20 February 2015

Weekend workshop

I once met a woman who had just moved to Los Angeles and who was puzzled by something: She said, "Every time I ask someone how far it is from A to B, instead of telling me 'It's 15 miles,' they say 'Oh, it will take you about 45 minutes.' Why does everyone give travel in time instead of distance?" Well, you have to live here to get it.

I'm taking a watercolor workshop this weekend with the awesome Keiko Tanabe, and it's in Westminster, which is somewhere inland a bit from Long Beach. I'm a little vague on the exact locale because when you are driving from Van Nuys to Westminster on a weekday, you don't just jump on the 405 (like I plan on doing for Saturday's and Sunday's sessions), you have to plot out the route that will take the least amount of time in traffic, regardless of the mileage. My route this morning involved six freeways, and it took me just about two hours. Tomorrow it will take an hour and 10, maybe. That's the reality of driving in L.A.

But, it's all worth it to study with Keiko. What a mastery she has of light, water, tone, and pigment! What a pleasure it is to watch her work! One of my co-workshoppers compared her method to that of a hummingbird--she moves swiftly, her brush jumps between wells of color, grabbing and mixing just the right ones to get what she wants, and she flits back and forth across the page, letting her attention move organically as it sees the next thing and the next and the next…

It's also a bit intimidating, for that very reason. This is a person who has been painting for little more than a decade, which is exactly how long I have been painting--but this is a person who paints every single day of the year. And she doesn't mess around--she teaches, from what I can see, about 45 out of 52 weeks a year, and paints two demo paintings per day at each of those workshops! (in addition to painting for herself--i.e., for shows and clients--during her "down time"). She travels all over the world--Europe, Japan, Mexico, China--which sounds amazing until you realize that she sometimes teaches a week-long workshop, gets on a plane, spends that day getting from one place to another, and teaches for another week starting the next. I don't know how she does it. The jet lag would kill me.

So today, she painted one painting between 9:30 and 10:30, and then we attempted to imitate it until lunch; then she painted a second painting, which we were also supposed to accomplish today. I spent the afternoon finishing the morning painting, as did three quarters of the class, so now we have homework--to draw the second painting in preparation--because tomorrow we will have two new demos! Wow. So much for my DVR!

Here is a photo of her painting from which we worked:

And here is my pale imitation:

It's not a horrible painting…but I see so many flaws. I utterly failed to save whites in the ocean, my washes are choppy and brushy, I had to give up and turn the parked cars on the right into shrubbery, and my tones and values are all over the place. I found it frustrating and unsatisfactory, but by the end, I was just pleased to finish something!

Here is the photo from which we are working for painting #2:

And here is her value sketch and her demo painting:

I came to a realization today as I watched Keiko work and listened to the questions, comments, and issues of the others around me: I can still learn a lot from anyone with whom I study; but ultimately it's not about watching what they do and imitating it, or using the exact color mixes and brands of brushes and paper (and parenthetically, I'm so tired of those who go to workshops and ask incessantly, "Now, what did you mix there?" Knowing what color she used won't make you able to paint like her!). It's about practice. Practice, practice, practice. At some point, you find your style, and you go with it, and then you practice it until you are the best you can be at whatever style that is.

I'm not ready to give up studying with others yet, but the realization here is that unless I am willing to commit to painting on a regular, consistent, repetitive basis, I'm never going to have the mastery I so admire in people like Keiko!

I'm off to make my drawing…


  1. So LA is like NJ! here you never quote miles, just time. Because you can be ten miles from your destination and it's a 45 minute trip!

    1. Exactly. Time of day, day of the week, weather (weather, you say? in California? watch what happens to the mellow Californian at the sign of one drop of rain!). I live 15 miles from work. It takes 25…or 35…or 45…or an hour and a half...

  2. Great post.....and if we all were able to paint like those that tutor us by the end of the session, that the cheapens the years of time it took to hone those skills and they would want to tutor anymore. As you say it watching how these artists work and absorbing new techniques and rediscovering ones that maybe you had forgotten and introducing someone those into your style to discover who you are as an artist. I love the way she paints. It flows so naturally but to hear her story is to understand it took years of practice practice too and so it should. Just remember to leave your "light" and you are halfway there. Look forward to the next post. Bx

    1. Exactly! I'm okay with my painting being lousy--because I've never painted landscape! That's what I'm there to learn, and that's what she has taken and made her own in such a masterful way.