Spotlight on an Artist- Wendy Artin

Artin Figure 2.jpg

Wendy Artin is an American watercolor artist that lives in Rome.  I found out about her a few years ago, and have been a private fan ever since.  Now I get to share her with everyone!  :)  You can find her website at http://www.wendyartin.com/ .  Please visit it if you like this article- she's awesome, and there's a library of additional links, images, and articles on her.

The best of her work is full of a variety of precise hard edges and soft wet passages, where the dramatically simplified subject only partially emerges from the paper.  Her figurative paintings, to me, wonderfully distill that desire to let a painting be a record not only of the world held still for a moment, but also of the painter's body in motion, working in tandem with the paper and water.  You can see the delicate brushwork like a signature, the soft edges that remain behind after the water has evaporated, the texture of the paper popping through like peppered light.  The goal isn't to hide these gears and inner workings of the art-making process, to create a better illusion of sorts, but instead to share and use them to greater effect. 

Below is a video about her that I found.  We're lucky, because it shows some of her process.  Let's take a peak!

 

Process and Tools-

Having watched the video, a few things came forward to me.  You can see, both from the finished paintings she has on the walls of her home or from in-process shots of her painting, that she's not taping the paper down.  Early in the video we see her paint flat, with the work on a table or a backing in her lap, like this- 

 
 

I asked Wendy about her process, as well as a painter who took her workshop (thank you Allison!), and it seems pretty straight forward technically, atleast for the figures.  For quick studies, she works wet on dry- you can tell by all the hard edges.  Besides, this would be the only way to control things if you were completing a piece in 5 minutes or less.  For longer pieces, she wets the paper down with water, preserving highlights if need be.  She paints flat, and generally doesn't use clips.  Wendy paints directly without drawing (again, atleast for the figurative work- although I see no pencil work in her landscapes and architectural paintings either), putting in middle values that she then lifts color out of.  While it's still wet, she drops her darks in for richer shadows.  As things begin to dry, she gets her hard edges, if she hasn't preserved the hard edge from the beginning.  Once the water cycle is finished, she then rewets as need be for new soft edges, or she goes in for additional detail here and there, where the paper is dry.  You can see this around the 2:00 mark in the video, where she's doing the feet of the nude she's working on- all the edges are dry by then, and she's able to get more control. 

In terms of materials, she obviously paints tonally, and uses a mix of Sepia and Brown Madder, which she seems to shift the balance of, depending on her subject.  For her quicker studies, she uses Fabriano Ingres and BFK Rives papers (probably cheaper and easier to get a lot of), and for longer studies uses Arches.  From looking at the video, most of the figures fill a quarter sheet, with the multi-figure pages being approximately the same as a half sheet.  So the figure work isn't too small.  Allison (her student at the workshop with whom I spoke) noted that Wendy sometimes used a block as well, so she didn't seem very dogmatic about things.  It seemed more about availability, and ease of use.

 

Cityscapes-

Both from my email exchanges, and from the paintings themselves, it's clear that there is a desire for clear observation, that clear observation will guide a painting a long way down the path to success, and that approach bears itself out when you notice how certain elements of her paintings demonstrate a great deal of precision.  The paintings she does of statues and buildings show this to maximum effect.  A lot of modern urban watercolor work aims for a vigorous, sketchy style, where the goal is to simplify and take command of hard, deep shadows.  However, Wendy's work, in my opinion, takes a different approach.  despite the wet into wet work you see in the trees and shadows, her architectural work generally demonstrates a delicate attention to detail, cornices and roofing, overhangs and windows, etc. much of which she renders in controlled half-tones.  The marriage of those modulated values with these two approaches- a soft, painterly approach to wet-into-wet shadows and a delicate attention to precise detail- makes the paintings feel very true to life without feeling like a rendering.

The cityscapes remind me most of some of Sargent's work, which I mean as a high compliment.  Sargent's brushwork is much more staccato in style, while Wendy's uses soft edges to greater effect, but both seem to have an affinity for bonding very precise architectural detailing with loose painterly passages, all while generally working in modulated tones.

One of sargent's

One of sargent's

one of wendy's

one of wendy's

one of sargent's

one of sargent's

one of wendy's

one of wendy's

one of sargent's

one of sargent's

one of wendy's

one of wendy's

Yum!

 

A Singular Vision Across Varied Subjects-

What's also so very eye-opening (and liberating!) to see is the similarities between her approach to subject matter as diverse as figurative work, statues, landscapes, and vegetables.  Its very illuminating to see an artichoke or motorcycle painted much the same as a human figure!  As you look, note the soft edges shifting into locations of precision and clarity, as well as the value of the paper as part of the subject.

Of course, each subject has it's own story.  We're not just putting paint on paper.  We're representing something.  We paint cabbages and and motorcycles and figures because they interest us in some human way- we eat them or touch them or see them as part of our lives.  As we learn from the video, Wendy likes to eat artichokes.  Me too!  Hahahaha!  :)  Why wouldn't I want to paint something so delicious and physically interesting?  But additionally, as I see it, as an artist the goal is to explore diffusion and clarity, hard and soft edges, lost light and discovered light.  Namely, to transcribe with a physical medium (paint) the act of seeing light.  As I look across the paintings, a similar vision emerges- how the object is often not placed against the illusion of space, but instead against the paper itself, how simple dense forms are illuminated and somehow partially dissolved by light.

 

The Figure, Both Living and Carved-

Of course, much is made of Wendy's figures, both the living ones she does in quick sittings, and the detailed ones she does from statues.  And much should be made of them!  Combined, they embody much of what we see in her other subjects- a nuanced control of wet-into-wet values, dissolved edges that demonstrate a strong use of the paper, and an attention to precision and detail.

The video I shared earlier indicates a leisurely painting process, with her sitting in a studio alone with a model, focused on her work, but from my conversation with her, her experience actually seems rather different.  She's normally (or atleast often), painting in a group setting, much as many of us would be if we were painting from a live model.  So her position can sometimes be fixed in terms of composition.  The model moves through a variety of poses, some very short and others much longer.  As I noted earlier, shorter poses are done wet on dry, to allow for some control of form, given the constraints of time.  For longer poses (up to a 1/2 hour), she wets the paper, preserving highlights where needed, and then goes about creating her soft edges, moving into harder edged work as it dries.  Then she'll rewet as need be, to finish the composition.  All of this affects her approach- the logistics of the event matter in terms of the final product and how she approaches the painting process.

Truthfully, I've never seen anyone paint figures this way, and it's very alluring to consider.  Time is limited, and I can only imagine intense focus is required.  When I've worked in similar situations, such as when painting plein air and the sun is setting or the wind is picking up, at it's best I've really thrived on the flurry of attentive action needed.  Things must be reduced to their essentials, and wet-into-wet work comes to the forefront out of necessity.  I asked her about the "in the moment" process for the figures, and she had this to say, “(For the figures) there is a huge amount of loss of control.  I could be far more controlled, but it is exciting to try to coax the watercolor into the right place, and I like the way it looks when it works...  I love it when it looks right, when it is obviously right, sort of as though it was pre-determined to be that picture.  When there are marks that look like marks but also depict the image exactly as it should be.  I like there to be a combination of clumsy and elegant painting, and for it to be visually interesting as well as appealing.”

What's very striking to me is to see how this plays out when married to the clear precision we get when she paints statues.  There's clearly more detail (she can take as long as she wants!), but there's also almost an intentional injection of ambiguity, of softness, here and there.  If it's too controlled, too static, the composition begins to bore.  The goal isn't to demonstrate control, but to evoke the feeling that the statues came from a living human being.

Although I don't think it was intentional at all, what's fascinating to me is to see these various figures done from life, and to see how clearly they almost replicate the statues, rather than the other way around!