Now without too much trepidation, I call myself an artist. Not big A not small a, just artist. It’s a good realization because it hasn’t always been that way. For most it isn’t. Not many people open their eyes to this world and proclaim, “I am an artist!” It’s a journey each of us takes, often slowly, quietly and internally.
Today was the last day of my first real art class. Sure, I’ve taken drawing classes before but I’d categorize all of them up until this point as failures. Failures because I left the quarter (or the three classes I made it through before quitting) feeling worse about drawing than I did when I started.
Sometimes it takes awhile.
It was worth the wait.
Sterling Edwards was trained as an oil painter. One day, he happened upon a watercolorist working wet into wet. “I was used to having to really manipulate paint and push it around with a brush,” says Edwards in his DVD working, Luminous Watercolor, “And suddenly he was just doing these magical things.” This wet on wet changed the way Edwards paints and it’s also how he begins the first painting layer of his 67 minute DVD workshop, new at Creative Catalyst Productions.
Edwards paints with a four-step process. Wetting his paper, he starts with mid-tones and then adds darks. He admits that adding darks second goes again traditional watercolor thinking but what Edwards likes about this approach is that after two basic steps, you’ve got your painting laid in with lights (the white of the paper), mid-tones, and darks. Having those two steps in means Edwards can go back and add vibrant selective glazing in his whites and then really play in his final step of bringing out the first small brush of his painting, and adding in details and defining.
Clearly showing his years of workshop instructor experience, Edwards is a natural on camera, and he makes it seem easy to paint and talk. Working with a 14-color palette, Edwards lists the colors and combinations of colors he uses at almost every turn. This is incredibly useful to artists of all levels. Halfway through his mid-tones section, you can guess his color combinations before he even mentions this. This is a great way for a beginning artist to learn colors and for an intermediate artist to see known colors in action.
The DVD comes with 8 chapters. The first chapters go fast and there isn’t a lot of time spent on trivial things. Edwards gets painting pretty quickly. He has a quick exercise on positive and negative painting before a 2-minute section on the preliminary sketch. If you’re an artist who doesn’t want to watch an artist draw in every line this art instruction workshop is for you. Edward’s preliminary sketch is hardly more than a few pencil marks. He keeps it loose so that his painting will be loose. “That’s really as much drawing as I want to do. Because if I hunker down like this and start really drawing every tree and every branch, my first inclination is to get that little two hair brush out, and start staying inside those pencil lines. I want this to be a very bold, fresh, vibrant piece with lots of big bold brush strokes and a very very strong light source.”
Once the sketch is in, it’s time to get wet. He uses a 2” soft nylon brush to lay in color on a damp surface. It’s back to that magic of watercolor and it’s wet into wet. “I’m just doing random strokes. I want this nice movement of various oranges and yellows kind of going through the painting.” Painting wise, the mid tone section divides into four sections: Laying color down wet into wet, thicker paint to negative paint in trees and then after drying, adds darker mid-tones into the treeline and then working back (wet on dry) into the foliage.
As Edwards works, he knows that watercolor dries 25-30% lighter. He calls on that old watercolor adage, “If it looks right, it’s wrong.” Oh watercolor. You’re adorable.
Next Edwards brings in darks. He knows the darker his darks, the more his lightest lights will pop. For this reason he pulls out a smaller brush and adds in a few dark marks close to the focal point. These smaller dark shapes pull the eye in toward the center of the painting. Edward's final touch is a bit of splattering. He’s giving the essence of leaves in the tees and on the ground. As he’s putting on these final steps, Edwards is reminding himself that he wants this to be a loose watercolor painting. He doesn’t want to overwork it right at the end. You don’t have to paint every single branch and every single leaf. “It takes a little discipline,” says Edwards. “And that’s one of the hardest things I had to learn when I started learning this style of painting was that I had the tendency to overwork everything. And I learned very quickly that sometimes less is more.”
What is great about Edwards’ methodical approach is that you can focus what you’re doing. You’re not trying to do all things for the entire painting. Your goals for step one are very clear. You can focus on those goals and learn to do them well. This is important for artists of all skill levels. What beginning artists will find difficult is that much of Edward’s approach to the actual subject matter relies on Edward’s lifetime of painting. Placement decisions that he makes intuitively may not be intuitive for the beginning and even intermediate artist. Or an artist working outside of their subject matter expertise.
Part of this is what Edwards reiterates throughout the watercolor workshop: you’re not painting objects, you’re painting shapes that will be interpreted as objects. This is an important point for painters of all skill level, but to put it in action, some beginners and even intermediate painters will find difficult. However, that said, this is a great art instruction workshop for watercolor painters of all skill levels. Beginners will find the methodical approach helpful while intermediate artists will enjoy watching Edward’s skillful brushstrokes. Advanced artists may find some of the information already familiar, but it still is fun watching a master at work. Edward’s easy manner and helpful advice may also make you want to run out and buy his 4 other DVD workshops or take one of his classes live.
On occasional Fridays, I’m going to share five interesting resources from the week. Maybe it’s a new artist I just discovered or a podcast or an article. But take a stroll and hopefully you’ll find something useful.
Weekly Tasks Every Artists Should Do On an Artists Helping Artists from a few weeks back, Leslie and MArgaret talk though tasks artists should be doing every week. As a person who loves a good calendar system, I loved this show.
Interviews: The Talks I love interview series. I’m just starting to learn to turn them on while I’m cleanng or doing brainless sketching. There are several categories but here are the art ones. Excited to start digging into these.
A Modern Approach to Complementaries Delphine Doreau over at L Lapin Dans La Lun talks about a modern way to think through color. Oh color. I love you and hate you.
The Science of Motivation Great whiteboard animation about how motivation works...because we all need it.
Six Reasons to Try a New Medium In a shameless act of self promotion, I have a post over on the Creative Catalyst blog about the importance of trying something new every once in awhile. It would be an overstatement to say that trying watercolors has changed my art life..but it sort of has.
I’m currently obsessed with habit. In part it’s because I’m living in a sea of chaos and the idea of habit gives me hope about controlling some small part of my future. Oh. Wait. Does that sound dire? Maybe. But beyond the dire, it’s also about understanding myself. A life without habits takes a LOT of energy. Having good habits conserves that energy and means you have energy left to try new things in your art. Maybe exercise once and awhile. It gives your brain room to work on new and difficult things. Who doesn’t want that?
It’s with these ideals that I opened Twyla Tharp’s, “The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for Life.” Tharp knows a thing or two about living a creative life. Having started her career in 1965, she is one of America’s greatest choreographers. Tharp takes what her 50-year career has taught her and combines it with what she’s learned from looking at other greats like Mozart, and he hands that information to us by way of this book covering subject matter like the importance of rituals, accidents and embracing failure. The 243 pages are filled with great advice and each chapter ends with exercises to work through. Some of these exercise sections are a series of questions and it’s fascinating to see how Tharp herself answers them.
While Tharp is a choreographer and dancer, this book is a great read for all creatives. She uses music as an example as much if not more than dance but her ideas intentionally resonate across all art makers.
What I liked best about Tharp’s book is her no nonsense approach to creativity. To non creatives (and maybe even us creatives) there is a level of mysticism around creativity. We grow up in a culture that tells us that you either have it or you don’t. Tharp calls bullshit. She gives the example of Mozart. So sure, he wrote his first piece by age five and people love to talk of his natural talent. Yet Tharp points out that that “natural talent” came from a musician practicing so much that his hands became deformed.
To some, this level of dedication (both Mozart's and the one Tharp lays out as her own) can seem daunting and definitely unglamorous. But that’s what I’m realizing is one of the main difference between artists and people who think they want to be artists. Artists understand that there is nothing glamorous about creating. It’s about showing up and doing the work. People who think they want to be artists still think there is glamor involved.
“The Creative Habit” is definitely a book I’d recommend to other working artists be they visual or otherwise. The writing is clean and clear and there are great ideas to ruminate on as you work to build your own creative habits. And it's definitely a book I'll be returning to to read again in the years ahead.