Alvaro Castagnet Watercolor Workshop Review, pt. 2- My Paintings and Progress

I’ve heard people say that when you take a workshop, you should be prepared to paint horribly, because you’re learning new techniques that you have almost no control over.  Yeah, yeah… but we’re talking about me, right?  My paintings will be nice!  I like my paintings.  Well, the advice couldn’t have been more true.  Sigh.  So, I'm opening up my "painting diary" and will be sharing a lot of really bad paintings in this blog post before we get back to this painting above.  I just want to make that clear at the beginning.  ;P

But it all was worth it!!  :)

Alvaro approaches the painting process so differently that I ended up feeling like a frustrated newb all over again.  Most people only took one of the two 3-day workshops offered, but it took the full week of painting all-day every-day with Alvaro for me to get (IMO) just a beginner’s handle on the skills he was teaching.  The first 3 days were valuable, without a doubt, but having gone twice as long, I got exponentially more.  With the combined 6-day experience, I finally had enough failures and almost-successes that I feel like I’ve got some of the basic tools I need to help myself grow more on my own.

As Alvaro said, "Have a mind that takes profit from the continuous mistakes you make."

Well, I definitely made enough mistakes.  LOL! Time to take some profit from it.  

Before the Workshop-
So, I prepped myself during the month of March.  I read one of his books-- "Beyond Technique:  Painting with Passion".  I watched his DVDs (thank you public library system!).  I felt like a fanboy, but what the hell-- I wanted to learn what I could on my own, so he could teach me the other stuff.  I got a big Squirrel Mop Brush and built a plein air set up for myself.  I went out and painted.  And, well, this is the sort of terrible stuff I was getting….

Pretty dead.  Muted colors.  Blahhhh.  How did he do it?!? Clearly I needed help.

Day 1-
I admit that I’m the sort of fellow that believes I can achieve what I want through a combination of hard work, innate ability, and persistence. I love painting and have been building my skill set over the last few years.  I like the work I produce.  So, needless to say, it was very, very humbling to produce work like this on the first day of class…

It was just total crap, IMO.  I was completely unsatisfied with my work.  I wasn’t even really showing it to my wife.  What was the point?  This continued for the rest of the first 3-day session.  

Day 2 and 3-

What was interesting was that Alvaro strolled by as I was painting, and focused on just this little bit I did here, which was honestly done a bit by mistake and a bit through so much trial and error.

"This here is good!" he said.  "It has magic.  Wet into wet next to dry brush strokes!  And I like the letters you have drawn on the sign.  Do more like this.  This has magic!"  Yes sir!  :)

It's hard to get just the right consistency of paint to get that kind of dry brush stroke, but something was paying off, and sometimes there's a lot to be learned through experimenting and just trying things out and seeing what happens.  You discover things!  So I suppose I was getting better, bit by bit, but it was a lot of "two steps forward, one step back".  For example, at first I needed darker darks, but to get them my paintings became drier and drier, and less "free".  And then, my darks got so dark that everything I painted seemed like it was set at dusk. 

What I really needed was more time, more practice composing images, more control of the brush, a better understanding of the pigment-to-water ratio, etc.  As Alvaro kindly put it after seeing one of my value sketches, “You’re good.  It’s ok.  You just need more practice.  You need to paint more.”  Boy was that the truth.  By the end of the first 3 days, I felt like I was __just__ beginning to understand what I might need to do to make some better paintings, but had actually not yet produced anything even approaching interesting.  I went home, got to be a Daddy again for the day, and tried to think about something else for 24 hours.

Day 4-
It was time to double down.

The work wasn’t totally terrible, but it was still lacking a lot.  Composition was a very difficult thing to try and get a handle on.  I've painted a lot, from photos and assignments, but I'd never actually gone out, saw something, and tried to make an interesting image from the overwhelming mass of info the world was offering me.  Watching Alvaro do that again and again was incredibly instructive.  

People would ask why he didn't paint this or that thing, and he would reply with things like this, "I'm already painting once I start looking a the subject.  I know what I am aiming for before I even start.  I don't want to get bogged down in superficialities.  I only include those things that help create maximum impact!"  This is very Alvaro, and also very good advice.

Remove what is unneeded.  Once you've included what is necessary, to say what you want to say, then that's enough, and it's time to stop.  Reduce things to shapes of different values.  Paint shapes not objects. So, we weren't only learning brush technique (which I expected to sort of focus on)-- we were learning how to "see", and then construct an image.  Have a focal point.  Everything else guides you to that-- how you choose your values, your neutrals and high chroma colors, loose edges and dry edges, etc.

That night, I couldn’t sleep.  I had the paintings from Union Square in my mind when I woke up after midnight.  I sketched out what I wanted it to be like, then went to bed.  When I woke up again around 430/500, I figured it was time to just go and repaint the thing, now that I was acquainted with it.  I got this out of it.  Atleast it didn't look like dusk!  LOL.


Day 5-
We headed to China Town, and I finally had a bit of a break through-- the second of the two below.  A painting I was __almost__ satisfied with, and didn’t think was utterly terrible.  Yes!  The foreground basically screwed it up, but there were some successes in it here and there.

Day 6-
We painted down by Pier 1.  My painting were, at least, communicating.  They weren’t heavenly, but I could see progress getting made.  Of course, this is the sort of work I thought I’d be doing on Day 1, but atleast I could finally see forward movement!

I really began to follow Alvaro's advice-- "Small paintings, big brush! Small paintings, big brush!  Small paintings, big brush!"  It was like a mantra!  Hahaha!  So these two paintings are 1/8 sheet in size, about 10" x 6" each.  Really quite small.  I was using a 5/8" mop to do about 3/4 of the painting.  Quite big for the size of paper!  But it really helped me get past the details into seeing the more global shapes of the piece.  Good advice, Alvaro!

After the Workshop-
A week after the class had ended (a week full of a lot more paintings!), I went back out on my own to do some plein air painting in SF.  I produced this piece below, which I thought was much, much better. Still a long way to go, but I feel like I've got the tools I need to improve on my own.  It was quite an amazing, exhausting, often frustrating journey!  Phew!  I'm really glad I did it.

In the next post on the workshop, I'm going to share some stuff about Alvaro himself, as a teacher.  Some stories about how he approached painting, what he focused on with composition, some of my favorite quotes of his, etc.