Monday, September 26, 2011

Books, A Difficult Start, and A Passion for Watercolor

I love books in general, but art books rank high on my list these days.  Though I've had some of the books you see for a while, in the absence of time and opportunity to travel away from home to take art workshops lately, I've added a few more to my shelves as a way of making sure there is plenty of creative stimulation available for art practice.  
Why do I travel away from home to take workshops, you might ask?  Because, along with the opportunity to learn from a talented instructor, I get the advantage of a vacation-like atmosphere that is nurturing, focused on something I love, and that takes me completely away from my day-to-day responsibilities.  It is similar to the renewing affect of vacations in general, but with the added benefit of time solely devoted to watercolor play and the extra stimulation of a talented instructor and creative community energy.  In fact, a special book and travel to an out-of-state watercolor workshop set the stage for my journey into watercolor after serious beginner discouragement.

I came into the world loving art and drawing, but watercolor was not a medium I was exposed to at a young age.  I just admired it greatly.  Obviously the desire to create art was re-kindling in me in 1999.  My time and energies had been caught up in volunteer writing for professional projects in the years preceding.  But as I freed myself from those responsibilities, my urge to return to art strengthened and I signed up for a local "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain" workshop.  
I was nervous early in those class sessions, as though I had lost all confidence in my drawing ability and needed someone to tell me I could still draw after so many years of neglect. Above and below, you see portraits that I sketched in class.  They were drawn from photos turned upside down, a maneuver that encourages the artist's brain to stop thinking in symbols (drawing what you think should be there) and to see the linear and spacial relationships more clearly.  This was heartening and amazing, both to see my own drawings, and the others produced by people who had never attempted to draw.  
Encouraged, I ventured into my first watercolor class, a weekly three hour class of "multi-level students, from beginners to advanced" held at a local art supply store.  I was the only beginner in the class.  The other students had taken from this instructor previously, had wonderful things to say about her, and had sophisticated projects already underway.  I don't think the instructor was prepared for a person at the very basic beginner level like me, one who had not quite grasped how one was supposed to arrange tube paints in the palette and mix them with water.
Above, four value studies varying placement of dark and light values.  A bit of a mess.

The class turned out to be a disaster for me, though in hindsight, I'm glad I had this experience. Perhaps because she had run out of suggestions for what I should do next, in the last hour of one of my classes mid-way through the course, I was instructed to create the value studies you see above, varying the placement of dark and light with each repetition. Without any introduction to values and how they are used, I not only failed to understand the point of this exercise, I felt like the child who'd been sent to the corner to do busy work.  Needless to say, this was not fun. I came away from the experience so bored and bewildered that I did not finish the classes. I closed my palette, concluded I couldn't do watercolor, and didn't open my palette again for another year.

It is this type of experience, technique before play, that often leads people to believe that watercolor is such a difficult medium. It's not. It's delightful, fun and easy to love!

Next: Reviving my watercolor passion--A Book, A Teacher, and Intuitive Learning

For more on upside-down drawing, visit:  The Practice of Seeing

Watch for book reviews of some of the books you see above along with more demonstrations to help you (and me) play with watercolor!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Sketching Hummingbirds in Flight

I have had the pleasure of enjoying plentiful hummingbirds during this migration season.  What a joy!  Hummingbirds from the northern states and Canada begin migrating through Tennessee as early as July, but the largest numbers of migrants have been moving through this month.  So I've taken this opportunity to sit outside with them and enjoy them as often as I can and last weekend, I tried sketching them while I watched.       
Ruby-throated hummingbirds beat their wings at a rate of 40-80 beats per second, and their flight speed varies from 30 to 50 mph.  Add to that, the fact that they are high-tempered and very territorial when it comes to their nectar source and you have a busy subject.  Fortunately, they do hover in place from time to time, perch, and sometimes settle down for brief periods to drink.  With as many as a dozen visiting the feeders at once, there was no shortage of  replacement subjects when the one I was sketching disappeared.        
It was also fascinating to notice how my approach to sketching changed during this experience, as memory and focus adjusted from sketching a still subject to trying to capture one that is constantly in motion.  My focus gradually began to narrow as effort continued, and I settled on capturing simple lines, like the curve of the back, the shape of the tummy, the spread of the tail feathers, or the line of the top of the head.  

It is while you're sketching that you begin to "see" differently, turning off symbolic memory and concentrating on what you're actually seeing right in front of you.  And then your focus naturally zooms in, discarding unnecessary details, getting down that shape you've been searching for, no matter how many tries and birds it takes to capture it.  While doing this you are relying heavily on your visual memory and your mind begins to fine-tune its focus, simplifying shapes to accommodate the speed with which you're observing.       
After I had sketched for more than an hour, I took a break and picked up my camera and snapped images, paying little attention to light or focus, simply trying to capture some of the same flight shapes I had seen while sketching.   When I came inside, I created a digital file of a six of these images, set them into motion as a slide show on my laptop, and sketched them while the slide show was in motion.  I was surprised and delighted at how easy it became to capture the shapes at this speed, a speed far slower than the birds, themselves.  At the slide show speed of several seconds per image, sketching seemed effortless!  I would not have felt that way prior to my attempt to sketch the hummers outside.    

It is hard to explain the satisfaction I felt after this effort.   Not only did it provide a wonderful opportunity to see hummingbirds differently, it was a discovery in learning, in understanding not only the abilities within the mind to adjust visual memory to what is needed to capture the subject, but the amazing amount of information that is gleaned while experiencing a subject with that kind of focus.  The last image you see above is my favorite.  Even though it was sketched from the slide show, it was sketched with an ease I had not experienced before, and that was fun!  That's when I realized how much I had learned!

To see more of my hummingbird sketches and paintings, visit:  Hummingbirds 
To see some of my photographs and the delightful hummers visiting my feeders, visit: Ruby-throated Hummingbirds at Vickie Henderson Art

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Watercolor Cards for Handy Reference

It's always fun to try out new pigments.  I've had several in mind for a while that I've noticed in other artist's palettes.  Anytime you open an art book from your shelf or attend an art class, you will usually discover the author/artist's palette selection and a discussion of warm and cool colors.  Many artists have more than one grouping of colors they enjoy using, depending on the subject and the season.  Others use the same color wheel most of the time.  This is a matter of preference and what appeals to your eye.  
Having a palette already selected before you begin painting makes decisions easier while you work.  And trying out new pigments is a bit like holiday magic.  This week, I visited Jerry's Artarama and returned home with two new brushes and four new tubes of paint, all Winsor Newton.
Above, Winsor Newton squirrel mop for juicy washes (larger brush), and a round #3 sable for detail work.  Tube paints:  Perylene Maroon, Cobalt Turquoise, Antwerp blue, and Cadmium Yellow.

Though Winsor Newton tube paints are now marked with letters signifying their translucent characteristics, for example, "T" for translucent, O for Opaque and "S's" for those in between, such as SO (semi-opaque), I like to display my pigments on a handy card so I can see the pigment qualities in an instant.  Different brand pigments by the same pigment name can be very different in both brilliance and translucence.
Above you can clearly see the opaque characteristics of WN Lemon Yellow and WN Raw Sienna.  You can also see that Van Gogh Raw Sienna is a different shade of pigment when compared to the WN watercolor pigment by the same name.

The "cards" I use are simply the back side of a used piece of 140# coldpress watercolor paper torn into same-size strips.  On one side create a black permanent magic marker strip.  If you paint across this strip and the pigment allows you to see right through to the black, you have a very translucent pigment that will create wonderful glazes.  If the pigment is visible on top of the black strip, you get a sense of the granular quality and the opaqueness of your pigment, qualities that add texture and variety to your work.

Visit these Winsor Newton pages for more information on Watercolor pigments and Hints and Tips

Monday, September 12, 2011

Sunflower Study II--A Fun Experiment

What do you do when you're feeling frustrated with something that's happening in the midst of your painting?  The best suggestion I have, stop right there and step back. Leave the painting alone for a few hours or a few days. Work on a different painting, or do something entirely different, and come back to it when you and your eyes are fresh again, and see what you think.  
This crossroad has happened to me many times.  Sometimes I succeed in walking away, other times I don't.  What is happening in that moment of frustration, at least one possibility--we are too "close" to the work, literally and emotionally.  Our left brain, with its specialty in technical skills, may have become too engaged in what it thinks "should" be happening, and is failing to let the painting create its own unique possibilities.

Below, you see, Sunlit Afternoon, a painting that I almost tossed in a moment of frustration.  This painting has been one of my favorites since I painted it five years ago.  Now, I would paint the adult whooping crane differently, showing more plumage details and shading, but I still love the interaction the painting expresses and its overall affect.  
In order to finish this painting, I had to set it aside for several days and come back to it.  I was having trouble with the water's edge, thinking it was too dark, and in the moment of frustration, not satisfied with any change I made.  Later when I came back to it, I found myself saying, now what was it I disliked so much?
The sunflower painting you see in the top image began with a variegated wash of yellows with one of the pigments being yellow ochre (above left).  Some pigments have a grainy texture, and with the addition of salt, will create large patterns of moved pigment, depending upon the wetness of the area. Even though I love that feathered area created by the salt, as I was beginning to paint more detail in the sunflower, I decided the painting was much to busy. I concluded that the light salted area competed with the main subject, the sunflower and butterfly. Now, I'm not so sure. This would have been a good time to pause and wait.  But I didn't.  I continued, adding color in some areas and lifting color in others.

Below, is the part of the painting I like the most, largely because it's fresh and clean, and I like the colors.  Cropped a little differently, it could make a small painting on its own.
And below, you see the area I like the least, the area I couldn't leave alone.  My primary reason for disliking it, is that I was indecisive while working on it.  I added blue to the salted whites, changed purple shadows to blue, and then had some indecision about the colors used around the edges of the sunflower petals. If I tuck it away for a while, gain more distance from the experience, and look at it again later, my attitude toward it may change.
Sunflowers are fun to paint and there are any variety of ways to paint them.  Plus, they are abstract in shape, and reflect many different colors in those withering petals--purple, magenta, burnt sienna, brown, violet.  Because of these qualities, clear, dynamic colors and the sparkle of light are the elements that provide the most excitement.  I haven't tossed this painting, but I will try another one, hoping that all I learned from this one will coming tumbling out onto the paper in the next.

Not every painting we begin makes a great painting, but there is plenty to value in the experience of painting itself.  Every time I paint, I learn, gain confidence, get to know the pigments and how they interact with water and paper, and enjoy all the surprise discoveries that make watercolor such an exciting medium.

Links and Resources:
My first sunflower study can be found here:  Sunflower Study  
For more posts on practice and confidence visit:  The Illusive Nature of Confidence and Kindergarten Efforts.
For a discussion on scrubbing or lifting paint, visit:  Sketching a Limpkin

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Hummingbird Studies--Movement and Light

I will just about come up with any excuse to sit outside with hummingbirds this time of year.  Since tropical storm Lee has pushed rain and colder air our way in Tennessee, there has been an increased mob of hummingbirds gathered around my five feeders. They are especially active in the early morning and late evenings, just before departing to continue their migration as night migrants.  
Yesterday evening, while refilling a couple of feeders, I marveled as all feeders were occupied with 3-4 hummers at a time.  No sooner did they finish their drink, than they were back to fanning tails, chirping and giving chase.  Hummingbirds in flight are not easy to see for more than a few seconds, let alone, sketch, so I rely on my camera to give me details about posture and plumage.  

Even using my camera (Canon Rebel xi with 300 mm zoom lens) is a delightful challenge.  It requires patience, anticipation and steady nerves.  But what it also gives me is a closer view.  My current binoculars will not focus within the shorter distances needed for sketching, so my camera serves as a substitute, and occasionally gives me a nice in-flight reference image.  
Right now I am delighting in watching hummingbird behavior.  Mature birds and juveniles behave very differently.  When trying to capture these birds in a sketch, it is also a challenge to try to capture the light and movement which is so much a part of the personality of hummers.  So after hours of watching them, I enjoy trying to capture what I've internalized in a sketch.  This is resulting in a series of hummingbird studies. I could also label them studies of movement and light.

I am sure that each study will continue to look very different, as these two do.  These are playful experiments.  My challenge is to not 'mess' with what's happening on the page, but let the water and pigment move freely.  While painting, I'm focusing on the experience of hummingbirds, rather than the detail of the bird.  That's my goal, at least. Those beautiful details are hard to resist!
Bloom or watermark created by dropping clear water into pigment on paper.

A different watermark created by dropping clear water into an area that has been salted.

You can find more of my hummingbird art in my bird art gallery at my website, Vickie Henderson Art.
To see some of my recent hummingbird photography, visit Humming Bird Days of Summer.

Monday, September 5, 2011

August Demonstration--Wet-in-Wet Coneflowers

I was delighted when I received a comment from Cora, after my post, Coneflowers--Wet-in-Wet and the Colors of White.  In her comment she told me she had practiced painting white coneflowers using the August demonstration example and posted them on her blog, Journeys with Watercolors.
Below you see the example that she liked best, her first try.   I think it is my favorite too, because of that nice variation in the center where she dropped color into color, and the lovely whites that resulted.    
Seeing her blog post excited me for several reasons. First of all, she tried my practice example and shared it, and that was fun.  Secondly, when I read her profile description, I discovered that she is a newly practicing artist in the Netherlands, and she intends to post her efforts no matter what the results. Wow, I thought.  That takes courage--the courage to create your own stage and build a community for practicing art.  I know from my own experience, that every effort will not only strengthen her skills, but each time she posts her work, her art practice will benefit in boldness.  One of the many pleasures of blogging today is that we have a ready-made community of individuals who are also learning, practicing, enjoying creating art and sharing it.  It's a great opportunity for both motivating and encouraging our art practice.  .  

Because I haven't had an art class vacation in the past two years--that is, leaving town for a week and doing little else but painting watercolor--seeing Cora's practice examples also reminded me of one of the fun moments in art class that I've missed lately, the sharing time when everyone shows their efforts after a work session.  These were moments of enjoyment and satisfaction for me.  I always marveled at how beautiful everyone's work was, the uniqueness of each person's style, and easily found something to admire in each person's efforts.     
A coneflower sketch I created in 2000.    

This reminds me to say to you what I often have to say to myself.  When you are looking at your finished work and don't find yourself totally loving it, focus in on an area of the painting that attracts you, that you particularly like and notice why it appeals to you.  Then find the area that doesn't appeal to you and decide what you don't like about it.  Think about what you would like to see happening differently there. Remember that the special value in those 'dislike' areas is the learning that took place while you were creating it.
And all this information will be available to you the next time you paint!

August demonstration:  Wet-in-Wet and the Colors of White
For an easy-to-print version, visit the same demonstration published on my website.
Cora's Journeys with Watercolor
Another post on the value of practice, Practice is the Magic of Talent.

Ocean Trail at Rancho Palos Verdes Preserve, California--2015

Ocean Trail at Rancho Palos Verdes Preserve, California--2015

Joshua Tree National Forest, California, with son Chad and daughter Thuan--2015

Joshua Tree National Forest, California, with son Chad and daughter Thuan--2015
Photo credit: Thuan Tram

Bird banding with Mark Armstrong at Seven Islands State Birding Park - 2014

Bird banding with Mark Armstrong at Seven Islands State Birding Park - 2014
Photo courtesy of Jody Stone

Birds Close-up

Birds Close-up
Photo courtesy of Karen Wilkenson

Enjoying Gray Jays in Churchill, Manitoba

Enjoying Gray Jays in Churchill, Manitoba
Photo courtesy of Blue Sky Expeditions

A dog sled experience with Blue Sky Expeditions, Churchill, MB--2014

A dog sled experience with Blue Sky Expeditions, Churchill, MB--2014
Photo courtesy of Blue Sky Expeditions

Churchill, Manitoba--2014

Churchill, Manitoba--2014
Photo courtesy of Blue Sky

2014 Hummingbird Festival

2014 Hummingbird Festival
Photo courtesy of Jody Stone

Smithsonian National Zoo with one of my Whooping Crane art banners and son, John--2014

Smithsonian National Zoo with one of my Whooping Crane art banners and son, John--2014

Muir Woods on the Dipsea Trail at Stinson Beach, California--2014

Muir Woods on the Dipsea Trail at Stinson Beach, California--2014
Photo courtesy of Wendy Pitts Reeves

Checking out the gulls at Stinson Beach--2014

Checking out the gulls at Stinson Beach--2014
Photo courtesy of Wendy Pitts Reeves

Discovery Hike in Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska--2012

Discovery Hike in Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska--2012
Photo courtesy of Ruth Carter
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