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Like my fellow painters, regardless of medium I constantly strive to improve. Fine art painting is hands on and watercolour is no exception. It has its own formal disciplines: The need to maintain an awareness of the white paper ground, simplification of images, and an ideal of executing the work in approximately three stages. This ‘medium of the nursery’ can and does overwhelm.
A painting does not have to have whites - a common misconception. However, integrated/interlocking whites held by saturate colour (tertiary or pure) with good edges is accomplished painting.
Awareness of white paper involves allowing the wavelength of white light to penetrate the watercolour layers and then reflect back in a secondary bounce. If you ignore this aspect of the physics of light intermixing/blending with thin layers of pigment on a white paper ground, you risk success in your painting. Less is indeed more.
I maintain and constantly use a study notebook/sketchbook. Watercolour lends itself to this.
I paint many 6x4 inch watercolour studies and regularly make ‘pencil paintings’ in 2B, 4B & 6B.
I use the term ‘pencil paintings’ because I am painting in graphite with no pre-drawing. I lay the graphite in broadly using artists’ pencils (USA), a flat lead similar to a carpenters pencil, but in 2B-6B.
I keep them very flat and very sharp. I save any graphite shavings to use for reinforcing darks. The results are geometric, painterly and invite a colour version.
I do not paint things – I paint pattern. Pattern is subject to the Rule of Seven (Rex Brandt): less than 7 units is pattern; over 7 it is texture/detail. Brandt with his genius for watercolour was renowned for his luminous work. He was an exceptional and generous teacher and, with his artist wife Joan Irving, was a very good friend.
Texture/Calligraphic detail is painted in one value plus or minus the value of its ground. Calligraphy reinforces a linear or a colour dominance. So the hip bone is connected to the knee bone and all roads lead to a unified/varied composition. The more one investigates, the more absurd is chocolate box painting or noughts and crosses for that matter!
Graphite pre-painting is a great device for combining information with composition. Critical images/icons are stepped around the composition in varying mini focal areas. We exaggerate and diminish selectively. Edges and gradation almost arrange themselves. Images are kept open to allow the eye to flow – this is ‘Passage’ or to quote André L’Hote (Post Cubist) a ‘visual flux’. The equation is open shape / open colour.
I am not a fan of local colour and tend to frown at an excess of same. I borrow from local colour but adjust it within a selected palette. I will aim for a colour dominance (or tonal dominance) eg: a green painting.
Similarly a work with dynamic whites and edges held in a maroon colour field with saturate shots of Burnt Umber, Permanent Rose and Black (made from Thalo Green/Permanent Rose) may have been preceded by a high key colourist palette containing three Blues, Lemon Yellow, Orange and Vermillion.
Watercolour on quality paper where one moves away from one’s comfort zone is a high risk/high reward venture – not for the faint hearted. Degas loved the dance, Lautrec loved the dancers and both could draw and paint.
As a modern painter in a contemporary world, where the palm leaf can be awarded for much ado about nothing, I am certain that one must serve one’s apprenticeship. There are no shortcuts to attaining a trained fist that can paint from the elbow or the wrist.
Saturate colour (intense) and luminous darks should be sought. Edge hierarchy and gradation are paramount in the ideal of variety within unity. Gradation lends itself to watercolour. The eye loves gradation and follows it.
My target is completion in 3 stages employing the K.I.S.S. system. I often commence a watercolour with a broad soft edged underpainting wet into damp, painted up to ½ strength with colour/tone (tertiary hues) allocated in anticipation of the next stages. Whites or linked whites allocated in the Arabesque or Passage is the main decision in Stage 1. Knowledge of pigment characteristics is essential.
The difficult painting stage is stage 2. I paint from the wrist/elbow in the first 2 stages, keeping an open mind, ready to adapt, to seize any opportunity presented as the work advances.
I like the modern definition:
“It should be realised that a painting, before it is an anecdote for a horse or a tree, is a series of shapes and colours on a flat surface, arranged in a certain order”.
Newsletter 153, 2014 Featured Artist: Ted Sherwenby John Toft
Ted Sherwen is one of New Zealand’s top watercolourists. His paintings were featured last year in an exhibition of New Zealand art in New York. John Toft interviewed Ted at his Takapuna studio.
Ted grew up in a working class tenement in post-war Glasgow. He inherited his drawing ability from his father, a very good amateur watercolourist. His artistic talent was to be Ted’s ticket out of the tenements.
Because money was needed in the household, Ted left school before he was 15, landing a job in the art room of a big publisher. He worked with about a dozen other artists, attending design and lithographic drawing classes one day a week at the Glasgow School of Art. At the start of the third year of his apprenticeship Ted, as usual, handed over his wage packet to his mother who gave him ten shillings for living expenses. A hushed discussion between his parents followed. Ted realised that he was now earning more than his father, a highly skilled carpenter.
Two of the artists he worked with were very good watercolourists. Ted learned by watching them paint: "the watercolour I just responded to".
Although he entered the odd watercolour in exhibitions, with a wife and two young daughters to support Ted was more concerned with paying the building society than exhibiting paintings. Ted gives his wife Anne credit for encouraging his interest in watercolour.
After they came to New Zealand in 1974, she urged him to build a studio at their Takapuna home and drew his attention to a book by Californian watercolourist Rex Brandt, who would strongly influence Ted’s artistic
Ted began corresponding with Brandt then, in 1978, travelled to California for a two week workshop. He made an annual pilgrimage to California to attend Brandt’s workshops for another ten years. Brandt emphasised the language of painting, ways of representing the object by making a little say a lot. He underlined the importance of white paper, preferably painted around and set great store on edge hierarchy.
"It’s the edges that sell your paintings if you’ve got the values right", says Ted.
The eye sees a hard edge before it sees a rough edge before it sees a soft edge. Brandt was also a great man for gradation. “The eye loves gradation”, Ted maintains. Brandt taught that the artist must direct the viewer’s eye, which is attracted to light-dark contrast, hard edges and linked whites. He was very good at demonstrating what he was talking about.
A studio painter, Ted uses photographs and drawings done on location for reference. “Very rarely do I go anywhere I don’t draw. But I don’t have the time to gather my thoughts to get the painting I want.” He
emphasises the importance of drawing, quoting the French artist and teacher Andre Lhote: “It is impossible to paint without drawing, because drawing is a system of reserving a place for colour in advance”. Ted does pencil studies to work out composition and tone, followed by a 6”x4” trial painting. A careful drawing is then transferred onto watercolour paper before the painting is begun.
Ted recommends the largest brush you can comfortably handle for a given image to avoid the tendency to niggle. His favourite all-round brush is a 2” flat. The paint should be applied, allowed to settle, and then be left alone so that the colours meld on the paper. It is very important, but incredibly difficult, not to lose the white paper. Attention to edges is also vital. “Watercolour is control of water – how wet is wet?” Using the correct consistency of pigment and knowing the right time to apply it is learned through experience and “lots and lots of sponges that don’t rise.”
Watercolour is definitely a minimalist medium, says Ted. Consequently you are better using five colours than fifteen. Ted’s palette is based on cool-warm contrast. He recommends that watercolour painters investigate the results that can be achieved with the Velasquez palette (ultramarine or black, yellow ochre and burnt sienna) on the one hand and a high key palette (ultramarine, cadmium yellow pale and alizarin crimson) on the other. A limited palette gives your paintings unity.
Ted frowns when he watches weekend watercolourists painting the little house on the prairie using yellow ochre, sage green, a grey-blue sky and a bit of drab brown. “They are missing out on the potential of watercolour and saturated colour.”
Ted, who taught colour theory at the Glasgow School of Printing, has some practical advice on colour. Cobalt blue combines beautifully with permanent rose or alizarin crimson to get purples. You need either raw sienna or yellow ochre.
He particularly recommends manganese blue, a cool granulating colour. Thalo (Winsor) green with lemon or cadmium yellow gives stunning greens. He has no hang-ups about using white, “It’s just not transparent watercolour.” Black may be used for shading, but must be used tastefully. Stunning dove greys can be mixed from black and white. Adding yellow ochre to cobalt blue and alizarin gives another stunning watercolour grey.
Ted’s last piece of advice to aspiring watercolourists is don’t get impatient with yourself: you’re not going to be Picasso in a fortnight. Be patient. Stick at it. Practice your shapes. The eye is delighted by effective shapes and judicious use of effective detail. Practice putting on your coats of paint then leave it alone.
Weekend Workshop with Ted Sherwenby Fiona Carruthers
Twelve members came from as far away as Blenheim, Hokitika and the Wairarapa to join together at Karori Arts Centre in early June to learn from Ted Sherwen. He has a wealth of knowledge and experience which he was happy to share. He took us through a considerable amount of theory and also demonstrated various skills.
One of his sayings is “if you can’t cut it, don’t paint it”. In other words don’t put in too much detail. Another comment I’ve taken to heart is - when using calligraphy marks at the end of your painting make them only one tone darker or lighter than the surface you are putting it on, otherwise they stand out too much.
It was good to get amongst a group of keen water colourists and to feel part of the organisation.
While in Wellington I took the opportunity to have a look at Ted’s exhibition in Thorndon and also to visit the Lower Hutt Odlin Gallery where a lot of local watercolour painters were exhibiting.
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