Sunday, March 26, 2017

But Why Should It Look Like an Oil Painting?

Glossy Ibis. Watercolor by Ken Januski.

The show American Watercolor currently on at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is a quite timely counterpoint to these recent watercolors and watercolor studies.  We've seen it twice and I'm currently reading  the massive catalog that accompanies it. Both are well worth the money  and time if you are interested in watercolor.

As long-time readers know I've had a very mixed history with watercolor. I love the results in the hands of masters like Winslow Homer  and John Singer Sargent but my own work  has often led  me to near despair, or at least mild cantankerousness. I've also never had much interest in various watercolor  societies, because based on the little I've seen it seems to value control over everything else. And yet it  has such possibilities as a medium!

To make a long story short I've looked at a lot of watercolors, done a fair number myself and read a few books about watercolor, mainly American watercolor. (I'd be happy to read about British watercolor  but have not  yet heard of  a good, and affordable, book that covers that topic). In any case the end result is that I've thought a fair amount about the styles of  watercolor I like and those I  don't  like.

What is  so refreshing about the American Watercolor show is  that it covers  those same topics except in a broader range, with far more knowledge than I have, and with living, breathing examples. Because it is  such a huge subject and such a  huge  show I'm  not going to say much more about it. However I will say that you  can find great examples of so many different ways  of painting  in watercolor, from the extreme detail of  the followers of John Ruskin and the American Pre-Raphaelites, to those who seemed to think that it served no other purpose than to imitate large, exhibition oil paintings, to the 20th century abstractions of John Marin  and Georgia O'Keeffe, with many, many artists, many of  whom I'd never heard, both male and female along the way.

For me personally it has helped to crystalize what I  want in my own watercolors, though to a certain extent I already knew: Homer  and Sargent. So much  wildlife art seems so similar to the Ruskinites, artists who painstakingly tried  to portray every little  detail of nature. Tellingly most of them  eventually gave up. It is too much work for too little reward. More important to me is that though they can be quite beautiful they  also seem to live in a world with no air, where nothing  breathes.

So I've always preferred a looser style, that allows imprecision,  but that also allows light and spontaneity,  two of the elements that seem to be the greatest inherent strengths  of  the medium. I  won't  go on about  this. I  think that  if  you  like  watercolor you'll like the show  and you'll find examples of  the style  of watercolor you like. But you'll also find examples  of other styles  of watercolor  and you might walk away appreciating them as well.

Many early American watercolorists eventually gave  up  because they  just  did not  sell. They  weren't  'real' art works, like oil paintings. I've had my own dissatisfaction with watercolor but it really is  more related to the difficulty of  the medium,  at least when highlighting its strengths of light and spontaneity, than it is  to sales. Printmaking is now my primary medium. But I can't help going back to watercolor every so  often, as I have in this recent work.

One last comment about the show, though it is more noticeable in the catalog than in the show itself. That regards watercolor sketches as used by naturalists. Early on the book mentions a few types of  watercolor  that are pretty much outside of  the subject of the book, that seemed to proceed on their own, regardless of  movements in the art world  or watercolor  world itself. One of  those is the watercolor sketch of naturalists. It is  an interesting side note and perhaps explains at least to some degree why there are so many talented wildlife artists, especially in terms of  field sketching who use watercolor, and yet who seem oblivious  to or perhaps  even opposed  to everything that happens in the wider art world. The show does  include by the  way a wonderful watercolor  by John  James Audubon of some Black Rats.

Eastern Screech Owl at Rea Farm. Watercolor by Ken Januski.

Hermit Thrush. Pencil Sketch and  Pencil Sketch  with Watercolor by Ken Januski.

I really don't have much to say about my own works that I'm showing here, except to say that they were all done in  the last  week or  two. Most are a little bit more  finished, and a little bit less spontaneous, than my  ideal  watercolor.
Louisiana Waterthrush at 'The Magic Bridge.' Watercolor Sketch by  Ken  Januski.

Northern Harrier  at Dixon Meadow. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

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