Ray Hendershot Exercise: Lighthouse #1

I have been absolutely stuck for the past few weeks. Every time I sit down to paint, nothing comes to mind. Nothing inspires me, I have no intention. But, just as an act of discipline, I paint anyway.

The results are nothing to write about. It’s all very ugly, muddy, cliche… just nothing that I’m even remotely proud of.

It’s times like this when I just want to give up. I want to throw in the towel and walk away because in spite of all the late nights trying to get good at this, it’s just not working.

I need to take the pressure off myself. I need to make this hobby into a hobby again. I don’t know why I’m so driven to being “good” at this, but I can’t escape it. I’m pretty sure when I’m able to finally let go, and just paint for the hell of it, I’ll see results coming. But my mind won’t let me off the hook – something is telling me that I want to get good at this. I want to continue to improve so when I retire from my day job (in twenty years or so) watercolor painting will be my retirement job. That’s the dream.

Why do I put so much pressure on myself then? I don’t need to get good at this right now. I have twenty freaking years… jeez. I’ve only been at this for two and a half years now, of course I’m not where I want to be. In fact, if I’m objective about it, I’m actually pretty good considering I don’t have any formal education, and only two and a half years of part-time experience.

So, tonight I decided to pull out my book by Ray Hendershot. I have really enjoyed painting through this book, and I don’t know why I put it on the shelf other than because I got a little bored with it. I’m glad I did.

Of course this isn’t as good as the example in the book. How dare I even hope that it would be? But, I’m proud of a few things here.

1. I let the background paint itself. All too often I struggle with backgrounds trying to get them to look “right.” This is the absolute worst thing you can do with watercolor. Sure, you need to have intention – but if you riddle the entire painting with precise, overwrought marks, it just ends up feeling completely forced and sophomoric. The trees and sky in this painting are a good example of how I want to paint. I want to let the pigment do whatever it wants in parts of the painting so there can be some parts of the composition that are soft, and reflective. I need to pick my focal point, and try to be precise there. Everywhere else, I need to let the painting do what it will, and allow the viewer to turn it into whatever they see.

2. I stood up. I changed how I set up my easel, and replaced my small gator board with a full sheet of gator board. I can then tape a quarter sheet of paper to the large surface, and stand it up so the painting is eye level. This forces me to paint at a distance, which makes it easier to see the forest in spite of the trees. When I sit down, I always end up crouched over the painting with my nose almost inches from the paper, struggling with a tiny branch somewhere. By elevating the paper, and dramatically increasing the angle that I paint at, I literally cannot control large loose washes because gravity pulls it down before I have a chance to struggle with it. This movement makes the paint flow freely, and washes take a mind of their own more quickly. For the time being, I’m going to continue painting at this severe, 75-80 degree angle.

3. I mixed my colors on the palette before I painted. I have a bad habit of painting right from the well – and I always end up with pigments that are too dark too soon. I then struggle trying to paint the light, and just turn everything into mud. I need to try to continue being mindful to mix all my colors on the palette before going to the paper. Even if I’m going to use a color unmixed, straight from the well – I should still mix it on the palette – if for no other reason than to better feel the thickness of the pigment before I put brush to paper.

There are a lot of things I should do differently. For one, I should have used more light washes on the rocks before I went in with the darks to paint the cracks. Secondly, I should have been more intentional about the cracks, thinking more about the dimensions of the rocks as I painted. I knew when I painted them that these dark areas were defining the shadowed sides of the rocks, but I kind of just hoped things would work when I came back in with some mid tones. Next time, I need to really plan out the geometry more in my mind before I paint the darkest darks.

I tried to put some of these lessons into practice on my next painting, which I’m more pleased with than I have been with a lot of my other paintings recently. I painted this from my imagination, but I think it’s much more interesting than the same-old same-old compositions that have been plaguing me lately.

Again, I painted at an extreme angle, and I stood up the whole time. Once more, this caused the washes to be more spontaneous – which feels much more in line with what I want. I over worked the water, but I think that’s largely because I didn’t really have a plan for it when I started painting. I just kind of slapped pigment around hoping it would just come together. That’s a fine approach, but if I take that approach, I need to surrender to the results. Instead, I painted the water very freely, and then kept coming back to make it “better.” As a result – it got muddy.

I’m learning…

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