Alvaro Castagnet Watercolor Workshop Review, pt. 3- His Approach, Quotes, and Tips

I'm going to be sharing some of Alvaro's tips and quotes in this post, but I wanted to start with a few "teacherly" stories about Alvaro first.

Of course, Alvaro did all the normal stuff-- introduced us to his tools, the pigments he used, talked about his process while painting, etc.  Which was good and all, but not where he really shines.  However, these two little spinets are when I thought Alvaro was at his best as a teacher-- improvisational, unplanned, very direct and honest, funny some times, a bit edgy and brusque perhaps at others.

My Two Favorite Sessions-
One day in the first workshop, we were in China Town.  Alvaro had finished his second painting of the day, and seemed a bit tired.  We decided to do the group critique right there, on site.  He finished, then we all just sat around in a circle in the shade and talked and talked for another 45 minutes.  The conversation was intelligent and full of fervor.  People asked Alvaro about other favorite artists of theirs, Andrew Wyeth, about Alvaro's techniques, etc. all sorts of random stuff.  It was a fun, invigorating, and above all illuminating conversation that was totally natural and unforced.  I loved it so much, I went home and chatted with my wife about it until she got bored!!  :D

So, in a nutshell, that's the kind of teacher he is.

Later on, it was Sunday, the last day of the second workshop, and Alvaro kept us at the Raddison Hotel and sat us all down.  It seemed like an impromptu decision, one that had been made perhaps only that morning.  We weren't going to go out and paint until the afternoon.  Instead, we needed to go back to basics for a while.  He seemed grumpy, but in a determined sort of way.  Why were we still painting on big 1/2 sheets with little brushes?  Why were our figures so terrible?   (And they were, honestly....)  Why were we painting all these separated little objects, and not big washes and shapes, as he advised?  What was the point in going out to watch him paint, if we didn't have control of the ABC's yet?

He had us gather around one of the tables.  He got his paints and some paper out, taped it down, and and proceeded to give an impromptu, whirlwind two-hour master class on The ABC's of Watercolors, and what we'd need to do to start using them.  I told Kate it was the best watercolor class I'd ever had, and I meant it.  It was incredibly helpful and instructional.

It was totally, almost brutally, straight forward.  He wasn't being mean-- there was just nothing sugar-coated about it.  He didn't single people out and belittle them.  He was just being completely honest as he spoke to the group.  In my opinion, he gave us everything he had to offer that he thought would help, even if it was really basic stuff.  I'll be straight forward too, and say this is where I'm sure some toes got stepped on, but it was the kind of frank conversation that an adult would only have with someone he respected enough to tell the God's-honest truth to.  For me, he wasn't there to be my friend-- he was there to be my teacher, and the lesson was just the sort of direct (if perhaps occasionally abrasive) helpfulness I needed.  It was awesome.  I'd pay to go back and do it again.  It was easily my favorite teaching moment of the week.

First, he slapped these colors together.  "This is the DNA of watercolors!" he said.  "You must always be searching for polarity- pale and dark values, warm and cool colors, grays and chromatic colors, hard and wet edges, washes and dry brushstrokes, large and small shapes."  Push and pull.  It's completely abstract, but it works for me.  It's definitively Alvaro.  ;)

Next, he painted this little piece to illustrate the need to escape from illustrating, from painting only objects, only what you see.  We needed to go beyond painting objects, and start painting shapes, washes... values.

Then he did this tiny, abstract little beach scene, with some mountains in the distance.  It took only  a few expertly place brushstrokes.  "It's like golf," he said.  "The painter who says what he needs to say with the fewest strokes wins."  Who was it that said "Brevity is the heart of elegance"?  It was the same lesson here.  He let the color mix on the paper, instead of overworking the colors in his palette.  He painted the simplest silhouettes of figures and gave us a focal point, a story, and was done.

He did a value sketch for us too, from a photo someone gave him on their iPad.  Sadly, I forgot to take a picture.  It was very instructive to see him to a photo and turn it into something related to the original image and yet altered, expressed through himself.  He blurred some edges and kept others hard, darkened some values and lightened others back up a bit.  He was clearly approaching the medium as a watercolor artist.

He ended though with these rough, expressive figures that he "scribbled" out.

"You can hide a lot of mistakes in a painting, but your figures must be perfect!" he said.  "Go and paint 2000 figures, then come back!"  We laughed because it seemed so exaggerated but it's really actually true.  I'm going to talk more about how he painted figures (as well as show some of my own, in process) in the next post.  It seemed that important to him.

All in all, it was a wonderful lesson.  I only wish he'd done it sooner!  :)

My top 10 Alvaro quotes-
(these are all paraphrased, of course)

10) Avoid illustrating.  Express the intangible, the atmosphere, the smell... the sound, the feeling of a place.
9) A painting is an illusion. Improve what you see through the channel of sentimentality.  You are here to improve on what you see.  Capture the mood, the feeling of a place.  You succumb to it- to color, to mood... to a feeling. Capture the intangible. Don't simply copy what your eyes see, they do it better. Capture the music, the poetry.  Paint with flamboyance!
8) Capturing the essence of life is capturing the _feel_ of the place, the magic, a feeling suspended in the ether, the _mood_. 
7) All things must be economical. Colors should be integrated. From a unified family.  Aim for harmony.  Draw shapes, not lines. Fewer brushstrokes. Be a minimalist.
6) Don't paint the object.  Paint the light that bounces off the object. Use your values, manipulate your darks and it will hold the light together.  Then the objects will appear. 
5) You have to create something a little twisted. A little broken. Be careful with your colors and use your greys.
4) Technique is like public currency. It's cheap. It's available to everyone. It's money!  It can be exchanged from one mind to another.  But there is something that cannot be exchanged.  That is art. You must have a vision! 
3) You won't believe me, but it's true- you have to be a little bit stupid to know how to paint. A kind of special stupidity, that is intuitive. Don't be too clever!
2) You have to paint abstract. Paint nothing, and hope that you end up with something. When I painted this area here, I painted nothing. I'm not painting objects. I'm just painting brushstrokes.
1) Have a mind that takes profit from the continuous mistakes you make.

Yes, Yoda!  :D   These are all good things to follow, IMO.

Notes on Technique and Composition-

4 things make a painting-
Edges, values, colors and shapes.  This was repeated many times by him. 

He uses a lot of opaque/ semi-opaque pigments- things like Yellow Ochre and Cerulean Blue, Holbein's Lavender, and Chinese White, etc.  Stuff he mentions in his videos. He often places this lighter, opaque value in thick chromatic applications over darker backgrounds to create highlights and pale valued objects.

Push and pull with chroma and contrast. He makes his brights brighter, and his darks darker, than they are in real life.

He recommends making charcoal sketches for students. Explore the value scale of the image you're going to make, play with the lost and found edges that charcoal (like watercolors) allows. Very essential. A good way to learn, and a good way to plan and have a goal in mind before you start the painting.

Paint only on a quarter sheet with a big mop (for the purposes of learning). Experiment. Paint big and be economical. Force yourself to think in shapes- washes and dry brush strokes. Bypass illustration.  Try to do a painting in only 20 strokes, just to see what you get!

Paint with fewer strokes. Try painting a tree in 4 or 5 strokes. A car in 2 or 3.  A person in just a few.  Let the brushstrokes have vitality.

Generally uses local applications of rich color close to focal point.  Pick a color for your primary color- use 2/3 for it, and 1/3 to complimentary color, or 80/20, 90/10, etc.  The point is usage of opposites to create polarity and richness.

He does the same with darkest values placed closer to the focal point, to draw the eye.

You must have a reason for the painting to exist. You have to give a story that resides at the focal point.  Something that you're sharing with the viewer.