Several weeks ago I posted about beginning to experiment with watercolor painting in the life drawing sessions I attend as a regular practice. Now I have a batch of new watercolor paintings to share. I’ll write about my experiences with the new (to me) medium, interspersing illustrations more or less randomly.
The classic watercolor approach to the figure is to focus on clear areas of light and dark, infusing color into the shadows using wet-on-wet techniques to achieve luminous softness. I don’t know of anyone that does that style better than my friend Jacqui Morgan. I love the way she achieves the look of light reflecting into the shadow areas – click the link on Jacqui’s name to see several examples of what I’m talking about. But I’m more interested in finding my own style than in imitating something someone else has already mastered.
Over the seventeen years I’ve been attending life drawing sessions, I’ve drawn with pencils, pens, pastels, conté crayons, graphite blocks, markers, and ink and brush. The medium I really developed was aquarelle crayons. (Aquarelle is the French word for watercolor, so these crayons contain watercolor pigments and are water-blendable.) I generally worked on gray or black paper, so I focused primarily on drawing the highlights, letting the ground of the paper represent the shadows. Watercolor painting essentially demands an opposite approach!
Through the use of dry media I discovered the expressive power of the linear stroke. These gestural marks are the traces of movement, the movement of my hands as well as the movement of my perception. I’ve found that the scribbly thicket of lines communicates my way of seeing my subjects as patterns of energy. The strokes also capture a particular quality of the moment, a mood that may be tranquil, dynamic, sensual, or whatever. The lines also follow the three-dimensionality of the form, and convey its roundness even in the absence of chiaroscuro lighting. The expressive line technique should work well with the brush.
Dry media such as the aquarelle crayons cannot be mixed on a palette, but must be combined directly on the paper. Essentially, the pigments remain separate but are close enough together that they blend in the eye. It should be possible to do that in paint, too, though so far I haven’t yet figured out how to get the highly saturated watercolor hues to blend into really convincing realistic colors.
Over the years I have done a lot of drawing with ink and a brush, and I had certainly noticed that brushstrokes are more expressive than the strokes of a pencil or crayon. Crayons are simple – relatively easy to control, dumb, but direct. I barely think about them when I’m using them. The relationship of brush to paper and brush to liquid is complex, with small variations in pressure, angle, and wetness making a huge difference in the quality of the marks. I find I must place more of my mental awareness in the brush itself, because the subtleties of its caress are so magnified on the paper.
As you can see, I’ve been trying to adapt my scribbly linear style to watercolor painting. I still consider these paintings a beginner’s attempts in this direction. It’s exciting for me to challenge myself with an unfamiliar medium, and interesting to see how techniques with which I’d achieved a certain facility become crude or experimental when transposed to watercolors.
In sketching quick two-minute poses with watercolor, the technique of focusing on the light/dark divisions works well, and actually seems to capture the quality of the pose more efficiently than the contour-based approach I tend to use when drawing with pencils or pens.
Watercolor paints are transparent. Highlights are achieved by leaving the paper unpainted, and light values of colors by using very thin washes of color, or, in my linear style, thin meshes of colored lines with a lot of white in between. For me, this has been the most challenging aspect of the medium. Occasionally I’ve cheated by using white aquarelle crayons to open up highlights or to “erase” errors or washes that become too dark.
I’ve also sometimes used light-colored crayons to make a rough sketch on the paper before beginning to apply paint. This allows me to use my accustomed loose-handed way of establishing overall proportions and spatial relationships before laying down paint that may be difficult or impossible to correct.
Sometimes a very simple approach is most effective. I think I have a tendency to overwork things. Watercolor seems to shine with a minimalist style.
The portrait below may be the closest I’ve gotten to duplicating my crayon style in paint.
The colors of the watercolor paintings look a bit more intense in these photos than they do in the originals. Even photographing these requires a different approach than photographing the crayon drawings! But since I switched from cheap watercolors to higher-end paints, the colors are highly saturated. I think I need to figure out how to neutralize them.
Sometimes I’ve tried a more expressionistic approach to both the colors and the strokes. That seems to work to give a feeling for emotion and character.
The model for the drawing above is Claudia, the Museworthy blogger. She’s got a post coming soon that features artwork by the many talented artists that know her through her blog or through her work as a model. I’ll have a piece in it, and I’ll add a link here as soon as it’s up. I’ll close this post with another watercolor of Claudia.
All the paintings in this post are watercolor on paper, either 15″ x 20″ (38 x 51 cm) or 11″ x 14″ (28 x 36 cm).