Monday, June 29, 2009

Opacity - Refuge of Scoundrels

No, the opacity I'm talking about is not that of language, especially as exemplified by politicians, contemporary art critics, and economists. They probably all could vie for the Opacitator of the Year award. No what I'm talking about is opacity in watercolor.

Some people will know what I mean when I talk about this and others will probably roll their eyes. The best example I can give of this is Winslow Homer. I'm rereading one of my many books on him right now and once again I notice that as I look at his watercolors chronologically that they are skilled, accomplished and then out of the blue one day, they are really exciting. That is the day he abandons opaque watercolor for transparent watercolor. Some of the paintings(for example Applepicking) he did at Houghton Farm in New York in the late 1870s before going to Cullercoats, England are good examples. He achieves brightness as though he were painting in oils, by putting the lightest colors on top. So many of the highlights are light colors laid on top of dark colors. But you can't do this in watercolors. Except you can. IF you mix some opaque white with your colors. The white is more or less a new paper background and any color on it will be brighter, not limited through transparency to any darker colors underneath. But it comes at a price. The sparkling, luminous, transparent effect of watercolor is gone.

Sometime after his return from Cullercoats, and certainly by the time of his Adirondack paintings of the late 1880s, Homer more or less abandoned opaque watercolor for transparent watercolor, regardless of cost or difficulty. The result is a body of work that sings, the watercolors for which he's most famous.

I've always disliked opacity in watercolor so I've avoided it. Until today. I just couldn't think of any other way to salvage the reeds in this painting and make them regain the foreground. The results are mixed and I might try a little more work on it. But largely it's done. I do think it looks better than yesterday but I've lost some of the brilliance that is the main reason for working in watercolor. Still it seemed worth trying, at least this once.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Snowy Egret in Progress

I was so happy with my Laughing Gulls watercolor of last week that I've had it in my mind ever since then that I need to return to larger, looser watercolors. Outside of the small pen and ink insect drawings that I did about 10 years ago of insects viewed under a microscope I've always worked large. That changed when I took up birds as subject matter about three years ago as I explained in my post about the gulls. Because I'm so new to birds it seemed better to start small. But that can be inhibiting and after I finished the gull painting I found that there was a freedom in that painting that reminded me of my old abstract paintings.

I also enjoyed the process of doing a sketch and then testing colors before I began the real painting as I did with the Laughing Gulls. So today I looked through the many photographs I've taken of birds over the last year and decided to try a Snowy Egret seen at 'The Meadows' at Cape May this spring. I went from 7x10 paper to 11x14. The top two photos are of the preliminary sketch. The reflections in the water looked absolutely impossible but I was happy with the water in the gull painting so I wasn't intimidated by it.

Perhaps I ahould have been intimidated by the water and its reflections though, especially as I refused to use any masking medium to save the white paper where all the reeds were in front of the water. One day I'll probably need to take up the use of a masking medium. But today I decided to take my chances without it. You can probably see the problem. As I paint the water the brush goes into the foreground reeds and distorts them, or I shy away from them and end up with an odd white space surrounding them. But I decided to work this anyway. You never know what will happen until you try it.

I think I'm through with this for today. It's a bit duller than it looks online. And most of the reeds are disappointing. So most likely I'll see if there's anything I can do to rescue the reeds(I doubt it) and make the colors a bit more vibrant(more likely possible I think). I did what I wanted in this painting: work in a looser method. It hasn't been completely successful. But nothing ventured, nothing gained. I suspect that I will continue to work in this fashion. I should add that I also suspect that this method will never be popular in the world of 'wildlife art.' Photographic precision seems to be more the norm there. That is fine. But I find no enjoyment in working that way. So most likely this painting is a harbinger of thimgs to come.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

House Sparrows (and Echinacea) in Watercolor Pencil

House sparrows?! Who cares! Who wants to draw/paint/look at House Sparrows? Well this is easy to understand. In our backyard they outnumber other more interesting birds by about 10 to 1. Yes they are common. But they're still interesting birds and can make for good subjects. I believe it was a number of watercolor studies by Chloe Talbot-Kelly in 'Drawing Birds' by John Busby that convinced me you could make some very good drawings/paintings using them as subjects.

I've chosen them today because: 1) I vowed I'd finally do some work from life this summer when bad weather could no longer be an excuse; and 2) they were the only avian subjects that would sit still. A Ruby-Throated Hummingbird made a 5 second appearance but you can't draw much in that short time.

The accompanying sketches are nothing special, though I'm satisfied with them. But I'm so much happier with watercolor pencils now that I'm using a better quality paper, and now that I'm being more patient and not going back into the painting while it is still wet. The new Moleskin watercolor sketchpad is a great help. It seems a bit expensive but for me it's been worth it. What a pleasure to not worry about the quality of the paper, not worry about buckling.

As I've said many times before, so many that you might think 'he doth protest too much', I do believe that you get better art when working from life. There is a connection to the subject matter that is just missing when working from photos. But I've done very little work from life recently in spite of all my claims of its superiority.

So I hope that this will be the start of a real effort on my part to work more from life. I'm sure I'll continue to work from photos, maybe as soon as this afternoon or tomorrow. But I also want to spend more time working from life. I'm sure all of my work will improve in quality as I do so.

One last thought. You might wonder, well why doesn't he show more detail in the birds? Simple, they were too far away to see any detail except with binoculars or scope. So for today the challenge was to do sketches of them knowing that I wouldn't be able to include much detail. My answer was to include more of their surroundings. I've never really painted the sky before and haven't had much luck, or patience, with foliage. But I had no choice today. The birds were so far away as to be very small. That meant taking on skies and foliage.

It was such a nice day, low 80s with a breeze, that I found myself back outside later in the afternoon, after posting this. The Echinacea Pallida continued to call out to be painted, especially with the nearby sunflower and the Bronze Fennel behind. So here is version number two(I tried this for the first time last weekend).

It still leaves something to be desired. The details of the Echinacea are lost. The fennel is just so airy that it's hard to render in paint. And I'm still overwhelmed by all the foliage of the sunflower and the Echinacea. Still it's enough of a challenge, and the results good enough, that I'm sure I'll keep trying to do a good painting of this subject.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Gulls, Echinacea Pallida, Fennel

I made some really tiny changes to this watercolor of Laughing Gulls from yesterday. They were so minor that I decided not to post the new version. I also decided to stop with minor changes before I killed any vibrancy that I achieved yesterday.

But then my wife pointed out that it was dry in the backyard for the first time in weeks and there was a nice breeze. So I took the opportunity to go sit in the yard, bringing my new Moleskin watercolor sketchbook with me. It was time to inaugurate it. There really wasn't much to see other than undifferentiated green. But the Echinacea Pallidas were just starting to bloom and the Bronze Fennel behind them was a nice color counterpoint. I have to add that I love the shape of this somewhat unusual Echinacea. It asks to be drawn, actually in much greater detail than I've done here.

This is just a quick watercolor pencil sketch from life, on good paper. I only had 5 colors, none of them green, so that was a problem when faced with a sea of green. Still it was enjoyable to experiment. It was much more enjoyable using a sturdier paper. When I came back in I used a real watercolor wash of Hooker's Green I think to add a little bit of green to the picture.

Since I was posting this sketch I thought I might as well include the finished Laughing Gulls as well.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Laughing Gulls in Watercolor

I'm sure I've mentioned before that my background in art is primarily abstract. It's also large! For many years my smallest paintings were 4'x6'. Most were 6'x8'. But it's been awhile since I've worked at that large size.

As I've investigated art based on birds, or earlier insects, it made more sense to start small. I was unfamiliar with both birds and insects. If I'd started working large I would have ended up with gross, untruthful, and dull generalizations. Working small has forced me to look more closely at both(the insects very closely since they were drawn under a microscope).

BUT, every once in while it can drive me nuts. I think the recent detailed watercolor pencil work pushed me to the brink. I needed the freedom of something less constricting. So today I went back to straight watercolor.

The sketch at top is a quick sketch, with a few color notes, that I did just for practice. The second version is on watercolor paper rather than sketch paper. The birds are Laughing Gulls, seen in April, 2009 just as they made their arrival in Cape May, NJ. Though they'll eventually be on every lamp post in the area, at this time they were in one of the ponds at 'The Meadows,' a great area owned by The Nature Conservancy.

I'm not big on scenic photos or paintings. But sunrise or sunset here always changes my mind. The light and color are just too beautiful.

In this case the sunset which is in back of me as I took the photo is reflected in the background of the painting, with some of it spilling out onto the gulls and water. It was a stunning sight and made the black and white of the Laughing Gulls particularly striking.

I'm stopping for today, before I do something I regret. Tomorrow I'll probably do at least some more work on it.

I should add that this still isn't a large painting. It's only 7"x10" like many of my recent paintings. It's more the free brushwork that has made it seem 'larger' to me. But it is time to start increasing the size of my watercolors. I do not yet approach them as canvases on which to orchestrate color, value, texture and light as I always did with abstract art. I'm very much missing that type of painting.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Shorebirds in Flight

Even John Busby in his wonderful book about drawing birds from life, 'Drawing Birds', concedes that photography has allowed artists to see things that they haven't seen so well before. I think birds in flight is one of these. Though even there you can find examples, and he does in his book on Eric Ennion, of how an accomplished artists can still do a better job with his naked eye. There is a thrill in capturing movement actually seen firsthand that is not matched in working from photos.

All of which just leads up to the obvious: the watercolor pencil and watercolor sketch above is based on a photo I took at Heislerville WMA in April, 2009. Shorebirds are just not that familiar to my wife and myself, though they could be if we'd drag ourselves out of Philadelphia and the fewer than 100 miles over to Cape May more often. Nonetheless when we do get to see shorebirds it is a great experience. They are subtly beautiful birds in themselves but their story of lengthy migrations and the movements of whole flocks at a time all add up to make them one of our favorite bird types.

So when I got some decent photos I couldn't resist trying to make some sort of art from them. I'm recovering from a truly horrible virus of some sort and so this is the first new work in a week or so. I thought I'd use watercolor pencils for my first attempt. I think this was a combination of just wanting to continue to explore watercolor pencils and the added detail that they can bring to a painting. Because they begin as lines they are much easier to control than a brush, at least for anyone not accomplished in watercolor.

Knowing that I was going to try to be drawing birds in very confusing postures due to being caught at a moment in time by the camera I wanted all the help I could get. So drawing seemed a good idea. And I think it worked for getting some of the shapes.

BUT the still water has again defeated me. I tried to render it in watercolor pencil, then wash. When that looked bad I abandoned my vow not to go back into watercolor pencil when it was still wet and eventually went into it with abandon. Not much help. Finally, as a last ditch attempt, I went to straight watercolor. I didn't totally kill the surface as I did in the Greater Yellowlegs skecth of a week or two ago. But that's about it.

So there's still this dilemma with me and watercolor pencils. How in the world do you make a convincing area of large still water? I'm sure I'll continue to experiment. I'm obviously disappointed with the background and so I thought about just not posting this. But I am happy with getting some sense of the Short-billed Dowtchers and Dunlins in flight though, so I decided to post it for that reason. Shorebirds in flight are mighty impressive.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Finishing Up the Wood Ducks

I believe these wood ducks are done. Of course I thought that yesterday. But I've gone back into it and added more background color among other things. I'm also on the verge of losing too much of the white of the paper and I don't want to turn this into mud as I did with the Greater Yellowlegs. So I think it's done.

I did have to slap my own hand today, and to no avail. A few days ago I vowed to follow a new method of working in watercolor pencils in which I would not touch a pencil to wet paper. Until today I've been successful. But it is an almost insurmountable temptation to try to resist rectifying a mistake right when you see it. So I did that today a small bit. I don't think it did horrible harm. But it's still a danger. Hopefully no one sees anything out of place here.

So that's it for this watercolor. Ever since I saw and photographed the wood ducks on Easter, 2009 I've wanted to do a painting of them. They are incredibly beautiful birds, the female just as much as the more striking male. I'm glad this watercolor pencil experiment gave me the opportunity to do so.

What's on the agenda next? I'm not sure. Should I try working from life again and try to redeem the bad watercolor pencil rendering of the clematis from last weekend? Should I do more experiments inside with watercolor pencils? Go to straight watercolor, and maybe a larger size? I guess we'll just have to wait and see what strikes me this weekend.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Wood Ducks with Watercolor Pencil

I think that World Drawing Day last Saturday, and my very poor watercolor pencil work from that day, must have put a fire under me. I seem to be doing a new sketch almost every day. As I said in earlier posts much of that is motivated by my desire to finally figure out how to use watercolor pencils.

There is an irony here, especially in today's work. I thought I would use watercolor pencils and waterbrushes as handy tools for quick work in the field. Bring along a few colored pencils and some brushes and you can paint anywhere. The resulting work would be quick and without details. Eventually I may do that but right now I'm doing the opposite: working inside, from photos, in detail. Why?! Well I think much of it comes from my disappointment with my work so far. So I'm continuing to experiment letting the pencils take me where they may.

Today I'm working from a photo of some Wood Ducks seen at the Wissahickon in Philadelphia on Easter Day, 2009. They are among America's most beautiful birds.

Since I seem to overwork watercolor pencil sketches so much I'm trying to be more cautious, doing a fairly detailed drawing, putting in small areas of color with the pencils, often blending two or three colors in the same spot.

Tnen finally using brushes to turn the pencil into a watercolor wash. I also abandoned waterbrushes today and turned to my best and smallest watercolor brushes. I've tried to be very sparing as I laid down washes.

This is it for today. I've many other things to do. And I want to stop before I overwork it. I think yesterday's Greater Yellowlegs lost its vibrancy because of my experiments with layers of color in the background. It was a useful experiment but I'd do it differently next time. You just can't work the background that thoroughly and still expect vibrancy in the work. So today I'm doing the opposite. There's a whole lot of bare paper here. But Cezanne, among many others, showed how effective blank paper can be. We'll see tomorrow whether it still looks effective.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Watercolor Pencil Experiments Continued

There were a couple of things that bothered me about yesteday's watercolor pencil experiment with this Greater Yellowlegs. First the bird had too much of a reddish cast; second, the water looked too splotchy and colorless; third, the foreground was pretty undefined and lacking in color.

Normally I'd just go back into them while the painting was still wet and make a grand mess of things. This time I was more patient and waited for the paper to be completely dry before going back into it with the watercolor pencils. I have managed to get the colors of the yellowlegs a little closer to true. But I'm not really happy with either the water or the foreground. I can't say that layering on new colors has worked very well. But it may be more difficult with such a large undifferentiated space as still water. So I'm going to continue to experiment with layering of washes. I do think that eventually I'll find the way to use watercolor pencils to their best advantage. Patience, patience, patience!!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

More Watercolor Pencil Experiments

Following up on yesterday's experiments this is another quick watercolor pencil/waterbrush sketch based on a photo I took of a Greater Yellowlegs at Heislerville WMA. I've switched from the cheaper reccyled paper I had been using, where paper buckling was a real problem, to a proper watercolor paper. That has certainly helped the buckling.

I've also tried to do all my color blending with the pencils themselves before using the waterbrush to turn them into watercolors. That's been less successful. I'm unhappy with the colors and values. But I'm not going to go back into them now while the paper is wet. Pam Johnson Brickell has said that she is able to get color blending with this medium if she waits until the paper is completely dry. So that will be the next step. This is an improvement over past watercolor pencil work but we'll just have to see what happens next.

I do have to say though that all artistic media take awhile to learn. You suffer through them for awhile, sometimes quite awhile, and then one day you say: Aha! That's the way it's supposed to work. What a great medium!

Monday, June 8, 2009

Secrets of Watercolor Pencil

I have to admit I'm sometimes embarrassed to post some of my work in watercolor pencils and waterbrush. The results are far below my abilities. On Saturday I posted one of a 'Betty Corning' clematis and the results have been bothering me ever since. Why am I so unhappy with this medium? Especially since I liked it when I first started using it to do quick sketches of yard birds this winter.

Looking at the 'Betty Corning' it hit me. I like nuance in color. I like to modify the artwork until I get it right, either right as in 'accurate', or right as in the colors all work well to create a pleasing painting. When I try to do that with watercolor pencils and waterbrushes I ended up with an overworked disaster.

There are a number of reasons for this: 1) since these are just quick sketches I use very cheap recycled paper; but it just doesn't do well with water and soon buckles; 2)once I go over the watercolor pencil with the waterbrush it presents a different type of surface which no longer accepts the watercolor pencils well; it leads toward darkness and opacity, both detrimental to most watercolors; 3) I still try to get the colors right by color blending and continue with new, more vigorous, darker pencil marks and watercolor washes. I end up with a dark mess, or maybe sometimes a dark, but half-successful watercolor.

So today I decided to do a test. I only had 15 minutes or so. I would work from a recent photo(I ended up choosing Black-bellied Plovers from Heislerville WMA), but I would not try to mix colors, except on the first pencil rendering. I would slap my own hand if it tried to go back in and add more pencil markings once I touched the waterbrush to the paper.

I think the results prove my point. This is much more successful. It's still a quick sketch, not a finished watercolor. But it looks much fresher. The blue water would me much improved by using better, white rather than tan, paper. But that's easily fixed in future sketches. The most important lesson learned is that all color mixing must be done with the pencils on the first go, before touching waterbrush to paper and turning the pencil drawing into a watercolor sketch.

Of course one test doesn't really prove anything. But I'm confident that future tests will show the same results. Blend your colors with the pencils. DO NOT try to do so with a brush or pencils after you've touched the waterbrush to the paper. It just doesn't work!

Saturday, June 6, 2009

World Drawing Day 2009 - Part II

As I mentioned in my earlier post today is World Drawing Day. I'm a big believer in drawing, particularly as a alternative to photography. I won't go into the details of that here. But I did want to take advantage of this in order to force myself to do a number of drawings. It would have been nice to have ended up with some masterpieces. But by the time the morning bird census was done, and a week's worth of grocery shopping done, there wasn't all that much time left in the day.

Earlier I showed a quick watercolor pencil and waterbrush sketch of a clematis in our garden. As we returned from shopping another opportunity presented itself: a dead moth in front of our front door. At one time I did a great number of finely detailed pen and ink drawings of insects, including moths. They were done under a dissecting microscope and took quite awhile to do. Today's sketch is much quicker, done in vine and compressed charcoal and no microscope.

Sad to say I've found moths to be among the most difficult of nature's creatures to identify. After a quick glance through my moth field guide I'd say it looks a bit like a Common Fungus Moth. But I could very easily be wrong about this.

Before starting a new moth drawing though I thought I'd relax for a bit in front of the television and watch the Phillies and Dodgers. Well it wasn't exactly relaxing as it took about three more hours for the Phillies to lose to the Dodgers in the 12th inning I think. Sad to see.

But the early innings gave me a chance to try some felt tip pen drawings from TV. I first started drawing from TV many years ago during the Watergate hearings. It was TV you couldn't tear yourself away from and gave me quite an opportunity. Like that hearing baseball games are difficult in that you never know just how long the same image will stay in front of you. Most last only for a second or so. But it still can be fun to draw. This sketch shows Phillies pitcher Joe Blanton facing a Dodgers batter, I forget who. There are also a couple of other sketches of the game.

None of these are masterpieces as I said. But on this day, World Drawing Day, I hope that they at least show some of the range of possibilities that drawing offers. As this day's logo says: Drop Everything and Draw!

World Drawing Day 2009

Today is World Drawing Day according to this site. I must say that I really haven't had time to investigate exactly what it is. But any site that says 'Drop everything and Draw' is just fine with me.

Today was also the day of the breeding bird census at Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education and we spent all morning and part of early afternoon counting birds there. But I did like the excuse for drawing that WDD gave me. When we got home I noticed a beautiful Betty Corning clematis in bloom winding through our spicebush. That prompted me to do this quick drawing enhanced (or maybe 'detrimented') by the use of watercolor pencils and waterbrushes. The lack of flexibility in this medium continues to stymie me but that's most likely my lack of experience. In any case here it is.

If I have time, and energy, I hope to do a few more drawings in different media and styles before the day is out. I should also add, apropos my recent comments at Drawing the Motmot, that I'm proud that I did force myself to do this from life. No photos!!