10 November 2013

Watercolor West and Thomas Schaller

Yesterday I was privileged to see the 45th Annual Juried International Exhibition of Watercolor West, "An International Transparent Watercolor Society." Anyone can be a general member of this society, but in order to be a "juried member," you have to have had a painting accepted/exhibited by Watercolor West, and that's a pretty exclusive group that includes some amazing artists.

My cousin Kirsten and I first happened upon Watercolor West purely by chance. Even though I had been a watercolor student for several years, I hadn't sought out groups or attended many exhibits. One weekend when my parents were still living, Kirsten and I went to visit them in Riverside. We ran an errand downtown for them (I think we returned books to the library?) and stopped into the small Riverside Art Museum to see what they had on display, since it's practically next door. We walked into the exhibit hall and were dumbfounded by the bright and stunning array of watercolors--it was the annual Watercolor West show. They have also exhibited at the San Bernardino County Museum and at the Brand Library in Glendale, and this year's show is at the Brea Cultural Center Gallery. It runs through December 15th, so if you are local, be sure to make a point to see it in the next five weeks--definitely worth the trip.

Yesterday I went on purpose to sit in on Thomas W. Schaller's artwork demonstration. Really, because they gave him from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. (with a lunch break), it was half lecture/slide show and half demo, and full of wonderful hints, tips, details, and demonstrations.

Schaller had a 20-year career as an architect and architectural artist in New York City, and now lives and works in Los Angeles as a fine artist. His artwork shows a definite preference for architectural subjects, yet he has weaned himself from the "rendering" style used for architectural illustration to create a looser, wet-in-wet methodology that is all about story-telling with light.

A few random words of wisdom from his demo:

Find the lightest light, the darkest dark, and the midtones and let those tell your story--the eye follows the light. What advances your story? What do you put in, what do you leave out to best tell it? Identify your center of interest and don't get stuck in the details.

Paint beyond your canvas--ask questions by not containing your image within the arbitrary page. Envision your scene beyond the boundaries, and then paint just the part that interests you while keeping your eye/mind on the rest as well.

Remember what you see or photograph, but then when you start to paint, toss it out. The paper becomes your world, and the actuality was just a suggestion to inform your painting's reality.

When working on the final painting, don't overdraw first. It slows down your brush and your brain once you start to paint.

The most important elements of a painting, in order:
1. Story
2. Design (composition) -- arrangement of lights and darks
3. Values
4. Color--complementaries and how they meet--warm/cool, what dominates

Decide on your focal point for the painting. Whatever it is should have the most detail, precision and interest.

ON COLOR: Don't over-buy or you will be overwhelmed by "over-choice."

Schaller prefers sedimentary rather than staining colors--grainy and neutral, lightfast, transparent. His favorite color palette is complementaries -- gold and violet, blue and orange. There is a danger of going to mud, since complementaries mixed make gray, but if you can maintain their integrity in parts of the piece, the contrasts are wonderful.

ON BRUSHES: He owns many, but finds that he uses only a few--squirrel mops, because they hold a lot of water and are not as floppy as sable. Synthetics because they hold a nice point, but they don't hold water. He doesn't use flat brushes much, because they don't hold enough water for his style. He sometimes uses a filbert brush for linework, railings, detail, and a "rigger" for things like high wires.

PAPER: He uses rough, toothy paper to give a "sparkle." Also, both wet and dry-brush work well on it. He prefers 140-lb. to anything heavier because the heavier papers (like 300-lb.) soak up both water and pigment. (He doesn't like it when he paints something and comes back to discover it has dried three shades lighter than he thought it would!)

There was a lot more, but I don't want to bogart all his best material! (He does teach workshops too!) You can see his portfolio here, broken down by location.

Here is Thomas with the demo painting he did for us in the afternoon (I wish I had gotten a better shot of both of them--the beautiful sky is almost completely lost in this--but with 50 other people and their cell phones gathered around, I was lucky to get this one!):

A few notes on his process for this painting:

He turned the painting upside down to do the sky first, because the light in the sky and its reflections onto the water and beach were the focal point, and also so he could maintain the horizon line. He starts with the horizon and then works up and down from there. He paints clear water into the sections where he wants to maintain the white/light, and then paints around it and slightly into it.

He reminded us that gravity is just another tool--tip it up, tip it down! Move your paper to help your painting. (Someone in the audience quoted Sargent as saying that "watercolor is making the best of an emergency.")

He paints in the reflections (i.e., those reflections of the stanchions holding up the pier) before he paints in what they're reflecting, because he needs the reflections to be painted wet in wet to give them that blurry look. It seems counterintuitive, but it works!

Remember that the focal point you have chosen for the painting stays the focus because you have given it the most detail and precision--everything else fades back and is painted less carefully and with more neutrals--the "number two" values.

You can spatter clear water into a damp wash to get sparkles in the water.

Don't forget about reflected light (for instance, under the pier).

What a great experience this was! Tomorrow, I will share my favorite paintings from the exhibit and why I liked them. But if you can, go see it for yourself!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks so much. I dont' live far from the Brea Gallery and I attend Watercolor West every year. This year, our instructor, Chris Sullivan, assigned a gallery report to her beginning class, so three of us went together to analyze the paintings. That made it even more enjoyable, rather than, in the past, when I just stared and didn't know the techniques that were involved.

    I appreciate your review of the demo--lots of great tips. It's never worked out for me to attend one, not even that of my instructor, Chris, who will demo next weekend, I think. I'll be sure to set aside time on my calendar now, for next year.