What It Means to Capture Movement in Your Brushstrokes

A few months ago, I discovered this video below of Liang Xiao Ping doing what I call "full body" calligraphy.  Haha!.  There is a fantastic sense of confident energy about watching her at work-

What's so particularly tasty about it is the fearlessness with which she expresses herself.  That confidence we see in Liang, born from a sort of "thoughtful carelessness", releases her so she can let the paint and brush really play.  I think it was Zbukvic that said something to the effect that "a little bit of carelessness is desirable".  Unexpected elements (often labeled as "mistakes" by those not in the know...haha!) are going to happen when you approach creating this way, but that's almost the point.  Making a painting this way is like writing a diary entry.  It's non-repeatable.  It's calligraphy, of course, and it's a painting, but it's also really a dance, which is why it's such a great example of creating a record of the body in motion

As I sat and thought about Liang's work for a while, Jackson Pollock came to mind.  I admit, sheepishly, that I'm not particularly a fan of Pollock, but in the context of the Chinese calligraphy Liang is creating, I saw a way in.  Some of Pollock's work is fantastically energetic.  It's more than a "description" of the body in motion.  Much like her calligraphy, it's a record of, essentially, a dance ... of a certain duration of time and space when he worked on that painting in a certain state of mind.  Like an imprint in concrete with a child's name by it.  That's interesting to me.  However, being an artist, my first thought isn't "How do I get a print of that?" but instead "How do I experience making that myself?"

 

With watercolors it is, sadly, sometimes hard to find that send of bold brushwork.  There's a long history of beautiful, relatively detailed, realistic work... atleast in western watercolor work.  Still, if we hunt, we begin to see it in there, hiding from time to time. 

Watercolor naturally disguises the brushwork, because it's not viscous like oils.  Still, If we look at some of the work from Alvaro Castagnet, you can see some really exuberant, daring brushwork.  Sometimes it is careless (LOL!), but sometimes it seems that it's an intentional sort of carelessness, where he wants to activate an area with a "human" element- namely, a record of the body of the painter in motion, using his tools.  Appealing brushstrokes.  You see it in the legs of his people, the rough windows of his buildings, his loose foregrounds and faraway hills.

Brushstrokes aren't always drybrush though.  With Ping Long, you see it done a lot in damp paper.  Mostly, I see it in his trees, which are loose and wild.  He can almost paint whatever he wants when he works on them.  They're a free form.  So he does, and we get to see that freedom in the strokes.  The edges are sometimes soft and diaphanous, as he moves (with a great deal of daring!) from dry to wet areas, but the confident through lines are always there.

The same really goes for Endre Penovac as well.  Here you can see one of his many cats and one of his chickens.  There's so much is wet into wet for the cat, you almost can't see individual brushstrokes.  And yet, looking at it, it's very very clear that part of its appeal is that it was done with the utmost minimum of strokes.  Of course, the chicken has that absolutely fantastic tail, and the cockscomb- where we see drybrush work merging into wet work, much like with Ping Long's trees.

The goal is to marry your subject to the strokes, so that they begin to feel a bit like the calligraphy we saw Liang doing at the top of the post.  Each artist begins to find different elements of their paintings where they can play with freedom (trees, legs, tails, etc), where the representational subject can dissolve into the brushwork underpinning everything.  And much like Liang's calligraphy, I'm absolutely sure they're all dropping these strokes down on the paper and then leaving them alone, warts and all.  The unadulterated stroke represents forever... that certain specific moment in time when it was made by a human hand.  It casts a kind of time-and-space-traveling spell.  If you go back and fiddle with it too much, you ruin the magic.

Spotlight on an Artist- Konstantin Kuzema

It's been 6 months since I last did a Spotlight, but while working on the last one, I discovered a different artist- Konstantin Kuzema.  Konstantin does a variety of cityscapes.  I could quibble about his color choices, or the fact that there are never any people in his cities, or the desire I have for some rich darks... all those issues are there, but as I watched his videos, I was instead... simply intrigued by his approach, which was simultaneously sharp and architectural, while also being very wet and loose.  His buildings are clearly buildings, and yet they also completely dissolve into the light that wraps around them.  As an artist that has had his own troubles making his peace with man-made objects and cityscapes, I found his approach refreshingly unconventional. 

Because of his wet into wet approach, and the fact that there's no real follow-up layer of dry on dry for "jewlery", his subjects are radically simplified.  Detail is kept only where needed, and yet, where it's desired, it's often very precise.  The rest disappears into the washes.  It's really about two things, as I see it- expressing light through color, and contrasting hard architectural forms versus soft washes.  The rest is discarded. I wouldn't want to paint this way all the time, but it's very daring and interesting.  There's lots to learn by watching him work.  His paintings are so simplified and yet very detailed in other areas, that it makes me ponder about "what is really needed" to express a scene.

Not surprisingly, given how minimal his compositions are, his color palette is also minimal.  It's all about warms versus cools.  Yes, he's clearly capturing light with value, but he's also expressing it with hue.  He is also aggressively simplifying the subject, reducing everything to 3-4 values, each expressed with a color- white paper, yellow, blue, and sometimes a purple.  In some ways, his approach here with color reminds me a lot of Thomas Schaller.  Tom's work also deals a great deal with architecture, although not nearly as much with wet into wet.  His work also plays a great deal more with really rich darks and drybrush work.  It does, however, have a lot to do with simplification, preserving strong areas of white, and simplifying your color palette-- focusing on bold applications of warms and cools to play off of each other.  Neither of the artists seem particularly interested in realism.  Instead, the goal is to "use" color for effect.

 

I found two videos of Konstantin, but this first one was the most instructional.  In both of them he paints large, on a full sheet (22" x 30"- water likes to wander!), and he uses the white of his paper aggressively.  The whole process is done wet into wet.  So he's wetting the paper and sticking it to the board without the use of tape.  I'm assuming he then waits 10-20 minutes for it to soak in, as I've seen other artists do who use this technique.  Then he slowly builds his painting light to dark, wet into wet. Let's take a look at his first video-

The first few minutes are largely preparatory, but of particularly interest is when he shows us the totality of the hues he's going to be using at the 1:00 mark.  He has each of them seemingly premixed, in different bowls.  Not many at all!!  But each one has a purpose that will become clear later.  After that, it's the normal conversation about tools and materials.  As its all in what I am assuming is Russian, you might want to skip to the 10:00 mark.  He then proceeds to do what I can only assume is sketching with his brush.  I've not seen this done before.  The brush has a very fine point and he dips it in the yellow.  He then uses that very cool "floating ruler" (I just made that name up) that I've basically only see Russian and Ukrainian watercolor painters use.  Where do they come from?  Are they re-purposed from old drafting tables?!?  I don't know.  But he uses it alot, and they're cool.  Might have to figure out how to get one or make one...  LOL!  My presumption is he is laying down perspective lines, blocking out where he's going to preserve his whites, and generally guiding himself for later, but that he doesn't want pencil marks.  From there, he begins to lay in his clean water with a flat brush at 15:00.

A note on this, for those who don't remember from the older videos that featured a similar technique.  It's important, because its the logistical bones that everything else in his painting technique is predicated on.  Because the paper has been pre-wet and then let to partially dry out a bit (until damp), when he goes back in with the brush the water doesn't spread everywhere.  Instead, surface tension works again and he can preserve his whites..  His very loose washes can go wherever they want, but they'll never cross over into his "dry" areas.  Additionally, the paper stays wet for a long time, because the "sponge" of the paper's mass has already been saturated.  The new application of water has nowhere else to go, and so it stays on top longer.  He lays his board flat, so the water doesn't wash down (the way Joseph Zbukvic might do), and again, it helps keep things moist for longer. 

It's only at the 20:00 mark that he begins to apply color.  It's all yellow at first, very pale.  He drops in a muted blue at 22:00.  It's all very boxy and looks a mess for quite a while. The colors merge, but the blue isn't dark enough to mask the edges of the earlier yellow shapes he laid in.  Not to worry though!  At 25:00 he starts to lay in his darker blue, and forms begin to emerge.  It's dark enough to mask the yellow where he doesn't want you to see it, and let it glow and shine where he does.  He spends the next 8 minutes using the ruler to lay in details and perspective lines.  As he lays in these darker blues, and in particular the bold straight lines that come from the ruler, the areas where he preserved his whites begins to become very clear. 

At first, I quite liked it like this, but as is almost always the case with watercolors, things begin to lighten up as they dry, and the requisite sense of contrast fades.  This is where he gets more daring.  Around 33:00, he judiciously brings in the last hue- a darker, muted purple- and builds up the values in his foreground.  This helps his shadows pop.  Then at 37:00, he drops water in to make a halo and pull out some whites for 2 extra lamps.  Quite daring!  I'm sure I'd screw it up.  From there, it's a few more details and he's done.

The technique is quite interesting, and definitely makes me think about how I'd like to approach cityscapes.  I don't need them all to be atmospheric, foggy scenes, but there's a release from the need for detail in his work that's invigorating.  Much like his use of color for effect rather than representation, his use of details and wet into wet also focuses more on effect and less on replicating a scene.  It's about choosing what you'd like to include, and letting the rest go.

If you like his work, and would like to see him play a little bit more with a different landscape/ river scene, you should watch the following video too-

Hawaiian Sunrise- Exploring Color

This large piece (30" x 41") is something I recently completed after a long series of exploratory paintings.  I wanted to document and share some of the steps I went through as I explored the composition and color scheme.

 
 

This small quarter sheet was done last summer, on site in Hawaii.  I had a hard time catching the sense of light I got from the clouds at sunrise.  And yet- there was something I liked about the plein air study and the reference photos-  

There's a layering of cloud and sky forms that occurs in the photos.  There's the blue of the sky, the orange/pink of the clouds, and the darker grey-purple clouds in front of them in the foreground.  This is part of what I really liked about the scene, because it gave the sky a heightened sense of depth.  I also wanted to capture that sense of the water lapping at the shore on a warm Hawaiian sunrise- so... calm waves, and the clouds reflecting on the water and wet sand.  But I also felt it was beyond what I was really capable of painting last June.  So I put it away until the winter time, almost 6 months later, where I began to doodle again...

 
 

...looking at color schemes and methods of painting the scene.  None of these are meant to be finished paintings.  Each 1/4 is only about 7" x 5".  The goal is just to spend a couple of hours exploring color schemes and to assess the logistics of how I'm going to paint the scene.  I tried wet into wet approaches (top right) and more patient layering (both left pieces).  Patience has its value!  I decided I liked the bottom left one the best. A few weeks later, I took that approach and applied the color scheme and layering methods to the my next painting.  I got this-

1/4 sheet

1/4 sheet

1/2 sheet

1/2 sheet

These two were done in close proximity time-wise.  By now, I knew what I was doing in terms of logistics.  The composition is straightforward,  so it was really an exploration of color relationships.  Note the shift to a richer red-orange for the clouds in the 1/2 sheet, and the introduction of yellow to the trees on the spit of land.   By the time I went to do a demo at the Harrington Gallery, I had some sense of what I was doing.  Phew!  LOL.  It's not the greatest piece I've ever done, but considering it was the first demo I'd ever done, I thought I did alright. 

1/2 sheet demo piece

1/2 sheet demo piece

 

When I came back to the painting on my own, I grew it to a full sheet and warmed up the palette of colors.  Much warmer- the oranges veer towards red, and the blues move to an almost-violet on the water.  I felt that my demo piece was too cool.  I also decided to push the vibrant hues in the trees (something not there at all in the original photos, but I liked the effect and how it expressed the light). 

 
full sheet

full sheet

 

 

Finally, I come to the fished piece.  This is MUCH bigger.  It's an Elephant Sheet.  300 lb, 30" x 41".  I had to make a special mount to fit this size.  Ha!  Same width as the Grenada piece I did, but much taller.  Once again, I shifted the hues.  I wanted to keep the warm clouds, but somehow cool off my blues and have more chromatic darks (instead of having them just be black).  Looking back at the photos, I noted how I also liked the sort of steely blue of the water.  Once again, I felt it's more muted tones allowed the oranges in the sky to really shine.

Let's assess how I built this piece-

1- Blues for the sky go in first, on dry paper.  The board is flat.  I have a clean bowl of water and a dirty one.  One is used for mixing and one is only used for softening edges.  So, I went along painting the sky, soften edges here and there, and keeping others hard, using two different brushes (one is only for water!).  I shifted to a Pthalo Blue, instead of Ultramarine Blue for this final piece.  You can see how much greener the blues are.  I really wanted the orange clouds to pop, and (to me) that meant the sky and water needed to be a stronger contrast (not so red).  In earlier versions, the blue was much redder, and I felt that it lessened the contrast the sky could have provided against the clouds.  The choice hear did much more of what I was wanting.  The blues go from a slightly purple-blue (Pthalo + Dioxazine Purple) in the upper right, to a warmer greyed out blue over the sun on the right (Pthalo + Transparent Red Oxide), getting paler and paler as it moves left to right.

2- After it dries, I go in and paint the orange clouds.  With such contrasting colors for the clouds and sky in this painting, I got odd color mixtures if I did them wet into wet.  It's MUCH easier to regulate the colors and edges if you paint the blue sky and orange clouds as different shapes, and let them dry in between.  As before, I have two bowls and two brushes, and one is kept clean and is just for wetting edges.  So, here and there, I want soft edges to the clouds and sometimes I wanted hard edges.  Also, just like with the blue sky, the hues shift as I move closer to the sun- darker pink/orange on the left to orange to pale yellow on the right-bottom.  Finally, as I approach the horizon, I drop the orange and pinks all the way down to the bottom of the page.  These will be my highlights under the darker blues of the water later on. 

3- I let the painting dry again.  I tape the horizon just below the water line and paint the darker foreground clouds up top .  These are much greyer than the set in the previous painting.  I felt they were too purple-red, and I wanted them to feel diaphonous and cooler.  Once again, I wanted the orange clouds to pop more, so this time I made the foreground clouds more neutral in hue.  When these go in, the paper is dry.  I drop them in with a hard edge and spray them with my water bottle.  The clouds gently move about on their own and soften.  In other areas, I do the 2 brush-2 bowl system, softening edges as I go along.  Also as before, I move from a darker cooler grey-blue on the left to a purple to (down on the bottom right) a pale yellow-orange for these clouds.  Last, the plum clouds along the horizon go in.  When its dry I remove my tape.

4- Finally, I begin work on the bottom area.  Once again, I tape the long straight horizon (this time above the water line).  I dry brush in the water with a big mop, keeping the sparkles.  I paint in the beach too.  The water dries up, and I drop in the island.  This all happens in relatively quick sequence.  From there, I build the trees and the dark form of the spit of land.  When I drop the yellows and orange into the wet trees, using a Pthalo Blue mixture for the darker shadows really pays off- the warm colors cascade down and give me a lovely shimmer of greens.  This was something I felt was missing since my original plein air sketch- there are greens in the leaves in real life, but the photos don't accurately show that.  The diluted wash goes down into the waves for the shadows the land mass casts on the water.

5- Fiddly bits.  I drop the dry-brush waves in to the water.  I do a light wash over the shiny wet part of the beach, moving from a duller red-purple on the left to a paler pink-orange on the right.  The goal is to trap that brighter, more chromatic bit that "points" you up towards the silhouetted trees and really make it pop.  I darken up the crease where the wave is breaking, and put some splatters on the beach.  Then I'm done.  Phew!

About 80% of the painting, time-wise, is dedicated to the sky and clouds.  The water, beach and island are the "quick and easy" part.  Here's the original photos and my finished piece again, for comparison.  They're all similar, but in the end, the painting is it's own beast.  No being a slave to the photo!  :P

Anahola Sunrise combo.jpg

Plein Air Setups, pt. 3- Various Setups From Other Painters

There are a lot of different ways to build your setup, clear enough if you've watched any videos with Joseph Zbukvic or Alvaro Castagnet.  They're all rather idiosyncratic, meeting the needs of each painter in its own way.  I like to tongue-in-cheek suggest it's liking making your own light saber.  Each is different and special.  I've found a number of posts on the subject over the last few years, from various other artists.  I share them here for your reference to suggest alternate perspectives on the subject.

First up is Mike Bailey.   Mike writes about his plein air setup in this post on his blog.  I've seen him use it and it works well!!  It's always good to get a review for tools from an experienced painter.  It's a "piece it together" approach.  He uses and recommends the Sun Eden tripod mount that I shared as part of a "all in one" approach in pt. 1.  It's called the Sun Eden Travel Adapter.  He teams it up with a Sunpak 6601 tripod, which allows him to use the Plein Air Pro Traveler's Shelf.  In the photo, you can see he's attached an umbrella to the tripod.  It's a Best Brella, which I've also used.  Wind can make things terrible, even just a little bit, but if you need shade you need shade, particularly when working in natural settings.  The post is worth a read- he tells the full story.  From those first initial plein air baby steps, to the current (more sophisticated) set up.

 

 
 

Another artist, Joe Cartwright, writes about his set up in two blog posts of his- here and here.  It is also very much worth reading.  The first part tells the story of his first, failed setup, which used an oil painters box.  What I liked about it is that it tells why he didn't like, functionally speaking.  Useful info if you are making your own setup!  The second post shows us how he made his own.  I particularly like how he has the palette up higher and to the side.  This is ingeniously done!  I've thought many times of doing something similar, as I have the same cheapo palette.  The issue is my (rather expensive) tripod.  I might need to use my old 20$ tripod to try it out.  He also details how he attaches his gatorboard to his tripod, without the use of a T-nut.  He glues it!  I don't know if this is where I got the idea, or if I thought it up on my own, but as I've done the same thing on my own easel, I obviously think he's very clever!  LOL!  All in all, a good setup.  The goal is clearly to get his easel closer to him and higher up, and to get his shelf and pallet out of the way and where he needs them.  He seems quite successful.

 

It's hard to talk about plein air painting without mentioning James Gurney.  Even though his setup is super low key (no tripod at all), he is such a good artist, and so very engaged in watercolor work (amongst other media) that I feel the need to mention him.  He has a post all about "Watercolor in the Wild".  He talks all about his tools, his paints, his brushes and his palette.  It's very detailed, and is an excellent resource.  He also has a video for sale, which he and his wife filmed and produced.  He actually uses a tripod in the trailer, but I don't think it's listed in the blog post.  I've not watched the video, but it has been very well reviewed.  It's only 15$ (!!!) and the profits go directly to him.  His blog, Gurney's Journey, is also excellent and full of lots of many bits of good info.

 

 
 

Marvin Chew has a blog post about his setup at Parka Blogs.  Like James Gurney, he also goes into lots of detail about his brushes, his palette, and his paints.  Once again, all very useful info.  He uses the Ken Bromley tripod mount I mentioned in the first post, to attach his tripod to his backing.  He doesn't seem to use a shelf, but instead holds his palette in his hand and attaches his water to his backing with a bulldog clip.  I've seen others do this simple method elsewhere online, but have never done it myself or seen it in real life.  His results seem fine though.  He also uses something called a Walk Stool.  I've never seen this before, but essentially its a high end camping stool with telescoping legs.  Seems neat, at the very least.  I've used a stool in the past, but the fact that they're either too short and compact when stored, or pleasantly tall enough but too tall when stored made me stop.  Who knows?  Maybe this is the holy grail of camp stools. Hee!! 

 

Finally, another artist named Marc Holmes, who runs the blog Citizen Sketcher, has two blog posts on the subject- both his older and newer setup.  The first posts details out an older setup of his, with the palette to the side, much like Joe Cartright's approach (but fancier).  Honestly, I really like this setup- if I could do it and have it by lightweight (and without spending 200-300$) I probably would try it out. I've actually be looking for side-mount photography arms and such to attach to my tripod for just this sort of thing.  Marc features a Sirui tripod in his current setup, which I asked him about and have upgraded to.  He also has (guess what!) a Plein Air Pro Traveler Shelf.  I know, surprise, surprise....  Nobody uses those things. :PHis current setup and my own have a lot in common, outside of the shelf-- although I took the long "neck" out of the tripod.  It makes it much smaller when put away, and I also prefer my painting surface to be lower down.  Beyond all that, he also talks about all his other equipment- brushes, palette, paints, etc. in the second post.  Both posts are very detailed and quite educational.  In truth, the art blog Citizen Sketcher as a whole is great.  It's one of the few I regularly visit.