Monday, September 1, 2008

Testing the Waters

I’ve always loved the soft, ethereal qualities of watercolor painting, but up until recently, I’ve shied away from putting brush to paper. Being a bit of a perfectionist, I like things I can control. Photography, for example. Collage, too. In many ways, painting, and watercolor in particular, requires the artist to just go with the flow. Perhaps because I’m a newbie, I really have to be in the mood to surrender to the process when I start laying down color. It’s such a different experience from being behind the camera, adjusting f-stops and whatnot.

My introduction to watercolor was a recent class offered at the DIY Lounge (here in Portland) called Watercolor Travel Journals. I thought the instructor, local watercolor artist Linda Daily, was outstanding. She has a gentle, enthusiastic style. During the first class she brought in several of her own journals to share. They were hugely inspirational. She’s made journals for trips to Paris, New York, San Francisco, and San Diego. The watercolor vignettes coupled with collaged maps, ephemera bits, and journaling made for—what seemed to me—a travel souvenir that would be treasured forever.

We learned the basics of color mixing, putting down washes and so forth during the first class. Our second class was a painting field trip to the Crystal Spring Rhododendron Garden. The garden is quite picturesque with ponds, bridges, little waterfalls, and weeping willows -- a painter's paradise.

My first experience painting en plein air was fun, but certainly challenging. I had to work hard to keep my perfectionist tendencies in check. I’m trying more and more these days to cultivate an attitude of curiosity. Rather than having the set goal of painting X, I try to think of it as a big experiment: “Hmmm…I wonder what will happen if I mix these two colors?” or “Wow, I never noticed that those shadows look purple.”

One of the great things that came out of Linda’s class was that I now take my watercolor journal and paints with me when E and I go backpacking. I really enjoy being in the solitude of nature, but truthfully, my desire to always have a project to work on doesn’t vanish when we leave the city. A watercolor journal has been the perfect way to create art on the trail, as well as record the special moments of our wilderness excursions.

A few recommendations: If you’re looking for a watercolor journal, I can suggest Arches "carnet de voyage." Arches makes lovely watercolor paper. I purchased Winsor & Newton’s compact set of Cotman watercolors. It’s great for slipping into a bag or backpack. As far as brushes go, I almost always just use #6 and #8 round watercolor brushes of good quality. I like to sketch with a Staedtler 2B pencil and Artgum eraser is indispensable. If you live in Portland, all of these supplies can be procured at Art Media.

If you’re looking for further inspiration or instruction, some of my favorite books include Mari Le Glatin Keis’sThe Art of Travel with a Sketchbook", Gwen Diehn’s “The Decorated Page” and the “Decorated Journal,” and books by Danny Gregory.

Happy Painting.