watercolor 18 x 22 inches
There is an underlying, ever present, persistent obstacle that clobbers plein air watercolor and acrylic painters. It is the one thing that forces the watercolor painter to be on top of his or her game at all times during the painting process. In fact it is so persistent and so unobtrusive that it will clobber the efforts of even the most experienced and advanced studio painter.
This obstacle . . .or this challenge (you might call it that) . . . is so in the face of the painter and so omnipresent that most painters are not even conscious of it.
When there is such a challenge as this, it calls into action the least fun of the painting skill set so that the urgency of the fight becomes the center of the painting process. In other words, if the painter is not prepared to deal with this challenge, the painting will most often fail. Well, if not fail, then it will not blossom into that glorious state of miraculous, wonderful outcome that makes us painters leap with excitement and thrills for having accomplished such a piece of work.
This challenge calls into the painting process A PLAN OF ACTION. That plan must be present in the painter’s mind so that there is no . . . repeat: NONE. . . . hesitancy in the act of painting. The painter must know how, exactly he or she is going to paint each part of the painting . . . .from color choices, to value assignments, to the order of what gets painted first, to management of edges and that plan must be executed with speed . . . .or shall I say with urgency.
Yikes! What do you mean, Mike? What is this ornery challenge that takes the joy away from a lingering form of meditative bliss that we studio painters enjoy so much?
In the outdoors, there are a few things that can wallop a painter before he begins . . . sunlight being one of those. While we painters all LOVE the sun and what it does with light and shadow, being in the direct sun will spoil a painting very quickly. It bakes the paint. AND . . . . .it really changes how we perceive color and value . . . . especially when that paper is pure white and the light from the sun is reflecting back into our eyes and causing our vision to actually diminish from the glare.
But that isn’t it. It certainly deserves attention . . . like getting the painting into the shade . . .under a tree or umbrella or just out of the direct sun.
What I am speaking of here is the rapid, almost imperceptible speed of evaporation that exists when painting outdoors. Yep. That’s what I am talking about: Drying time.
A great wash requires that the wash remain wet for a period of time so that the fluid can slide down the face of the paper and remain wet so that it dries uniformly. If the paint dries so fast that the brush cannot complete laying down the wash before the beginning of the wash dries, then the painter is in a fight to insure that his painting isn’t baked before he completes it.
When we are confronted with fast drying time there is no time to step back and make those long considered decisions that form the core of that meditative state we painters all love so much. The painter must act so that his work is staying ahead of the paint drying too rapidly. Otherwise, there will be hard nasty edges all over the work . . .in places that they aren’t wanted.
The solution is to spend some of that meditative bliss in the preparation to paint. Do a few good value sketches. Become familiar with the subject. Plan where edges need to be soft or where transitions need to occur by having the colors mingle and blur. Know ahead of time the order in which the big shapes will be painted and when you intend to charge in another color before a wash dries. Have the composition drawn out so that there is no room or time for retreats. Hot dry days do not allow for these decisions to be made on the fly. They have to be planned so that the painter is always ahead of the paint drying and is in a position to manipulate the paint while it is wet.
Mixing colors and mindlessly stirring them around in the palette is a waste of valuable time. one must be decisive and must be willing to stand by those decisions without consideration and mental debate. In short, the painter must act with deliberate certainty. Serve up the color, put down the stroke and live with the result. The only way that can happen is to have a very solid plan ahead of time. It is sort of like knowing when to swing the bat when the pitch is delivered . . . there is no time to think . . .just react.
The painting above was done en plein air in France on a very hot day. The only available shady place actually dictated what subjects there were to choose from. Once in the shady place, I fiddled with different compositional alternatives in a sketch book. Then I nailed down a few solid value studies so that I knew exactly where my lights, mediums and darks would be and when they would be painted. It was so hot that afternoon that my plan to charge in cerulean blue into a sky wash of yellow ochre was immediately thwarted because the ochre dried before I finished laying it in. I couldn’t get cerulean blue on the brush fast enough to catch the ochre before it was dry. Then and there, I realized that I had to act fast and execute my plan with dispatch! I had to speed up. The entire painting was finished in around 45 minutes (including planning time!). And during that time I was conscious of nothing else but what was happening on the surface of the paper. I had to stay in the fight against drying time for the duration!
Part of the charm of a great watercolor painting is that it appears to have been painted with startling urgency . . . and that it remains “fresh.” That is that the paint doesn’t appear to have been fussed over and there was a clarity of purpose by the artist. The only way to get that is to P L A N.
I stress this too in studio painting instruction. Planning is the center piece of excellence in watercolor painting and, in particular, in painting outside.