I've always wanted to paint with watercolors. The transparent, ephemeral nature of the medium perfectly captures so many images, especially in the hands of a master. Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, Edward Hopper -- they all knew how to blend pigment with water and apply it to paper with sure strokes to produce something beautiful. And their paintings make it look so effortless -- a little highlight here, the suggestion of a shadow there, and suddenly a world in three dimensions unfurls from the brush.
But the reality of watercolor is way messier, especially when I'm wielding the brush. I've taken enough art classes to be comfortable with pen, pencil and even pastels. I've painted with acrylics and oils -- not well, mind you, but enough to create some vaguely recognizable shapes. But watercolor has always eluded me. My earlier attempts look like nothing more than pale, washed-out blocks of a consistently muddy hue. Kindergarten artwork has more life than my watercolors.
Imagine my excitement, then, when local artist Don Clegg produced a full-color guide to watercolor painting -- Celebrating the Seasons in Watercolor (North Light Books) -- complete with step-by-step demonstrations of technique and suggestions for advanced compositions. At last, I could sit down in the privacy of my home and create my own masterpiece, with help from an accomplished artist.
Well, maybe. The author himself told me, "Of course, the myth about books like this is, if you follow the instructions you'll come out with something that looks just like the artist's work." Thus forewarned about myth-conceptions, I dove in.
Gardening hints and even recipes are sprinkled throughout the book, because Clegg draws inspiration from his garden. Not to be distracted, however, I focused on the painting.
Clegg notes up front that preparation is vital in painting -- as in gardening and cooking -- and he speaks the truth. First I had to locate the painting supplies. Then I had to find a workspace with enough room to set up my still-life subject, including fresh fruit, lighting and a draped fabric backdrop. Then, of course, I had to fix a pot of coffee, turn on some soothing music and change into appropriately bohemian clothes.
In the book, Clegg offers examples of lovely seasonal compositions created from his home garden. Intuiting that multiple objects were likely beyond my feeble skills, I opted instead for one of the simple demonstrations in the autumn section. Right there on page 122, I found an example featuring three luscious apples, fresh from the orchard. Snagging some apples from the fridge, I set up my subject in a corner of the dining room.
Next, I sat and stared at my composition. OK, my apple. I stared at my apple. For a very long time. I adjusted the lighting. I moved the apple forward, then backward. I stood up. I sat down. After about 20 minutes, I said to myself, "Oh, for God's sake, it's only an apple." And I picked up the brush.
Color is key. Yes, there really is a difference between Chrome Yellow and Lemon Yellow, and neither of them is Nickel Titanate Yellow. And although skies are often cerulean, Sky Blue and Cerulean Blue don't blend the same way. Color-mixing is an art unto itself, and one that requires lots of trial and error. I tried following the instructions, but somehow my washes still all resembled mud. Rather than becoming discouraged, perhaps I should just take that as a clue and stick to painting earth-toned abstracts.
Corrections are possible. Indeed, they often occur when least desired. Watercolor is easily lifted off the page or lightened with just a touch of clear water and a damp brush, even when that's not the desired effect. However, it's nice to know that the swirl of unearthly violet isn't permanent.
Work fast and don't be afraid. Come on, it's only paper, right? If you mess this one up, you can start over again. And again.
Start with an easy subject and work up from there. Although Clegg teaches that successful painting design rests on a three-legged stool of technique, mood and content, I minimized the components to focus on technique. I mean, when the content is one apple, how much mood can there be? Maybe it's a beginner's mistake, but, hey, I was on deadline.
Cats are drawn irresistibly to a carefully composed still life. My well-lit fruit had lots of feline companionship. Empire Apple with Ginger Tabby could be my artistic breakthrough, once I move up to painting two objects at a time.
Painting really makes a mess on the dining room table. Fortunately, everything is washable, including the cat.
The bottom line? I've got a long way to go with my watercolor technique, but I'm feeling a bit less intimidated by the medium. Kudos to Clegg, not just for making painting look easy, but for putting together a beautiful book that explains many of the fundamentals of painting. Having the book isn't the same as having the artist right there to answer questions, but it's a good start.
Publication date: 10/23/03