Something new I've been working on for the last few months is wet-into-wet flowers. I'll have a selection of these up at the Open Studios this weekend, and I wanted to share some of them today. As I've pushed into more complex compositions, one of the things I've really had to struggle with is tightening up and getting too controlled. Just because you can more often control things doesn't necessarily mean you should. Part of the joy, to me, of a beautiful watercolor is watching the dance between precision and abandon. These florals have been a wonderful re-entrance into that dynamic.
It started when I was introduced to Raoul Dufy's florals by a friend of mine. These paintings have a loose-limbed sort of charm to them. They're mellow and paint "outside of the lines".
They're not realistic, but that's also not their intent. He's not building form through modeling. For many of the images, value shift is also not that great, so that's also not how he's building his shapes. Instead, they rely heavily on shape as defined by color, as well as playful explorations of line. These two things do a lot of the heavy lifting in a graphic sort of way. I found this intriguing and interesting, and set about exploring how I could bring this in to my own work.
My earlier attempts followed pretty directly in the vein of Dufy, but I slowly began to explore stronger contradictions of wet versus dry. I'm pretty sure Dufy's flowers are all oils, and as I'm working in watercolors, there wasn't going to be any 1 to 1 relationship. Bit by bit, I tried to see how I could apply the approach to other compositions (like the rose on the rock below).
Of course, honesty is something I pride myself on here on the blog, so it's worth saying that along the way there were lots of mess ups. I'd get an ok one or two, and then bottom back out again. This is almost always what it's like when I'm learning a new subject. I threw a number in the trash right from the get go, but these ones give you a sampling. As always, there's only one way to learn, so messing up frequently and regularly is important in the early stages! :DAs long as you're giving them a critical eye...
As is often the case, it took about 15 paintings or so before I felt like I had a handle on what I wanted to do. What became obvious to me was that the vases were critical to reading the rest of the bouquet, much like how tires make the form of a car a car, or windows make a box a house. If I wanted freedom in one area (flowers), I needed precision in another (vases and the rim of the water line, for example). They play off of each other and work in tandem. I became more judicious in the first film of water I lay down, preserving my whites for the vases before I set about more randomly wetting (or not wetting) the rest of the paper. Once my initial applications of color (deliberately) exploded around the preserved whites, I slowly worked my way into more clarity and precision as the paper dried. Finally, at the end, I went in for my line work and chiseled out a few details on the flowers and vase- essentially, a lot of that linework I really like in the earlier Dufy paintings.
Painting flowers this way is a funny thing. The goal is to keep them loose, but you also need to be able to read them. Much as the vase, like a key, is critical to unlocking the whole image, being able to chisel a flower down to its essentials is important. Roses have a pattern of folding, Tiger Lillys have a spotted pattern and their prominent stamens and pistils, certain flowers have a rigid branching structure, etc. So, while one wants to be loose, and that's part of the charm of wet into wet for sure, you also need to zero in on some certain parts and take your time. This is where both preserving your whites and indulging in Dufy's rambunctious line work really come into play. These two things help you carve forms out the wet into wet work. Once you get your technique down, this is really the next step- where do you want to focus your attention? Where do you want to let it be loose?
What was particularly interesting to me was how important negative painting became. Many of the flowers are a pale value, and with soft wet edges, they can disappear. As things began to dry, it became clear I needed foliage popping up behind petals here and there, to define my shapes. You can see this clearly on the Easter Lilly above, where the pink blossom is very much given form by the leaves around it.
Of course, it was lots of fun to go out shopping for flowers! I went down to the farmers market and got 20$ worth, and over the next week I spent a great deal of time rearranging them, making different bouquets in different kinds of vases, and taking a lot of photos in different lighting situations. I also painted a great deal from life. Something that became clear pretty quickly was that adding more and more flowers and color is not necessarily better. Leaving some space allows for pockets of light to come through, helping shapes to become incidentally clearer. Adding grasses and other linear elements in is also a helpful and fun touch. Their long sinuous lines play against the fat round shapes of the flowers and leaves.
As you can see in this last bunch, I decided the next step was to move into shadow work, where I could let an occasional hard-edged leaf play against its soft cast shadow. I also thought it would help to place them in space, and give a sense of directionality for the light. Next time, I'll be dropping in a background wash before I get going on the vase, to complete a sense of space. For now, though, there's a charm in the simple white background that I like. It allows the flowers and grasses to be placed with freedom.