Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Special Report: Painting on Aquaboard

In the past few months I've had my continued efforts with Ampersand Aquabord -- and continued to fail in terms of getting consistent, acceptable quality results. After working and reworking each image for an extended period of time, I was able to make the final results look somewhat pleasant to the eye, but it was extremely time-consuming and frustrating to me as far as the overall experience goes, and here's why:

1. The surface does not stay wet long enough no matter how many times you wet it -- not wet enough to achieve all the splendid wet-in-wet movement of pigments that I love so much and try to achieve in every paintings I create. If I wet it too much that water pools on the surface, the pigments just float on pools of water and make a big mess; but as soon as I drain excessive water off, the surface just becomes damp and pigments do not flow like they would do on wet paper;

2. Difficulty in achieve an even wash or gradation -- with each brush stroke the pigments would tend to accumulate where the stroke ends, and again, the surface dries so quickly that seamless application of washes from one stroke to the next just seems impossible;

3. Difficulty in controlling edge quality -- since the surface do not stay wet long enough, it seems very difficulty to soften edges between shapes, as newly laid-down washes seem to dry almost immediately, leaving very little time for edge manipulation with a damp brush.

But the brilliance of color and interesting granulation textures you can achieve on this surface, and the possibility of framing it varnished, without mat or glazing, directly in a frame kept me coming back despite of all the frustrations. After many Q & A sessions with my painting friends, Kara Bigda and Crystal Cook, who had much better success with this surface than I did, I realized that beside learning curve of a new material, what made this surface particular difficult to me and my usual painting method is -- unlike Kara or Crystal, I do not paint wet-on-dry using thin washes very much. Fundamentally, I am not a brushstroke painter but a wash painter, and I love to wet and area and drop in juicy, thick, wet pigments to create the right color and value in one or two applications, instead of patiently building up thin glazes of color on dry surface to achieve the same effect.

After this realization, I decided to revise my working method and give it another go. And sure enough, it worked like a charm! Guaranteed, my first trials are not masterpieces and I still needed much more practice on this surface. But for the first time, I feel I am knocking at the right door and with this method, I could achieve consistent results for all the different imagery I was working on --

April's Passing,  Watercolor on Ampersand Aquaboard, 6"h x 6"w, WIP 1

So, here's the method I currently use to work on Aquabord:

1. Use lots and lots of water and very thin pigments for any large area washes (I am talking about onle 4-5 square inches). You can either wet it first, and keep your board on a tilt to let excessive water drain off its surface instead of pool on it (use a towel underneath your board to absorb all the run-off water if you'd like to keep your table top dry and clean), or you can directly work on dry surface (I would wet the entire surface at least once before painting on it, to break the surface tension and release the trapped air bubbles on the surface coating). The secret is to keep this first wash very light in pigment. If the area is really large, you will likely observe the first part of wash start drying as you continue applying it to the other areas. This is normal. Do not attempt to go back and rewet or paint-into the dried edge, as it would wash away pigments in that area and create nasty blooms or white rings. It is very easy to remove any ugly or dark edge on this surface -- after everything has dried, you can simple go over it with clean water and use a soft brush to smooth-off pigments, or glaze over it with a second wash. Sometimes, leaving imperfections in a wash creates good surface interest and does not need to be smoothed out at all, like what you can see in "Remembering June" below:

Remembering June,  Watercolor on Ampersand Aquaboard, 6"h x 6"w, WIP 1

2. Whenever you want to achieve soft edge, use slightly dense pigment-to-water ratio, lay the shape on dry surface, then immediately run a damp brush (slightly more watery that one that you would normally use for softening edge when painting on watercolor paper) along the edge you want to soften, let the pigment move into the newly wet area, and soften the leading edge of this area again -- you may have to do this several times until the leading edge of wet areas no long seem to contain any pigments. If the pigments have run to areas you do not want it to go, when the whole area is still damp, you can actually use the damp brush to push pigment back and "erase" it from those areas. All the soft edges on the rose petals in "April's Passing" are achieved using this method. When doing this, I am usually working one soft shape at a time, in very small areas -- the secret of working on this surface is to have patience and do not attempt to juggle too many balls all at once!

3. If you want to blend two colors in an area like the various hues on the water lily petal in "Remembering June", you can either pre-mix all the hues you want to use in very watery mixtures, and paint them next to each other on dry surface, let them mingle (again, one small area at a time!), or you can paint one hue, soften the edge, wait until the area is dry, then paint the other hue next to it, soften the edge (lots of softening!);

4. When painting darker passages, glazing using watery mixtures many times can work. If the pigments start to build up on surface, it is still possible to glaze over it with wet pigments, but trying to wet the surface first then drop in colors would be quite difficult, as the pigments already on surface at this point would tend to move with the first application of water. In other words, you can glaze multiple times on this surface, and the secret is to lay down each glaze wet-on-dry and do not touch any passage back when the surface is still wet. Alternatively, you can mix your dark colors on palette, and lay them in thickly, then quickly soften the edge with a damp brush. The dark areas above the rose in "April's Passing" is done this way;

5. You can definitely use this surface to its advantage -- utilizing the texture interest created by uneven washes, utilizing brushwork to describe texture or patterns of your subject, utilizing thin-glazes and build them up slowly to achieve luminosity... And the biggest advantage -- you can scrub it using any hard brush to remove various degrees of tints of color, almost back to white, and never have to worry about damaging the surface! If a painting totally goes south, you can hose it off with only a ghost image remaining -- something pastel artists often do and make me envy. Then you can even incorporate that ghost image into your next painting adventure on this revived surface! Often, that's a wonderful starting point of your creativity... 

I'm still learning my ropes regarding this challenging but extremely rewarding surface. And I will continue to share with you what I have learned about it here. -- Big thanks to Kara and Crystal, both of whom have so generously shared their working methods with me when I am on this journey, and both of them have created some stunning paintings on this surface. If you haven't already, be sure to take a look! I promise you will not be disappointed...

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Work in Progress: Tropical Flowers Continued

Just a quick update of some of the tropical flower paintings I am still working on -- it's been a long time! October is flying by with almost an art fair every weekend, together with school it has surely bitten into my painting time! It's time to get them finished and posted!

Jungle Fire,  Watercolor on Arches 140# Cold Press Paper, 8"h x 10"w, WIP 5

"Jungle Fire" is almost done and only a few glazes on the petals to make the red-orange really sing and glow! "Heliconia Dance", on the other hand, still has a long way to go, and I am enjoying playing with wet-into-wet in the background and all the subtle muted colors created by letting a limited palette of Cobalt Blue, Aureolin Yellow and Permanent Rose blending on wet paper...

Heliconia Dance,  Watercolor on Arches 140# Cold Press Paper, 7"h x 5"w, WIP 3

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Storm Over Estuary (DPW Sky Challenge)

This is a little test of landscape I've posted on my facebook page (with a terrible image taken by the iphone camera in a hurry just after I finished it) and I never got around to share on my blog, or upload to my Daily Paintworks Page. The painting was done completely wet in wet, as a test of the Fabriano Blocco per Artisti paper I recently purchased. The surface of this paper is more similar to the laid instead of woven patterns (which is the most prominent surface pattern of contemporary watercolor paper), The lovely laid pattern gives it a very antique look, as this is the surface pattern of most of the paper in the age of Cotman or Turner. Layer on this paper, or repeated wetting, has proven to be extremely difficult. Like all Fabriano paper I have tried, it lifts like crazy. But the granulating colors separate and diffuse beautifully on it, and created this glowing orange (of Burnt Sienna) along the horizon and in the light passage in the land -- a river channel reflecting the setting sun. (The photo here, unfortunately, does not show the subtle, low saturation color in the original painting.) I am submitting it to this weeks DPW challenge -- paint a sky. John Sell Cotman has said "a sky a day" is a great exercise in watercolor painting, since it is always there for you to observe. This one is painted looking at the lovely back waters of San Carlos.

Storm over Estuary, 
Watercolor on Fabriano Blocco Per Artisti140# Cold Press Paper,5"h x 7"w, 2012 #51


Friday, October 19, 2012

Work in Progress: New Plein Air Pieces

Lately I've been pondering the question why I have not painted more landscape paintings -- I really love landscapes and they've been my initial motivation to become a painter, but I have only occasionally dabbled on some small landscapes here and there. Why? After much reflection I've concluded that landscape for me are much less literal, and more poetic; a whole lot has to go into the initial preparation stage -- dissecting the reference image (or the sweeping vista in front of me), deciding the mood I want to convey and the color scheme that can evoke such mood the best, doing small value sketches to choose which elements in the reference materials to include, and which ones to exclude. Also, a good landscape painting requires much more abstraction, utilizing simplified shapes to suggest objects, and pay a lot of attention to the actual mark-making process so that each individual mark on paper creates the illusion that it's representing something in the actual landscape. A good landscape is seldom a truthful copy of the reference material or the real vista in front of the artist's eye, but a rearranged, abstracted combination of value and color shapes that comes from within the artist's mind, guided by a good sense of design. It is in my mind one of the hardest genres of representational art and actually the closest to abstract works. I've been, subconsciously, quite intimidated by the process.

Since the best way to overcome fear is practice, I decide to work on landscape painting everyday from this point on -- this does not mean I will be able to finish a piece a day, and I can imagine there will be many throw-aways. But I will keep at it until I feel more comfortable for the entire process. I will probably do some studies of master artists' works, some plein-air exercises, and some practice projects from good how-to books, as well as work on some larger pieces from my own reference materials. Some days I may only be able to complete a few sketches or composition studies, other days I may be able to finish a couple of small works -- but I will share my successes and failures here, as well as what I have learned from them.

So here they are -- the first exercises, both started en plein air but would get finished in the studio. The first one is a river estuary view along Carmel Beach, where I am exploring the possibility of not painting any actual "objects", but just utilizing mark making to hint the undergrowth, river and sand beach. The focus is creating interesting color-variations and surface textures using various brush-marks. I did this one in a workshop with the wonderful artist Dale Laitinen, who is a master of abstracting shapes and create surface interest using brush-marks. I decided to study his work closely to add a weapon or two into my arsenal...

Carmel River Estuary,  Watercolor on Arches 140# Rough Paper , 7"h x 10"w, WIP 1

The second one is a near dusk view of headlands and rocky shorelines near Drake's Beach, in Point Reyes National Seashore. My focus is to use cool, low-key colors to hint the chilly, foggy atmosphere in the evening, and practice wet-in-wet in different stages. Again, I try to use brush-marks to hint the texture on the headland and rocks, as well as the undergrowth on the beach, instead of delineating everything I see while standing there. I did not get to finish it before dark, so the rest of the image will come from my imagination in the studio. Let's see how it goes! I will update tomorrow...

Dusk at Drake's Beach, Point Reyes,
  Watercolor on Arches 140# Rough Paper , 6"h x 8"w, WIP 1

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Work in Progress: More Tropical Flowers

Time flies -- my post here has been sporadic lately, although I have not been slacking off! For one, the study at the Golden Gate Atelier has resumed on October 1st after the summer break, and boy was I rusty! I am struggling Monday through Thursday trying to regain the skills of seeing shapes, comparing values, measuring angle and length by drawing from live models and copying master drawings, which leaves only the weekends to paint. Even those are hard to come by, however, since I have a couple of art fair events coming up every weekend of October (I will talk about my experiences in tomorrow's post, since I've learned quite a bit in my first art fair, and during the discussions with other artists who are veterans in these affairs)! Between printing, framing, setting up and taking down tents and panels, and long driving sessions, there are only a couple of hours here and there left to create new work. I am itching to paint and managed to paint in early mornings and late nights for an hour here, an hour there. Progress has been slow, but I thought I should at least share them here:

Soar,  Watercolor on Arches 140# Cold Press Paper , 6"h x 6"w, WIP 2

I've got farthest with this little 6" x 6" little painting of bird of paradise. It is not a very complicated image, and the reference photo is very colorful. I decided to try out the multi-colored layering techniques I've been learning in the fabulous Jeannie Vodden's class, and practicing painting with lots of water, thin layers of pigments, and wet-on-dry. Well, I would not say I was completely successful -- in some of the shapes of darker foliage areas I got carried away and again started blending thick, juicy pigments wet-in-wet. But I am not unhappy with the results. I would like to practice saving areas of delicate, light-valued passages using this method in my next exercises... I feel I do painting too heavy-handed sometimes and did not quite utilize the full potential of the delicate nature of watercolor glazes. Something to ponder about in future projects!

Jungle Fire,  Watercolor on Arches 140# Cold Press Paper , 8"h x 10"w, WIP 4

In this cropped bird of paradise painting, I have practiced the same glazing method as in the one above and managed to achieve soft blended edges in the background foliage areas. Now it's time to get that intense, rich orange color of the flower on there!

Heliconia Dance,  Watercolor on Arches 140# Cold Press Paper , 7"h x 5"w, WIP 2

This heliconia painting is still at its beginning stage. I am learning from the two bird of paradise projects, and taking my time to build up values using blended thin layers of pure colors. I love paintings at this stage -- you can play with the abstract shapes of light and dark, take liberty with the colors, and enjoy the flow of wet pigments on paper without worrying too much to make it look like the photo. Since I am enjoying this process so much, I am suspicious I've indulged a bit too long at this stage... :-P

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