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Wyeth3
Oh, Wyeth, I thought, I don’t like Wyeth. I had just walked in at the 7th Street entrance, said hello to some Dutch masters, Helen Frankenthaler, De Kooning and Jackson Pollack. And then there was a sign pointing to Andrew Wyeth watercolors. I was familiar with his paintings, admired them for their composition and austerity, but, really, Mr. Wyeth, all these individual brush strokes for dried grass. Hill and hills of brush strokes for dried brownish grass. Oh, well, I shrugged to myself, I’ll just go in and have a quick walk through.
My jaw dropped at the sight of the first piece, a pencil sketch he did for Wind from the Sea (1947). Then he worked out a watercolor of the same motif, the curtain blowing in the window. Oh, my!

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His watercolors are wild! The brush stokes—big brush!—are furious, ruthless, raggedy, dripping, bleeding, dragged dry. The watercolors are large, about 20 x 24, and each looks as if had been done in a frenzy of concentration, in maybe 15 minutes. Here’s the quote I took down from one of the walls:
“I break loose…and there are scratches and spit and mud…that’s what gives them some quality.”
Some quality, indeed. And yes, he ripped into the heavy paper with a knife or razor blade, he stressed the paper to the point of wrinkling, and the mud was passionate mud. He probably did spit and sweat.
Then why are his paintings so, well, fussy. Individual blades of grass, individual threads on torn curtains. Maybe, after breaking loose in a watercolor or two, he got out his tempera and oils to calm himself down.
I have no idea how long I was in that gallery. I lost track of time.

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Drawings and watercolors often don’t reproduce well in art books. The immediacy, the “spit and mud,” is lost in reproductions and prints.
What a revelation this exhibit was! It closed two days later. I will hop on a plane the next time someone puts up a Wyeth watercolor exhibit.
(Photography was not allowed, of course. I’m pulling images from the web here. Again, these only hint at the passion of Andrew Wyeth. I could not find the pencil drawing or the watercolor he did for Wind from the Sea and, in any case, no reproduction would do. Shown above is the tempera painting.)
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13JohnWatercolor2I do watercolors from time to time, but not enough to be considered a watercolor-IST.  But I love looking at them and studying their technique.  For me, watercolors fall into two categories: 1) the fussy, goody-goody, neat-huh, look-at-me-I’m-coloring-in-the-lines types and 2) the real thing.

A real watercolor makes me sigh.  For many reasons, but today I want to focus on just one reason.  Namely, a real watercolor lets the white of the paper do half the work.  This is difficult to pull off.  It requires that you study your subject—hard—before you dunk your soft sable brush into that pot of clean water.  One of the tricks of this medium is that in order to make this unforgiving medium look spontaneous and airy, you have to carefully plan your steps ahead of time. In other words, before you start with the brush, you know in what sequence you’re going to apply the colors.  And you know where you will apply nothing at all.  You plan the omissions where the white of the paper will shine through and make your watercolor look like…the real thing.

So you’re in my “Impressions of Landscape” class and you’re set up in the little pavilion on the other side of 13JohnMacsaiMansionPhjpgthe parking lot.  You see the old mansion, the cars and an overwhelming thicket of shrubs and tree trunks.  Good grief, how can this become a “spontaneous and airy” watercolor?  John Macsai obviously was not overwhelmed. He knew what to omit, what to edit out.  To let the tree trunks “breathe” he turned them into dashed lines, which is actually how they look when you notice that all sorts of foliage interrupts their upward sweep.  Easier said than done.

Notice the restraint in the use of complementary color: greens, blues and sepia.  Restraint, both in omission and use of color, is rooted in a love for this medium.  It’s not everybody’s choice but in a real watercolorist’s hands, it makes me sigh.

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I did this small drawing (6×10) yesterday from fast poses, about one to three minutes.  Now, a day later, it reminds me of Matisse’s painting, “Luxe, Calme et Volupté,” 1905.  Not in technique, but in the sense of pleasure that it conveys.   In the Matisse painting, as in my drawing, the nudes are at ease and are loosely sketched, without much fuss about anatomy.

But there’s another connection and that has to do with the pleasure of doing the work.  I can’t speak for Matisse, though he must have enjoyed the freedom of those wild colors in his Fauve years. (“Fauve” means wild beast.)

I’ll speak for myself and the materials I used.  This drawing is done on mat board, specifically 4-ply museum grade mat board.  Now, mat board is not intended to be drawn on; it lacks fiber and sizing.  I think of it as compressed lint.  But, oh, it is luxurious to draw on, if you give it a thin coat of clear acrylic gel. This seals the natural ragediness of the mat board, making it friendlier to the friction of the pencil.  The pencil I used here is the Stabilo-Aquarellable (see post 4.19.11) which loves the mat boards cushy surface.  It sinks in at the slightest pressure, produces a rich velvety line and deposits lots of black stuff for later washes.

When I’m preaching the importance of pleasure in drawing I’m perhaps a bit reactionary, in the sense that our contemporary art tends to the conceptual, the constructed, the engineered, the ironic, the alienated.  That’s fine, I love having my brain tickled.  But the artist’s rapport with the materials themselves has been suppressed, possibly even lost.  You can be sure that the original modernists, like Picasso and Matisse, loved their paints and their charcoal, their brushes and papers, their glops of paint and their drips.  They loved the mess and the physicality.

So, here’s the moral of the story: Draw on any surface that feels good.  I don’t mean your neighbor’s garage door, but neither do I mean to say that the paper or canvas has to come from a sanctified art supply store.   Experiment with supports!  Ditto pencil, pens, markers, brushes, sticks.  Take time to muck about with the materials and find something that—to you– feels like “luxe, calme et volupté.”

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The Stabilo pencil is aquarellable.  That means water-soluble.  After I have some lines down, I like to make them bleed by running a water-loaded brush along them.  In that process, the brush will pick up some pigment, allowing me to continue sketching with a very pale wet line.  If I go over or through those wet lines with the Stabilo pencil it will produce a very gritty and unpredictable effect.  This is risky, but therein lies the pleasure of drawing like this.

The paper I use, as mentioned before in this blog, has a gloss finish, meaning the water puddles on the surface without seeping in.  The technique does not allow for erasing, but since the pigment is suspended on the surface, it can be pushed around, up to a point, within limits.

Sometimes I start the drawing with a clean watery brush, sketching out the main thrust of the gesture.  Then, quickly, while these lines are still soppy, I start working with the Stabilo pencil.  The water makes everything unpredictable. The head with braid (left) resulted from this quick, impulsive way of working,   Anatomical accuracy and likeness of the model are, of course, lost.  But instead, we gain what  we might call expressiveness, a sense of urgency and a feeling for the complexity of the human condition.

Top: Ten one-minute poses. Bottom: Foreshortened figure, and Reclining figure. Each, a 10-15 minute pose.

(Click to enlarge)

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John Marin (1870-1954) painted his courageous watercolors in New York and Maine.  I always think of the moders as courageous because they were born into the staid, cluttered, dusty, repressed mores and fearful aesthetics of Victorianism and managed to break the bars of that cage.  They thumbed their noses at stiff conventions and instead duked it out with the energy of the internal combustion engine, the theory of relativity and the adventure of self-awareness.  John Marin rescued watercolor from the lace-fringed hands of genteel ladies and from the “it’s only a preliminary sketch” bin.  In his hands, watercolor becomes wild and impulsive.  His sturdy, rugged watercolor paper looks like a building material and it allows him to drag his wide brush so that the effect is rugged and rushed.  No time for pretty, for making nice.  This new, modern life offered too many possibilities, too many things to explore and understand.  If, while looking at Marin’s watercolors, you start humming George Gershwin, that’s only appropriate.  That hustle-bustle of Fifth and 42nd is right there in Marin’s urgent blobs and dashes.  In his mid-30’s he moved to Main and studied the sea with the same energetic eye.

This Sunday, the 17th, will be the last day to catch the John Marin show at the Art Institute.  I’m going to see this show again, for the third time, in a couple of days.  It’s a Must See. Postpone whatever you need to, but go see the John Marin watercolors…through the glass doors, past the Buddha, on the left….ahhhh….

Shown above:  The Red Sun—Brooklyn Bridge, 1922

http://www.suntimes.com/entertainment/3507159-452/story.html

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We have three-hour class periods.  That’s standard for art schools.  In a painting class, students count on a painting taking several class periods, maybe a total of fifteen or more hours.  But in a drawing class, the general assumption seems to be that you can finish a drawing in one three-hour session.  Well, sometimes you can and sometimes not.  The drawing may take you in a direction you had not planned on.  And then what?  After three hours you have marks on paper that are strong, but at the same time somehow incomplete.  They demand more attention, not in the sense of refinement or fussiness, but in the sense that the idea that has emerged calls for further development.  In other words, the drawing you have just made is finished, but the idea and the potential it evokes need to be taken up in a new form.  You don’t know what form, you have to experiment.  You have to try something new.  You’re out on a limb.  It’s an adventure, full of risks.

The still life I set up for the drawing class consisted of three green peppers and a black lace-up boot.

No one chose to draw them all together.   Some students drew the peppers and some the boot, with the boot being the run-away favorite.  Two students produced drawings –one of peppers, one of boot—that prompted me to bring in materials for a demo the next class.  Ah, the teachable moment!  I brought in pen and ink.

Let’s look at these drawings, of the peppers by Karen G; of the boot by Linné D.   Neither artist was interested in rendering contours and shadows to simulate a photograph.  In both drawings, the artist simplified the form. The object is recognizable.  But at the same time, there is a play on form, that evokes different experiences in the viewer:  in the peppers, the repetition of the round triangular shapes and the allusion to muscles in the body, perhaps the thigh or the glutimus maximus;  in the boot, the experience of rhythm in the repetition of the eyelets and the ladder-like  laces, and the strong yin-yang curve in the overall composition.

The forms were so clear that they invited a medium that was fraught with risk and limited controllability.

When I did my demos in the following class period, I looked at neither the peppers not the boot. The boot was back on the shelf along with other still-life props and the green peppers had long been eaten.   Instead, I looked at the drawings, propped up in front of me.  I was not interested in duplicating these drawings, not at all.  I was interested in picking up these rhythmic forms and producing quick, energetic lines that would heighten the excitement I saw in the original pencil drawings.

The original student drawings are fairly large,  about 10 x 12 for the peppers; 16 x 14 for the boot. My pen and ink drawings are small, about 5 x 7.

The materials are simple and inexpensive:  pen holder, nib, non-waterproof ink,  water, any old brush.  (See above.)

In short, the need to develop the drawing comes out of the drawing itself.   W.S. Merwin, after he was designated poet laureate a few months ago, was asked if he makes a poem for others or for himself.  He said, neither.  He makes the poem because of the poem.  The poem itself directs him, needs to be worked out.    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fTig4NeK1fc

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“I want something to look at,” she said, “and I want to spend time painting it.”    She wanted something close to Joseph Raffael’s watercolors, (>) though certainly not as huge.   She came to my plein air landscape class with the expectation of  spending  a couple of hours working on one watercolor, layering and slowly developing a dense surface.  Then she suddenly did this. (<)  I had suggested that she look at Cézanne (below),  a master of luminous, transparent color, whose watercolors print very nicely and are available in books.  The Cézannes were lovely, she though, but there was “not much to look at” and it’s not what she wanted to do.  All that white.  She wanted the surface more worked, denser, darker, more complex.  And she wanted to spend more time on one painting.  Instead, suddenly, she started producing four or five paintings in a three-hour class.  She didn’t like these paintings at first; they came too easily to her.  She had expected to WORK.  But I think otherwise.  I think producing such watercolors takes tremendous concentration and a rapport with this unforgiving medium that may have suited her sensibility but which she only now allowed to play out.

At the end of our ten-week course Janet told me that she had previously studied with a teacher who advised her students to cover up the white of the paper:  just put a uniform wash over the whole paper before you start painting.   How perverse, I thought, don’t do that!  It’s the white of the paper that makes the color luminous.  Why would you want to start with a murky surface and condemn your lovely watercolors to muddiness right off the brush.  On the last day of our class, Janet confessed,  working with the white paper as a key element in the whole process made more sense.

The white of the paper becomes an element in itself, not just background that needs to be filled.  Using the white as an element takes skill, sensitivity  and a concentration that constantly reads the whole surface and how everything on that surface relates to everything else.  This is not easy.  This rapport comes to most people only after countless hours spent in patient experiments involving little blotches of color into which other blotches of color are bled.  Hours, months, years.  That someone would have such a natural feeling for this medium strikes me as very rare.  I, for one, find myself absorbed in these watercolors.  The white in them has a presence and projects a power that I find quite moving.

The words “Beginner’s Mind” are part of a Shunrui Suzuki’s little book Zen Mind, Beginners Mind. Though we did not talk about this book at all, I feel it’s appropriate to comment on it since the student used the expression.  The “Beginner’s Mind”  is not at all stupid or crude.   The ability to be in a state of “beginning” comes after much work of staring down the mind’s constant commentator.

In that state the mind is able to see clearly.  To see clearly is to see the “whole picture” including all the white bits that appear to be blank but are anything but.

Many viewers, looking at all that white space in the watercolors, are asking, “but how do you know it’s finished?”  This question deserves a post of its own.  Later.

(The paper really is white, it’s my camera that doesn’t get it.  I’m working on it.)

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