Cliff Notes for Zbukvic's "Mastering Atmosphere and Mood in Watercolor", pt. 2

This is the 2nd in my series of 3 posts on this wonderful (out of print and very expensive) book.  This section is all about Zbukvic's approach to Composition.  To start us off, some tasty samples!




Zbukvic says, “Before you begin any painting, always ask yourself the simple question, ‘What is it I am painting?’ The answer should be Mood and Atmosphere.  The location should be totally secondary and only provide the means to tell the story.”  This is pretty much, according to the book, Zbukvic’s outlook as an image maker.  Essentially, it’s the painters job to subordinate other things to the clarity of the story—and the story is one of light and mood.  Pick what you want to say (about the light, the subject, the mood) and stick to making it the focus.  Everything else falls into line with this goal in mind- composition, edges, value, and color.  Just like Alvaro Castagnet said- “You begin painting the moment you look at the subject, not with the first brushstroke!”

In the book, atleast, Zbukvic tends to abide by this order of importance (with all of them being important, of course).  He's clearly a "tonalist", or so it seems to me.

      1) tone

      2) the drawing itself

      3) edges

      4) color



      the goal is to tell a story, once that’s accomplished the rest is unneeded too much information can obscure the story you are trying to tell, less is more therefore,

                            you need to simplify the subject to be true to it



      -think in shapes, not objects, also very similar to Alvaro’s lessons

      -combine objects of similar value together to make larger shapes

      -don’t forget, the sky is a shape too

      -once you have the bigger shapes in place, sub-divide into smaller shapes, then essential details after that

*TIP- When you paint, combine the shapes in a single wash with varied values and hues, don’t do washes in giant, monochromatic, untextured blocks

*TIP- He varies the tone and color of his washes in different areas, to get a single wash to do the work of a few washes.  He’s not necessarily separating washes by shapes.

*TIP- - Shaded shapes and their shadows can be painted in a single Milk or Cream application, so there’s no division between the object and its cast shadow (ex., with rocks or walls of houses, or trees).  You vary the thickness of your pigment to create multiple shapes within a single wash.

*TIP- Leave those little accidental white “sparkles” in the painting, to relieve the monotony.  He also uses them later for highlights on random objects too. 

Recently, as I was working on the post about going to view the 2nd Biennial International Watercolor Show, I watched some videos by Muriel Chartrain.  Fun!  Her "simple" watercolor sketches instantly came to mind when I re-read Zbukvic's section on shapes. Here's the one I was thinking of--

Muriel paints these in a single go, pre-wetting the paper and dropping pigment in (clearly something like Coffee on Wet).  What's particularly interesting to see is that, as the paper dries, she begins to carve gentle compositional shapes out of the almost amorphous earlier wash.  She seems to do this by either a) varying the thickness of the paint she's applying (so it disperses more or less), or b) she uses the fact that the canvas is slowly drying to help the paint disperse in different ways.  There is no layering, no waiting for it to dry and cutting a new edge.  Nope. She does it all in one go, and while the edges are soft, there are clear shapes there.  Super fun to watch. Plus, I dug the music!  ;)



-don’t overwork it, a common mistake

-the purpose of it is to lead you into the painting; too much detail will stop the eye from arriving at the point of true interest farther in the painting

Middle ground-

 - this is where you put “the actors on the stage”

 -The point is to draw the viewers eye to the actors on the stage, not the stage itself, nor the back drop, nor the back of the heads of other audience members. A painter should always be thinking about what the real “actors” in the painting are, to keep themselves from getting distracted by extraneous details.

-The actors are typically in the mid-ground.


-Gives the painting depth

-Is usually overworked and too dark, because its painted first



-The drawing is the bones of the painting.  No amount of paint can disguise a terrible drawing.  In his opinion, its ok to get carried away with the drawing, even if it gets erased or covered by the painting because it helps acquaint you with the subject more.

*TIP- make the drawing light, even if it is detailed, so that it doesn’t dictate your future painting decisions, which should develop and evolve as the painting progresses

*TIP- will sometimes sketch in small, very dark windows or openings on buildings and leave them here on purpose in the final painting, instead of repainting them


Various Practical tips-

- You need consistent, mellow light on your palette and canvas, whether you’re inside or outside. Don’t paint in full sun, as it’ll change the way the paint looks.

- Arrange your materials ergonomically- put your water and palette on the same side of the canvas as your dominant brush-hand.

- Not against using white gouache or Chinese/ Titanium white to reclaim highlights.

-use small brushes for small shapes and big brushes for big shapes

-hold your brush farther back on the handle

-paint with your canvas at an angle, about 35 degrees


Here are links to the other two parts of the "Cliff Notes"-

Cliff Notes, pt. 1

Cliff Notes, pt. 3