26 September 2014

Workshop and resuming

It's been two months since I posted here, and two months since I drew or painted. There's no great explanation for that; some difficult stuff has happened, but most of it within a two-week period and none of it justifying no output for two months. I guess the best I can do is, I was in a mood. Or not in a mood. Or something.

Anyway, I decided to rectify that by taking a week's vacation and spending three days of it at a watercolor workshop in Orange County at the Schroeder Studio Gallery, with artist and teacher Judy Morris. I didn't know the work of Judy Morris before I saw and signed up for this workshop, but I was intrigued by her images and ideas and thought it would be a good way to jump-start myself back. Workshops have a way of doing that.

This one hasn't worked out that way quite yet, though. At most workshops I have attended, the teacher makes a point to schedule exercises or projects so that the students go home with something tangible done by their own hand. That didn't happen with Judy Morris. I think the reason for that is equally distributed between the way she works and the students themselves.

First, the way Judy works: She's a planner. There is very little spontaneity to her paintings. They are beautiful and intricate, they are creative, they are unusual--but they are not whipped out in an afternoon. Judy is a designer, and it shows in every step she takes, from the initial idea to the last brushstroke. Even her demos are lengthy perambulations through ideas and inspirations, techniques, styles, color chords…none of it is flashy, but all of it is fascinating. I learned a lot about how she uses her materials and was enlightened as to why my use of these same materials in the past has produced less than stellar results. I am so grateful for this knowledge. I always feel like if I learned one new thing in a workshop, my time wasn't wasted, and I learned far more than that during this three-day stint. But I didn't learn by doing.

Every once in a while during the course of the three days, Judy would say "But enough of me, I want you to go and paint now," but then a student would ask another question about how she did something, or why, or in what circumstances, or using what method, and she'd be off again. So when it became a choice between listening to a pro and watching her work vs. essaying my own interpretation and ignoring her, I chose each time to listen. For that reason, a few students produced one or maybe even two pieces of art, while the rest of us had nothing but test patches to take home.

So, instead of sharing my art with you in this post, I will share some of what I learned. (And maybe a few photographs.)

First of all, vacation….ahhhhh.

I stayed, on the recommendation of Judy Schroeder, at the Ayres Inn, which was pretty comfortable, had a pool, furnished a full "American" complimentary breakfast each morning, and was packed to the gills with midwestern families on their way to Disneyland via the (also complimentary) shuttle bus that showed up every morning right after said breakfast. I have never seen so many small blond children grouped in one place in my life! Also more fanny packs and polyester than I've seen since the 1980s.

I was delighted with Old Town Orange. I'd never been there before, and its central circle with fountain and benches, surrounded by raying-out streets filled with antique stores and some stellar eateries, was great fun to explore when I wasn't workshopping.

I took this one for my cousin, because of the CRONUTS. Yum.
The Schroeder Studio Gallery is small but pleasant and well-equipped. Here is a shot of some of my fellow work-shoppers trying out their salting technique, and another of Judy Morris, doing a demo, with her twin, Jackie, standing by to support and hand her things. (They were both art teachers for 30-odd years, and frequently travel together.)

But enough scene-setting. Here are some of the things I learned from Judy Morris:

1. How to do a continuous or "smooth" wash.

This alone was worth it all. I have been to other workshops where such stellar artists as Frank Eber picked up a big squirrel mop brush, slopped some paint into a lot of water, and rendered the perfect continuous-wash sky from top of paper to horizon line in three or four strokes. Then he challenged us to do it. Right. This is one I have practiced and practiced, and still haven't mastered--my sky is either stripey or bland. Judy, the epitome of precision, does it very differently. She works with a relatively small synthetic brush. She mixes up some juicy colors beforehand. She then goes across the page from one side to the other using a small, short, zig-zagging motion, filling in completely in a small stripe. She does this with her paper at a 45-degree angle, so that the paint runs down and forms "the bead," which is the non-running line of water and paint pooling at the bottom of the stripe. She then picks up a bit more paint/water on her brush, comes back and picks up the bead and goes across again. She continues this, moving quickly enough so the paint doesn't dry out but still with extreme care and precision, until she gets to the bottom of where she wants the wash to end, whereby she wipes her paintbrush dry and picks up the last line of wet "bead" from the paper at the bottom, et voila! perfect smooth wash. And I can do it! Hallelujah.

2. SALT.

I have seen a lot of people use salt in their paintings. My questions were always two: How? and, when it came down to it, Why? I am not a gimmicky person, and I have never gotten into using what I have mostly considered extraneous techniques in my paintings. I don't crinkle up saran wrap and daub it in my washes to create a batik look. I don't mask, I don't tape, I don't do much of anything except draw and paint. Period. But I have to admit I have always had a fascination with the salt technique, and I have seen many paintings with such interesting textures created by this. I have tried it a few times and it has been an abject failure for me. So I was curious to see what Judy would say.

What she said was this: I salt almost everything! and...Everyone is pretty much doing it wrong. Here are her tips:

First of all, people say to put paint on the paper and let the shine go off before you salt. Nope. If you do that, you'll either get stars, or you'll get nothing. The salt needs to interact with the water and the paint, so you need to add it just as soon as you have applied those to your paper.

Second, people use way too much salt. You want to leave room on the page between the grains, whether you are using table salt or rock salt (you get different effects, depending). The way salt works is like a sponge: It picks up water and color. If you want to see a texture, you have to leave room between the grains of salt so that there is a different texture between the parts that are salted and the parts that are not!

Third, people wait to salt their pictures until the end. I always thought this was right, because obviously you wouldn't want to paint on top of it after, right? Nope. You need to work in small increments/areas and salt as you go. When you are completely done salting, you have to let it dry completely without touching it. Once the salt hits the paper, you don't move it. You can't use a hair dryer to expedite the drying process, because that will move the salt. After the shine is gone, you CAN put it out in the sun for a while if you're really in a hurry, but that's it.

Then you remove the salt, and continue with your painting. Judy will often put on a smooth wash, salt that, remove it, then continue with her painting, including adding elements and shadows right over the formerly salted area.

Fourth, removing the salt: People say be gentle. Nope. People suggest using a credit card or something similarly blunt-edged. Nope. Judy uses a palette knife, and she scrapes that salt off of there. It's loud and it's rough. You do have to be careful enough not to scrape your paper with the palette knife (which is why she uses tough--and expensive--300-lb. watercolor paper), but you need to scrape it thoroughly, because you want all of that salt off of there! After you scrape it all off, you do the "blind" test--you close your eyes and run your hands all over the salted area. If it's back to feeling like watercolor paper, then you got it all. If you can still feel a raised texture, then scrape some more.

After you scrape off all the salt, you then make a "blotter" with a damp paper towel, and blot the salted area to get off all the salt dust as well. Then, if you like, you can "glaze" it by mixing a wet, thin color and cross-brushing it gently/lightly over the top, and then maybe blotting again. This adds a common color to bring all your disparate colors together, and softens everything.

Here is an example of a piece of unfinished work Judy used to demonstrate such techniques as smooth washes, texturing, salting, etc. to us:

The texture in the lettering is created by:

1. Painting the letters using a smooth wash, but leaving gaps of white here and there.
2. Salting the letters.
3. Removing the salt and blotting.
4. Going back over the letters and filling in the white parts using two different colors--a deeper shade of sepia, and Winsor Red for sparkles/highlights

(I did say she was a planner!)

The texture in the wall ditto, except that she also uses a staggered, directional wash in a "sunburst" from the lightest yellow outwards to the darker part, again leaving white (as you can see on the left) and going back in with other colors after the salting process. I think there is some spatter on there as well.

The tablecloth chair, and glasses are perfect examples of the precision of her smooth washes.

Enough! I need to go paint something. Tomorrow: More about ideas, inspiration, color, and DESIGN.


  1. Sounds as if this teacher is an illustrator, not a fine artist. Which is fine if that's what you want. But I look for you to work again in your own lovely free style, very painterly, and I hope this workshop hasn't delayed that! to be honest, I'd have left after the first half day if I'd experienced it. But that's me!

    1. Oh, I always feel like no matter how our styles differ I can learn something, and I did. Just the ability to do a good smooth wash will make my paintings better, and if I had left, I wouldn't have learned that. But she is definitely more painstaking about process and design than I will probably ever be!

    2. Also, why distinguish between an illustrator and a fine artist in this instance? The litmus test has always been the generation of an idea/how you get paid. If someone else is contracting you for your work and giving you the inspiration, you are an illustrator; if you are painting completely of your own accord with your own chosen subject matter, then you are an artist. But what about a so-called illustrator who is constructing a piece of artwork to create a story that is self-generated, independently inspired? And getting paid by selling the piece of art just as a fine artist would? I think this distinction is divisive rather than illuminative. But I appreciate your kind words about my painting! One could argue that I am an illustrator too, and not an artist, though--after all those pictures of fruit and veg that I did for the library cookbook, the book covers to go with my blog posts…? I think this distinction does not serve us.