My 2nd Joseph Zbukvic Workshop- pt. 4

Park Street Demo-

I wanted to start this post by sharing this demo we did on Park Street in Alameda.  It features a lot of the elements I've been talking about over the last few posts.  There are

  • clear Compositional Signposts Joseph follows
  • there are some major edits and additions he does (trees, people, cars)
  • he clearly zooms in to help facilitate a lot of those decisions, and
  • the way he painted the subject was aided by his compositional choices.

Here you can see the photo I took of the location-

I wanted to work on zooming in, so I actually moved farther away than Joseph was, but even he was just past the intersection, in that group of people on the right.  The goal is to see big shapes and how they stack against each other and interlock, not tiny details.  Backing away just a little bit helps that overlaying process.

Although the foreground is busy, Joseph opens it up a bit to let the eye approach the main subject (the interesting corner building, in my mind).  So there are far fewer cars and people there than in real life- although still enough to provide a sense of activity.  He also edits out the trees, which clog up the foreground and stop you from getting to the "actors" as well, and gently dampens the background, making it paler so it recedes a bit.

Much like in the previous post, as I see it, some of Joseph's wet-into-wet technical work was guided in part by his earlier compositional decisions.  He did his broad initial wash (top to bottom), and then set about working on the background shape (the red overlay in the mockup below) after it was dry, working from one side to the other, painting the distant hills and merging in the distant trees, cutting around the buildings and the tops of cars, until he got to the focal point building.  Here in the color-coded mock up below, you can see that first stage, as well as the following 3 steps.

The lit edge of the building is the "1st break point"- a dry area from the first wash, that he used to separate the wet-into-wet shape of the background from the primary wet-into-wet shape of the midground (the green overlay).  Just as he had painted the background, this new shape was painted in one go, adjusted and noodled with while it was still wet. Again, there is another lit area on the building to the left.  This was his 2nd breaking point.  He moved then to the 3rd area (the blue shape), but only once he was done with the focal point work- because, of course, once it was dry he couldn’t work on it wet-into-wet anymore.  Finally, he did the darker foreground shape on the right (the purple area), laying down the general shape, and (again) adjusting it while it was wet.  Much as I noted in the previous post, once you grasp it and assess where your stopping points will be (where you will cut your dry edges), the process is relatively straight forward, because you’ve already made some of your technical decisions when you made your earlier compositional ones. 

My Take On the Subject-


I had done a similar painting a month or so before I did the workshop, and afterwards I had wished I'd focused more on my real subject- the corner building I'd been painting at the time.  So this time I did a vertical and zoomed in.  On that note, I was happy afterwards.  I think it was the right decision, because I edited out information that wasn't pertinent to the story I wanted to tell.  Still, there are a variety of things I'd change- some wobbly laziness with perspective lines, how I need more practice working on my car-shapes, etc.  But the thing that stands out most to me, when I compare it to Joseph's, is his strong use of mid-tones.  Take a look at this again, to see what I mean-

There's often a lot of talk about "vegimite" and getting your darks dark enough, and "juicy darks", all of which is true, but Joseph is actually rather selective about where it goes.   It's his light mid-values that do a lot of the heavy lifting, building the big important shapes against the palest values of the painting while still expressing light themselves, expressing interlocking patterns of hues because they're not too dark, and allowing the bits of very dark darks to pop against them.  Many students who are new to watercolors never get dark enough, everything is too pale, but the opposite can occur too, where the shift between lighter values and the darkest darks is too abrupt, and the light gets swallowed up in your desire to add some "drama".


Selective Vision-

I wanted to end with an overriding idea that JZ shared early on in the workshop.  This was the idea, as he said, that “What makes an artist an artist is how he sees”.  I came back again and again to this as the workshop went along.  Of course, I've heard this sort of thought before, and always assumed it had to do with choosing your subject, or finding magic in the mundane or some such thing.  And I suppose it does.  But training ourselves to clearly pay attention to the vast sea of details in front of us is (while hard) actually the easy part, because "seeing" (once applied) also plays in to the way we build compositions and bond shapes together.  It plays into the idea I called “mind-seeing” and understanding our minds well enough to know we're doing it.  It plays into knowing the story we want to share, and choosing some certain transient details to include, while excluding others.  Namely, it has to do with prioritizing and "selective vision". 

During one of the last days of the workshop, Joseph mentioned the idea that “Every time you put something on the paper, you also take something away.  If you fill it all in, it’s finished before you even start.”  It was actually about the problem with over-painting an area, and filling every little white speckle in, but it really spoke to so much more.  There's a real power in not including everything, in "selective vision".  It makes what you choose to include more important, and lets your viewer fill in the "missing" details with their own memories and intuitions.  Instead of delivering everything, it almost requires a viewer to complete it, however temporarily. 

During the workshop, Joseph recommended a book he's read many times- Robert Henri's "The Art Spirit."  I picked it up, and have been reading it these last few weeks. It is full of quotes that echo and illuminate many of his thoughts. I wanted to end on a few of these, as I felt they so clearly express some of what's been bouncing around in my head-

(While discussing painting the figure) "Realize that your sitter has a state of being, that this state of being manifests itself to you through form, color, and gesture, that your appreciation of him has depended on your perception of these things in their significance, that they are there of your selection (others will see differently), that your work will be the statement of what have been your emotions, and you will use these specialized forms, colors, and gestures to make your statement.  Plainly you are to develop as a seer (my emphasis), as an appreciator as well as a craftsman.  You are to give the craftsman in you a motive, else he cannot develop."

(Again while discussing painting the figure) "The artist sees only that in the model which may help him to build up the look he would record.  With the model before him he works from memory.  He refers to the model, but he does not follow the new relations which differing moods establish.  He chooses only from the appearance before him that which relates to his true subject- the look which first inspired him to work. The look has passed and it may not return.  All good work is done from memory whether the model is still present or not."

"The development of the power of seeing and the power to retain in the memory that which is essential and to make record and thus test out how true the seeing and the memory have been is the way to happiness."

"If we only knew what we saw, we could paint it."

Happy seeing, folks. :)