My 2nd Joseph Zbukvic Workshop, pt. 3

How Composition Can Help Guide Technique

For this post, I wanted to share some thoughts on what I see as a link between how Joseph creates his compositions and how he achieves his technique.  As I’ve pointed out in the previous posts, Joseph repeatedly focused (sometimes subtlely, sometimes overtly) on what I call “Compositional Sign Posts”- namely, creating a clear foreground, middleground, and background through bonding smaller shapes together and simplifying details.  That sounds simple conceptually, but it’s actually rather difficult in real life.  However, if you can do it, there’s a wonderful ripple effect that can echo outwards.  Not only can other compositional concerns begin to fall into place (guiding the eye with leading lines, creating depth, prioritizing shapes), but there are technical payoffs as well, as those same shapes can guide your wet-into-wet paint application.


Lake Merritt Demo-

One of the days we went down to Lake Merritt, and under the shade of a tree we looked out over the water and began doing this demo of the little canoe docks there.  The first thing to notice, much like when he did the painting of the dry docks or the yacht club, is how much Joseph zooms in on his subject.  My photo here shows all the stuff between us and the focal point. 

There’s the foliage from the tree, the sidewalk, and the plantings, but the painting zooms in, cropping all of that out and instantly helping create a composition that has a clear stage (the lake), actors (the boats and people on the dock), and setting (the hills and buildings on the far side).

When Joseph went in to paint, those compositional divisions helped guide him as he worked wet-into-wet.  He noted how he didn’t just go around higgledy-piggledy, painting this and then that, first a little of the foreground and then a little of mid.  That path leads to madness!  :)  This happens a lot when we think of each building or tree as its own object.  It becomes hard to control wetness and bond shapes together.  The painting gets "chunky" with lots of little hard edges.  Instead, the goal is to bond objects together and think of the foreground, middleground, and background as something like large shapes in and of themselves, and to paint them as such, cordoning off other parts of the painting until you are done with the part you’re already working on. 

As an example, after the initial broad wash for the Lake Merritt demo had dried (which gave us the sky, the pale value of the buildings, and the water), Joseph went about methodically creating the buildings in the background wet-into-wet, moving from one side of the painting to the other, bit by bit, augmenting things as he went, abstracting details, and linking mini-shapes together with something like the quirky cousin of Mr. Bead… which he slowly nudged sideways.  Many times over the course of the workshop, he would ask “Why can I still work here?” as he continued to adjust hues and values wet-into-wet in a certain shape, to which we all learned to reply in unison “Because it’s still WET!"

Again, the real problem is when you divide your painting into too many small shapes and move about from one shape to another, before the first one is done.  That’s when things begin to dry too much.  In this painting, Joseph didn’t even do any real work on the main subject (the dock and boats) until he had finished the entire background shape that he had already started.

Here's the completed piece again-

Upcoming Class on Wet-into-Wet Florals


Loosening Up With Wet-into-Wet Florals!

I will be teaching 2-day wet-into-wet watercolor workshop next week at the Benicia Plein Air Gallery.  Spaces are still available, and if you're interested in signing up, you should contact me directly through the Contact page here on the website.  Students should have some experience with watercolor painting.  I hope to see some of you locals there!

Date- Mon-Tues, June 26-27, 900 am- 400 pm, with a 1-hour break for lunch

Location- Benicia Plein Air Gallery, 307 First Street

Description- Not only are flowers beautiful and lively, but they’re also a great tool for exploring and learning about wet-into-wet work.  We’ll spend two days painting bouquets and vases of varying complexity, learning about the Watercolor Clock and timing, experimenting, and playing fast and loose with edges.  If you’ve been intimidated by wet-into-wet work and wish your paintings would loosen up, this is a good class for you to explore the subject in a guided environment and have fun!  The techniques one learns painting florals can be applied to many other subjects.

Price- 200$


My Second Joseph Zbukvic Workshop- pt. 2


Learning to See: From Auto-Editing to Active Decisions

In the last post I spoke about compositional signposts. I want to follow up on that, and dive right in to the second demo that Joseph did.  As you can see from the reference photo below, the location was very busy- lots of docks and overlapping boats. Difficult interlocking shapes to paint. Still, he seemed to like the boat with the green fabric, and chose it for his subject. He walked closer and leaned in, checking things over and getting a sense of the details. Then we set up shop back in the shade, which is where the photo was taken.


Since the boat was to be the subject, he opened up the foreground. Perhaps the location looked more like it does in the painting, when he walked up closer to it. Perhaps not. Either way, he wanted your eyes to move to the main subject, so he changed things to fit the needs of the composition. He kept a number of the boats in the background, including the dock they were tied to, but not the connective one on the right. The goal, I’m presuming, was to simplify the background while still creating depth and a sense of setting.  Remember- competition with the main subject isn't the goal of the background.  Of course, he removed the fellow sitting in front- who was there for only a short time anyways. He then added the people on the boats (who weren’t there at the time), to develop the story.

I have to admit, at first the changes Joseph was making were so large, I almost wondered why we were painting the subject. Why not paint with more fidelity to what was in front of him, so it reflected more of what was there? We had an interesting experience, however, the next day, when we did a painting of the Yacht Club, that gave me food for thought.

We were looking at a jumble of details, assessing what to include and what to exclude, when Joseph suggested we tell our brains to find a color.  "Turn on red," he said, or some such thing, and I’ll be damned if I didn’t suddenly see red peppered around here and there.  "Now turn on yellow" came next.  I defocused my eyes and let myself see yellow, and again, yellow appeared here and there where I hadn’t noticed it before. Not only was this a useful compositional tool, as we looked for bits of color to grab on to, but it was also a mini-revelation in terms of perception.

What became very clear to me from the exercise is that it is not our eyes that are seeing, but our minds.  We are "auto-editing" things all the time, but are unaware of the fact that we’re doing it. Even when we think we are just painting "what’s in front of us", we're not. We’re painting what is getting unconsciously filtered through our brains. The painting isn’t a reflection of reality- it’s a reflection of you.

This thought was rather liberating when thinking about my own painting subjects, and how chained I’ve sometimes felt to the details in front of me. Recognizing the amount of mental auto-editing that was occurring all the time helped me feel freer to do as I saw fit when building my compositions. The real goal, as I see it, is to develop the ability to better see what you are seeing, to gather all the information available to you, and then to listen to yourself, and hear what you have to say about it.  Then we won’t be on autopilot, but instead will be more actively choosing what we want to create.

As Joseph said before- when you’re done, all you’re left with is the painting. It needs to tell the story you want to share. This is part of why I think Joseph edits and creates with such impunity. He understands he is painting what his mind sees- he has a story he wants to tell, and arranges the details as need be, to best tell that mind-story. If your painting is a jumble, then your mind is a jumble. When things come out that way, that’s when we know we aren’t clearly seeing … what’s in our own mind, and instead are just allowing ourselves to mentally auto-edit the details provided by chance.


Yacht Club Demo-


I want to use some of this thinking, and apply it to a demo Joseph did on the second day. Once again, the foreground subject was overly complicated and difficult to paint- the docks wandered around and were full of little bits and things. All kinds of details that didn’t help the scene tell a compelling story.

Like a good editor, Joseph took the raw footage and went about trimming off one bit and highlighting another, removing the docks and adding a boat or two for interest, while generally bringing the focus to the main building.


Of course, Joseph led us through the mind-seeing exercise I discussed above, where we picked out bits of color here and there, or shades in certain shadows and structures that we might have just taken for granted normally. He took the whole lot, and sifted through them, figuring out what he wanted to include where.

One of the other interesting things to notice was how the shadows fall in the reference photo, versus the painting. It was morning, so the right side of the building was in full sun. Joseph moved the shadows around to get some interplay of light and dark on its surface. In truth, they’re coming from an impossible direction (the north), but as before- when you’re done, you’re only left with the painting. I admit, although I’ve moved shadows around before, I’ve always felt a bit tied to being in the northern hemisphere! Hahaha! It was amusing and liberating to watch Joseph move things around as the painting needed- including the sun!

Here’s my own version of the subject and a second reference photo that shows more of the dock- 


I decided to simplify a step further, and leave the foreground completely open. My feeling was that the dock was difficult enough, without upping things by introducing a new shape (the boats) that I don’t have much experience with. I decided to follow Joseph’s thoughts on the shadows, but instead of making them come from the North I simply moved into the future, when I knew the sun would be rotating around the building’s form. My final painting actually looks a lot like the reference photo, but when I started the shadow patterns were very different. I also decided to include the flagpole and scooch it over to the left a bit, to provide a second small point of vertical focus.

As we were working, Joseph went about doing a smaller, second sketch of the subject-


This quicker one excluded one the boats in the foreground, much as mine did, but there are a variety of subtle differences between the two. Joseph let the sun light the pylons down by the water, and goes through the trouble of preserving the pale reflections on the water with negative painting (instead of dropping in darker shadows with active brushstrokes, which he primarily did in the first painting). All told, it’s a much sunnier, brighter image. It was interesting to see him paint the same subject twice, as he made a variety of different choices.

My 2nd Joseph Zbukvic Workshop- pt. 1


In mid-May I had the privilege to participate in another Joseph Zbukvic workshop.  It’s been almost two years (!) since I last studied with him.  I’ve learned a lot since then, and felt like I was ready to receive new things as student.  Technique can always be improved, but (in my opinion) those skills I might be lacking are simply because I haven’t gotten enough hours under my belt- not because I don’t understand the concepts. So instead, I went in with a desire to focus on composition, and those nuances of thinking that help one’s point of view coalesce into a compelling image.

The 4-day workshop was run by friends (people who had also studied with JZ before) and was composed of more advanced students (friends and acquaintances who had studied with Alvaro or Joseph before, experienced painters, etc).  This was great news for us, as Joseph really shifted gears as a teacher, and set aside the normal curriculum.  Not much conversation about Mr. Bead or the Watercolor Clock like last time.  The presumption was that we all were acquainted with both.  Instead, it was more like “painting amongst peers” with guidance from a master.  Excellent news!


Back to Basics for a Bit-

We did start off with a simple demo about the comparative moisture levels of paper and brush (the Watercolor Clock, in essence) and how the two interact.  “The biggest mistake students make,” Joseph said, “(besides dabbing!!! No dabbing!!) is to not pay attention to the palette and how wet the mix is, and instead to give too much attention to color.” Well said! 

During this demonstration, he also focused on brushstrokes and how to minimize them to greater affect. This was an ongoing theme over the 4 days- this conversation about what makes up a painting, at its most basic level, and what we should really be focusing on.  Musicians use notes to make a symphony, and painters, he reiterated, use brushstrokes.  So make your brushstrokes count- make them have confidence and vigor.  Much like the last workshop, the idea was that tentative brushstrokes get sussed out and noticed by a viewer.  Through your brushstrokes they can understand intuitively that you’re unsure of what you want to do, whereas confident brushstrokes will pull a viewer in, even if they don’t know why.


Compositional Sign Posts-

Over the course of the workshop, a variety of basic compositional tools that Joseph came back to became clear.  Of course, every painting has its own needs, so I would never want to lay these down as rules, but still… As I watched him paint over and over again, I felt like these were signposts for him to reference and ponder as he went about “seeing” and deciding what to include and where to include it-

-Have a clear foreground, middle ground, and background (or stage, actors, and setting) is important, and making sure each does their job is essential.  Lots of compositional choices and edits stem from this basic concern.

-Clear out the clutter from the foreground so you can “enter” a painting was something he noted repeatedly.   

-Generally, even if you have heavy darks elsewhere, retaining your darkest darks for your midground is useful, as it pulls the eye in to the contrast. 

-As always, the subject generally plays best in the midground, like actors on a stage.  Whether it was boats or cars or people, the presumption was always to place them as he saw fit.  If Joseph wanted people in a scene, he placed them as he needed, with the general presumption that someone had been there earlier. In truth, he has a magic ability to seemingly “call” people into place with the needs of his composition.  Haha!  People always seemed to arrive on scene in the right location eventually!  “See!” he’d say, pointing with his brush, “There they are.  Just like in my painting!”

-If the background isn’t naturally soft or cool, it is often made to be so, as this helps it recede.  The background is there to create a setting and a sense of space, not to compete with your focal point.  So if it's not doing its job, you may need to help it do so.

-And in general… Don’t fret over being too literal.  The goal is to create a painting that evokes a similar true experience to your own, so that viewers hear the hubbub of a busy street or the snapping of wind, feel the lapping of waves, squint at the light, etc.  None of which have anything to do with laboriously recording all the accidental details that make up a scene.  Make sure your choices help pull that response from a viewer.  In my own words- Fidelity should be to the feeling you want to illicit, not to the superficial “barnacles” of time, that aren’t really about the deeper subject matter.


First Demo- Drydock Boatyard


Joseph moved into this quick demo after his earlier “basics” chat.  What struck me was how much he edited out, removed things, nudged them around, etc.  Early on, he commented on the idea that, “What makes an artist an artist is how he sees.”  Of course, doing this isn’t a surprise to me, but it’s one thing to know it and another thing to see how far Joseph can take it.  It was really liberating to see how free he was in his composition.  “When you’re done,” he said, “you’ll only have the painting.”  So true!  I've always felt that this is something he says to help you judge yourself less- that the painting doesn't have to compete with the actual view.  Which is true.  But it also became clear to me that this is something truthful because it helps liberate you to paint what you need to paint, move what you need to move, simplify what you need to, highlight and focus on the story you are telling.


Here’s a photo of the view from the window he painted at.  As you can see, it’s full of crazy stuff!!  There was a pole in the way, and some low-hanging branches.  There was a bunch of junk over to the left side, some sheds on the right, and in the foreground was a variety of small boats and other equipment.  It blows me away when I look at this and then compare it to the final piece.  It’s a little like being Alice, looking through the looking glass.  The two subjects (the photo and the painting) are the same, like cousins, but Joseph’s lets you in. 

Look at how those earlier "sign posts" come in to play.  He cleans and opens up the foreground- to let the eye wander in to the painting.  He softens the background.  The shadows from the bridge are used to negatively light the surface of the boats, but he never pushes it too dark.  Instead, he lets them remain mid-tones.  Alternatively, the shadows the boats themselves cast (the primary players in his painting) are darkened.  Finally, of course, he dramatically simplifies the subject.  A recording of mundane details is not the purpose of the painting.

I had a very interesting conversation with him about the subject matter as well.  I asked him if he considered keeping the upside down boats in the foreground (which I thought were interesting shapes).  He felt that including them blocked you from entering the image, and that, most interesting of all, if they were included they would begin to naturally become a point of interest.  The viewer would start to think they were the main subject, and the boats he really wanted to paint (the ones on the trailers) would become the background.  I followed up by asking him what he would do if he did include the upside down white boats.  His basic response- lift them up to the mid-ground make them the subject!  So when it came time to do my own version of this on Day 3, that's just what I did.


My Take on the Boat Yard-


A few days later during one of the afternoons back at the studio space, I tried my hand at the boat yard.  This was a difficult, jumbled subject, but I was interested in challenging myself... compositionally in particular.  I didn't want to just repeat Joseph's painting and focus on technique this time (like I did in the last workshop!  A great way to learn, by the way). Instead, I wanted to try and distill from the demo what I could and apply those mental lessons to my own work.  I actually like my piece for some of what it does, but my painting is relatively representative of what you saw when you looked own.  Comparing it and Joseph's compositions shows you immediately how much Joseph is able to "zoom" in and crop a subject. There's really something to learn here, not about technique but about "seeing" and choosing your subject.

Josephs composition

Josephs composition

As I was painting, Joseph strolled over and gave me two basic critiques- one was to put in darker shadows under the central boats to sit them on the ground (which we did), and the other was to connect more of my shapes.  At first, I had the darker boats in the midground and the boats in the upper background, but these two areas were divided, almost like two paintings. This is as they are visually in real life. He put that funny little arch in the middle that connects the darker shadows up top with the jumble of stuff in the midground.  In the last workshop (2 years ago), he talked about "funnels and ladders" as ways to connect disparate shapes, and allow the eye to travel.  I saw what I felt he was going for, and added the person pushing a dolly over on the right.  This was purely done to connect the shadowed area on the far right with the focal point area.  In the end, these two simple changes really helped bring together pretty disparate elements of the painting. 

Composition matters!  :)  Thank you Joseph!