Some Essentials- Thoughts From Teaching Workshops

Steve's workshop.jpg

I’ve been teaching 2-day workshops since May, and as I’ve gone over much of the same material repeatedly, some thoughts have come to the front.  I wanted to share some of those things I hope my students are taking away with them, to keep in the front of their minds when doing their own paintings afterwards.  I've included a 4-part demo video as well, as we discuss many of the same principles I'm talking about in the post within the video itself.  If you've got 40 minutes of time, come and participate!  :)  If you've


Wet Into Wet Painting Is About Edges-

The workshops have focused entirely on wet-into-wet painting- both on clouds and landscapes, as well as florals.  In a nutshell, as I see it, that means we’re really learning about how to control our edges.  To plan our edges.  Do we want soft or hard connections?  How do we make and control them?  Of course, are there other, more complicated, things to understand?  Value, Color, Composition, etc?  Yes.  But for the workshop, at its core, edges is what it’s about, and all the new decisions students are learning about deal with that element of the painting process. 


3 Tools-

The biggest and simplest idea is that all your paintings really come from the interaction of only 3 tools- the paper, the water/pigment mixture, and your brush.  As I see it, all the variables available come from how these three things interact. 


Paper- As the classes I’m teaching have been about wet-into-wet painting, the first question here is “How wet is your paper?” I don’t deny this is based on Ewa Karpinska’s descriptions and Joseph Zbukvic’s Watercolor Clock.  Of course, that’s just a conceptual framework to describe some general truths about painting watercolor.  But as it’s so functional, I’m going to steal it. !!  I'm not interested in reinventing the wheel.  Thank you to those painters who have come before me.

So, how wet is your paper?  Of course, most people can identify if the paper is dry or very very wet, like a lens, with the water sitting on its surface like a dome.  But what about all the steps in between? Is it wet to the touch with a shine to it?  Damp and cool, with no shine?  People should be using the back of their fingers to gently touch their paper here and there while painting. You should be lifting your painting to the light or bending over part way to see if it has a shine.  If you don’t know how wet your paper is, how will you know what effect you’re going to get when you introduce pigment and brush?


Water/Pigment Ratio- The Watercolor Clock is also a very handy way of assessing this.  However, it’s a regular feature in the method of many painters, including, for example, Marc Holmes’ “tea goes well with a bit of milk and honey”.

When you’re mixing your paint, you should be assessing how diluted the mixture is.  Can you see through the pigment mixture, and it runs on the palette when you tilt it? Tea.  Is it a thicker and more opaque mixture, like milk, but it still runs some when you shift your palette?  Is it thick and goopy, right from the tube, like butter?  You need to assess these sorts of things while painting, because this is the paint mixture you’ll be picking up with your brush, and different dilutions act differently when you drop them into a wet (or dry!) area.


Brush- Third, you have your mark-making device.  People should be changing their brushes as they move through a painting.  Big to little, mop to synthetic, loose and wet to tighter and more descriptive.  Often times, students start with a certain brush and stay with it the whole way through the painting, but, definitively, different brushes make different marks and have different water-holding capacities. 

It’s also worth recognizing that just because you’ve mixed up a big, diluted, watery pool of “tea” doesn’t necessarily mean you need to saturate a mop brush with it and apply it that way.  Of course, you can, but it's not the only way to use it.  You can switch to a synthetic (which holds less water), or squeeze the water out of your brush first, before you daub it into the mixture, for example, to not have so much water in the brush’s “reservoir”.  You get to control how much water you want on your brush, and that makes a big difference for how soft or hard your wet-into-wet edges will be.


Of course, there's more to painting than technique.   But (paraphrasing) as I say in the video, "Nobody cares if you have technique, once you know how to paint.  But if you don't know how to control your tools, it's very hard to communicate what you want to share."  So, understanding how to "read" your tools, how to manipulate them, is essential.  It's the most basic thing you have to keep in your mind.  From there, you can begin to assess the effects you are creating, depending on how wet the paper is, or how diluted your paint mixture, or how loaded your brush.  From there, 100%, you can begin to think about composition, structure, what you want to say, etc.  But you've got to get technique down first.  And that starts with fully understanding these three tools.