Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Another Return - Watercolor

Three Least Sandpipers at Morris Arboretum. Watercolor by Ken Januski. Last version.
Three Least Sandpipers at Morris Arboretum. Watercolor by Ken Januski. First version.

I have no idea when the last time I did a watercolor was, probably more than a year. I have done numerous watercolor sketches, the most recent just yesterday. But they are different. They're just sketches and they're not done on good watercolor paper. Though the paper I use is great for sketches it doesn't have the brightness and more importantly the robustness of true watercolor paper. I can only make so many changes before the color gets muddy and the paper no longer accepts the paint.

There are many reasons for my not doing watercolors but the main reason is fear of failure, abysmal failure. I've quoted before the great, perhaps greatest American watercolorist Winslow Homer, on watercolor: it is making the best of an emergency.

What in the world does this mean? It makes perfect sense to me so I'll say what I think it means. Watercolor dies a horrible death if it doesn't retain both spontaneity and freshness. It's greatest strength is the vibrancy that it can create through its basic property of transparency. Winslow Homer knew this. But it also doesn't want to be held by boundaries. Neither does oil painting.

Though there are some great oil painters, David comes to my for instance, who tended to paint within the lines many great painters didn't, for instance Rembrandt. For them painting is, I think, an orchestration and weaving of marks across the entire canvas. The heavy impasto of Rembrandt doesn't stay within any boundaries. By painting in such a way the viewer himself is able to put together all those marks and see what is probably a more realistic portrayal than that of paintings that stay within the lines. Of course the Impressionists also tried to get away from line and outlines, saying that's not really the way we see. Look out the window and I'm sure you'll agree. Where is the line that defines the edge of that tree?

In any case there are some watercolor painters, Homer for instance, who try to paint like Rembrandt but in transparent watercolor. The problem? In watercolor you can't successfully paint white or any lighter color over a darker color. That's the nature of transparency. Transparency both makes watercolor the vibrant medium that it can be and also makes it just about the most difficult medium that there is to use, at least as a painting medium.

I think it's that knowledge that you might be putting down an irreversibly bad color or mark that Homer was talking about. When you do you either give up, or try to think of some way to salvage it. Thus watercolor is always an emergency.

I can't stand paint within the line watercolors, though I'm sure someone could point out some exception to that rule, perhaps Charles Demuth, who vaguely stayed within the lines. But for me painstaking dabs of watercolor, kept within the lines is just of no interest. It almost makes my skin crawl because it seems such a betrayal of the beauty of watercolor. It demands skill no doubt. But the end result is deadly. I should add that there are some contemporary bird artists that I know of who use watercolor in a fresh way. They stay close to the lines but still manage not to be inhibited by them. The watercolors still are fresh and lively.

But these artists are masters of the medium. I'm not, not by a very, very long shot. So I know that when I choose to do a watercolor I'll soon have an emergency. And yet the beauty of watercolor, when used as a transparent, painterly medium is irresistible. So I finally gave it a try with the Least Sandpipers above.

My watercolors have never been as well received as my prints. I'm not surprised because I know how far I have to go to master the medium in a way that I'm happy with. But still I can't help but try it again, every once in a while.

Most likely the painting is done. It is painted on 9x12 inch 300# Arches watercolor paper.

Well perhaps the painting SHOULD have been done. I couldn't resist a few changes. The newest version is at top.

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