Can Watercolor Painting Improve my Oil Painting Skills?

So I’ve been doing a lot more watercolor painting these days.  I find it a beautiful medium that is very difficult but I really want to master it.  With a few exceptions, I’m less than thrilled with the results I’m getting but I recognize that it really takes practice.  

Watercolor is beholden to the laws of physics in how water behaves. You have to learn to manage it, but you can’t really expect to fully control it.  It also requires a different technique because it is transparent, so you can’t paint lighter colors over dark and expect them to cover the dark up.  If you want white, you have to leave the paper white.  You can protect the areas you want to keep white with masking fluid, but that’s is a skill that requires practice, just like everything else.  

A few weeks back I set out to paint from a photo of one of our mountain streams.  It was a really pretty scene where the light was dancing through the leaves onto the forest floor and the rocks and water.  I had also just watched a video on pouring watercolors by an artist named Leslie Redhead.  While I recognized I am not ready to try pouring, I did learn a lot about mixing color on the paper and doing repeated washes to get deep rich colors.  I used some masking fluid to mask out white areas where the sun was coming through the leaves and some of the light on the tree trunks.  I ended up liking the deep washes, but not really the masked areas.  They looked too contrived.  I tried to fix this by adding some light colors (yellow and blue) but this didn’t really fix the problem.  I also ended up embellishing some of the light on the water with white ink.  The result was a good practice painting but nothing to write home about. 
Stream Study 1

Then I set out to try it again.   I changed the masking technique to do some spatter.  In both cases I applied the larger areas with a sponge, which in hindsight was probably part of the problem.  In this painting, I like the sunlight in the background more than the previous version. I left it white but painted in the light yellow leaves to make it look less contrived.  I did not like the effect of the light on the water.  The shape of the sponge was not correct for water flow.  I also didn’t leave enough areas white on the water, and lifting did not work.  I did not resort to white ink to add more as I did in the previous painting.  Once again, I ended up with a good practice painting, but nothing more.  I really like the foliage and the tree trunks.  I hate the water because it is too flat and does not show movement. 
Stream Study 2

Because I am impatient, I have a hard time leaving a watercolor painting alone while my layers are drying.  I need to find other things to occupy my time so while I was painting my second study I started doodling a version of the same scene on a small piece of paper.  I didn’t use masking fluid. I did some wet-in-wet, but didn’t so a lot of broad washes.  In some ways I like this one the best of the three watercolors. 
Stream Study Little

So what does this have with oil painting and the title of this post, you ask?  Good question!  
While I was doing these paintings I became very attached to the scene. I was also missing my oils.  While they are a greater time commitment and more difficult to set up and clean up I still know my oil painting skills are better than my nascent watercolor skills.  I decided to do a version of the painting in oils.  I also committed to use two things I’d learned from my watercolor studies.  First, I learned a lot about the scene and the way to capture the light.  Second, I decided to try something a little different. I decided to approach the painting more like I do a watercolor painting.  I primed the canvas in a light orange acrylic and then began by panting the white and yellow areas peeking through the trees.  Normally I would paint the tree trunks before the foliage and would then paint leaves over the trunks.  Of course you can’t do that in watercolor since the trunks are darker. You have to paint the trunks later, only in the areas where the foliage doesn’t cover them.  I used this same approach in the oil painting.  I painted the light leaves, followed by the darker leaves. I painted the rocks and the water and captured areas of the bare forest floor between the leaves.  The last thing that I painted was the tree trunks.  

The resulting painting was probably the most impressionistic thing I’ve done.  I think it really captures the dancing light and the peaceful dark areas of the forest while not focusing on realism. I really like the result, especially if you step back from it a few feet, not something a photograph really allows for.  
Stream Oil

So yes, what I am learning from watercolor does have the potential to improve my oil painting. I’m going to keep at it, and maybe someday I’ll be a good watercolorist too.  

15th Annual Falls Church Arts All Member Show

Falls Church Arts is opening a new gallery, and its just two blocks from our Falls Church home!  In the past they’ve always shared Art Space with Creative Cauldron, Falls Church’s theater group. So exited that they are getting their own space.  The grand opening is Saturday night with the 15th Annual All Members show.  
Show Announcement
The new space is in the retail portion of The Kensington, which is a senior living building that has just been completed in Falls Church. The building owners are very excited to have Falls Church Arts as a neighbor because they see it as a good fit with their residents.  

I have entered two paintings in the show. Depending on space availability one or both will be included.  I will also be at the opening gala!  Below are the two paintings and yes there is a vineyard theme :-) 

Afton Mountain Vineyard oil

Rockbridge Vineyard Chairs

Adventures in Watercolor

We spent about a week and a half at our mountain home for the holidays, and I took several days off from my pesky day job to do some painting.  As I’ve said, I’ve been trying to improve my watercolor skills.  One of the ways I’ve been doing that is by watching YouTube videos.  While I have learned a lot, and I’ve gotten some great ideas, the most important thing I’ve learned is that it takes a lot of practice!  You’ve got to try it for yourself and figure out how it works, and what works for you and your style.  So I decided to do as much painting as I could and I’m sharing the adventure.  Sorry this is a long post. I could have broken it into several small posts, but I think there’s value in covering all of these together.  (Note: clicking on any image to see a larger version.)

Snowy 7th Fairway Stream

In my most recent post, just after Christmas, I shared a painting I did of a snow scene of a pond on the golf course near our home.  To do this I watched a few videos on painting snow in watercolor, including this one by Grant Fuller.  I think the videos were all helpful.  I like the foreground including the grasses peaking up through the snow. I used masking fluid to block some of the white branches in the foreground trees and one of the strongest ridges in the field.  I augmented the whites with a white gel ink pen.  I don’t really like the clouds.  Skies look easy when I watch others do them, but I still struggle with them.  

snowy-7th-fairway-stream-2

3 Ridges in Cloud (Watercolor version)

Next I decided to do a scene that I’ve done multiple times in oil, hoping that familiarity would help.  I’m not sure it did. Sometimes I think that watercolor is better if you’re not too tied to the original scene.  Photos should really just be an inspiration.  Many of the videos I’ve watched, including several by Steven Cronin like this one are done entirely from the artist’s imagination. I’m definitely not there yet!

In this painting, I like the sky, but not the way the clouds are laying in the valley.  I think the foreground trees turned out okay. I augmented them with my white gel ink pen.  For what it’s worth, this painting looks better in the original form.  The scan didn’t do it justice.  

three-ridges-in-cloud-wc

Stormy 17 Mile Drive

Then I decided to do a seascape, which was an ambitious undertaking. I have done very few of these, even in oil.  When I was showing my work at the Farmers’ Market in December, one of the other artists, Rajendra KC was quite taken with the oil version of this scene (in my gallery if you are interested).  Given that he is a very talented local artist, I was quite flattered by this.  I decided to try to do a watercolor version.  

I have to say, I surprised myself with this one. I had very low expectations but it came out very nice.  This is perhaps my best sky so far.  I did not mask the white caps. I used discipline (a challenge for me) to leave them white. (I did watch part of a video that showed this, but I didn’t capture the link.) I augmented the white caps with white gouache in places, which is how I got the look of spray. I also really enjoyed doing the rocks. I took my time, starting with washes for the lighter ones on the left and then slowly layering on shadows.   

stormy-17-mile-drive

Clump of Trees (Study)

Then I discovered Steve Mitchell’s YouTube channel. I was quite taken with his landscapes and found his approach to be more valuable, from an instruction perspective, than many of the others. I watched several of his videos, but I thought this one on “accidental painting” would be fun to try. My version did not turn out nearly as nice as his, but it was a good learning experience. It also forced me to paint from my head, although I will confess that I allowed myself to be pulled in the direction of Steve’s example.  There are a lot of things I don’t like about this painting, but given that it was a quick study it’s also not bad.

clump-of-trees-study

Springtime Field

Inspired by my clump of trees study I decided to take on a painting from a photo I took of a field near Lovingston Virginia last spring.  I had a lot of fun with this one, and most of it I like.  There are some things I might do differently if I did it again. Rather than pointing those out I think I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader.  

springtime-field

7th Fairway Pond

Finally, on the morning of the day we were to leave to come back to Northern Virginia I decided to do one last painting. I had limited time so I did this fairly quickly, but I think it turned out okay.  I like the sky and the shoreline of the pond – especially the rock!  I’m not crazy about the mid-ground trees or the reflections of the trees in the water, which I did quickly because I was running out of time.  

7th-fairway-pond

All in all, I think I made progress.  I’ve continued to watch videos and I have several more techniques I’m excited to try as soon as I’ve completed this post. Practice makes perfect – of course there is no perfect in art, but practice is a way to aspire to perfection.

Snowy Fairway Watercolor, etc.

It’s been a while since I posted anything. I have been painting and doing other art related things, just not posting for various reasons.  

One reason I haven’t been posting is that I’ve been challenging myself in watercolors.  As I’ve always said, they are much harder than oils. I’ve been doing more wet in wet painting and they just never turn out. My clouds look to heavy to float and my trees and leaves all run together. I know I will get better if I keep practicing, but I have accepted that it will take a long time.  

A couple of days ago I painted a scene from a photo I took a couple of years ago.  I did not do a lot of wet in wet in this painting, outside of the sky. Maybe that’s why I’m happier with the way it came out.  Snow is difficult because you need to leave the white white.  There is no opportunity for error. I did mask some of the tree branches and one ridge on the ground that I wanted to really stand out. It was fun because it’s a nice winter scene.
snowy-7th-fairway-stream-2

I also sold a print to someone who found me on the Internet, which is a first.  She bought a copy of the Rockbridge Vineyard Chairs that I did for my friend Kathy a few months back.  She wanted to give it as a Christmas gift to her sister-in-law who lived in Rockbridge County.  They had visited the winery together.  She told me how she searched to find me, but I have been unable to repeat it such that this painting comes up.  Still I’m very happy she found me. 

EPSON MFP image

The one other fun thing I did before the holidays. I showed my paintings with Falls Church Arts at the Falls Church Farmers’ Market. I didn’t sell anything, but several people took business cards.  Maybe I’ll hear back from one of them.  Regardless, it’s good exposure and I had fun. 

market-display

Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!  I’m taking the next few days off from my day job so maybe I’ll have something else to post soon. 

An Experiment

I usually paint on location or from photos. I find that when I try to paint from my mind’s eye I lack clarity and detail.  Yesterday I tried a little experiment.  The last two times we’ve left our house in the mountains I’ve been taken back by a beautiful display of fall colors in the same place.  Driving down the hill we come around a curve and find ourselves looking up at a very steep hillside.  The time of day we do this is the afternoon and the sun is shining on the trees.  The color is beautiful but the other thing that’s interesting is that the sunlight on the trunks and branches appear almost white, in stark contrast to the bright colors.  This image has remained really vivid in my mind so I decided to try to recreate it.  It actually came out pretty good.  I actually think the real scene had more reds and oranges and fewer greens and yellows.  I may actually try it again.  I had a lot of fun with it.

It’s watercolor with white and black ink in a 5 x 8 watercolor sketchbook.

EPSON MFP image

6×6 to 12×12 Show

I have two paintings that have been accepted into the juried 6×6 to 12×12 show at Falls Church Arts.  The clever name means that all works need to be square and between the size of 6×6 inches to 12×12 inches.  That makes it interesting because these are not sizes that I, nor most of the showing artists I learned at the opening, normally paint in.  It means that we needed to paint specifically for this show.  Up until now, I have not painted with a show in mind.  When shows come up that I have an appropriate work for, I enter it.  So, this was a completely different perspective.

I knew the show was coming up and happened to be in a local art store and thought to buy some watercolor paper that was 6×6 and wood panels that were 6×6 and 12×12.  That was on a Saturday afternoon. I came home and looked up the entry date, only to find that it was midnight Sunday – the very next day!  Realizing that doing oils on the wood panels in time was out of the question, Sunday I set out to paint watercolors.  I originally planned to paint three, but I got two pretty good ones and was running out of time, so I stopped.  I got the entry in on time and both paintings were accepted.

The first is a painting of the town of Spoleto from a photo I took on my recent trip to Italy.
6x6-spoleto

The second is a view from the golf course in Wintergreen.  This was actually from a photo that I took in the early morning hours.  The trees were actually dark silhouettes.  I decided to recolor for autumn and it came out quite nice.
6x6-autumn

Both paintings will be on display at Art Space (410 S. Maple Ave.
Falls Church, VA 22046) till December 3rd.

Catherine’s Ornament

And now for something completely different…

My friends Catherine and Mike, who bought my Lake Bled painting, recently bought a new house.  It’s their first single-family home, a necessity now that their son Connor has joined the family. Catherine came to me and said Mike is excited and just loves the house.  She wants to give him another special present and asked me if I could paint their house on an ornament.

My first suggestion was that I paint their house and we have it transferred to an ornament, but she really wanted a hand painted ornament.  I told her I would give it a shot. Catherine provided me with several pictures of her house and I began to explore options.

I found out you can buy wooden ornaments in various different sizes and shapes on Etsy, so I ordered some round ones that are four inches in diameter.  I decided that was as big as I dare go to have it be manageable as an ornament on a tree, but as small as I was willing to attempt to paint.

My original thought was to do the painting in acrylic.  I traced the ornament onto a piece of paper and did my first study of the house.  I really didn’t like it.  The acrylic paints were pretty unforgiving on the small scale.  The result was messy.  I decided to try watercolor.

This presented me with a new set of challenges.  With acrylic, which is opaque, I could just paint on the wood. If I was going to use watercolor I’d need to prime it with something. I got on line and found a product called Daniel Smith Watercolor Ground, which claimed to work on all surfaces, including wood.  I bought some and primed the wood so it had a nice white surface.

I was going to try another study but I felt brave and decided to try the ornament (I bought four so I had backup).  I did a good sketch of the house on the ornament and then realized it was crooked by about 45 degrees!  I flipped it over and tried again and got a pretty good sketch.  I proceeded to paint it with watercolor.  The primer didn’t really absorb the cerulean blue sky quite as well as I would like, even after a couple of washes.  That said, the visible texture of the wood grain actually adds to the charm.  The rest of the house came out pretty good.  I used a white gel pen to bring out the trim.  I was worried that it would fade or run, so I seald it with a watercolor fixative. I also painted the back with blue acrylic paint, which covered up the crooked sketch on the backside :-)

Here is the result (which looks better in person than in the photo).  I hope it holds up and provides Catherine and Mike with a unique keepsake of their first real home together.

catherines-ornament

Three Commissioned Paintings

I never really thought I’d have people asking me to paint things for them, but that sort of happened recently. Here’s how it came about.

A visionary named Charlie O’Sheilds declared July World Watercolor Month and started a Facebook page, Twitter feed and several other social media outlets. The challenge was to paint a watercolor a day and post it on line. It caught on immediately and before you knew it thousands of people from around the world were posting watercolors paintings on line. (This movement was so successful that the site was renamed World Watercolor Group at the end of July and remains very active.) I knew there was no way that I could paint a watercolor a day, but I was trying to do more watercolor sketching and wanted to join in the fun. When I did something I posted it.

The first painting I posted was a sketch of some Adirondack chairs sitting on the edge of the vineyard on a rainy day at Rockbridge Vineyard. July was also the month when I went to Nimrod Hall, so I did some sketching there in that lovely setting.

As I completed a painting in my little watercolor sketchbook I posted it on the World Watercolor Month Facebook page and shared it with my Facebook friends. My sketchbook is very nice, but is not high quality watercolor paper. It is advertised to take “light washes” which it does. It’s great for practice and learning but not so much for archival work.

A friend of mine from high school saw the paintings on Facebook said she loved my “whimsical” little watercolor sketches and asked if I would sell them.  I explained that they were in a sketchbook and were not of sufficient quality for framing. I said I could try to repaint them for her. She agreed to buy them if I did that but it was important to her that they be small and retain the sketch-like quality.

So I set out to repaint them. My tidy little engineer’s brain really wanted to make them more perfect given that I wasn’t sketching on location anymore and had all the time I needed in the comfort of my home. Gladly I was able to overcome my tendencies and, if I may say so myself, did a pretty good job of duplicating the originals.  I think each of the three is better than the original, but the improvements are in composition and color, and not because I obsessed on making every line and every stroke perfect.

Kathy received them today and says she loves them. Thank you Kathy for challenging me to get outside of my head. You are now part of the journey. Below are the originals and the repainted versions.

Chairs at Rockbridge Vineyard – original top, repainted below.

EPSON MFP image

EPSON MFP image

Nimrod Hall Main House – original top, repainted below

Nimrod Hall Sketch

EPSON MFP image

Nimrod Hall Post Office – original top, repainted below

EPSON MFP image

EPSON MFP image

Nimrod Hall Summer Arts Program 2016

I am so happy to have had the opportunity to attend a weekend workshop at Nimrod Hall again. This year I chose the weekend workshop Kirah Van Sickle, who is an impressionist landscape painter based in Wilmington North Carolina. Her work is wonderful and fluid, and I was hoping she could help me get out of my head a little.

Kirah paints mostly in acrylics and also does some mixed media. The class was open to people who wanted to paint in oil, acrylic or watercolor.   We had a good group of ladies who took the class including Julia and Emily who took a different workshop the same weekend as me last year, Molly, Susan and Carol.  Everyone got a lot out of the class.

Nimrod 2016 Class

One of Kirah’s first suggestions during our Friday evening discussion is to paint fast and loose.  Most paintings will be studies, so don’t start with the idea of having a finished masterpiece. I have heard this before and know it. Being basically an impatient person I tend to paint fast. The thought that the painting I’m starting isn’t going to be a masterpiece is a challenge. Yes, I know it’s unlikely, but I have to start and approach the painting believing that it will be good – otherwise, it won’t be!

I have to say, one of the things that came from the class was getting back to some basics. I have gotten away from staining my canvases in advance and doing a good underpainting. Kirah showed how important that was to doing the value study with is a key to a successful painting.  Doing a value study allows you to identify and capture the dark and light areas of the painting without regard to color. She also said that most paintings will probably only have two to four values, which are easily captured using a burnt sienna underpainting.

Underpainting in oil is different than underpainting in acrylic.  Acrylic dries really fast so you can just paint on top of it. Oil dries very slowly. If you’re doing plein air in a single session you can’t wait for it to dry.  One of the things she showed me was how to paint on top of the underpainting without picking up too much of the color.  Put lots of paint on the brush, hold it sideways, drag and pick it up. This keeps you from actually mixing the colors.  She also pointed out that it’s critical to use a big brush and not be stingy with your paint if you want to get an impressionistic look. You also need to choke up on the brush unless you’re trying to make fine lines.

When I used to paint in acrylic as a beginner I used to paint back to front, meaning you paint objects in the most distant background first (like the sky) and then work your way forward. Oil and watercolor have both broken me of that. However, Kirah pointed out that it’s a perfectly acceptable way to approach a painting (except watercolor where you have to paint by value). With oil, you need to use the brush well, as described above, but you can paint back to front.

I always struggle with painting things a different color from what they actually are. My very literal engineers brain gets in the way. Before class I saw a painting of Kirah’s on her website of a place that looked so familiar.  I went back and looked at my photos and discovered I had a photo of the exact place from almost the same angle from a previous trip to Italy. I’ve looked at that photo and thought about painting it several times, but it just doesn’t inspire me.  The colors are too muted and as a result it’s kind of boring.  Kirah’s painting was so much prettier than reality because she’d brightened up the colors. I learned from her that it’s okay to change the color as long as you don’t change the value. Here is her painting (left) next to my photo (right).

Cortona Photos

One other point that she made was to pay attention to the undulation of the landscape. There’s a rhythm to the scene where things go up and down.  It’s important to the composition to catch that rhythm.

I painted two paintings in the class.  I had trouble finding good light to do these photos, so they are not the best representations. The first painting is a landscape from one of Nimrod’s many porches.  I did this in oil.  It had the Blue Ridge Mountains in the background with a field in the mid-ground all surrounded by lush foliage.  This painting is 20×10 and is on a Belgian linen canvas board.
Nimrod Landscape

The second painting is of the Nimrod studios and it is done in acrylic.  I haven’t painted in acrylic in years, but Kirah offered to allow us to share her Golden Open Acrylic paints.  These are specially formulated to dry slower than regular acrylics, allowing them to be blended on the canvas more like oils.  They did dry slower, but out in the open air, they still dried pretty fast.  This painting is 24×8 on canvas.

Studios at Nimrod

In addition to my in class painting I also did some watercolor sketching of the buildings at Nimrod.  Because it’s World Watercolor Month I posted these on Facebook.  I have a friend who is interested in buying them.  Now I’m challenged with repainting them since they are in my sketchbook on low quality paper. This will be a good exercise for me, since the thing she likes about them is their spontaneous sketchy quality.  I will need to stay out of my head to keep that as I redo them.

Nimrod Hall Sketch

EPSON MFP image

EPSON MFP image

All in all it was another great weekend at Nimrod.  I’m already looking forward to next summer.