Tools of the Trade- Squirrel Mops

This is going to be another occasional series, like the Spotlight series.  This will be about tools and equipment, which I get a lot of questions about.  My goal is to share input on brushes and paints, paper and tools, etc. as I come to my own opinions about them. Today, I wanted to share about a new brand of squirrel mops I've found out about- Rekab. 

 

What I'm Looking For In a Squirrel Mop-

As I've learned over time, mops really vary by brand.  With the way I paint, I like my mops to be versatile.  I don't use them just for washes, but also for a variety of expressive strokes and details.  I often like to use a brush "just a little too big" for what I'm painting, to keep things loose.  When I want to get finicky, I have to make the conscious choice to shift to a smaller synthetic on purpose.  That means I need mops that a) hold lots of water for those big washes, b) have a very sharp tip, so I can go in for those details, all in one fell swoop, and c) I need to be able to deform them to create interesting, organic marks.  Because I move them around, not just using them for washes, I also like a bit of resistance.  Mops can vary in terms of "softness", so this is a nebulous detail that is really about feel.  But I honestly feel like it's true.  You've just got to try them out and see.

Here are some examples of what I mean by "deforming" the brush head-

You can get lovely interesting drybrush marks with this kind of brush.  Yes, I'm sure I'm shortening the lives of my brushes.  But I get everything out of them they have to offer me!  :P

Also, it's worth saying that some people take issue with mops being natural hair, and although I'm fine with it, I'm not one to judge.  I will say, however, that I've not yet used a synthetic mop that I've been satisfied with as a painting tool.  Perhaps that will come with time and technology.  Natural hair holds water better and manipulates differently against the paper.  Synthetic brushes have a great deal more "snap", which some people like, but for me, that's what I have synthetic rounds for.  For mops, I want a different kind of response.  As such, I don't recommend them.  However, there may end up being some comments below that offer recommendations for these types of brushes.

 

The Contender- The Rekab

Rekabs are made in Israel.  In the US, as far as I know, if you buy online you can only buy Rekab brushes from The Italian Art Store- a retailer based out of New Jersey.  Here's a link to the page- http://www.italianartstore.com/store/rekab_brushes.html.  I ordered mine online, and they arrived in about a week. 

Why am I recommending these brushes to folks?  They seem, so far, to be quality.  They have a very sharp point, they have that nice long, slender Castagnet-style handle that I like, they hold a lot of water, and they are AFFORDABLE.  As in, you-can-actually-explore-using-a-mop-for-the-first-time-without-breaking-the-bank kind of cheap.  How cheap?  Well, they are still mops, of course, so it's all a matter of comparison, but they run 15$ for a .25" wide mop (what they call a #2), to 50$ for a .75" wide mop (a #12).  That's a remarkable price point for natural hair.

I will note, however, that the heads of the Rekabs are slightly different from some of the other brushes.  They seem stiffer than the Isabey I have (not hard at all to accomplish, but important).  They also seem slightly softer than the Castagnet brushes I have.  The Alvaro brushes almost want to deform and bend stiffly.  I love this attribute when working dry and making marks.  These Rekabs will deform (as shown above), but I seem to have to work at it a bit more.  Who knows?  Perhaps I'll get used to it with time.  I'm not sure.  They're a little shorter (.25"?) and chubbier, with a fatter belly when fully wet.  Look here-

black rekab #12 (.75" wide) versus a big #10 Castagnet (.8" wide)

black rekab #12 (.75" wide) versus a big #10 Castagnet (.8" wide)

Black rekab #8 (.5" wide) versus brown Isabey #7 (approximately .6" wide)

Black rekab #8 (.5" wide) versus brown Isabey #7 (approximately .6" wide)

Will this shorter head affect the painting experience?  I don't know.  I don't think so, personally.  They honestly look pretty similar to the shape of Escoda mops to me, and people seem to like painting with those.  Will they last a long time?  I also don't know that.  I'll have to report back later on both things, if I find out more.

Still, despite these differences, in total the brushes seem lovely.  Good snap, good point, nice water capacity, nice long handle, will splay and deform, and the right price.

 

My History- Castagnet, Isabey, and DaVinci

For a number of years, I've been using Alvaro Castagnet brushes.  These are very good brushes, in my opinion.  Lovely fine point when they're new, and good water-holding capacity.  It has a longer handle than normal, presumably for more expressive, "dancing" brushstrokes (?), but the Rekabs have a similar length and handling quality.

When I first came to them in my workshop with Alvaro, I'd never really seen or bought a mop before.  So I was happy to just get some.  Why am I moving on to another brand?  The first issue is cost.  These puppies are expensive.  As in, 35$ US for a .25" wide mop to 130$ for the .75" wide variety.  An investment.  Also, depending on the brush you happen to get, they really shed.  Some mops shed some in the beginning but then sort of "discard" the loose hairs and stop.  That's pretty common.  But I've had a big #10 Castagnet for a long time, and it has shed like mad for years.  It's anecdotal evidence, but I'm not the only one I've met with that critique.  It hasn't stopped me from using it because otherwise they've very good, but it's a nuisance for such an expensive brush.  If these brushes didn't shed at all, would I be staying with the Alvaro brushes?  Maybe.  But they are expensive, and they have shed, and so... I'm moving to Rekabs for now.

I also recently bought a #7 Isabey mop. An Isabey #7 is about .6" wide.  It was also not cheap, at 60$, but it's about 40% cheaper than the Alvaro brushes. 

Here's a link to where I bought it on Dick Blick- http://www.dickblick.com/products/isabey-original-siberian-blue-squirrel-quill-mop-series-6234/ . My issue?  It's very soft and floppy, and has a relatively blunt tip.  It's fine for large washes, but it's not very versatile.  Again, my preference is for mops with a tiny bit of resistance and a very sharp tip, like Alvaro's.  This offered me neither, unfortunately.  Also, they use some sort of shellac on the handle that has started cracking and discoloring within about 3-6 months from purchase.  It's unsightly, and eventually it may also be uncomfortable if it chips.  It's a bit nitpicky, but for 60$, I expect a very good brush.

Finally, I've also tried a DaVinci in the past.  It was a #6.  When it was new, I liked it, but had no points of reference.  Then my dog ate it.  Really.  :(  After I put it back together, like Humpty Dumpty, it was never quite the same.  Now I use it to make scruffy marks or apply water to areas.  So, perhaps DaVincis are good brushes, but I sure don't know.  Hahaha!  Here's a link to it as well- http://www.dickblick.com/products/da-vinci-russian-blue-squirrel-brushes/#photos .

 

My Recommendation-

In the end, brushes are very personal.  They are an extension of your arm and mind.  They are the tool that makes your marks.  So by no means do I want to denigrate the choices others are making.  Some need control and tighter water management, and so use many synthetics.  Some don't want to use animal hair.  Some like the sharp edge of a flat (James Gurney!).  If you are interested in glorious wet into wet washes and "expressive and painterly" brushstrokes, a mop is near essential, in my mind.  At the very least, it's very useful.  It is the type of brush I use the most.

If you've not tried any mops and are curious, these Rekabs are my recommendation for those who are introducing themselves to the style and looking for a purchase.  If you paint 11" x 15" or smaller, I would recommend getting getting a #2 (about .25" wide) for small shapes and something like a #8 (.5" wide) for big washes.  I got a #4 and #8, and I find the #4 a tiny bit big for small areas.  I used to use a Castagnet #0, and this new #4 is just a little bit bigger than I'm used to for that smaller size.  Not a lot bigger though...

black rekab #4 (approx. .36" wide) versus a red castagnet #0 (about .25" wide)

black rekab #4 (approx. .36" wide) versus a red castagnet #0 (about .25" wide)

Anyways, two mops, plus a synthetic or two, should generally do the job in terms of brushes at that size of paper.  I got a #12 too (.75" wide), and it's also lovely, but I only use it on 1/2 sheets. 

If some of you have other recommendations or warnings, stories about brushes and how they've worn over time, links to online retailers you prefer, etc, please leave them in the comments for others to find.

Evolution of an Image- Seam of Light

"seam of light"- 11" x 15"

"seam of light"- 11" x 15"

This weekend I'll be sharing this piece as part of a larger group show at the Benicia Plein Air Gallery.  11 other artists painted their own works from the same cove in Benicia- just around the corner from the gallery!  There's a reception on Sunday, August 6th, from 300-500.  I'll be there, as well as many of the other artists.  There will also be a variety of local poets doing a reading, who've written works that use the art as their focal point.

I actually worked on this all month, and had a hard time getting a painting I was satisfied with enough to share.  I went in and painted plein air in early July, and got a serviceable piece, but it didn't have much mood.  I wanted something more.  Below is that first plein air piece.  It was a cold and windy morning!

 

A few weeks later, I went back down at sunset and went to work under a tree.  The light was ABSOLUTELY BLINDING!  But, I also really liked it.  I decided that this was the real subject of my painting- the boats are just a means to get there.  Staring into those sparkles, I explored how to paint what I was experiencing, and less what I was seeing.  Here's a shot of the view.  I've zoomed in a lot for my painting, but that's the nature of taking photos versus being there.

I did these two quick plein air sketches as I tried to capture the feel.  Each took 30-45 minutes max.  The sun was getting low in the sky and I was racing against time!!  I liked the light in the first, but not the color palette.  I liked the color palette in the second, but felt it was a bit over the top.  Together, I hoped I could gather enough info to make something I was satisfied with later on, in the studio.

 

A week or so later, I sat down to do some color studies.  Each of these is pretty small- only an 1/8th sheet.  I slopped on the water and went about just trying stuff out and seeing what I got.  The results were really interesting for all of them!  But I could tell I liked the warmer background that was softer and more recessive, matched with a harder warmer foreground.  The truth is you can see the bridge as the mountain very well from this spot- but they're not the focus of the painting, and were stealing too much attention.  I wanted to include them mostly to create a sense of distance. 

I took what I liked and went back to work, and did one more 1/4 sheet- the last one you see here.  All in all not bad- too rough technically, but I decided I liked where things were going.  I worked on softening the horizon light to make it less dominant, and to help express the glare of the light better- how it "eats up" edges.  The addition of the green was also a key improvement in my mind. It provided a framing device, and most importantly, I gave me another tool to help express light.  I had a lot of fun moving form the dark blue-greens up top down to the paler and more vibrant yellow leaves closer to the center.

A few days later I tried another quarter sheet.  Much to like!  The next big change compositionally was that I felt, in the end, including the prow of the boat on the left was important.  Not only did it work a bit like a key, being more recognizable and unlocking the more abstract passages of the boats, but it also helped me move more fully from very soft warm edges in the center to very hard, cool edges father from the light.  I also included more yellows for the heart of the glowing, bright area.

 

I did this last one at the end of the week- about a month after starting.  Sheesh!  Every painting has little changes, little things that shift around.  The previous one retained more whites and had a bit more pepper on the water.  This one is much warmer and softer, with a humid light in the air.  Is it better?  I don't know.  In my opinion, yes, on a technical level at the very least.  I liked the boats better, though they too have their issues.  Still, I worked on getting the transition from very warm yellows and oranges to be more gradual as it moves to the darker blues and browns- I subtle difference that I found useful.  The overall value is lighter for the painting, in my opinion, with only the darkest darks hitting the same scale as last time.

Seam of Light Final.jpg

For now, whatever further improvements I might think of, it's time for this composition to rest.  It's come a long way from the first pass, and I like the viewing experience with this one much better than the one I did back at the beginning of July.  Many features come more fully into play in terms of hue and value- the trees and grasses, the dissolving pylon, the dark muted blues of the boat on the left, the softening of the bridge in the background.  If you stare at the painting and feel like you ought to squint because of the glare, then I'm getting close to the right result.  !

More Classes Added To My Upcoming Schedule!

I have a number of shows approaching, which I'll be posting more about later on, but I also have even more classes coming up, if you missed the two that I recently held at the Benicia gallery.  Scroll down to see the details!

 

Benicia Plein Air Gallery Group Show

Sunday, August 6th, 300-500 pm-

Next weekend, I'll be sharing my painting for this show, and going over my process and the experiments and iterations I worked through to get to my final product.  I'll one of the 12 artists with a piece in the exhibit.  We'll all have painted the same local water scene, and there will be an ekphrastic poetry reading to go along with it.  It's a lot of fun, and we did something similar last year, with great success. http://www.beniciapleinair.com/

 


 
 

Workshop- Wet-Into-Wet Clouds and Landscapes-

Saturday and Sunday, August 12-13, 900-400pm, 195$

My July workshop on Clouds was a blast, but if you missed out, I've got a second workshop on Wet-Into-Wet Clouds and Landscapes set up at Arts Benicia! It's filling up, but the space is bigger and can host more students.  We'll explore "reading" the wetness of the paper and brush, educate ourselves about the concept of the Watercolor Clock, experiment with iteration, practice using more calligraphic brushwork, and more.  If you would like to sign up, please follow this link- https://artsbenicia.org/loosening-up-with-wet-into-wet-clouds/.  Payment will go directly through Arts Benicia, and the workshop will be held in their classroom, which is also in Benicia.  This will be my first workshop on a weekend, as I try to meet the schedules of those with full time work.  Should be lots of fun! 

 


 
 

Workshop- Wet-Into-Wet Clouds and Landscapes-

Wednesday and Friday, September 13 and 15th, 930-430 pm, 185$

That's right, I'm holding this workshop again in September!!  This one will be in Vacaville, and will be held at the studio of painter Misuk Goltz.  Lunch for both days will be included, and Misuk will be holding an additional "Open Studio" on Thursday the 14th, from 10-12 for participants to practice the techniques.  Payment will be made to Misuk by check or Paypal, who is facilitating the workshop, so please contact her directly at msbestmost@gmail.com for details regarding the workshop, or information regarding payment.  

 


 
 

Workshop- Wet-Into-Wet Florals

Saturday and Sunday, October 28-29, 900-400 pm, 195$

If you missed this workshop in June, but wanted to take it, I'll be offering it again in October through Arts Benicia.  Flowers, much like clouds, are a forgiving subject, and can provide a great way to experiment and test the limits of wet-into-wet painting.  If you've taken the Clouds workshop of mine, the Florals workshop will work in tandem with it, as we'll be exploring and reinforcing many similar subjects- the Watercolor Clock, how to "read" the wetness of the paper and brush, how to achieve hard and soft lines, etc.  If you're interested, please follow this link- https://artsbenicia.org/loosening-up-with-wet-into-wet-florals/ .  Payment is made directly through Arts Benicia.

Spotlight on an Artist- Wendy Artin

Artin Figure 2.jpg

Wendy Artin is an American watercolor artist that lives in Rome.  I found out about her a few years ago, and have been a private fan ever since.  Now I get to share her with everyone!  :)  You can find her website at http://www.wendyartin.com/ .  Please visit it if you like this article- she's awesome, and there's a library of additional links, images, and articles on her.

The best of her work is full of a variety of precise hard edges and soft wet passages, where the dramatically simplified subject only partially emerges from the paper.  Her figurative paintings, to me, wonderfully distill that desire to let a painting be a record not only of the world held still for a moment, but also of the painter's body in motion, working in tandem with the paper and water.  You can see the delicate brushwork like a signature, the soft edges that remain behind after the water has evaporated, the texture of the paper popping through like peppered light.  The goal isn't to hide these gears and inner workings of the art-making process, to create a better illusion of sorts, but instead to share and use them to greater effect. 

Below is a video about her that I found.  We're lucky, because it shows some of her process.  Let's take a peak!

 

Process and Tools-

Having watched the video, a few things came forward to me.  You can see, both from the finished paintings she has on the walls of her home or from in-process shots of her painting, that she's not taping the paper down.  Early in the video we see her paint flat, with the work on a table or a backing in her lap, like this- 

 
 

I asked Wendy about her process, as well as a painter who took her workshop (thank you Allison!), and it seems pretty straight forward technically, atleast for the figures.  For quick studies, she works wet on dry- you can tell by all the hard edges.  Besides, this would be the only way to control things if you were completing a piece in 5 minutes or less.  For longer pieces, she wets the paper down with water, preserving highlights if need be.  She paints flat, and generally doesn't use clips.  Wendy paints directly without drawing (again, atleast for the figurative work- although I see no pencil work in her landscapes and architectural paintings either), putting in middle values that she then lifts color out of.  While it's still wet, she drops her darks in for richer shadows.  As things begin to dry, she gets her hard edges, if she hasn't preserved the hard edge from the beginning.  Once the water cycle is finished, she then rewets as need be for new soft edges, or she goes in for additional detail here and there, where the paper is dry.  You can see this around the 2:00 mark in the video, where she's doing the feet of the nude she's working on- all the edges are dry by then, and she's able to get more control. 

In terms of materials, she obviously paints tonally, and uses a mix of Sepia and Brown Madder, which she seems to shift the balance of, depending on her subject.  For her quicker studies, she uses Fabriano Ingres and BFK Rives papers (probably cheaper and easier to get a lot of), and for longer studies uses Arches.  From looking at the video, most of the figures fill a quarter sheet, with the multi-figure pages being approximately the same as a half sheet.  So the figure work isn't too small.  Allison (her student at the workshop with whom I spoke) noted that Wendy sometimes used a block as well, so she didn't seem very dogmatic about things.  It seemed more about availability, and ease of use.

 

Cityscapes-

Both from my email exchanges, and from the paintings themselves, it's clear that there is a desire for clear observation, that clear observation will guide a painting a long way down the path to success, and that approach bears itself out when you notice how certain elements of her paintings demonstrate a great deal of precision.  The paintings she does of statues and buildings show this to maximum effect.  A lot of modern urban watercolor work aims for a vigorous, sketchy style, where the goal is to simplify and take command of hard, deep shadows.  However, Wendy's work, in my opinion, takes a different approach.  despite the wet into wet work you see in the trees and shadows, her architectural work generally demonstrates a delicate attention to detail, cornices and roofing, overhangs and windows, etc. much of which she renders in controlled half-tones.  The marriage of those modulated values with these two approaches- a soft, painterly approach to wet-into-wet shadows and a delicate attention to precise detail- makes the paintings feel very true to life without feeling like a rendering.

The cityscapes remind me most of some of Sargent's work, which I mean as a high compliment.  Sargent's brushwork is much more staccato in style, while Wendy's uses soft edges to greater effect, but both seem to have an affinity for bonding very precise architectural detailing with loose painterly passages, all while generally working in modulated tones.

One of sargent's

One of sargent's

one of wendy's

one of wendy's

one of sargent's

one of sargent's

one of wendy's

one of wendy's

one of sargent's

one of sargent's

one of wendy's

one of wendy's

Yum!

 

A Singular Vision Across Varied Subjects-

What's also so very eye-opening (and liberating!) to see is the similarities between her approach to subject matter as diverse as figurative work, statues, landscapes, and vegetables.  Its very illuminating to see an artichoke or motorcycle painted much the same as a human figure!  As you look, note the soft edges shifting into locations of precision and clarity, as well as the value of the paper as part of the subject.

Of course, each subject has it's own story.  We're not just putting paint on paper.  We're representing something.  We paint cabbages and and motorcycles and figures because they interest us in some human way- we eat them or touch them or see them as part of our lives.  As we learn from the video, Wendy likes to eat artichokes.  Me too!  Hahahaha!  :)  Why wouldn't I want to paint something so delicious and physically interesting?  But additionally, as I see it, as an artist the goal is to explore diffusion and clarity, hard and soft edges, lost light and discovered light.  Namely, to transcribe with a physical medium (paint) the act of seeing light.  As I look across the paintings, a similar vision emerges- how the object is often not placed against the illusion of space, but instead against the paper itself, how simple dense forms are illuminated and somehow partially dissolved by light.

 

The Figure, Both Living and Carved-

Of course, much is made of Wendy's figures, both the living ones she does in quick sittings, and the detailed ones she does from statues.  And much should be made of them!  Combined, they embody much of what we see in her other subjects- a nuanced control of wet-into-wet values, dissolved edges that demonstrate a strong use of the paper, and an attention to precision and detail.

The video I shared earlier indicates a leisurely painting process, with her sitting in a studio alone with a model, focused on her work, but from my conversation with her, her experience actually seems rather different.  She's normally (or atleast often), painting in a group setting, much as many of us would be if we were painting from a live model.  So her position can sometimes be fixed in terms of composition.  The model moves through a variety of poses, some very short and others much longer.  As I noted earlier, shorter poses are done wet on dry, to allow for some control of form, given the constraints of time.  For longer poses (up to a 1/2 hour), she wets the paper, preserving highlights where needed, and then goes about creating her soft edges, moving into harder edged work as it dries.  Then she'll rewet as need be, to finish the composition.  All of this affects her approach- the logistics of the event matter in terms of the final product and how she approaches the painting process.

Truthfully, I've never seen anyone paint figures this way, and it's very alluring to consider.  Time is limited, and I can only imagine intense focus is required.  When I've worked in similar situations, such as when painting plein air and the sun is setting or the wind is picking up, at it's best I've really thrived on the flurry of attentive action needed.  Things must be reduced to their essentials, and wet-into-wet work comes to the forefront out of necessity.  I asked her about the "in the moment" process for the figures, and she had this to say, “(For the figures) there is a huge amount of loss of control.  I could be far more controlled, but it is exciting to try to coax the watercolor into the right place, and I like the way it looks when it works...  I love it when it looks right, when it is obviously right, sort of as though it was pre-determined to be that picture.  When there are marks that look like marks but also depict the image exactly as it should be.  I like there to be a combination of clumsy and elegant painting, and for it to be visually interesting as well as appealing.”

What's very striking to me is to see how this plays out when married to the clear precision we get when she paints statues.  There's clearly more detail (she can take as long as she wants!), but there's also almost an intentional injection of ambiguity, of softness, here and there.  If it's too controlled, too static, the composition begins to bore.  The goal isn't to demonstrate control, but to evoke the feeling that the statues came from a living human being.

Although I don't think it was intentional at all, what's fascinating to me is to see these various figures done from life, and to see how clearly they almost replicate the statues, rather than the other way around!