Book Review- Alvaro Castagnet's "Watercolor Masterclass"

I ordered Alvaro’s new book "Watercolor Masterclass" in February, and have been reading and re-reading it since then.  The broad idea for the book is a conceptual framework that Alvaro talks about in his workshops- namely, the Four Pillars.  Color, Shape, Value, and Edges.  It also offers 8 step-by-step demos that repeatedly reference the Pillars.  Educationally speaking, this is the best book Alvaro has released to date.  The Four Pillars are a fantastic conceptual idea, and that is what the book pushes to make clear.  In my opinion, it’s a very good learning and teaching framework- much like Zbukvic’s Watercolor Clock.  Simple, straightforward, applicable.  If you combine the two, you have a pretty damn good conceptual foundation for the various facets of watercolor. 

If you are thinking of taking one of Alvaro’s workshops, the book is a slam dunk, in my opinion.  Get it before, read it, and then read it again afterwards.  It will help you.  The issue is for other readers.  Much like his painting style, Alvaro’s “Watercolor Masterclass” disregards what he would call "superficial details" and rests on the strengths of bold brushstrokes.  As such, this is not a book for beginners, by any stretch.  For those who want to learn technique, you will need to team up what “Watercolor Masterclass” offers with other more hands-on resources.

The early sections are good reading.  Alvaro was always at his best when he was talking off the cuff, and these earlier sections have that feel.  It’s invigorating to read about what he thinks makes art “Art”, how you have to move past your teachers into your own liberated style, how you should get past craving perfection to instead exploit what the medium offers, that you have to learn through painting and from your own painting mistakes and successes, etc.  They offer what I consider excellent advice.  Of course, part of why they play so well is that Alvaro is one of the best.  The proof is in the pudding. Something else I really enjoyed is that many of the paintings feature a blurb from him.  These are helpful, if brief.  I expected colorful offhand stories or whatnot, but, within the confines of the blurb, he often goes into what he was thinking and why he made the painting the way he did, given his use of the Four Pillars.  This is good stuff, and I could imagine it helping people “see” better.

There’s also a few pages with charcoal sketches and work from his sketchbook.  These are great pages, and I wish there were more of them.

great little studies that you can do quickly.

great little studies that you can do quickly.

They aren't sexy, but they're very useful.  As learners, it’s often hard to mentally bridge the distance between a teacher’s skill and our own.  Looking into an artist’s “workshop,” so to speak, helps us build that bridge.  You can see how you can get there.  So, even just a bit of these throw-away sketches, doodles, and more elaborate charcoal works is interesting and enlightening to see. 

what's there not to like about this?  Sheesh!

what's there not to like about this?  Sheesh!

It must be said that the charcoal work, in particular, is superb.  It plays to all of Alvaro’s strengths- very bold value contrasts and the play of hard and soft edges.  If you’re curious about these sorts of rough sketches and learning tools and want to see more, check out this post I did on Alvaro’s methods.

What’s funny is that, despite the praise I give for these specific sections, Alvaro really never gets into technique much.  As I see it, and I mean this in the most polite way possible- he’s got a beef with it, pure and simple.  He's not one to break technique down into bite-sized bits.  I don't know why, but it's the way it is.  Maybe it bores him or he thinks it gets too much attention from students (which is probably true).  He didn't talk about it much in the workshop, and he doesn't really do it here.  He gives it its due as something you need to master because it’s hard not to, but he really downplays it.  And he’s absolutely right, in that technique doesn’t make you an artist.  You can have a great voice, but have “nothing to say.”  The results?  Boring well-made art.  And yet without technique, it’s very hard to make art.  How does it work?  If you’ve got technique, nobody cares, but if you don’t have it, it’s all anybody cares about.

And this is where we come to the book's educational limits.  I don’t mean that harshly, but rather as a statement of fact.  I don’t want to critique the book for not being something it’s not really trying to be.  Alvaro actively states that he’s not going to teach technique in the book, and he doesn’t.  Yet the book is touching on it all the time because of the subject matter.  The Four Pillars, as I see them, are about manipulating technique to greater advantage.  So technique is a prerequisite, but not something he elaborates on.  If you've already got watercolor experience and know something about what you're doing, the book is a good read.  He gives some excellent advice about various things- that you should relate color usage to tonal shifts, that a limited palette is very powerful, etc.   And there are some great learning tools, like the “shape maps” and "tonal value maps" used in the book, where he suggests using a variety of sizes for your shapes and to arrange them for “maximum impact”. 

Here you can also see one of the blurbs, where he talks about the specifics of a painting...

Here you can also see one of the blurbs, where he talks about the specifics of a painting...

However, there is not much about how you actually achieve a successful composition, nor is there much discussion regarding how tonal values create the shapes he is showing you.  He suggests you should use a unified color family, or color harmony, but what is that and how do you use it?  Many things are referenced, but very little is elaborated on.

Fortunately, we also have the Demonstration section, which allows us to see a bit about how the Pillars are put into practice.  As best it can, it address this problem.  If you've watched any of Alvaro's Havanna DVDs, you'll recognize a number of the demos.  3 of the total 8 demonstrations are taken directly from the two DVDs.  Does the book supplement the DVDs' teaching potential, adding up to a whole that is bigger than the parts?  I don't know, as I haven't watched those two DVDs, but I would hope so. 

Either way, there are a variety of nice details.  In particular, I like that they added site photos for a number of the works.  This allows us to see what he started with, and how he altered things- a big part of painting that is not talked about much, IMO.  There are also a number of process pics, so you can see his approach to washes and detailing.  The sequencing is very important as you aim for success.  But as the book currently stands, I still think the demos function solely as an introduction to these subjects.  It's definitely not a book about technique, and if you're looking for that, I think you'll end up disappointed.

And perhaps that is what the book is meant to be- an introduction.  As I said earlier, if I read this book, and then took a workshop with Alvaro, the book would truly be very useful.  It would be 50$ well spent.  This would be the best case scenario, because then you could learn about the technique he is referencing in the book through seeing, watching, and doing in person.  If, however, you are an inexperienced painter and are reading the book on your own, I could imagine it being simultaneously enlightening and frustrating, in equal measure.  My advice?  If you are not taking a workshop with him, team the book up with other learning material.  Use the approach Alvaro is offering as a framework, and allow the teachings of other people to zoom in on different areas.

At this point, as a sort of addendum to the review, I just wanted to touch on a few nitpicks and details.  I don't think either of these complaints affect ones ability to learn from the book, but they both annoyed me.  First, although the book is very well made physically with professional-quality photos and heavy weight paper, it's also full of a great many typos.  A lot of them.  It’s not just a misspelling here and there, which I expect, but areas where there’s a bunch of numbers instead of words, or sections where things are repeatedly indented and the formatting is wrong, or sections with missing words.  Does it affect your ability to learn?  No, but somehow, for $50 I expect to purchase something proofread with a greater sense of professionalism.

Secondly, I could do without so much "advertising."  There’s a 6-page section early in the book, on how you should buy the Alvaro Castagnet sketchbooks, paint set, brushes, etc., with weblink included.  It felt well... pushy, frankly.  I don't want to feel like I'm being sold to.  I want to be taught.  I couldn’t help but wish these pages had been reserved for more helpful, directly educational content.  I'm greedy.  I want more of that helpful info that I'm sure Alvaro is full of.  And yet, he does actually seem to use most of the branded materials he advertises.  It’s just that it’s the sort of stuff I expected at the end of the book- where, in fact, the info appears a second time.  Regardless, his tools are covered and the truth is that any Castagnet products I’ve purchased have been excellent.  I have absolutely no complaints about his brushes. 

As for my earlier recommendation, that more novice painters might want to team the book up with additional materials, here are my thoughts- 

For any conversation about Shapes and how we build interest through Composition, I would send you directly to my blog post on Chien Chung-Wei's DNA of Beauty.  I’ve not heard anyone else explain it better or more thoroughly.  If you’re interested in the nature of color, color mixing, and how it works, I would recommend this section on the website handprint, David Brigg's fantastic website The Dimensions of Color, and James Gurney’s “Color and Light.”  I’ll be doing a review of that book soon too.  Take books, posts, or websites like these, and team them up with Alvaro’s book, and I think you would have a winning set of curriculum.  Of course, the best solution is to paint with a teacher.  It’s very hard to learn the “mechanical” ins and outs of technique without a guiding hand in real time.  If you don’t know how to make good washes, mix your colors, create soft edges, control dry brush work, or compose an image, this book will not teach you those things.  But in combination with a space to learn those things, “Watercolor Masterclass” could provide an excellent framework for thinking about your own painting and how you make it.