15 December 2014

Eileen McCullough Demo

I almost missed Watercolor West! I signed up for two demo sessions this year at the City of Brea art gallery, and didn't go to the first one because I wasn't feeling well; and then I forgot all about it. Luckily, I got a reminder email earlier this week that I was signed up for today's demo session, because today was the last day the show was up! So I bailed on the two Christmas parties to which I had been invited (sorry for being antisocial), and opted for a day out with art instead.

I didn't get to spend a lot of time in the gallery, because the demo was four hours, from 1-5, and the gallery was only open for five today, but I did manage two half-hour sessions in the gallery, partly on our break and partly afterwards, and snapped some photos. But first…the demo.

I went to see Eileen McCullough, a plein air watercolor artist who paints scenes of the coast from Long Beach to Laguna. I went because of this painting below that she entered in last year's Watercolor West--it reminded me so much of the painting style of the California School of watercolorists from the 1920s to '50s such as Rex Brandt, Emil Kosa, Millard Sheets, etc. (There is an excellent website that gives full biographies and examples of the work of the California School here.) It's so beautifully loose but with a definite plan of execution and a gorgeously rich color palette. I'm so glad I attended this--I learned a lot, and was amazed by her technique.

She started out as a commercial artist, designing a variety of things from a boys' t-shirt line to Christmas displays and banners for malls, all while working three days a week as a waitress to give her a baseline income. Just six years ago, with her husband's encouragement, she finally decided to make art full-time, and began selling her paintings.

She sketches and does preliminary paintings plein air, and then does the finished paintings from the spare bedroom of her house, painting the same image over and over again, from different angles, with different color schemes, until she gets a painting she likes. She works very fast--she says she paints daily from about 11 a.m. to about 5 p.m., and typically completes two full-sheet paintings each day. She is "not a sketchbook person," but makes vague sketches with markers, pencil, and monochrome paint to size/scale on location, then takes reference photos to help her complete the painting at home. She will make multiple sketches on tracing paper until she refines it to something she likes, taping it over the on-location sketch and using graphite paper to transfer it later; although she says she does less of this as she has become a more confident draw-er.

One of the paintings she brought with her...
Her approach to materials is refreshing after all the esoteric formulas, brands, and techniques I have seen from others. She uses #2 HB pencils that she buys a box at a time from Staples, rather than fancy pencils from the art store. She buys Scotch brand masking tape in 2-inch rolls in bulk from Home Depot. She uses Arches 140-lb. cold press paper, because although she has tried other kinds and weights, she prefers the familiarity. She uses Graham paints, all transparents, because she likes their consistency. She paints on both sides of her paper (a habit from when she was broke and couldn't afford much), so if you buy a painting from her, chances are you will receive two! She uses brushes she buys at Michael's, and buys them for how they feel in her hand and lay down paint, not for their content, composition, or water-loading capacity.

She sketches and practices her line work a lot before painting. She draws quickly, almost a gesture drawing, and breaks up her lines. She doesn't like frisket or resist--she prefers to cut masking tape with an exacto to the size and shape she needs.

The demo painting she completed while we watched...
The most radical departure from other watercolorists is that she almost exclusively uses a flat brush! She lays in large areas with a big flat flexible 1.5-inch sable brush, and uses smaller flat brushes as well, both on the flat and on the edge. I was amazed to see what effects she produced with the flat brush, and can't wait to try it. I used flat brushes when I painted in acrylic, but the general wisdom with watercolor is a round brush that holds a lot of water, so I never use flat ones now. But she uses intense color without a huge amount of water, and purposely works on a slant so that she knows when she is getting too wet with her paints, because they run down the page! She also works mostly standing up, at a high desk, with a stool behind her to lean against if she gets tired, saying she likes the freedom that standing gives her arm.

The demo painting she didn't complete…which shows some of her underlying scheme.
Her palette is pretty simple--she mixes two or three colors, and goes into her drawing almost randomly with color, painting areas and patterns rather than things, and jumping around the page as impulse takes her and as she spots something she wants to do. She seems fearless about grabbing paint and slapping it in with a turn of the wrist. (She also flicks color on with her brush or a toothbrush as she goes, rather than using that as a final effect.) She does paintings in two or three layers, but doesn't go from light to dark--she works it all simultaneously, going in with full color in mid tones to darks, while saving her whites for sparkle and light. After the first layer of laying in shapes, she may go back with her pencil after it dries, to further define or refine her drawing to give her guidance for the next layer.

She believes that all the drawing over and over gives you an advantage, because at a certain point you know the image and can stop looking at your reference photo or even at your preliminary sketch and just paint the painting. She believes this process is what has made her progress from copying a realistic scene to making a painting.

There was a lot more about specific colors she likes, mixing, layering of washes, and so on, but I won't detail all that here. Let me just say it was a great experience to watch her work, and opened my eyes to some new possibilities!

Here is the painting she entered in this year's show.

Tomorrow…my faves from the show!

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