Canton Museum of Art Watercolor Class: Week 6

In Week 6 of the watercolor class that I took a few weeks ago at the Canton Museum of Art, we worked on a seascape. The majority of the classes were dedicated to a critique period where we reviewed the works that class members had painted the week before, and this was the first week where there was significant time left over to actually paint. In the weeks leading up to this, I thought the critiques were more valuable than time spent actually painting, and since we had time to paint this week, I would have to say I think I was right. Actually dedicating time in-class to painting wasn’t any where near as valuable to me as the critiques. Had Kit been walking around instructing us as we painted, giving tips or critiques about the techniques we were using, I can see that being useful. Just food for thought for any instructors who might stumble on this – take it for what it’s worth – the perspective of some random guy who had this one experience.

Here’s the sea scape I painted:

I also submitted the final version of my farm painting for review. I am quite proud of this painting. I showed it to my friend Branden (it’s a painting of his parent’s barn) and he showed it to his parents. They really liked it so I’m giving it to them to hang in their house. That makes me smile just thinking about it.

The thing I am most proud of with this painting is the tree behind the barn. I have such a tendency to paint trees as single huge shapes, and this time I reduced the amount of leaves in the canopy in order to give some room to show the trunks and branches, which really helped turn the tree from a weighty amorphous blob of color to a structural object with an anatomy and a sense of gesture. It reads more like a tree because I’m giving the viewer more pegs to hang their idea of a tree onto. Instead of just saying “Big. Green.” I’m saying “Big. Green. Branches. Trunk. Shade. Twist. Spill.” Leaving more open space in the tree makes it reads more like a tree.

Takeaways

It’s been a few weeks since the class ended, and I learned a considerable amount in the six short sessions. I’m sure there are more lessons that will come to mind as I paint in the coming weeks, but these are the biggest takeaways that come to mind right now.

1. Stop Beating Myself Up

It’s no secret to anyone that has read this blog that I suffer from depression. That can have all sorts of weird complications. One of the most difficult complications for me is that I constantly shit on myself. I hate everything I say, everything I do, and everything I make. It’s got to be exhausting to be around me most times because of it. (There I go again.) When it comes to art, that means I shit on the stuff I paint. Everything I paint has flaws and mistakes – and when I’m done with a painting that’s all I can see. No. That’s not true… the flaws are the only things I choose to focus on. I see the successful bits, but I don’t want to dwell on them. I don’t want people to think that I think I’m amazing – so I make sure to focus on the things that went wrong. I am trying to stay humble because I hate when people proud cock their way through life. I haven’t earned the right to strut my stuff, and I don’t want people to think that I view myself as better than I am. I’m a student. I’m learning. I’m contstantly trying to be better than I was yesterday. I’m not Alvaro Castagnet. I’m not Joseph Zbukvic. I’m not Joseph Alleman. I’m not Oleg Kozak. I’m not Sergey Temerev. I’m not any of the artists that I admire so much… I’m just a guy, painting in the kitchen after his kids go to bed.

The problem is, I take that too far. I take that humility, and I slap myself in the face with it over and over until my ears are ringing and the only thing I can hear is what a fucking failure I am. That hurts.

When I was in class, I saw artwork that other students put up for critique, and they were timid to share it because they viewed it as unsuccessful. Many of times, I heard what they said, and understood why they said that, but I also saw bits and pieces of the masters in the same works they were degrading. I remember one painting in particular that one of my fellow classmates wasn’t proud of – and it instantly reminded me of “Landscape Study of Water, Sky, and Pine Trees” by Albrecht Dürer. I saw the same kinds of brush strokes, and the same forced perspective, the same struggle with competing values… but the student was just disappointed with it. I wondered if Dürer was disappointed with his study, maybe that’s why he didn’t finish it? What inspired me in this was the fact that Dürer’s painting is also the cover for Marie-Pierre Salé’s “Watercolor: A History.” This painting that the student was unhappy with instantly reminded me of a painting that has been admired for over 500 years.

Dürer, Albrecht. Landscape Study of Sky, Water and Pine Trees. c. 1497, Watercolor and Chalk, British Museum.

When I’m shitting on my own paintings – I need to remember the paintings like that. I need to remember that the greatest artists that have ever walked this Earth studied by doing. Dürer didn’t paint that intending it to be held onto – he didn’t think someone would be discussing it from his kitchen 500 years later. He just wanted to study the sky, trees, and water. I need to remember that – and free myself to just paint. Don’t spend so much time and effort denegrating everything I paint, because honestly – no one cares that much.

2. Practice Underpainting

I usually paint in two steps. First, I paint what I think the thing looks like. Then, I add shadows. In class we experimented with underpainting when we painted fruits, and it was enlightening. I need to experiment more with this. Instead of trying to nail it on the first attempt, I need to try an underpainting sometimes. This is especially important with Watercolor, where the next layer is so greatly impacted by the color of the surface beneath it.

And I should practice more than just “intuitive” underpaintings. Say I want to paint foliage that’s being backlit by the sun. In that case, some of the leaves will be yellow, some will be green, and some will be purple. My initial approach would be to paint a wet-in-wet wash with those three colors, and then go in later to try to better define a few edges and make that wet-in-wet wash read like foliage. (That’s usually not successful, by the way.)

If I wanted to do the same thing with an “intuitive” underpainting, I would start by painting all that foliage yellow, then when it dries, paint green over top of it leaving some of the yellow exposed. Then when that dries, I would paint purple over top of that, leaving most of the green exposed. The result would be mostly grey/green leaves with some bright yellow highlights and some muddy brown shadows. That might actually be very beautiful – maybe it would capture what I’m after, maybe it wouldn’t I wouldn’t know until I tried.

If that doesn’t work – that doesn’t mean underpainting should be avoided there. Instead, maybe I need to try a different approach. Try a yellow underpainting followed by a glaze of blue – that would make green that doesn’t feel so dead. If I follow that with a glaze of red in the shadowed areas, I might get more lively and interesting shadows. Relying more on the primary colors could help me significantly.

3. Don’t Stay Handcuffed to Local Colors

Instead of using purple to paint that eggplant – maybe try green. See what it does. Instead of using blue to paint the ocean – maybe try orange… see what it does. The light of a sunset could hit the waves and make the sea appear orange, maybe there’s a beautiful thing in there that I wouldn’t have seen if I hadn’t bothered to try. Instead of using yellow and purple to paint a lemon, try green. Try blue. Try red…. see what happens. Doing stuff like this will help me see the colors in objects that I normally don’t take notice of. I have a tendency to paint “what I think the thing looks like” instead of “what the thing looks like.” If I set out to paint a road, I think “Roads are black.” and I paint the road black. But if you look at a road, the light might shine off of it so intensely that even an asphalt road can look white. Don’t just paint logograms of the world around me – look at the world, study it, paint what is actually there. Then, what the hell? Paint it in a completely different way. Paint that red apple with purple and green pigments – suddenly you stop seeing just the “red” apple, maybe you’ll start seeing a “crisp” apple, or a “fresh” apple… you won’t know until you try.

4. Experiment

This is probably the most important lesson. I need to rip my watercolor paper into bits sometimes before I start painting, and just focus on one thing. Explore a technique. Explore a color. Explore an edge…. just test shit out. Paint a bunch of blobs of color, and explore lifting pigment – what happens if I try to lift after ten seconds? After thirty seconds? After 5 minutes? And don’t use these experiments to come up with “recipes” that I can use to render rocks or trees – rather just explore watercolor so I can learn how the medium behaves. I’m not trying to “make it my bitch” I’m just trying to understand how it responds. I want to dance with the watercolor, I don’t want to shove it into dirty little puddles until it cries because I’m telling it to look like a fucking boat already… I want to throw some pigment at the paper, and watch it.. then I can dance with it a bit.

Maybe that sounds really dumb, I don’t care – it makes sense to me.