water Colour Society and has been of inestimable value to American art.  Its purpose is to foster the advancement of watercolor painting, and it does this a variety of useful ways.

Many of the great names in American watercolor since the Civil War have been members of the American Watercolor Society.  Students should be familiar with the work of such men as Edwin A. Abbey, Frank W. Benson, E. H. Blashfield, Robert Blum, William Chase, Charles De Muth, Gordon Grant, Goerge (Pop) Hart, Childe Hassam, Winslow Homer, Theodore Kautzky, John La Fargé, Thomas Moran, J. Francis Murphy, Charles Parsons, Maurice Prendergast, Edward Penfield, H. W. Ranger, Chauncy Ryder, John Singer Sargent, Everett Shinn, R. M. Shurtleff, F. Hopkinson Smith, Louis C. Tiffany, J. Alden Weir, Irving R. Wiles, Alex H. Wyant, and James McNeill Whistler.

 

 MEXICAN MEMORIAL

18

FROM FREDERIC WHITAKER’S BOOK WHITAKER ON WATERCOLOR

CHAPTER 13. DO’S AND DON’TS OF EXHIBITING

Many painters, especially those in artistically isolated communities, would like to exhibit their work but don’t know how to go about it.  Others send their work to open exhibitions around the country, paying expensive entry fees, to say nothing of the costs of crating and shipping, only to have their paintings repeatedly rejected.  It is hoped that the suggestions in this section help both groups.

 

LOCAL ART SOCIETIES

One of the best ways to learn the ins and outs of exhibiting is to join a local art society.  You will be invited to participate in local exhibitions and will learn the routine of picture submission.  From fellow member you will also hear about other exhibitions to which you can submit.  If there is no existing art association in your neighborhood, organize one.  A very small group of artists will suffice for a start, and you can learn from each other.

 

OTHER EXHIBITIONS

Even if there is no local art group for you to join, you can always subscribe to one of the art magazines that carry a calendar of coming exhibitions through the country.  Choose the art shows that interest you and write for their explanatory prospectuses.

Some exhibitions are for the amateur, others for the regional professional, still others for nationally known artists.  You must decide for yourself or learn, perhaps by painful and expensive experience, which class you belong in.  If you are an amateur, you can save yourself disappointment and money by exhibiting only in that class until your work has really advanced.  The judgment of juries is much more severe than that of personal friends.  True, a beginner’s work is sometimes accepted in an important exhibition by happy accident, and many think theirs will be such a miracle picture, but the chance is very slight.

 

THINGS TO AVOID

The kind of picture you send and the way you present it is important in competitive exhibitions.  If you advertise your carelessness by submitting work in poor, jerry-built frames, with the backs falling out, you cannot reasonably expect your work to be taken seriously.  There are certain things that jurors seem instinctively and universally to dislike: outlandish frames, colored mats, “postcard blue” skies, superclever arrangements of any kind, illustrated jokes, thin wishy-washy effects, copies of other pictures, paintings palpably produced under a teacher’s coaching, propaganda in any form, and saccharine sentimentalism.  Of all qualities that arouse the resentment of art juries and critics, sugariness undoubtedly heads the list.  This suspicion of any subject matter that is inherently charming may be psychological, but it does constitute a real hurdle for the painter.  A very competent artist is needed to paint a non-saccharine picture of a naturally saccharine subject.  It can be done but it isn’t easy.

15    16

 

 

17

 

UNION SQUARE. The arrangement and sizes of the many figures in this scene were calculated as described on page 84.  Notice that, for interest only, a few of the figures have been treated as individual while the others are simply group details.  The architecture is broadly painted, with details merely suggested.  The pavement, made up of hexagonal tiles, was accurately and mechanically laid out under the rules of linear perspective and then substantially “lost” to provide an artistic appearance.  The sky, not at all naturalistic, is painted in gray and cream, with a mass of individual brush strokes.

 

MATTING AND FRAMING WATERCOLORS

Pictures are framed either for use in the home or for entry in competitive exhibitions.  A picture to be hung in the home is likely to be enclosed in a frame that not only suits the painting but also harmonizes with the decor of the room.  The frame is usually “correct,” neat and well-finished.

A painting for an art exhibition, on the other hand, must compete with perhaps hundreds of others in close packed arrangement.  The function of the frame is that of a foil to show off the painting itself.  If all entries were shown in assertive frames, the exhibition would be a riot; if only a few were submitted in gaudy frames, they would undoubtedly be hung in isolated and unfavorable spots.  Art exhibition frames will usually hang well in the home, but the reverse is not always true.  The following comments, therefore, refer primarily to framing pictures for exhibitions.

Most watercolors need a border of white, or near white, to set them off.  Very few aquarelles can stand close framing like oils.  Their character is less robust, so 1/2” to 5” mats are usually placed between the picture and the frame.  The 4” or 5” white mats with 1/2” or 3/4” frames that were popular for many years are now seldom seen in national exhibitions, though they are still popular in regional shows.  It is better to use 1 3/4” frames with such mats.

Many commercial art galleries prefer that watercolors be matted only, because frames take up too much rack space.  Most exhibiting societies now accept unframed watercolors mounted in white mats from distant artists.  The unframed, matted pictures are shown under sheets of glass.  For this purpose, substantial mats are required.  They should measure about 4” in width and, if made of thin mat board, should be backed with other boards for strength.

When attaching pictures to the backs of mats, avoid the use of masking tape or cellophane tape, for the holding power of either is of brief duration.  Don’t tape the pictures on all four edges or the paper will buckle when it expands due to humidity.  Fasten only at the top, with strong adhesive paper, and let the picture hang free, held in place by its backing.  This will allow for expansion and contraction.

A good backing for a substantial mat (to be used without a frame) can be made by cutting a piece of corrugated paperboard which is 1” less all around than the mat itself, and sticking it around the edges with gummed paper.  This combination will stand a good deal of handling.  If the mat becomes scuffed it can be repainted or retouched with white casein paint.

A duotone mat––white and gray––is an attractive and popular frame for a watercolor.  For a 22” x 30” painting use a white mat 1⅛” wide.  Outside that place a medium gray mat 3¼” wide, allowing an extra margin to go into the frame rabbet.  A simple wood frame, 2” wide, with a gray-brown finish, looks well with this.  These outside dimensions of both the white and gray mats can be the same.  Just cut the aperture in the gray mat 2¼” larger in length and width than the white one and cement that two together near the inside edge of the gray one. Both mats may be of regular mat board, but the best double mats are made with 3/16” wallboard for the inner mat and regular 1/16” mat board for the outer mat.  The mats and frames for smaller pictures can be reduced in width relatively.

The white inside-gray outside arrangement is good for paintings that are fairly strong in color.  For pictures that contain a great deal of white space, especially around the edges, reverse the patter, making the inner mat gray and the outer mat white.  Beware of colored mats.  They compete too forcefully with the picture and will almost certainly insure rejection by juries.

Now a word about frames.  For exhibition purposed, wormy chestnut, stained in various shades from gray to brown (depending on whether the picture needs a warm or cool toned frame) is extremely popular today.  Any other wood is acceptable if properly toned.  Remember that a wide frame should usually have a narrow mat, and a relatively narrow frame a wide mat.  Don’t combine a wide mat and a wide frame.

If color is used on the wood (as in carved and tinted frames) be sure it is muted and uninsistent.  The color on the frame should approximate at least one of the picture hues.  White, black, gray, or metallic gold (but not yellow) will harmonize with any color.

The width of the frame in relation to the mats, its color or warmth in relation to the picture colors, and the scale of the frame and mat in relation to the scale and key of the painting are the important factors to consider.  A delicate picture should not be shown in a bold frame nor a strong picture in a weak one.  The function of the frame is to show off the picture.  It must complement the picture, but not dominate it.

 

HOW TO MAKE MATS

The most serviceable mats are made of a 3/16” wallboard such as beaver board.  This is a pulpboard procurable from any lumber yard.  The standard size is 4’ x 8’, though there are other sizes.  Regular mat board of 1/8” or 1/16” thickness comes in 30” x 40” sheets.

Mat cutting requires a metal straightedge and a very sharp cutting tool.  Razor blades in patented handles will serve, but the blade’s flexibility can produce curved cuts if you are not careful.  I prefer either the Stanley or Speedy trimming knife, available in hardware, art supply, and stationery stores.  These have metal or plastic handles and double-edged removable blades, which are as sharp as razor blades but considerably thicker.  The straightedge must be of metal; otherwise the knife will cut slices from it.  The card should be cut on a firm flat surface, hard enough to permit the cutting of a clean edge and soft enough not to dull the knife point.  To protect your table, you can place a loose strip of cardboard under the mat being cut.

Now for the cutting.  First cut the board to fit the outside dimensions desired.  You are now ready to cut the inner edges.  This is the operation that troubles most mat makers, for the cuts must be beveled, and they must be clean and even.  Remember that the pebbled surface is the face of the board and the smooth surface is the back.  With a pencil, mark lightly the board and the desired aperture, allowing 3/8” or 1/2” on each of the four sides to cover the edge of the painting.  Next lay the metal straightedge on the board about 1/16” outside the pencil lines.  Hold it firmly in place with the left hand, then take the trimming knife in the right hand and draw it lightly along the metal straightedge, from one corner of the pencilled rectangle to the other.  Slant the blade at a sixty degree angle so that, when the bevel is finished, the inside edge will be directly under the original pencil line.  Do not press the knife too hard, especially on the first two or three draws, or you may force the straightedge out of place and cut a wavy line. When the incision has been definitely established, you may discard the straightedge and, holding the card so the knife may be drawn toward you, finish the cutting with a number of fairly light strokes.  This will leave a perfect bevel with clean edged front and back.  Repeat the process on the other three sides.  Be sure that the incisions extend well into the corners, for these points have a tendency to hold and cause a ragged effect.  Change the blades when they begin to drag.  It is impossible to cut a good mat with anything less than a very sharp blade.  If by chance the back edge of the bevel is fuzzy, smooth it with sandpaper on a small wooden block.  With practice, you can cut good mats very quickly.

Most wallboards are gray or cream colored, so they must be painted.  Use a brush or sprayer and a commercial casein paint which comes in quart cans.  You can set it in either warm or cold white.  It mixes with water but, once dry, is no longer soluble.  I prefer to use two coats, both quite thin.  The first simply seals the pores of the board and the second provides the opacity.  The second coat can be applied an hour or two after the first, but the second should stand a day or two until all moisture has evaporated.  For thinner mats than wallboard, no painting is required.

 

GLASS REFLECTIONS

Some people dislike the idea of watercolors frames under glass because the glass picks up reflections.  They wonder why pictures can’t be shown without glass or with a non-reflecting glass.

I am against the use of non-reflecting glass because it takes all the life out of a painting and makes it resemble a print.  Many artists have tried it, but all I have known rejected it later.  Watercolor needs the brilliance of glass to give sparkle and density to the colors.  Any objectionable reflection can usually be overcome by changing the pitch of the picture in relation to the wall.

As for exhibiting a good watercolor for any great length of time without glass protection, I feel it borders on desecration.  The picture will eventually become filthy, and it cannot be restored.  Watercolors cannot be cleaned like oils.

 

KEEP A RECORD OF YOUR PAINTINGS

Once you start exhibiting your work, you will need a simple system for recording the whereabouts of your paintings.  It can save you the embarrassment, for instance, of sending the same picture twice to the same society.  It may also save a number of pictures, for those unrecorded have a disturbing tendency to become lost.

Standard 5” x 8” ruled file cards are excellent for the purpose.  Figure 57 shows my system.  Each card contains the title of one painting, a brief description of it for identification, whither and when it was sent, the price quoted, when it was returned, and its final disposition.  Cards are filed in alphabetical order.

For my own convenience I also use three standard correspondence filing folders marked, respectively, “Coming Exhibitions,” “Pictures on Exhibit,” and “Returned from Exhibitions.”  These hold prospectuses of exhibits.  I receive many such prospectuses each year.  When one arrives I underline on it the date for picture delivery, write that and the name of the society in a one-line memo on the front of the “Coming Exhibitions” folder, and drop the prospectus in the folder.  As pictures are delivered to exhibitions, the memos are crossed out, and the names and prices of the pictures sent are noted on the prospectus, which is transferred to the “Pictures on Exhibit” folder.  At the appropriate time, the prospectus is transferred to the “Returned” folder.  This system gives me a complete record of the picture’s history, its present location, expected date of return, and actual date of return.

 

 

FROM FREDERIC WHITAKER’S BOOK WHITAKER ON WATERCOLOR

CHAPTER 12. THOUGHTS ON PAINTING

 Painting is not a purely technical matter.  It is not enough to paint a likeness of an object, or a scene, or a person.  A camera. After all, might do as good a job or better.  The purpose of painting is to create a work of art.  In the beginning, of course, it is unlikely that many––or perhaps any––of one’s works will qualify, but that is the goal.  In the following pages, we discuss some aspects of the creative side of painting.

 

ORIGINALITY

Originality is a personal way of seeing things.  It may be apparent in the choice of subject, a method or approach, a viewpoint, a handling of color, a style of painting, or in some other way.

Originality may stem from a lack of knowledge or experience, an innocent eye as evidenced in the work of children: from a visionary or rhapsodic nature that feels rather than calculates; or from analytical thought.  Most of the great masters in all the arts, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Beethoven, and Wagner among them, possessed minds of great calculative ability, but there have also been a number of great ones in the second category, the visionaries who worked more by instinct.  Van Gogh, Modigliani, and Chopin, for example.

We are not children, so we cannot honestly paint as primitives.  We need not think too much about being original, but we should study ourselves and look inside for inspiration.  If we do our own thinking, ignore what others would make us accept, and ignore also the inevitable criticism of our fellows, then originality may automatically reveal itself in our paintings.  Artists, like writers, tell as much about themselves in their work as about their subjects.

There is no evidence to show that those who are most original ever said to themselves, “Now I’ll be original.”  They never thought about originality.  They just thought, and the results of their thinking were original because they themselves were different and they had the courage to say what they felt.  Let me repeat, one cannot be original unless he has something of his own to say and the fortitude to say it.  Real originality cannot be contrived.

 

EXPERIMENTATION

We should experiment continually.  When we stop inquiring into new ways of seeing or doing, we are figuratively dead.

In testing new methods, however, no great change is required at any one step.  It isn’t necessary to develop an entirely new style every week.  Change must be gradual––evolution, no revolution!  Begin, perhaps by using brushes of a different size and shape, or work with smooth paper instead of rough.  Try casein and aquarelle in the same painting.  Alternate pictures made with broad loose washes with tightly detailed work.  Many compositions may emerge as failures, but there should be progress in the long run.

 

VARIETY IN SUBJECT MATTER

We are all inclined to see only that which we want to see.  If we like a certain type of subject, we will pass by other potentially interesting material without even seeing it and select repeatedly the kind of subjects that compose most easily for us.  Many artists are painting today the same scenes that they were painting twenty years ago, and they are painting them in the same way.  True, this adherence to “signature” is often demanded by sales agents, for many buyers will purchase only the kind of compositions that have given prominence to a painter.  The practice may be profitable, but it is certainly fatal to artistic progress.

The habit of following the same scale pattern regularly should also be broke.  If we tend to work always from a panorama viewpoint, we should occasionally shift to a close-up.  Sometimes a house or other object that might be uninteresting in its entirety provides a successful composition when only a section or an attractive detail is featured.  Impressive pictures have been painted from nothing more than an old wooden door.  On the other hand, a panoramic view of a whole city may also be successful.  The combinations of objects, large or small, impressive or common, many or few, that can make a good picture are limitless.

One good way to avoid getting in a rut regarding subject matter is to sketch outdoors regularly with other artists, allowing them to choose the subjects.  At first you may see nothing desirable in the scenes chosen, but look for the quality that attracted your fellow brush-wielders.  This can open up whole new classes of picture material that might otherwise escape you.  Often I have been amazed at the fine compositions extracted from material that to me seemed completely devoid of appeal.

 

POSITIVE AND NEGATIVE APPROACHES

Some artists claim they are able to compose a complete picture mentally before touching pencil or brush to paper, and that they can paint such pictures without hesitation and without trial sketches.  That might be called the positive approach.

I must confess that I, for one, cannot duplicate such a performance and I doubt that many could.  Mine is a more negative system.  It might be called “correctional.”  Its point is to get something down on paper, then see what that calls for in the way of development or correction.  I do have a general idea of what I want to do in advance, but I find that the composition on paper usually differs from the one imagined.  Although I usually start with a very small sketch, as mentioned before, sometimes I work out the pattern in full size as the picture progresses.  Once the main interest has been set down, experience permits one to proceed quickly, choosing and adding other features so easily an observer might believe the whole design to be preconceived. 

Getting something on the paper is important.  A visible pattern is much easier to evaluate than a mental image, and it can help in two ways.  You can see promptly those things that are good and retain them.  Those that are not good will often suggest their own remedy.

Mrs. Whitaker (the Eileen Monaghan whose paintings are reproduced on page 73) follows a kind of probing routine.  Often an idea comes to her with an irresistible urge to get to work and develop it.  Dropping everything, she concentrates and paints for many hours, adding and subtracting, brushing in and swabbing out until she is satisfied that the pattern is completely established.  Then, and not until then, does she rest, for she finds that the inspiration subsides and the picture languishes if she relaxes earlier.  Completion of the picture is almost a routine matter than can be taken up when convenient.

There is a good lesson in this, incidentally.  When inspiration strikes, don’t ignore it.  Make as complete a record of it as possible.  If time is limited, write out a memo at least.

 

COPYING THE WORK OF OTHERS

At one time it was common practice to copy the work of others as an aid to learning to paint.  The idea is now widely frowned on.  However, there is no legitimate reason why we should not imitate our betters.  Whether we like to admit it or not, there is no such thing as completely creative thought or production.  All new thoughts and new accomplishments stem in some way from earlier happenings.  The more we know of the past the better we are able to contribute to the future.

In the old days, art was taught by the master to the pupil through enforced imitation.  The apprentices became facsimile copies of the leader.  Together they formed a school.  Later these apprentices, after absorbing ideas from widely varying sources, became creators of schools of their own.  Regardless of the imagined disadvantage of direct copying, no one can deny that in actual development of real artists, the apprentice system produced more and better results than our present scholastic system.  It is a long time since we have had a Leonardo, a Michelangelo, and a Raphael producing at one time.

If a student wishes to copy the work of a master for practice, he may learn in a few minutes the reasons for procedures that it might require months to learn by fumbling and guessing.  But when he has learned all his instructor has to offer, he should seek elsewhere for inspiration.  To be a slave to any one idol can become dangerous.  An artist should absorb the best of everything he sees.

 

PAINTING FROM PHOTOGRAPHS

Some artists have an idea that it is unethical to paint watercolors from photographs.  However, a photograph represents nothing more than a record of an actual scene.  If the artist exercises the same care in composing his painting from a photo that he would have used if painting from the subject itself, the finished painting should be equally acceptable.  If you wish to save time by working from photos, you are certainly justified in so doing, at least occasionally.  But you should not copy the photo any more than you would copy the original scene.  Both should be used only as a basis for the painting.  The painting “Village Fountain” was based on a photograph (Figure 56).

 

EYE VERSUS CAMERA

Few of us realize how our eyes interpret a scene.  We do not see it as a camera does.  A camera stares in one direction and records each picture detail according to the amount of light playing upon it.  But looking at the same scene we see hundreds of individual “shots.”  We may look first at one detail, then gaze about, our eyes looking from spot to spot, until we have covered the entire expanse.  We can see sharply only that spot upon which both eyes are focused––and that area is a very small one.  Things seen out of the corner of the eye are quite vague.  Hence the necessity for a roving eye.

The shutter of our eye (the iris) expands and contracts according to the amount of light it must accommodate, and it responds so easily and quickly as our gaze flits from lighted to shaded areas that we ourselves do not even realize it is operating.  As it changes we are able to see detail in a cellar as clearly as in a sunlit field, though the former may have only one one-hundredth the illumination of the latter.  So, as our gaze moves about the landscape, we see all details, light and dark, with equal clarity, not relatively as the camera does and as we must do when we paint a picture.  Seeing in the manner described, we are prone to paint all details in the same key.

A picture cannot be painted as a combination of a hundred glances.  It must be painted as a whole, with each area properly related to all other areas.

Because of the visual faculty described, one may see as very important a detail that is actually inconsequential when related to the whole scene.

The essence of sunlight, from a pictorial viewpoint, is contrast––strong contrast between the lights and the shadows.  In painting, one can include in both light and shadow all the detail he desires, but he must remember that detail added to the light region makes it darker, while detail inserted in the dark shadow tends to lighten it, so the degree of contrast is reduced.  The more detail, the less sunny brilliance, so one must use the mind as well as the eye to strike a satisfactory compromise.

14

FROM FREDERIC WHITAKER’S BOOK WHITAKER ON WATERCOLOR

CHAPTER 11. ADVANCED TECHNICAL INSTRUCTION

When one is learning a new skill, there are many problems that seem not to exist at all until a certain amount of experience has been acquired.  Then suddenly, after the basic technique is under control, there is likely to be a dreadful awareness of how little one knows.

In the following pages I have tried to cover some of the many and varied problems that continue to plague printers even after they have turned out a number of acceptable watercolors.  Overcoming some of these problems may mean the difference between passable and successful paintings.

 

WORK FROM STRUCTURE TO DETAIL

The big masses or units must be laid out first.  These are then divided into smaller parts and subdivided into still smaller portions.  Finally come the details.  In actual work, the painting of masses is easier for the oil painter than the aquarellist.  The former can brush them in simply and directly, while the watercolorist must be more cautious because he can’t paint light over dark.

It is essential cover all parts of the paper with color (with the possible exception of sky) at the very start.  Until the picture can be seen as a whole (if only roughly), it cannot be evaluated and it is unwise to proceed to the second painting stage before the structural foundation is solid.

In applying the color, ignore the details, including minor light or white spots.  Paint right over them if necessary.  They can be lifted out later.  As experience grows, you will learn to make allowances for them.  Keep the color washes reasonably light, so they can be changed if necessary and so lights can be mopped out.  Light washes are much more easily lifted than dark ones.  The whole picture can be assessed as easily in a light key as in a dark key, but one must have the whole color plan on paper before it can be judged at all.

When the large masses are correctly arranged, divide them into smaller ones and finish the painting, but take care that the work on the smaller units does not destroy the identity of the larger ones.  This rule must be followed no matter how much you subdivide.  An experienced artist may cut many corners, carrying a good part of the painting conception in his mind.  He may be less methodical, planning less on paper, even finishing whole sections of a picture before starting others.  But until one has developed such ability it is better to follow a step-by-step procedure.

 

DON’T BE AFRAID TO LOSE THE DRAWING

Paintings are not colored drawings.  A painting must be executed in masses of color, not in line.  The preliminary pencil drawing should accurately show the placement of the various parts and their general shape, but not the fine detail.  One must assume that the pencil lines will be lost once the color application begins.  Whatever detail is to be depicted can be added after the large areas of color have been satisfactorily established.  It can be drawn in, correctly but not stiffly, with a fine brush, using a very thin and sketchy line.  The advantage of drawing with paint is that after a wash of water or color is added, or the color areas are manipulated a bit, the lines merge with the general color, leaving a delightful suggestion of detail but without hard delineation.

 

THREE-VALUE SYSTEM

In nature there are innumerable values of light and dark.  The beginner often assumes that he should try to reproduce all of them, but the reverse is true.  Simplification––elimination of the superfluous––is one of the foundations of great art.

Virtually anything can be reproduced realistically and acceptably on paper or canvas with only three values: a light, a medium, and a dark.  Many teachers have built their instruction methods around a three-value system which is applied not only to objects within a picture, but to the composition as a whole.  The system works out well, but since most pictures have many colors, and thus make the judging of values difficult, it may be more easily comprehensible if you simply apply the three-value rule to each component of your picture as you paint it.  The net over-all result will closely approximate the three-value ideal.

The medium value might be called the local color of the object painted.  Theoretically, you should begin by painting that value, later adding the highlights and the darks.  However, in transparent watercolor, where it is necessary to work from light to dark, you may want to start with the light value.  Of course it is possible, even in watercolor, to apply the medium value first, mopping out the highlights with a thirsty brush, a cloth, or a sponge while the color is still wet.

The paintings of the torsos (Figure 52) show how a limited number of values can describe an object three-dimensionally.  To make the appearance more interesting, edges may be softened and an accent added here or there, but basically there are only three values.

 

RANGE OF VALUE

Pictures painted in full chiaroscuro should have a spread of value from virtual white to black, and paintings in lower key should range between a relatively bright light and a dark.  Even one definite light or dark touch will add life to a composition.  The strongest light and the strongest dark should be near the center of interest.  Don’t place strong lights or darks near the corners or edges.

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THE IMPORTANCE OF EDGES

Examine closely the paintings of old masters and you will notice in many that while certain areas are executed in virtually flat color and value, the edges of those areas, especially the shadows, show infinite variety, ranging all the way from soft and indefinite to hard and crisp as they lose and find themselves, sharply separating two areas here and softly merging them there.  Unless you are painting a poster, edges should not be too clear-cut.  They can be shown quite strong and contrasty around the more important parts of the picture with soft transitions in the minor divisions.

 

PAINT THE SKY FIRST OR LAST?

The majority of watercolor landscape artists paint skies first.  The sky is generally lighter than the earth and, in theory at least, it can be difficult to paint the lighter area around or over the darker parts.  Personally, however, I find it more satisfactory to leave the sky until the last unless I know at the start exactly the kind and intensity of sky needed.  Often one is not sure of that point in advance.

Naturally, the sky and the earth must be calculated and painted to complement each other.  You cannot arbitrarily insert any sky that appeals to your fancy nor reproduce the one apparent at the moment simply because it is there.  The upper and lower parts of the picture must harmonize and must respectively contribute whatever is needed to bring the whole picture into balance.

It is easier to key the sky to the landscape than the reverse, for often the sky calls for little more than a simple wash effect, while the landscape proper can be relatively complicated.  If you wonder how it is possible to paint a sky down to the trees and housetops without showing a hard division or without loosening the pigment already applied, the answer is that if a picture is loosely painted it doesn’t matter if the earth-sky line is irregular.  If a smooth effect is wanted, the sky wash may be extended over a part of the already painted earth without harm, provided it is done with a single swish of a large brush, which is lightly and loosely applied, then left alone to dry.  Don’t try a second stroke in the same place, for it will surely dislodge the underlying pigment––but you are allowed one try.  Any change in the landscape painting which may result can easily be corrected after the sky color is thoroughly dry.

 

THIN WATERCOLORS

Unless one is experienced, he is likely to paint thin watercolors.  In the first place, watercolor pigment always becomes lighter as it dries.  A few minutes practice matching dried color samples with liquid watercolor will show how much extra pigment must be applied to get the dry effect required.  Second, colors in nature seem to appear lighter than they are.  Usually the true depth of color of any area can be ascertained only by comparing it with a lighter area, such as the sky.  The experienced painter learns to make allowances for these illusions.

Transparency in watercolor is certainly desirable, but a landscape should resemble earth first and pigment second.  There is nothing transparent about the earth.  A picture of it should suggest substance.  From time to time, under different weather conditions, squint at the horizon and you will see that the earth is virtually always darker than the sky, even when the sky may be said to be “black.”  The sky is usually the source of light, whatever the quality of the day, and only under unusual conditions can anything on land be lighter than that.

Naturally, a sunlit field of green grass and brown earth appear light in color.  Yet it is astonishing how a dark green can be used for sunlit grass.  Painted sunlight depends not upon lightness of color, but upon the strong contrast between lights and shadows.  The shadows may have to be painted very dark.

 

LOOSENESS IN WATERCOLOR PAINTING

Looseness, or a suggestion of fluidity, is the principal charm of watercolor painting and the quality that distinguishes is from other mediums.  Looseness is achieved by apparent carelessness, by using the largest brushes the occasion will permit to administer fluid pigment directly, leaving it to dry in “accidental” poolings without further meddling.  Precise outlines, delineation, and fussy brushing are avoided.  Sometimes one passage at a time is built up and completely finished while still moist, then left alone to dry.

There is, however, another side to this matter.  Many pictures are spoiled because the painter confuses sloppiness or looseness of planning with looseness of brushing.  A fixation on loose painting can prevent one from learning to organize his work.  Let me emphasize that looseness in watercolor applies only to the application of color.  Rules of composition remain unchanged.  Though the expert may handle his medium freely, underneath his apparently unstudied movements there is a very definite pattern of which he never loses sight.

Before you can paint loosely, you must know how to plan tightly.  This planning can best be done in a very small sketch.  Littleness dictates simplification, and the pattern can be sharply defined like a poster.  The more the artist intends to lose himself in unrestricted brushing, the more valuable the sharp pattern will be.  Only when you know the fundamentals are you able to improvise.

 

TEXTURE

Many kinds of textures are encountered in nature, and reproducing them on paper is an important part of watercolor technique.  In addition to their usefulness in representing the surface or “feel” of objects pictured, textures are valuable in adding variety to a picture, for we don’t want all surfaces alike.

There are textures of things and textures of painting.  There are the foamy wetness of ocean waves, the rounded smoothness of pebbles on the beach, the dried out grain of an old wood plank.  Peeling paint, polished silver, mossy rocks, ragged tree bark, old brick walls, a kitten’s fur––these are only a few of the hundreds of textures that one may wish to represent.

Only practice can experience can tell you how to achieve all the effects you will want, but sometimes they may be easier than you expect.  Waves sparkling in the sunlight, for instance, can be suggested with horizontal strokes of a half-dry brush that leave the white grain of the paper exposed.  To simulate wood grain perfectly, use a wide flat brush lightly charged with color and drag it unevenly along the paper.  On the other hand, the reproduction of the inherent texture of some things, such as an ancient shingled roof or a wet, slick mud flat, may demand more careful analysis and may require serious painting and color modeling.

Textural effects of the paint itself can also add a great deal of variety and interest to a painting.  This kind of texture can be achieved in a score of ways.  Among the most common are drybrushing in various directions, smudging, spattering, scraping with a knife or using a razor blade broadside, or dabbing with a crumpled cloth or tissue.

Unusual textures can also be achieved by taking advantage of the sedimentary colors which have a tendency to granulate or settle.  They create a pebbled effect somewhat like morocco leather when washed onto rough paper because the surface depressions encourage the minute pigment particles to collect.

Cerulean Blue, Cobalt Violet, and most of the earth colors are very good for this purpose.  Mixtures of sedimentary colors, such as Cerulean Blue with Umber or Indian Red often create a more definite pebbled pattern than any one color alone.  Experiment will show you which are most suitable for any particular effect.  You can help the granulation process by flooding the colors or mixtures over the desired areas and tilting the paper in different directions so the color can run first one way and then another before settling down to dry.

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LUMINOUS SHADOWS

The lugubrious shadows often seen in watercolors are usually painted with a flat gray or near gray color, and the shadow color bears no relation to the sunlit color.  One will see, for instance, a yellow house with its shadow side a cold gray when it should be a yellowish gray.  This flatness and lack of color makes the shadow appear lifeless.

Any shadow, no matter how dark, can be made to look luminous by adding a few bold strokes of an even darker shade to it, especially on its borders, leaving most of the original shadow untouched.  The combination of lighter and darker values within the shadow suggest detail to the observer, hence a degree of luminosity.  The painting “In the Shadow of the Hills” on page 152 includes an interesting example of this.  Although the shadow on the end of the foremost house was painted with exceptionally heavy color, it is quite transparent because of the even heavier accents it contains.  A dash of local color flooded into the moist shadow color and allowed to dry in accidental formation can also be helpful.  See A and B, Figure 53.

 

PULLING A PICTURE TOGETHER

A successful picture may include imperfect drawing and unrealistic colors, but unless the values of the color masses are right it will lack repose, a prime essential for any satisfying naturalistic picture.  Repose in a picture means that each part stays in its appointed place.  The important features attract the eye; subordinate factors remain subordinate; distant things stay in the distance; water lies flat, and so forth.  The antithesis of repose is “jumpiness.”  One cannot tolerate a “jumpy” picture.

Picture A, Figure 54, represents a beginner’s painting.  Each detail by itself is satisfactorily indicated, but the masses neither hold together individually nor separate themselves from each other.  The values are not correctly related so the picture has no coherence.  Its instability would soon irritate a constant viewer.

Picture B, Figure 54, shows the same scene after being “pulled together.”  Notice that by darkening and unifying the ends of the two houses and by reducing the sharpness of detail in the sunlit spaces, a pleasing pattern has been created, giving the picture a third dimension and producing over-all repose.  Each part now assumes its proper position in the picture.  The figures come forward, the tree recedes and is no longer confused with the clouds and the chimney, and the dormer becomes a recognizable architectural unit.  Notice also that detail is easily seen in the shaded as well as the lighted areas, but in neither case are the details so prominent that they upset their respective color masses.  Despite its division into detail, each color mass, light or dark, is still identifiable as a unit.

The cohesion and repose shown in this painting were achieved by working on each mass individually.  In a light area this means the lightening of any lines or strokes that are so dark as the stand out unduly; in a dark area, it means the darkening of passages whose lightness is too noticeable.  In watercolor, an already painted mass can often be pulled together by simply flooding a wash over it, details and all.  If the are is light, clear water may be enough.  The colors will run together slightly, making the darker details lighter and the light parts a trifle darker, thus reducing the contrast within the mass and making it a unit.  For dark masses, a wash of warm gray shadow color might be used to attain the same end.  

I have stressed the pulling together of masses, but of course the picture as a whole must also be pulled together.  This is achieved by strengthening or subduing individual masses that are out of line, by giving areas warmer or cooler tones if needed, or by using a brighter or weaker color here and there.  When each of the color masses is perfectly adjusted, they will all assume their intended places and the picture will have reposed.

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TO MAKE THE DISTANCE RECEDE

In a picture that shows great depth of distance, it is important not only to make the distance recede, but also to be sure that the distance remains distant, that is, does not appear too lively or prominent.  This is accomplished, of course, by appropriate use of linear perspective, atmospheric perspective and the perspective of detail, but there are several little tricks that may also help.

Think of the landscape as a series of painted theatrical set pieces placed one behind the other.  Register them in your picture in successively lower keys as they recede.  Get a feeling of space between them.  

Contrast light areas against dark ones or dark areas against light ones to separate them and suggest spaces between them.

Use figures or objects of known size, such as houses, in diminishing sizes to show increased distance from the observer.

Place something across the horizon in the foreground or middle ground to make the horizon appear distant.

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TIPS ON FINISHING A PICTURE

If you have gone as far as you feel you can with a picture and it still seems lifeless, check it against this list of faults which are typical of most watercolorists’ early work.

  1. Colors too thin.
  2. Landscape not dark enough in relation to the sky.
  3. Insufficient contrast between lights and shadows.
  4. Edges too sharp.
  5. Shadows dead, without luminosity.
  6. Masses don’t hold together.
  7. Distant areas too lively.

The cures for most of these shortcomings are discussed in the preceding pages.  Reread those that apply and try to figure out where you have gone astray.  One or two minor changes may make a great difference in the finished painting.

 

TO TAKE THE BULGE OUT OF PAPER

When a watercolor is finished, the paper is often buckled.  To remove the undulations, moisten the back of the picture until it is thoroughly limp, being careful that the water doesn’t creep around to the painted side.  When the moisture has dried enough so that the paper is fairly dry to the touch but still flaccid, place the picture under heavy pressure and leave it until thoroughly dry.  This may take several days.  The paper will emerge completely flattened.

I paint on 400 lb. A.W.S. Paper.  Because of its thickness and strength it takes a good deal of wetting and a long time to dry.  To soak it I place it face down on a carton somewhat smaller than the paper.  When wet, the edges curl downward and shed all surplus water, leaving the painted side dry.  To press it, I place the limp painting between corrugated paper boards (which allow aeration) and lay them on the floor.  A specially made 24 x 32 inch board with two handles is placed over them with several gallon bottles of water on top of the board for weight.  I can flatten five or six pictures at one time this way.

Buckled paintings can also be flattened by stretching.  Lay the painting face down on the board, moisten the back, and after waiting a while to allow the paper to expand, seal the edges to the board with gummed paper or wide masking tape.  When the paper is thoroughly dry and taut, cut it from the board or peel off the masking tape.  If gummed paper has been used, it will be necessary to leave the strip adhering to the back of the picture.

In stretching paper to flatten a finished work, one need not be as thorough as when stretching it for painting.  The paper need not be so thoroughly soaked (usually a light moistening is enough) and, since the contraction will then be less, the sealing tape need not be as strong or heavy.  The larger the paper, the thicker the paper, or the greater amount of soaking, the greater will be the pull as the paper contracts in drying.  One should experiment, therefore, to see just how strong a sealing tape is needed for a given job.  Small thin papers can be stretch-flattened with a masking tape sealed edge, but the larger or thicker papers will call for heavy gummed paper sealing.

 

ARTISTS’ COLORS––HOW LONG WILL THEY LAST?

Many artists assume that all colors made by reputable houses or colors that are “expensive” are consequently permanent.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  None of the leading manufacturers claim that all their colors are fast.  Some of our most exquisite and most easily manipulated hues are of a fugitive nature.  It is not necessary that all colors be permanent.  For certain purposes––painting for commercial reproduction, for instance––color of temporary durability are quite acceptable.

The permanency of colors has relatively little to do with their manufacturing source.  There is no great secret to the making of standard paints and most manufacturers follow the same procedures.  Artists’ paints, for the most part, are little more than raw dry color well mixed with a binder, such as gum arabic for watercolor, a casein glue for casein paints, and an oil mixture for oil colors.  Naturally, there are different degrees of excellence in the materials used and of care employed in grinding or mixing, but basically the lasting quality of the paints depends upon the kind of raw pigment in the mixture.  Commercial paint manufacturers do not make the raw powdered pigments.  They buy them, and they all buy from similar or comparable sources.

Most paint manufacturers mark their colors as Absolutely Permanent, Reasonably Permanent, or Non-Permanent.  Some issue printed material telling of the source and quality of their pigments.  One might feel that “permanent” cannot be qualified, that anything “permanent” is necessarily “absolutely permanent.”  However, “Reasonably Permanent” means permanent under ideal conditions and “Absolutely Permanent” means permanent under all normal conditions.  For example, certain colors are permanent if protected from sunlight or if kept in chemically pure surroundings, but may fade in bright sun or if exposed to the chemical fumes often encountered in the atmosphere of industrial areas.  Pure ultramarine, derived from lapis lazuli, is one of the most durable of colors.  It is Absolutely Permanent.  Yet a drop of lemon juice will destroy it immediately.

Most earth colors, which are made from pulverized soil or clay, are Absolutely Permanent.  Even in strong sunlight they seem never to change.  Earth colors include ochres, siennas and umbers, the Mars colors from yellow to violet, Terre Verte, etc.  Other Absolutely Permanent popular colors are the cobalts, the cadmiums, the chromium oxides (Viridian, etc.), and the iron oxides (Indian Red and Venetian Red).

Pigments are derived from a wide range of diversified material which includes ground insects (Carmine), burned bones (Ivory Black), extract of roots (Rose Madder), coal tar material, and any number of mineral derivatives.  Because of this, it has been found that certain colors cannot be mixed satisfactorily.  Chemical action takes place through combination, and this gradually affects the color.  For instance, pigments with a copper base, such as Malachite Green, may tend to black if mixed with the cadmium sulphides, such as the cadmium yellows and oranges.  Certain chromates, such as Chrome Yellow, should not be mixed with organic colors made from vegetable or animal sources.  Many color manufacturers supply leaflets which give detailed information on the forbidden combinations.

During recent years, some manufacturers have replaced certain of the old formulas with synthetic colors, or they have added the synthetic product to the old line.  Emerald Green, for instance, in its pure state is aceto arsenite of copper, and as such should not be combined with Cadmium Yellow.  In some brands, however, Emerald Green is now a mixture of two other standard colors, a blue and a yellow.  If this synthetic color is used, the taboo is removed.  Many of the new colors are aniline or coal tar products and, being of a more homogenous nature, may be mixed with each other without danger.  Some of the synthetic colors are said to be Absolutely Permanent, but they have not been in use long enough to be completely trustworthy.  Some of the aniline or coal tar colors are certainly not permanent or otherwise desirable.

In my own work, I use only colors that are Absolutely Permanent, with one exception.  That exception is Alizarin Crimson, which I use infrequently and very sparingly.  There is no Absolutely Permanent crimson or rose red pigment.  Often, when a passage calls for crimson, I use Cadmium Red with Cobalt Violet added.  This makes a beautiful hue, but it is not the same as crimson, nor does it have the brilliance of crimson or of carmine.

Although it might seem advisable to list here all standard colors, noting their degrees of permanency and their chemical compatibility––or lack of it––with other colors, developments in the color industry have been so rapid in recent years that it would be difficult to offer factual statements that would apply to given colors made by different manufacturers.  If your artist supply store does not have printed material available on the colors it sells, write directly to the maker of your favorite brand of pigments for the latest information about his products.

 

SWING YOUR BRUSHES HORIZONTALLY

If you want your fields to lie flat, your clouds to resemble a ceiling, and all to recede properly into the distance, be sure your brushwork is primarily horizontal.  Why? Remember that when you paint a flat or nearly flat surface such as the earth, you place the nearest things at the bottom of the paper and as the terrain recedes into the distance you show it higher and higher so that the horizon is drawn nearer the top of the paper than any other portion of the earth.  From the bottom of the paper to the horizon may measure only 10 or 12 inches, but that may represent 10 or 12 miles of terrestrial distance.

Again, a flat disk such as a phonograph record is a perfect circle when viewed from directly above, but as the observer’s eye is changed in relation to it, it may seem an ellipse or even a straight line.  In other words, the apparent distance from front to back gets shorter and shorter, although the dimension from side to side does not change at all.

When painting a round lake two miles in diameter, you might use the entire width of your paper to indicate the two-mile left-to-right measurement and no more than an inch for the distance from the near to the far edge.  If the latter distance were increased to two inches on the paper, the apparent width of the lake would double.  One inch of paper represents two miles of lake!  This is why it is necessary to restrain your urge to paint vertically and keep you brush strokes horizontal when depicting receding distances.  Brush from side to side, letting the horizontal strokes come closer and closer together as the move into the distance.  This will prevent lakes from standing uncomfortably on end.  The two river scenes in Figure 55 illustrate this point.

The rules governing the painting of flat terrain apply equally to clouds.  Clouds nearest the observer may be shown round and in detail, but as the artist works toward the horizon his strokes should become increasingly level.

Practice that left-to-right swing.  Moving sideways is the only way to travel into the distance in watercolor.

 

HOW WET THE COLOR?

The expert watercolorist can sense the exact degree of liquidity needed in his colors for handling a given passage, and with his brush he is able to gather up color of the precise density required.  This is an indispensable skill, and it comes only from practice.  It cannot be taught, but to become aware of it is an important step.  

Some of the most effective watercolor work is achieved by painting one moist color onto another.  At times really wet color is flooded into a wet area so it will spread widely.  At other times half-moist colors are applied in a really wet area to produce limited spreading.  To achieve soft-edged definition, pasty color can be brushed into half-moist color.  It is even possible to paint sharp detail within the area if the paint on the paper is in a state of pasty wetness and the brush color is even thicker, almost as it comes from the tube.

The beginner almost invariably applies the brush color too wet, because watercolor always appears darker wet than dry.  A half hour of practice painting wet-into-wet in different stages of fluidity until the precise result desired is achieved should save him much time and chagrin when it comes to actually using the technique in painting a picture.  The secret in most cases is to keep the brush color thicker than the paper color and to mix all colors heavier than one thinks is needed, but only practice can help you find the exact answer each time.

 

PAINTING FROM MEMORY

In a way all pictures are painted from memory, for naturally we cannot look at both the subject and the painting at the same time.  We paint what we remember having seen a moment ago.  But it is wise to test the memory for longer periods.  You might try working in one room, with your model or subject in another.  Scrutinize the model only when absolutely necessary.  At first you may remember little of what you have seen.  However, when you find yourself balked, you will quickly be reminded of the points you should have observed.

It is surprising how quickly practice sharpens the powers of perception, teaching you to separate the trivia from the essentials and to remember the latter.  Eventually, you work very largely from memory, needing only the briefest kind of memo for inspiration.  This ability is necessary if you are to paint original pictures and not mere reproductions of what you see.  Remember that the natural scene is to be used only as a foundation for your painting.  

In practicing painting from memory, one should search not only for shapes, colors and values, but also for the over-all quality that inspired him to choose the subject––a mood, an unusual light effect, or whatever it was.  It is more important to capture the aspects of the subject that contribute to this distinguishing quality than other factual details which may be of little interest in this respect.

When painting a local landscape, I usually make a small pencil sketch of the actual scene, revising it in my mind to form a good composition and making mental notes of colors and values.  I return to the studio to paint the picture through the next-to-last stage, then take the painting to the scene for a final comparison, and return home again to finish the work back in the studio.

The ability to observe and analyze comes as second nature after continued practice.  Painting from memory is the key to this important skill.

 

DISTORTION IN PAINTING

Distortion in painting may result from simple carelessness or inability to draw, or it may be done on purpose for one of many reasons.  It is often used for emphasis in advertising and for comic effect in cartoons.  Sculptors and muralists, on the other hand, use distortion to overcome visual illusion.  Bronze or stone figures must be made considerably more bulky than their human models.  Michelangelo’s distorted figures on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, intended to be seen from below, are outstanding examples of effective mural distortion.

Painters commonly exaggerate to augment the force of their compositions.  Exaggeration in watercolor is most useful for strengthening key features.  Except where faces and figures are involved, distortion can often pass without notice.  A house can be tilted, twisted, or otherwise caricatured, for example, and still appear reasonably recognizable.  So one should not hesitate to exaggerate the size, shape, strength, color, or angles of any part of a picture if the over-all composition will be improved.

 

TOO MANY INTERESTS IN A PICTURE

Looking over a landscape for a painting subject, a beginner tends to see a lot of interesting details that he feels must go into his painting.  He may put an attractive white house on the left, a big red silo and barn on the right, and some rather interesting flowers in the foreground.  If, as he is likely to do, he stresses each item in detail, the picture blows apart.  It has too many dominating features and thus lacks cohesion.

A successful picture cannot include competing themes.  Of course it is possible to include a number of features in a painting, but one must be dominant.  In composing a picture, start with the feature that interests you most, and then add, one by one, other parts of the scene to support that feature.  Remember that your secondary favorites must play a subordinate role to the principal.  That means they cannot be stressed and must be mercilessly discarded if they don’t help to support the principal feature.

Once you have decided upon the mood for your picture and have laid out the general color scheme and the main pictorial interests, you are no longer master of the situation.  You become the servant of the composition and you must give that composition what it demands, not what you may think you would like to include.

If you are in love with the white house, the red silo and barn, and the flower patch, make three separate pictures, each one featuring one of the themes.

 

SKETCH NOTES AND QUICKIES

The value of making quick and frequent sketches cannot be overemphasized.  In their formative days at least, most successful painters made sketch notes whenever a suitable subject and the opportunity permitted.  There is no better way to perceive the structure of things, to learn to see and appreciate, and to build up a store of visual memories for later use.

All you need for sketching is a pencil or pen, fountain, ballpoint or felt nib, and a sketchbook or pad.  Watercolor sketching, though it calls for a little more preparation, affords wonderful practice and can provide valuable color memos.

Quickies are another form of rapid sketch which are employed more for technical practice than for the the recording of things or events.  Make a practice of painting small impressions of scenes, objects or figures with the brush, making no preliminary pencil layout and allowing only a few minutes per sketch.  This practice will sharpen your perception, loosen your style unbelievably, and encourage a bold approach that is difficult to acquire using methodical procedures.

 

TO CHECK ON THE SUCCESS OF A PAINTING

There comes a time when even the most experienced artist cannot decide whether his picture is good or bad.  He detects no positive fault, yet he dislikes the whole without quite knowing why.  Every painter has noticed he can recognize the mistakes of another’s work more readily than his own.  He views his fellow artist’s picture as a completed work and judges it with a fresh, clear mind, whereas he has followed his own composition through every bothersome detail until his mind is jaded and confused.

One remedy is to put the composition away until the travail it caused is forgotten, perhaps for a week or a month.  When it is brought out again the fault will often be readily apparent.  Sometimes I place a questionable picture where I must pass it occasionally.  I glance at it only casually as I go by, but usually, within a few days, the answer will suddenly emerge.

 

PAINTING SUBJECTS ARE EASILY FOUND

Although it may call for a high degree of ability to turn some subjects into satisfactory painting, almost anything will do.  One artist-teacher, challenged to find and paint a subject within the room his class occupied at the time, painted a delightful watercolor of the students’ coat rack and the varicolored clothes hanging on it.

An artist who disliked the scene his friends selected for a sketching party made an excellent, full-sized painting of a single large weed.  In fact, weeds are the subject of two painting reproduced in this book.  A patch of growing weeds is shown on page 132 and a bouquet of dried sprays of weeds picked in December is the subject of “Winter Posies” on page 151.  Another unusual subject is the picture of cemetery headstones in “Far From the Maddening Crowd” on page 20.  “Aquarium,” on the same page, is the kind of subject that could well be right in front of you while you are wishing you could get out to the country to paint.

When kept indoors by the weather, I have sometimes selected a doll from Mrs. Whitaker’s international collection and backed it with a potted geranium or some other object to show scale. Two of these paintings, “Tambor Dancer” and “La Segoviana” are on page 111.

Panoramic landscapes and other complicated subjects may be excellent picture material, but a simple doorway, a single tree, a few rocks, a shell, or any of a thousand commonplace things can also provide material for a satisfactory picture.

 

PRACTICE AND PERSISTENCE

To become an artist, one must practice.  It is possible to learn a great deal by reading, listening, and watching others, but to develop a mental and manual dexterity that will operate without conscious prodding, there is no substitute for working yourself.

Practice drawing and painting whenever possible.  At other times practice analysis of scenic material, choice of subject, observation of moods, color relations, and the like.  This requires no physical equipment but can be of inestimable value when you begin a painting.  In addition, you will see and enjoy many beauties that previously went unnoticed.  Remember, there is more to painting than the application of pigment.  Observation and analysis are perhaps even more important.

Don’t discard a picture as soon as it appears unpromising.  One can never really develop any composition if all are discarded at an early stage.  Even though a painting may seem hopeless, keep at it until you have tried every way you can think of to improve it.  Many pictures can be saved that way, but even if yours does prove hopeless, you will have gained worthwhile experience.

Don’t become discouraged if some pictures are failures.  Even the best artists are forced to admit defeat on painting over which they have sweated and agonized.  Actually, we learn little from our easy successes.  Every success is built on a series of failures.  Most progress is achieved through making mistakes, provided we don’t make the same one twice.

 

PAINT INDOORS OR OUT?

There is no right or wrong answer to this question.  One artist may enjoy an outdoor routine,  while another prefers to work indoors.  Many artists do both.  If you restrict yourself to painting outdoors only, your work may tend to be too literal, even “photographic.”  The outdoor painter runs the risk of including in his pictures many unnecessary factors simply because they are there before his eyes.  This is a real danger.  There is much more to picture-making than simply reproducing nature.  The artist must contribute something of his own––a mood, a dramatic presentation, perhaps an original color combination––and this is extremely difficult while face to face with the scene itself.  The studio habitue, on the other hand, may get into an indoor rut and thus miss, in his work, the charm and spirit of the real outdoors.

Many successful artists paint some complete pictures outdoors, others work entirely in the studio, and still others paint in the studio from sketches and notes made in the field.  The latter method is especially popular because on-the-spot sketches can be developed to a point where the essence of the scene and its most interesting elements have been recorded.  Later, in the quiet of the studio where the artist is free from the distraction of assertive natural details, the essential elements can be recombined to produce an effective composition.

Good representative art is a mixture of fact and fancy.  It is useful to go to nature for inspiration and for the facts, but the studio may be the best place to interpret and transform them.

 

PAINT COMFORTABLY

Painting is exacting enough without the needless irritation or physical discomforts and other hazards, so make yourself as comfortable as possible and have your gear in order and arranged conveniently before beginning to work.  The paper should be fastened in some way to a drawing board or other rigid surface.  You can’t concentrate on painting when the paper is sliding about or curling up into a roll.  It’s a good idea to use a board one inch longer and wide than the paper.  This allows a half-inch margin of drawing board on all four sides.  If your paper is larger than your board, the paper will extend loosely outward in all four directions.  Such a sloppy set-up becomes a nuisance.

If thumbtacks are used, there should be enough of them and they should all be pushed in firmly.  If you use only one or two tacks or insert the points lightly, the wet paper will curl eventually and eject the tacks.  Tacks are usually unsatisfactory in unstretched paper anyway.  As the paper expands from moisture, the tacks interfere with the movement and the paper buckles.  Large clamps are better.  They can be opened occasionally to accommodate the paper’s expansion.

When using stretched paper, be sure the edges adhere firmly.  Even if the paper comes loose at only one point, the paper tension will be lost and unevenness in the painting will result.

If you are working out of doors, try to keep the paper shaded.  Bright sun on white paper will strain the eyes.  Also, the colors in your picture are likely to appear drab when viewed indoors.

 

WEARING SUNGLASSES WHILE PAINTING

When painting outdoors, it is sometimes hard to avoid the glare of bright sunlight on the paper.  This can seriously strain the eyes if they are unprotected.  It is also undesirable because such a picture will appear flat when viewed indoors unless the artist knows how to compensate for the effect of the glare.

Umbrellas are impractical.  Like many artists, I sometimes use dark glasses, which brings us to the question: “Don’t sunglasses change the colors?”  Naturally they do, but the disadvantage is not as great as it may seem, for they change in similar degree both the appearance of one’s pigments and the subject itself.  If the artist uses a green pigment that matches the green of a tree before him, the two greens should, theoretically at least, match also when viewed without sunglasses.  There may be a slight deviation, but it usually is not enough to cause concern and one can easily correct the errant colors or values in the studio.

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 BELEM TOWER. The center of interest in this rather dramatic composition is a large dark spot, the heavily shaded rectangle near the center.  This has been surrounded by four dark window openings and the shaded section at the lower right to steal some of its importance and prevent too-insistent concentration on it.  Notice the surface texture and the airiness of the dark apertures.

 

From Frederick Whitaker’s Book Whitaker On Watercolor

CHAPTER 10. HOW TO PAINT VARIOUS PICTURE COMPONENTS

A combined knowledge of watercolor technique and the ability to analyze what one sees should enable you to reproduce almost anything on paper.  In the sections to follow, there is no attempt to prescribe specific technical methods for painting all of the familiar pictorial components, but rather to suggest useful bases for your own individual analytical procedures.

 

HOW TO PAINT ANYTHING

There are four steps to be followed in painting any subject at all and they can be stated very simply:

  1. Analyze the pattern.
  2. Recognize the basic picture components, stripped of detail.
  3. Reproduce those fundamentals on paper.
  4. Add the details needed.

 

ANALYZE THE PATTERN

The great hurdle for all painting beginners is that every scene appears to be complicated by an endless assortment of detail.  But most subjects, no matter how involved they seem, are basically simple.  Sometimes only a very few components are required to reproduce a scene convincingly.  The artist can then add as much or as little fill-in detail as he chooses.  Let us analyze a subject which can be particularly confusing.  The principles involved can be applied to any scene.

Suppose you are at the ocean watching great combers smash against the rocks.  With each surging wave the water explodes into the air, deluges the rocks, and recedes, while eddies and cascades whirl, leap, and foam, now green, now spumy white.  Innumerable points of action are packed into the brief space of a few seconds.  With each wave the water-distribution pattern repeats itself almost identically, the same eddies, the same shapes, the same colors, but it is never still.

Before attempting to paint, just sit, observe, analyze, and plan.  Choose the exact spot and the exact moment of wave action that you want to paint.  Now rule out and refuse to see all other movements of water, concentrating on the patter at that instant exclusively.  Study the forms, colors, and values of the scene.  Within ten minutes or less you will probably have memorized them.  You will then be able to reproduce the subject almost as well as if it were stationary.

 

LIGHT AND SHADOW

The mood of a landscape picture is often established by the time of day or the weather conditions portrayed.  These, in turn, affect or are affected by the way the painter handles light and shadow.  The following list, combined with other special topics in this section, will suggest particular points to look for in painting subjects under special conditions of lighting or weather.  In the long run, of course, you must go to nature, studying, analyzing, and memorizing the colors and values you see before you, then experimenting with your pigments until you are able to translate what you have seen to paper.

A day of bright sunlight is characterized by strong shadows.  There is a great contrast of light and dark, and visibility is unlimited.  In the early morning or late afternoon there are very long shadows.  Most of the scene is likely to be in shadow, with just a few spots lighted by the low-lying sun.  If the artist has his back to the sun, however, virtually everything will be bathed in light.  “In the Shadow of the Hills” on page 152 was cast in strong light and shadow in order to turn a prosaic subject into a dramatic painting.  The hills were painted in strong sepia color and the sky, which does not take up much space in the picture, was arbitrarily painted green.

In sunrises and sunsets, with the observer facing the sun, all erect parts of the scene are seen in dark shadow and appear gray or nearly black.  Little local color is visible.  Level surfaces, such as grass, which are brightly lighted are darker than you might think.  In fact, the whole earth is strongly contrasted against the sky.  Distant parts are lighter and grayer than those near at hand.

Billowing cloud formations usually break up the landscape into sunny and shaded expanses as the cloud shadows sweep along.  With a heavy overcast, however, the whole landscape is dark and solid.  There are no shadows, and objects are identifiable principally through their local colors.

Moonlight gives a bluish cast to the landscape.  A moonlit picture should be painted in a low key with most areas quite dark.  Shadows should not be too pronounced.  Study the position and angle of the moon if it is included, for many artists take unreasonable liberties with nature and these errors are quickly detected by those who know.  One artist was told his New England twilight had a Southern Hemisphere moon.  Remember the crescent, or new moon, is never seen with its points down, although it has often been seen that way in pictures.

Fog usually calls for an over-all gray with virtually no whites or real darks.  Receding objects quickly disappear from sight. 

In snow scenes, the snowflakes replace the foggy mist as a softener of accents.  The sky is gray, and there are no extreme darks.  Most of the scene is clothed in white.

Rain, like fog and snow, reduces distance of visibility.  With rain, however, the wet surfaces of stones and other solid objects are either extremely dark or, if turned up to the sky, mirror the light.  Rainy weather therefore calls for strong contrasts.  Like snow, rain can be seen only against objects.  Drizzly rain appears much the same as fog, except that mirror-like piddles sometimes reflect dark verticals like trees and the relatively light sky.

 

CLEAR SKIES

Clear skies are usually described as blue, but actually skies appear in all values from white to near black and in variants of all the hues of the spectrum.

No other facet of the natural scene is as variable as the sky.  Not only does it change in pattern, value, and color, it also possesses a unique quality called luminosity.  A clear blue sky may really be a hazy gray or violet at the horizon, ascending through a light greenish blue and increasing in depth and blueness toward the zenith.  Furthermore, the sky lightens as it approaches the sun and darkens as it becomes more distant.  A sky painted in flat blue without color variation is likely to appear as banal as a color postcard.

To suggest luminosity in painting a clear sky, it is necessary to contrast the sky against the scene below and to suggest vibration in the sky itself.  This can be done by using two different colors, one washed over the other.  Surprisingly, the effect achieved by this technique will be much more luminous or vibrant than if the same two colors are mixed beforehand and applied as a single wash.

To use this technique, first prepare two separate pans of diluted color, say blue and a warm yellow.  Cobalt or any other smooth-flowing blue could be used with Yellow Ochre, Raw Sienna, or Cadmium Orange.  Both colors should be thinned out with a great deal of water.  Now turn the picture upside down on its slanted support and, beginning at the horizon, brush the thin yellow was the width of the sky, continuing the wash downward to the bottom of the paper, which is, of course, the top of the picture.  At the start the yellow must be very weak (no darker than linen color) and grow still weaker as the wash progresses, as more and more water is gradually added.  When the wash is finished, the top of the sky will be pure white, the yellow will be deepest at the horizon and evenly graduated between the two extremes.  When the yellow wash is thoroughly dry, the picture is turned upright and, beginning at the top, the blue wash is brushed in the same manner as the yellow, weakening the hue as it descends.  When the blue reaches the horizon, it must be thin indeed.  With both operations completed, the result will be a luminous sky, pale greenish at the bottom and strong blue at the top.  It should be emphasized by a solidly painted landscape below.  The sky in “Ruddy Veteran,” page 54, was painted in the manner just described.  The blue wash was grayed somewhat to match in key the brilliant tree, which was also considerably neutralized.

 

CLOUDS

The great billowy puffs that course over the bright blue sky in the summer are called cumulus clouds.  Their substantial thickness gives them definitely shaded bottoms and sides, except those surfaces exposed to the sun, which are approximately white.  The relative positions of the individual large clouds and the directions in which they move should be carefully considered, for they are too important compositionally to be casually placed.

Cold gray nimbus clouds are rain or snow clouds.  They are dense, formless masses which usually obscure the sky.  If by chance there are breaks between them, one sees only the high level stratus clouds above them.  Sometimes the lower nimbus clouds are broken up by wind, and the fragments, being nearer the earth than their parents, are plainly discernible as what sailors call “scud.”

A nimbus cloud formation should be painted in an overall strong gray.  The lighter sections can be mopped out in a deliberately planned pattern while the paint is still moist, then touched up with a brush for accents and corrections, and the whole allowed to dry.  The effect will appear accidental and spontaneous.  Remember that the contrasts between the lights and darks are not so great, but they are definite.

The cumulonimbus cloud is the familiar thunderhead which grows up out of a nimbus cloud layer, often to mountainous heights.  It is the only cloud that might be described as of vertical formation.  It appears to be built of firm cotton puffs piled one above the other, each sharply defined.  Of course, a painting need not be literal.  The details may be merely suggested.  In analyzing the pattern of a sky, remember that the underside of a cumulus or nimbus cloud layer can be astonishingly level, appearing almost as flat as a ceiling.  Like a ceiling, it should be painted upside down.  The individual clouds may be thought of as great, roundish cushions in various sizes.  Sketch A, Figure 50 shows a preliminary arrangement of clouds.  In painting the actual picture, the regularity of the outlines would have to be broken up as in B.  Notice how the shapes placed one behind the other diminish in size as they recede, the ellipses approaching more and more a straight line until, in the extreme distance, only horizontal strokes are needed to indicate the cloud field.  Clouds near the horizon appear horizontal, with very little vertical dimension except for the cumulonimbus thunderheads which appear like mountains of solidified froth.

 

SUNSETS

A sunset is made up of three factors: 1. The sun, if still above the horizon, or its rays, if below. 2. The clouds or atmospheric mist which intercept the rays of the sun and cause the changing color patterns.  3. The clear sky beyond the clouds.

The sky itself is virtually always the same.  Close to the sun there is a creamy glow which becomes greener and then bluer as it ranges outward.  If clouds or haze are absent, this is all we see.  The whites and grays and the bright yellows, oranges, reds, and pinks appear only in the clouds or vaporous mist.

The clouds float about in definite strata, those of identical formation cruising at the same level.  The heights vary from ground level to perhaps six miles.  The lower ones are usually the puffy cumulous clouds, seen as individuals.

As the sun retires below the horizon, shadows darken firs the earth, then the low-flying clouds, and later the higher cloud layers.  Between the observer and the sun, the clouds or haze provide the bright reds, which diminish in brilliance as they become more distant.  The sunlit sides of clouds are white.  Clouds completely in shadow are dark gray and may be seen strongly contrasted against the still sunlit, creamy, high-level clouds.

The combinations are never-ending.  No two sunsets are alike, but the behavior pattern is always the same.

To paint a sunset scene, select a viewing position by the sea or on a hilltop, the higher the better.  You aren’t likely to see much from a valley.  There must be some clouds in the western sky, and preferably haze.  The most magnificent displays occur when the sky holds two vaporous layers, low-lying cumulus and very high stratus clouds.  The time for observation is between twenty minutes before and twenty minutes after actual sunset.  The pattern changes continually so that every three or four minutes you see a new sky.

It may be advisable simply to study the “anatomy” of sunsets for a few nights, perhaps making quick sketches with a pencil and including notes about the colors.  In that way, you can record several arrangements and paint the best one from memory and the knowledge you have gained from analytical observation.  Color photographs can also be used as notes, but don’t paint a watercolor copy of a photograph.  In actual painting a good method is to draw arbitrarily a very low horizon line and paint the sky above it.  The earth scene can be added later.  Remember that the earth will appear very dark and, by contrast, its darkness will add brilliance to the colors of the sky.

Sunrise effects are similar to sunsets, but the sequence is reversed.

 

FOG

Fog appears in various shades of gray, some warm, some cool, but always gray, with no pure whites and no extreme darks except perhaps in the immediate foreground, and even these are grayed somewhat.  All color and value differences are subtle.  There are no strong contrasts.  If you study and analyze fog, you will see that only the near-at-hand features show any degree of contrast and that as the other parts recede, they resolve themselves into separate flat upright planes, like stage scenery, each one grayer and lower in value than the ones in front of it.  Only the near planes show distinct color.  The farther ones are virtually all gray.  Infinity in a fog may be no more than a few hundred feet, and the whole picture has to be telescoped into that short depth.  Although the regular laws of aerial perspective apply in fog scenes, distance is measured in yards instead of miles.

To paint a fog scene, I usually mix a pan of medium gray, avoiding sediment colors, and wash the mixture over the entire paper.  If there are to be near-white areas in the foreground, I mop them out lightly while the paper is still wet.  Then, while the color is still moist or after it has dried depending on the effect I want, I paint in the series of upright planes––usually beginning with the furthermost.  This is often a gray just a trace darker than the over-all color.  The planes become gradually darker and more colorful as they move forward.  Near objects are painted in reasonably strong detail and color, but even here I mix some gray into every color.  Working on moist paper is often advantageous, for the color applications tend to merge with the background and assure soft edges.

 

SNOWSTORMS

Painting a snowstorm is much the same as painting a fog, with snowflakes taking the place of mist.  Visibility may be a little greater and, of course, all top surfaces appear white.  However, as in painting fog, there is no real white.  All snow must be grayed somewhat.  Everything being relative, we can judge a value only by comparing it with a standard of some sort.  Nothing in nature is whiter than snow.  However, if you hold up a brightly lighted white card and squint past it at a real snow storm, you will see that the snow appears to be much darker than white.

To paint a snowstorm, cover the entire paper with a strong gray wash, then mop out the white areas and paint in the colored areas.  Remember that the snow appears grayer as it recedes in the distance.  If snowflakes are not indicated, either individually or by swishes of the brush, the picture may suggest mist or murk rather than storm.  A few flakes can give an impression of great activity.  They can be scratched out with a razor blade, or masking liquid can be applied before you begin to paint.  If masking liquid is used, there are several points to remember.  When the maskoid is removed, the resulting white spots may have to be grayed somewhat.  Also, although we think of snowflakes as very small and all of the same size, a snowflake close to the eye may appear as large as a distant chimney.  It may be necessary to paint the near flakes larger than at first seems reasonable.  Remember, too, that flying snowflakes cannot be seen against a stormy sky or against the fallen snow.  Place them only against color dark enough to silhouette them.

 

RAIN

The principles for painting fog may be followed essentially for rain scenes, but there are several special problems with rain.  In a rainstorm, one sees many puddles which are, in effect, mirrors.  Usually they appear very light (almost white) or very much darker than the earth around them, depending on whether they reflect the sky or some solid mass, such as trees or buildings.  Remember that these puddles are mirrors, and be sure to ascertain what they reflect before you paint them dark or light.  Wetness makes such things as tree trunks and rocks very dark although the wet tops of flat rocks may mirror the sky and appear very light.  Thus, some foreground items may show very strong value contrast.

Grayness pervades a rain scene as much as it does a fog scene.  Raindrops themselves cannot be painted, but the direction of the rain can be indicated by a few moist brushstrokes.  This direction can be important to your composition, so before brushing it in be sure to choose the angle right for the picture, regardless of what you may actually see.  The direction of the rain is particularly important in a painting of a torrential driving rain, for then the violence of the weather is actually the subject of the picture, and the landscape details are merely a foil to emphasize the storm.

 

SNOW IN SUNLIGHT

The contours of a snowy surface in sunlight can be seen only because of shadows, so shadows are a leading factor to be considered in painting a snow, sunlit scene.  Don’t spread the shadows around aimlessly.  Study the scene carefully and learn why they assume the positions and shapes they do.  Note that the long shadow of a telephone pole, for example, reveals all the surface variations, the undulations, ruts, and ridges of the area it crosses.

Snow shadows often appear quite blue but, as in the case of skies, one must guard against a “postcard blue” effect.  A blue or violet very close to neutral gray is likely to be best, though special conditions can change the rule.

Sunlit snow in the distance may seem as white as that close by, but it is not and cannot be painted that way.  To suggest the necessary atmospheric perspective, snow in the distance must be subdued somewhat by blue or violet gray.

All top snow may appear pure white, but when you notice that certain areas show definite highlights, you can see that surrounding parts are actually darker.  A five percent gray is useful in modeling sunlit snow surfaces.

White paper can be used very effectively to show brilliantly lighted snow, but it is not the only way to handle this problem.  Snow can be painted in quite strong grays throughout and still seem to be white.  It all depends on the relationship of values.

 

STILL WATER

Still water is like a horizontal mirror.  To paint it, you must understand the rule of reflections.  In clear water, reflected colors are slightly darker than their originals.  Murky water has a color of its own––perhaps cream, brown, or green––which either discolors the reflection or obscures it altogether.  Still water is sometimes crossed by air currents that destroy its reflecting power in patches.  These breaks, which usually appear to move horizontally from side to side, can be used to advantage as composition elements.

 

THE SEA

Open water is seldom still, so definite reflections are a negligible consideration.  The apparent color of salt water is determined by the sky: blue sky, blue water; gray sky, gray water.  However, the sea is ordinarily much darker than the sky.  The rougher the water, the darker it is likely to be.  The blue or green of sea water is usually far from pure blue or green.  A good deal of gray is required in the mixture.  Wind, cloud shadows, distance, and other influences may cause local variations of color or value.  Near-at-hand waves or rollers are green, often capped with white.

When painting the sea, don’t do the whole expanse in the same color or value.  There should be a gradation of tint from front to back to show the distance: darker in the foreground and lighter at the horizon, or vice versa.  The eye will follow a gradation of color.  Note that the sea, like the land, appears softer and more neutral in color as it recedes in the distance.  The sky usually appears to be almost a continuation of the water.  The values differ, of course, sometimes slightly, sometimes definitely.  In any case, it is good practice to soften the dividing line.  A hard, sharp contrast at the horizon destroys the illusion of distance.

Waves are themselves parts of larger waves, or swells, that can be indicated by horizontal swishes of color, smoother and closer together as they retreat from the eye.  In heavy weather, rollers or breakers are capped with white and long stretches of spume along the shore.  Some artists retain these white spaces by painting with masking fluid beforehand, but personally I find it easier to leave them white as I paint.  As a rule, the whites are not really as pure as they appear and usually need a bit of softening.

Remember to keep the ocean flat.  Your brushstrokes should be horizontal, never diagonal.

 

BOATS

Painting boats requires more knowledge of draftsmanship than many subjects because all the structural parts, lines, and surfaces of floating vessels seem to be curved.  Even a coal or sand barge, rectilinear though it may at first appear, is well supplied with curves.  These many curves, divorced from plumb and level lines, can be deceptive.  Study the curves in the various paintings of boats in this book.  The sketch opposite is typical.  From bow to stern, the gunwales of this skiff swell outward in the waist and they curve vertically as well.  Figure 51 shows this double movement, yet notice that the further gunwale is drawn with a straight line.  Ships present much the same problem as small boats.

When boats or ships are only secondary notes in marine pictures, their lines may be simply hinted at, but close-ups of boats require a sure hand at drawing.

 

FOREGROUNDS

The principal action in a picture usually takes place in the middle distance, so the foreground must act as a support for and a guide into that center of interest.  Despite its subordinate role, the proximity of the foreground to the viewer makes it important.  The foreground must be planned as a part of the whole picture.  It should support and lead into the main interest.  Detail and character can be suggested in the foreground, but no details should be prominent enough to upset the planned pattern of color and shadow masses.

Using the actual subject before you, but remembering that the foreground is not important in itself but simply a guide which leads the eye to the main interest, brush in simple forms, using as large a brush as feasible.  The idea is to strive for compositional pattern without detail.  For example, if a diagonal direction at the lower right or a dark mass at the left is needed for the plan, it should be brushed in without hesitation.  It can always be rationalized later.

Once satisfied that the foreground elements are well spaced, you can turn them into recognizable objects.  A diagonal stroke may become a fence rail, a branch, a pathway, or whatever seems appropriate.  A dark area may suggest a rock or the shadow of an unseen tree.

Remember that the foreground must be subdued.  Detail may be suggested, but it should not be obtrusively delineated.  For example. A mass of yellow grass can be painted broadly with a one-inch brush, then a few individual blades of grass can be indicated by hairlines.  This can produce a surprising illusion of thousands of individual blades of grass.  A bush with a singular leaf pattern might be drawn in considerable detail with a fine brush and then washed over with a flood of color while still moist.  This will simplify the bush and pull it together.  Most of the line drawing will be lost, but enough will remain to suggest a great deal of leafy detail.

Many types of foregrounds are shown in the paintings in this book.  In “The Old Town, Gerona” on page 92, the subject has very little depth.  The church and the mass of dwellings occupy most of the picture and constitute the entire middle ground.  A simple foreground was needed, one that would set the buildings back a reasonable distance but still allow an unimpeded view of the houses.  Grass, a tree, and small unobtrusive figures at the left fill that need.

Another kind of foreground is seen in “California Coast” on page 71.  This picture is divided into three parts: the warm-colored rocks and weeds of the foreground, the gray rocks in the middle distance, and the blue-green sea in the far distance.  Interest centers around the middle ground, and the foreground is a foil for it.  Much unobtrusive detail is hinted at, but very little is actually delineated.

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TREES

The basic rule for painting a tree is to choose a good tree, use it as a model, and paint as its color and construction suggest.  On occasion, trees may be indicated with only a simple stroke of color to suggest an appropriate contour, but when individual trees are being portrayed, they must really appear to be individuals.  A mass of green pigment will not suffice.

Remember there are no two trees exactly alike.  They have a great range of character which is affected by species, age, environment, time of the year, and other factors.  The picture should reveal all of the individual characteristics of the tree or trees shown.  By cataloguing the distinguishing features, you will be able to analyze them quickly and systematically.  Study the general shape, the fronds, the skeleton or framework, the base of the trunk, the age or condition, and the color.  

Note the general shape of various types.  There are the straight and rigid spruce and the pliant willow, the solid Norway maple, the gracefully forked elm, the twisted old apple, and all manner of types between.  Which does your model resemble?

Fronds are the large leaf clusters at the ends of the branches.  Do they hang down, stand erect, or extend horizontally?  Are they round, pointed, irregular, closely or loosely packed?  Notice that frond shapes often follow the shape of the tree itself.

Are the trunk, limbs, branches, and twigs straight or twisted, fluent or angular?  How do they spring from the trunk––rectangularly or in graceful forks?  Is the bark smooth, rough, or mottled?

How does the tree spring from the ground?  Is it straight and clean, like a light pole, or is there an expansive root formation above ground?

Notice that young trees tend to be symmetrical, smooth, and clean while old trees are likely to be rangy, gnarled, bumpy, twisted, and scarred.

Trees run the gamut of color from the pale green of the aspen to the black green of the yew.  The color of a single tree can change from yellow green in the spring through solid green in the summer to yellow, red, or brown in the autumn.  Look at your model and see what color it actually appears.  Don’t assume it is “tree green.”  Notice also that the foliage of a tree in sunlight has basically only two values, those of the sunlit and shaded color; any minor variations from these two values are usually accidental.  Examine the color of the trunks and branches.  Are your models white birches, pale gray beech trees, scabby-looking sycamores, or another kind of tree with a trunk of some shade of brown or gray?

Many kinds of tree paintings are reproduced throughout this book.  “Ruddy Veteran” and “Autumn in the Air,” both in color on page 54, are portraits of individual trees.  Trees are also the main subject of “Wispy Willows” on page 132, “Monterey Coast” on page 121, “In the Woods” on page 131.  Trees are secondary but important elements in many other pictures, particularly “In a Provence Market” on page 2, “Winter Fog,” page 114, “Family Picnic,” page 93, and “The Little Statue,” page 53.

 

IN THE WOODS

In the woods, where tree tops merge with each other, leaving no outlines, where sunlight breaks through a million apertures, and where tree trunks abound without order, the effect is utter visual confusion.  Patterns that might make interesting compositions are not easily detected.  It is necessary to analyze, simplify, and plan.  You can’t paint a million leaves, but you can suggest them.

Using a wide, flat brush, paint the floor of the local forest in local, sunlit color and then brush in large masses to represent the tree tops.  Next, with simple strokes, add tree trunks and other elements such as boulders or clumps of dark bushes as accents.

So far only relatively light colors, or sunshines values, have been used.  Now analyze the scene’s over-all sun-and-shadow pattern and boldly brush a mixture of dark warm gray pigment over some of the areas already painted.  This will represent the shadow pattern.

Always keep in mind the all-important requirement of pattern.  Each area should be calculatedly spaced, regardless of the actual disposition of elements in the scene.  There should be a pleasing arrangement of lights and shadows, tree top colors, tree trunks, earth, rocks, sky openings, and the like, all definite enough to be judged easily.  If any parts of the pattern are unsatisfactory, they should be corrected before any further painting is done.

To break up the severity of the sharply defined color shapes, correct the colors of the tree foliage in the foreground, indicate sunlit and shaded areas, paint in a few definite leaf clusters, add light and dark accents, and pick out a number of sky holes.  Leaves in the middle distance should be treated as masses.  Those farthest away should be subdued with a pale violet or blue wash, whether the eye sees them that way or not.  Tree trunks may be separated into shaded and sunlit surfaces, if necessary.  The trunks and branches near-at-hand can receive individual treatment, those in the distance may merge into the foliage.  The earth may also be “loosened up” by adding in the foreground pebbles, fallen trunks, grass, dead leaf masses, or whatever details seem appropriate.

To finish the picture it is only necessary to correct tonal values and add a few accents.

It is surprising how a busy forest scene can be indicated with little color variety.  Extreme simplification is the secret.  By squinting through nearly closed eyes, you can learn to see the myriad details of forest foliage in a few simple values.  It is rarely necessary to deviate very far.

 

BUILDING INTERIORS

The major factor that must be considered in painting interiors of buildings is that of the key or tonality of the scene.  The volume of light inside the average house on a sunny day is less than one-fiftieth of that outside, yet the indoor objects appear to be as clearly lighted as those outside.

Ordinarily, when an artist depicts a room interior, he unconsciously raises the tonality of the lighting so that the room appears as brightly lit as an outdoor scene.  This, of course, is quite proper.  However, there are times when both indoor and outdoor views must be included in one picture.  Such a project confounds many artists.  If they continue painting the interior in a high key, there can be no value contrast between the interior and the exterior and it will be impossible to suggest sunshine in the open area.

In the picture “Barn Interior,” I applied a heavy wash, probably a 30 percent gray, over the entire drawing except for the space of the open door, a small window at the upper left, and a few chinks where sunlight enters.  When dry, that dark wash was considered white and other interior values were painted relatively darker.  For the area of the open door, on the other hand, the white paper rated as white.  Actually I painted two pictures in one, in two different keys.  When seen in color, the sun really shines on the open field and the doorway stands out with the brilliance desired.

Remember that, since all tonal values are relative, a very dark value can appear light and can even suggest white convincingly.

 

ARCHITECTURAL SUBJECTS

To paint architectural subjects accurately in any medium requires an ability to draw and a thorough knowledge of perspective.  Also helpful, If one aims at “architectural portraiture,” is a knowledge of architecture itself.

In the watercolor medium, there are three general ways to paint buildings.  First of all, they can be painted in a fluid style in which masses are merely suggested.  Or they can be painted freely but with individual buildings clearly identified and their details suggested though not delineated.  Finally, they can be painted as “architectural portraits,” whether of whole structures or small sections, with details drawn accurately or suggested with some degree of definition.

The first method is most commonly followed today, probably because “juicy” watercolors are extremely popular and also because watercolor offers a perfect means for reasonably combining structural rigidity and fluidity of appearance.

In painting city scenes, I frequently use the second method which undoubtedly represents a carry-over from my one-time practice of architectural design.  The most difficult hurdle of my early painting career was that of “loosening up,” of ignoring minutiae and learning simply to hint at all except the principle features.  This method, which depends on the defining of form and subordination of parts, allows the artist to develop bold patterns and dramatic conceptions.  “Union Square,” on page 154, was painted by the second method.  The third approach is exemplified by “St. Patrick’s Cathedral,” page 51, “Temple of Diana, Nimes,” page 42, and “Church in Morelia,” page 6.

For painting city buildings, the wet-in-wet method or a modification of it to suit one’s individual needs is excellent.  Using the widest flat brushes available, indicate entire buildings with a swish of color, allowing the edges to dry soft and making sure the pencilled outlines are not followed too closely.  Shaded areas can be brushed in similarly with darker color.  When the pigment is dry or nearly dry, dab in, not too sharply, indications of windows, cornices, doorways, pediments, and similar details.  Line is often combined with was very effectively in architectural subjects.  Very fluidly painted architecture is usually used as a background for some nearer point of interest which is more definitely executed.

Artists working in this apparently careless manner often begin with accurate drawings, heedfully calculated in terms of perspective.  These are then used as a base for the loose brushwork, but are never allowed to show through the liquid technique.

For my own work I usually prepare an accurate layout with vanishing points, horizon line, and other necessary perspective aids, though liberties are taken later with the drawing to give it a free-hand appearance.  I also methodically work out a preparatory color sketch to show the spacing of shadows and the like, for these are usually more pronounced in architectural subjects than in landscapes and greater care is needed in composing them.

 

STILL LIFE

Unlike most subjects, a still life can be painted with considerable verisimilitude, because the arrangement is designed in advance.  The composition is worked out in the subject itself instead of on the paper.  It is essential, therefore, in choosing still-life subjects to avoid the commonplace, those subjects made stale by incessant choice.  If commonplace material is used, it should at least be presented in a fresh way.  A still life need not always rest on a table top, nor need it be viewed always from the same old angle.  Much can be learned from good photographers.  Note the unusual lighting and angles of their shots.  Without becoming eccentric, the painter himself can adopt similar approaches.

The foregoing suggestions apply of course to serious esthetic conceptions.  For practice painting, the stress on the unusual is not so necessary.

 

FLOWERS

The essential characteristic of a cut flower arrangement is its irregularity or looseness, so the admonition to “loosen-up” applies with special force to flower painting.  Don’t try to draw every flower and leaf.  Drawing should be restricted to a rough layout that shows only the placement of the bouquet and its principal divisions.  Flower groups should be painted, not photographed.  Forget the pencil.  Feel your way along with the brush and liquid paint, a little lighter than you actually want so there is room for modeling and development later.  Place the individual large blossoms or groups of blossoms with simple blobs of color. Don’t think about petals, centers, or detail.  Concentrate on pattern.  Look for a pleasing design of colors whether it follows that of the subject or not.  Next, add the greenery, also in loose, flat approximate shapes arranged as you think it should be and not necessarily as it is.  Think of the green as a unit rather than as a lot of stems and leaves.

The shadow areas of the individual parts and of the bouquet as a whole can be added next in broad flat shades.  The shading of a rose, for example, might be just a single wide stroke.

The painting thus far represents the three-dimensional quality of the subject.  Now you can add the detail––as much or as little as you want––but, to repeat, keep it loose.  There is nothing more deadly than a cast iron bouquet.  Put the background in last to set off the flowers.

 

PORTRAITS AND FIGURE PAINTING

Figure paintings are compositions in which figures are the main interest and all else is background or supporting material.  Figure painting and especially portraiture call for greater technical skill than landscape work.  A good knowledge of drawing is necessary to achieve the likeness that is essential in portraiture and the accurate definition of the anatomy that is required in figure painting.  Aside from the necessity for accurate drawing, great technical command of the watercolor medium is also required.  Watercolor’s propensity toward accidental formation makes it a most difficult medium for portraiture and figure painting.  If one is unable to achieve a likeness while retaining the freedom and fluidity expected in a watercolor, it may be better to paint these subjects in a more easily controlled medium, such as oil.

For the portrait shown on page 91, I first made a very small sketch of the head and then designed the attendant material to support it, much as I would plan a landscape.  Remember that a portrait is not just a head in a rectangle.  The rules of composition apply here the same as elsewhere.  I wanted to paint a picture as well as a portrait.  The decorative floral background was purposely included for that reason and to help show off the wetness of watercolor.  In “Party Dress” on page 134 the background was so designed that the dark face, contrasted against the very light passage, becomes the focus of the viewer’s attention.  A watercolor portrait must be more than a likeness––it must be a watercolor likeness.

 

FIGURES IN A SCENE

In a scene with figures, as opposed to a figure painting or portrait, the over-all subject is important and the figures are merely aspects of the composition.  Such figures, therefore, must be painted in keep with the other picture elements––loosely or carefully, as the case may be, but not as though they deserved special attention as individuals.  As mentioned before, a human figure, however small, always attracts special attention and can easily “steal the show.”  It is necessary to watch for this.

Broadly speaking, there are three types of figures that may inhabit a scene.  Figures close at hand should be drawn with enough detail to make them individuals.  Figures in the middle distance can be merely suggested by indicating their dress and attitudes.  Those in the distance are likely to be little more than monotone shapes.

If you are painting a scene that involves many persons, a street scene for instance, be careful not to space them too evenly or in combinations of similar size.  Instead, place a group here, a few couples elsewhere, a number of individuals, and then perhaps a few really large clusters.  In painting a large group of figures, think of them collectively, as units or masses, and not as a number of different people.  Let the shapes of the outlines of the group take precedence of the details within it.  The idea is to compose a good picture pattern, and the shapes and proper spacing of the group masses will help to do this.

Remember that in looking over a throng, you can see all the heads, but the bodies of those in the nearest ranks only.  When the crowd outline is on paper, dot in the heads with a brush full of color, perhaps pink or orange, you need not show every head.  A few will suggest many.  Now suspend bodies from the nearest line of heads to give the crowd a vertical dimension, a front wall and an appearance of mass.  If necessary, dab in color around the heads to represent hair, hats, or scarves.  The white paper between the heads will probably be too conspicuous, so apply a loose wash of very pale blue or gray over the whole crowd group.  The slight merging of colors that results will resolve the group into a definite unit.  Nearer figures can be treated in a more individual way.

 

BLACK HOLES

Openings into dark chambers, cave entrances, cellar doorways, and the like appear solid black, and many artists paint such areas just that way.  This results in an appearance of black solidity rather than the emptiness which the holes really suggest.

To avoid this problem, swish a stroke or two of some other color––perhaps blue or green––into the thick black paint while it is still wet, then leave it to dry in only partial mixture.  The color will be barely visible when dry, but the slight divergence from black will give the impression of a mysterious something within the hole that will suggest space rather than solidity.  As mentioned before, a combination of two or three very dark shades used at full strength can give a more intense and vibrant dark than black alone.  The impression of dark, open space is given by leaving the colors imperfectly mixed.

 

SHADOWS

A single large shadow may cover a number of objects of different hues, such as the side of a white house, an adjoining red shed, and a yellow blanket spread on green grass.  The shadow has a cohesive influence, pulling together its member of colors so they become agreeable parts of the whole.  This is the essence of repose, that the whole is more important than any of its parts.  The over-all gray of the shadow area brings all the colors into harmony.

I have already referred to “shadow color.”  This is a gray which inclines toward one of the spectral colors.  Ordinarily I mix gray by combining a brown and a blue, perhaps Sepia and Cobalt Blue for a dark shadow, or Raw Umber and Cobalt or Cerulean Blue for a lighter one.  This shadow mixture is applied uniformly over all shaded parts of a picture, whatever their colors may be.  Then, while still moist, the shadow is keyed to the color of the object it falls on by flooding in a bit of paint of the underlying hue.  Where the shadow falls on white, it is diluted with a drop of water or mopped out slightly with a brush.

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 MONTEREY COAST. Courtesy of Kennedy Galleries, New York. Because of their unusual natural growth pattern and the windy punishment they consistently receive, Monterey cypresses are quite unlike the general run of trees. In painting special trees, of any description, study their peculiarities and be sure to stress these individual characteristics.