Last Sunday, I drove down to San Pedro to see a demo and lecture by Paul. I was familiar with his work on Facebook, primarily because of his amazing 5-foot by 10-foot painting of the chain bridge in Budapest (below), so I was excited to see his lecture. I knew he was giving two workshops this week, but I didn't sign up for either of them, because in two weeks I am taking my mini October vacation (four days) and had already signed up for a watercolor workshop with Iain Stewart, and I figured that was stimulation enough, plus taking extra time off seemed problematical, and did I really need to pay for another workshop right now?
After seeing his lecture, I went to work on Monday and asked for Friday off so I could take his second workshop on Friday-Sunday. It's called “Reflection, Translucency and Transparency,” which is basically about painting glass...but it's so much more. It's really about how to work with watercolors to make them do what you want them to do.
The reason I found this workshop so much more amazing than any I've ever taken before was that everything Paul said and did turned everything I ever thought about a workshop on its head. I have complained here in the past about going to workshops and always encountering those students who persist in asking the teacher, "What kind of paintbrush are you using?" "What kind of paints are you using?" "What kind of paper are you using?" It really bugs me, because it always cuts into our workshop time, and I want to say to them, Bah on your magical thinking! Painting with the same tools and materials is not going to make you another Keiko Tanabe, or another Frank Eber, or another fill-in-the-blank. It's painting every single day for years, striving to improve and learn and grow that does that. Materials are just materials.
Paul Jackson convinced me I am wrong. (Not about the practice part, but about the materials part.) And made me spend a whole lot of money. As in, my mortgage payment! (Don't worry, it's covered.)
First, he talked about his Kolinsky Kayak brushes. They are brushes that he designed and handmade for a few years and then he found someone else to do it (in a more professional form). I have always used synthetic brushes, partly because they are affordable, and partly, too, because I am a vegetarian and didn't like the ethics of killing some animal in order to get its hair to make a paintbrush. But once Paul explained two things, I had to have his brushes. One was his demonstration of the way natural hair brushes hold water differently than synthetic brushes, and what that means in terms of having control of your water and paint. The other was that the hair in these brushes is obtained by giving a haircut to "the southern end of a northbound male Marten weasel in winter plumage." Nobody dies (although there may be some outrage involved). And did I mention that they are double-ended, so you get two sizes on each brush?
Then he talked about paper. He uses 260-lb. paper, and I'd never heard of it before. I normally use 140-lb., which is pretty good, and sufficient for everything I have done up until now; and I have occasionally bought a big sheet of 300-lb. for a large painting for which I wanted to go the extra mile in terms of quality, but honestly, I dislike working on the 300. It doesn't take water or paint in the same way that the 140-lb. does, so I mostly avoid it.
Paul explained that the 260-lb. paper is essentially like working on 140-lb. but better, while the 300-lb. has a different kind of fiber and sucks up all the water and pigment, which is why I had a bad experience. After trying some of the paper he had with him, I will definitely order some 260 and avoid the 300 from now on. I didn't spend any money on that (yet), but I'm definitely going to explore the differences between the 140 and 260 and decide for myself.
Then we started talking paint. I have always used medium-grade paints like Graham, and have been pretty satisfied with them. Lately, I have tried out a few colors from Holbein (I liked them), and also, given that several artists I follow and admire are featured by Daniel Smith paints and have raved about them, I've been picking up a tube of that here and there.
While I like some colors of Daniel Smith very much, I have found them to be quite inconsistent from tube to tube. I bought a tube of Naples Yellow, for instance, and absolutely loved the color as a base for complexion in portraits. The next tube I bought was a completely different color of yellow. I couldn't believe it--I thought it was a mistake--so I bought a third, and that one was about halfway between the two.
Paul talked a lot about paint, because he has spent most of his career (he's been painting since age 15) working with both Windsor Newton and Daniel Smith, and has a lot of experience of their products. Not to say anything bad about them, but this caused him to decide to make his own paints. And, being the entrepreneurial all-or-nothing kind of guy he is, he did so, and marketed them independently before finding a company--Da Vinci--to produce them for him, to his exacting standards.
I was skeptical, again, that paint could make such a difference, but decided to try out two of his signature paints, Jackson Blue and Rockstar Pink. After working with them for just two days, I went for the whole 19-color set.
I felt like a country rube falling for the patter of a slick big-city salesman, but honestly, during the course of the three-day workshop, he backed up everything he said about his brushes and paints with proof, and when I tried them for myself, I was impressed enough to go whole hog.
So, what else did we do in the three days? Well, we made great big paintings of six different pieces of art glass. This was another area in which I thought I knew better about what was a good practice for an art workshop: I have always felt that teachers who have all the students make the exact same painting weren't really teaching them to paint, but were teaching them to mimic. And I still believe that's true for the ones who say, Okay, follow along: Make this stroke, now make this one, now go here and do this, now go there and do that. In Paul's workshop, we all started with the same under-drawing, and we did follow along to some extent, but every painting in the class looked different. They all looked good, they just all looked different, because we were encouraged to try things, to make our own decisions, to follow his lead to learn a lot but not to worry if it wasn't identical.
We learned how to use masking fluid (yes, you guessed it, he makes his own, and it's awesome, and I bought some) to save all the multiple reflections and colors of the glass; we learned how to stain and then glaze the paints in multiple layers (the final painting probably had 14 layers of paint, but in no way looked overworked), we learned tricks of controlling the paint by having the correct water-to-paint ratio, and how to tell if a brush was loaded, half full, or dry. We learned that it is possible to lay two wet colors down right next to each other and not have them bleed together, because the water balance was equal! We learned a fair amount about color theory, complementary colors, what to mix with what to get "gumbo," and how to use it once we have it. We learned a LOT.
Here is a picture of Paul's painting at about Layer #3.
And here is a picture of Paul with the finished painting:
The paintings the rest of us made are about 85 percent done, because we had to watch the last three layers at the end of class and ran out of time to finish our own work. But we have the knowledge of what to do to complete them. And while I know mine won't be nearly as wonderful as Paul's, it's honestly not half bad, and what I learned from doing it? So far beyond where I have ever gone before.
I will definitely continue to do my Micron pen and watercolor sketches for fun, and will still enjoy doing them. But what I learned in this workshop showed me that there is so much more that is possible, and that I am completely capable of doing it. I can't wait to try a major painting like this on my own and flex the skills I learned this weekend. I already have a subject in mind!