Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Growing Pains

  Its just natural that creativity and change go together. I'm sure there's something in science that demands it. For a few years now I've been changing slowly, partly from circumstances but mainly from whatever the dynamics of that creativity thing entails. Working plein air more is part of it, though that is actually a return to my "roots". The hard part is sorting out what to paint and why (though I'm not sure one needs to know why...just that you must). But maybe how is an issue too. 
 I'm convinced there's a a part of me that's too prose and not enough poetry. 
 Take these two images from last Saturday (an exceptional day weather-wise and a great time painting with fellow artists Carrol Michalek and Jessica Kirby - check them out at right). I like both images but that nagging feeling they could go farther too....
First the bridge into Farmington Iowa. I just went at it as is, with minor changes. The available shapes offer better opportunities, maybe?

 Next are the wetlands at Mt. Sterling Iowa. I took a few more liberties in hopes of getting the feel of the glaring light. 

Places like this don't offer too much object-wise so you have to be all about the light. I had a clue but maybe didn't follow it far enough?
I don't know. The only thing I'm sure of is that way down inside,  something rumbles and wants to be different. 
 Both could be done in other media...possibly that's an approach. More graphic? Juicer color? This artist thing doesn't get easier with time! Stay tuned in case I do studio versions.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Brush finesse

While this booger surfs my respitory system I've been surfing the net and found a really good YouTube by Liu Yi. Here's a sample of his stuff:

He's a wonderful painter, but the filming angle and lighting of this video lets you see aspects of brush handling and paint manipulation better than most. The video is just an intimate little landscape with rocks and foliage, but you can see the brush orientation and can gauge the consistency of his paint. That's not easily verbalized in demos because a lot of that is tactile. There's no commentary on it but that's a plus - you just watch.

Here's the link https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=iCgsLBBzPU8 And here's what to watch for.

1. The brush casts a shadow on the paper, forming a "V", the point of the letter being where the hairs contact the paper. If the "V" is narrow, the brush angle is shallow, contacting the paper on its side. If it's wide the brush angle is more vertical, using the tip. You'll catch on.
2. Note how light the touch is. He's not painting this like the trim on his house. He's leading and coaxing liquid around most of the time. Beginners - and too often experienced painters - dab and stroke away with dry-ish paint because it SEEMS more controlled. 
3. Yes, you will see him press down on the brush and splay it, but that's to get a specific mark. THE THING TO WATCH FOR is whether it leaves a little puddle of paint or a small bead he can lead along the surface. That means the brush was loaded with runny paint. If you don't see a puddle or bead, he's working with a dryer brush or stiffer, darker paint.
4. Note he uses a 9x12 Arches block with a relatively small oriental style brush - very like the Happy Dot brush many of us use. On other videos he uses just about every brush type there is...and different papers...so it's NOT THE GEAR. He knows the condition of his paper and the consistency of paint he's bringing to it.
5. Most of the video is classic light to dark watercolor process. There is one point where he scrapes (or rather squeegees) some light branches into a dark passage. It's not magic - you just have to wait until the water is BELOW the paper's surface and the paint on top is still moist. Then scrape it off. The mark stays because there's no water on the surface to flood paint back into that area.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Some day my paper prince will come...

Last post I touched on the role of sizing in watercolor paper and it's effect on the paper's behavior when wet. I've puzzled it some more and come up with this. I'm Using Arches and Bockingford as comparisons - there are too many papers to comment on all of them and these are popular examples of two basic types. There are no really awful papers in my opinion (though Strathmore Aquarius comes close). Just papers that wouldn't match your profile on ePaperHarmony.com.  The purpose of this post is to shed a bit of light on why each might perform as it does, in the hopes you can experiment and find a suitable match...
First, there are a lot of variables and I'm basing these comments on the use of UNSOAKED, UNSTRETCHED PAPER. The comment in points 4-7 will be even more important if you soak and stretch.
1. Is the size IN the paper, ON the paper or BOTH?
 That corresponds to, respectively, internal sizing, surface sizing or the two together. Bockingford is an internally sized paper, and this is typical of "student" papers, though for reasons below I find it outperforms them all and most "artist grade" papers too. Arches is both internally and surface sized which is typical of artist grade papers.
2. How much size is used on the paper? Here I have to guess and go by feel. I'm going to say Bockingford feels pretty heavily sized and Arches uses less internal sizing because it gets the additional surface sizing (possibly there's a limit to how much sizing is desirable?..I don't know and the manufacturers are understandably mute on their process). Bottom line, one has more size close to the surface and the other has it all packed into the paper. The behavior is noticeable as it should be.
3. What is the sizing made of? Arches uses an animal gelatin (in either or both sizings...I'd say both) and Bockingford uses something else. Possibly the synthetic gelatin called Aquapel? Bottom line, they paint differently.
4. How easily does it soften when wetted? The Arches size seems to loosen up faster than the Bockingford. Perhaps because your initial paint application is hitting size alone?
5. How long does it stay wet before it hardens again? Arches, once loosened, seems to stay moist longer. Possibly that's because Bockingford is a wood fiber paper and Arches is cotton which should be naturally more absorbent. This and the point above are probably why Arches was the paper of choice for the American School of watercolorists from 1930-1970. Their working method was rather specific.
6. Does surface sizing sink in? Seems so, especially if your brushwork is vigorous.
7. Is some of it removed by the brush during the painting process? Seems like it does. On both papers colors look "furrier" in heavily worked areas. Either that or water and brushwork push it into adjacent areas. This brings up another issue: does your painting style redistribute sizing unequally?

Final observations: The whole trick to watercolor is knowing what the condition of your paper is, so that when you bring a particular consistency of paint to it, you can make an educated guess as to the result. All the above factors affect the condition of the surface and need to be noticed from one brand to the next so you know WHEN to go into the paper with the desired paint consistency. Your frog may be a prince...but they all need to be kissed differently.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Paper chase

The subject of paper came up in class the other day - questions about sizing and such - so I did a bit of research to try and supplement my experience. I learned a couple things and got some surprises too. Had I gone by manufacturer info and Internet reviews I may have rejected my favorites without trying them!
 First, my favorite papers: 
1. Bockingford 140lb. Cold Press (white and occasionally the tinted)
2. Saunders Waterford 140lb. Cold Press and Rough
(Both are manufactured by the same mill)

 Next, papers which work ok once I get the hang of them:
1. Kilimanjaro
2. Arches
3. Fabriano
4. Lana
5. Bee (?) a paper I was given to try.
   Last, papers I don't like:
1. Any 300lb. paper (WAY too thirsty for me)
2. Most hot press surfaces (except in sketchbooks)
3. Papers with an obviously mechanical texture (most "student" papers)

Watercolor papers are sized to reduce absorbency (think painting on toilet paper) . All are internally sized; sizing mixed into the pulp before forming the sheet. Some are externally sized as well; an additional coat applied after the sheet is formed. This extra step accounts for the higher price of artist grade papers. Student grade papers don't get the extra application.
Watercolor paper can be made from wood pulp or cotton. Cotton is naturally acid free. Wood contains acidic lignin but high alpha cellulose pulp can be buffered to a neutral ph. Cotton's longer fibers supposedly make it less buckle-prone than wood fiber papers.
Watery pulp is spread onto felts to form a sheet. As the water drains and evaporates the sheet takes on the texture of the felt (sheet by sheet with handmade papers or in a machine which duplicates the process in volume). Cheaper papers are produced on a machine which doesn't mimic the felting process as well. This results in the pulp fibers assuming a more uniform grain direction. These papers buckle more than felted papers, whose fibers are more randomly distributed, equalizing their expansion and contraction a bit when wet.

So, logic would dictate the best paper is 100% cotton, externally sized and favorably reviewed by a diverse, international cross section of experienced painters on Internet sites such as WetCanvas...so much for logic...
Ironically, my first choice, Bockingford, meets NONE of those criteria! My second choice, Waterford, meets 2 out of 3.
Arches, which doesn't really thrill me, enjoys a mojo-like reputation. Brits speak highly of English made Saunders but is that national pride? Painters outside the UK seem to be Arches fans overall.
If you learn to be aware of a paper's condition (dry, wet, damp) you will have a fair idea what happens when a given consistency of paint hits it. Experienced painters get what they want on just about any paper because they can gauge its condition.
 How paper reacts to water will differ between wood and cotton, the weight of the paper and the type and amount of size. All added variables - some of which are patented and proprietary.
Your style will dictate a favorite. If you rework your surface a lot or use masking fluid liberally a heavily sized, long fiber paper is indicated. Some artists don't like how Arches behaves until they've brushed water on it or soaked and stretched it. I suspect that softens or removes some of the size and gets it to a state similar to Bockingford, which is only internally sized. If you gave Bockingford the same treatment, it would probably be unsatisfactory.
 Alvaro Castagnet and Joseph Zbukvic have Arches endorsements (interestingly they both used Saunders when they had to buy their own) but they can paint well on anything because they're hyper aware of the paper's condition. Both paint in ordinary sketchbooks made primarily for graphite. I've seen Zbukvic remark on video how Arches doesn't react quite how he likes but he adapts in realtime and the painting comes out.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Getting lost in the woods

Last Saturday I went painting with friends on the Van Buren county Riviera, near Pittsburgh (Iowa, that is). Carroll Michalek turned us on to some exposed limestone banks on Chequest creek. Jessica snapped a photo of us, budding fashionistas all. Amazingly, the coordination of our painting ensembles was totally spontaneous: This season the Art Smart Set is wearing shades of gunmetal with accents in ultramarine and claret.

 At the easel, however, I got lost in all the neutral color and woodsy texture. I was kind of happy color wise with what I did but think it could have been simpler: Suggest more texture (not render it) and paint more pattern. Here's the picture on location.

 Here is a studio version next to it  - with what I hope are simplifications and improvements.

I don't paint woodsy subjects enough.  I've learned to simplify a field of soybeans but I got seduced with all the rocks, leaves and branches here. I heard similar complaints from those assembled.
One of the things to be said for painting with friends is that you instantly see major variations on a subject, especially when others are working in different media. Jessica and Carlene painted in oils this outing, Carroll drew and I reveled in the novelty of using watercolors in January without vodka in the water pot. Had I been painting solo I may not have tried to puzzle through these issues and just moved on to other subjects.  I think it's worth going back to and doing some more.