Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Carnets de Voyage #2

Tuscan Farmhouse, watercolor, 6 x 9"

Before there was the camera, there was the paintbox. And everyone did it! Painted I mean. The Victorians made sure of that. Some folks are born with a silver spoon in their mouth. I've always thought all Brits were born with a Windsor & Newton paintbrush in their mouths. Oh how I've longed to be born British, then I'd be a natural born watercolor painter from the word GO. The Victorians pretty much invented the paintbox. They certainly decided it was a good idea to go off galavanting around the world on The Grand Tour. And you better have your paintbox along to record your travel experiences. Watercolor is the perfect medium for travel - lightweight, fast drying, fluid and very portable. "Darling. PLEASE hurry up with that sketch of the pyramids! OMG, the camels are getting restless..." You get the idea. The British even taught THE FRENCH how to learn to love l'aquarelle. Richard Parkes Bonnington, the greatest of them all, taught Delacroix how to paint a wash.

Hilltop Town, watercolor, 6 x 9"
There's a huge mystique about painting in watercolor too. It looks so damn easy and it's so damn hard. Or that's how it seems the first few years you attempt to do it seriously. And that's another problem. Because it looks easy no one takes it seriously. Galleries don't that's for sure. OIL PAINTING is serious. But nevermind that nonsense. Painting in watercolor is an obsession right up there with loving macarons. An even bigger obsession in fact.
Sorry macaron lovers, but there is ENDLESS paraphranalia you can buy just to make a simple watercolor.

The retail art industry has seen to it. Adorable little porcelaine mixing dishes from England. Fancy Russian Kolinsky "travel" brushes from everywhere. "Blocks" of watercolor paper stuck on a board so the paper won't curl up while you're painting by the Iguazu Falls. Special containers to carry your water in. Special enamel travel palettes. And lovely pleine aire (outdoors) carryall bags to put all of the above into. Did I forget to mention sponges? Believe me, I've bought every scrap of it.

And on every trip, the first stop is ALWAYS the local art store to search for some new treasure to drag home. Note the big gorgeous looking brush with the red handle. I got it in Arezzo, Tuscany. Do I ever use it? No. The art supply biz understands our obsessions perfectly. BTW, when you're in Europe, you'll see paintboxes and pans in every store you go into. Here in the US, the art suppliers decided it was too much bother to deal with pans. Pans can be stolen, lost, misplaced, so they've fed us a line that TUBES are a MUST.

Tubed watercolors make you feel like you're painting with oils and they do have an oily consistancy when first squeezed out - rich and lush. But they dry hard as rocks. While the pans are easy to wet and more portable IMO. Mind you, this is only my theory.

There are a ton of how-to books for the beginning watercolor painter. I bought every one. AND I've gone on too many of watercolor "workshops" - Savannah, New Jersey, Maine, Tuscany, Devon, Provence. HELL, I can't remember all the places I've dragged my paintbox to. And I've dreamt of many more. SouthJerseyBoy will tell you.

Near Pienza, watercolor, 6 x 9"
But the truth is, you need to sit down with a jam jar of water, a basic watercolor set (10-12 pans to start with) and some nice paper. Then doodle.
1. First drop a pool of water on your paper.
2. Next drop in some color with your brush, starting with a lighter, warmer color first (burnt sienna works fine).
3. While your puddle is still wet, add some darker, cooler color (French blue).
4. The blobs of colors will "bleed" into each other and form "blossoms", that's where the colors run together and you get "happy" (or unhappy) accidents.
5. You can help the paint along by tilting your paper back and forth.

6.  Here's where you get to watch the paint dry. You'll learn more from this exercise than most books, workshops, videos out there IMO. I've filled stacks of sketchbooks doing these blobs.

  If you get some good painted blobs going, you've got the beginning of a nice atmospheric landscape painting. It's that easy and it's the best way to learn the properties of different pigments + color theory.
7. Lesson over. Now get cracking!

*TIP: for those watercolor-obsessed out there, if you're in London, stop in at Green and Stone of Chelsea on 259 Kings Road. They have antique watercolor sets in the back. You may find a set that's been on a Grand Tour? Back to painting those macarons...Grrrrrr


  1. You are a creative teacher, I am inspired by your approach, your blog is a wonderful palce to come to each day! Thanks!!

  2. Yes, I, too, love your blog. I have an artist friend who has filled my home with his watercolors. Perhaps someday I'll take some photos of his painting which I own and post them!

  3. hey Carol, this posting is amaznig. You have revealed your artistic soul here more than in your other postings. I love the landscapes, and althogh they are part of your past travels I think you should show more...if you have them. I found them to be more spiritual than the paintings of sweets. Yes, watercolor is a hard medium and I admire your control over it. I tried painting some peaches with watercolor last nigth and they came out crappy. I have been dropping a pool of water then the color like you've said but I don't seem to get it right. Oh well, I'll just keep on trying.

  4. Anonymous4:15 PM

    As someone who's been thinking (ad nauseum) about returning to drawing and painting, the key phrases in your post are *you just need to sit down* and *then start*.
    Wonderful blog. The paintboxes photo is luscious.

  5. I just bought that Ewa Karpinska book. Drool.

    You are absolutely right. You just need to "do it".

  6. Anonymous5:33 AM

    Bonjour ! This is the first time I've commented here, Carol, but I've been visiting your blog for a few weeks now, and living vicariously through you... You are truly a great artist, and I admire the work you do... I, like some of the others who have commented here as well, have been trying to get myself back to drawing again as I stopped just out of college over 10 years ago, and I miss it so much... But for some reason some form of fear has been paralyzing me -- but fear of what I'm not sure... Perhaps just of my own personal failure!

    In any case, you are truly an inspiration, and you have such a wonderful sense of color and balance. Gorgeous work, both the sweets and the landscapes. I admire you!

    Another American in Paris... Longing to be an artist again!

  7. Anonymous5:33 AM

    P.S. ~ Your last post, yesterday, was a bit of a birthday present to me... I treasure reading everything new you put on here!

  8. I just love the sketches you've posted today (yesterday.) You certainly have done a LOT with watercolor---all of it very strong, varied, interesting.

  9. Thanks EVERYBODY for the great response!

    Hey Luis, it takes, practice, practice, practice like the piano. It's best to do this exercise with just 2 colors- a warm & a cool. And always put your lightest, warmest color down 1st(Bt.Sienna). Then drop the cool on top (blue). John Singer Sargent did a pile of paintings with just those 2 colors so that's where the lesson comes from as well as David Dewey, my wc teacher. Any pair of compliments will work.
    You also have to just LET IT HAPPEN. Go for the process and not get caught up in the results, as they say...When it's going right it should be like meditation, though I've never been any good at that :)

    Jennc- The Ewa book is sublime and even more so is the work of her teacher, Jean-Louis Morelle. Take a look at his books/work. You're very lucky to be in Paris. The water there is hard, I think..anyway it makes watercolor paints jump around more than NYC water with is soft. Next trip I'm bringing some back. I'll have to get a perscription or SOMETHING!!!

    Jan-it's kind of funny-NOT. But with all these good directives I'm tossing out here, I have hit a wall in my own ptg. Maybe it's the summer doldrums or the fact that my studio and elsewhere is littered with stuff I'm pulling out of one little closet and I can't see straight to "just sit down and paint" :( I have such good subject matter too. Maybe when everything gets organised and has a found a place back in the closet or out on the street, my painting will get back on track.
    Oh I better get off and get posting! But huge THANKS to everyone leaving comments. It means a lot. I started the blog to get my work out there and get feedback and it has been such a rewarding experience..I really can't begin to say..

  10. Anonymous12:13 PM

    I join your fans who love your recent images (the closet stuff).
    As your friend and water color lover, I encourage you to "keep-on-digging-and showing!" Your blog (and skills) really are inspiring, on so many levels. And for "anonymous", who shared their fear of failure; most artists I know have that fear of the blank page or canvas or whatever. It's a little sign that actually means "Jump in...the water's fine...once you get used to it!"
    (Thoughts from Bill)

  11. I love your sketches in this post. They are a zillion times better than photos can ever be. I have never traveled and painted or sketched(a sin I am sure God has a special punisment for). After reading your blog I am determined not to leave home without one.
    Thank you for cleaning out your closets

  12. Anonymous10:56 AM

    Love your sketches, your w/c is the definition of bravura! Glad I found your blog - where are you traveling next? You should start a collection to get yourself shipped off to Prague to paint for us! :)

    (btw - I love that pic of all the w/c boxes - I also am an addict for those little squares of color...so promising, and so frustrating! they never do what I want :)


  13. Wow great post, I sometimes feel like watercolour is treated like a poor relation to oils, they are so madly different though. I love the colours that you use and the freshness and spontinatity(?) I am a died in the wood watercolour addict, that place in London sounds worth a visit. My great great grandfather was a watercolour artist and I have some of his artyfacts(?)I wonder if there is a little magic left in the old stuff!

  14. Yes, RED SHOES, definitely dust off the old paint set and test it out for magic. Mayb it went on a Grand Tour also..My colors are home made and Kremer made and you can order the KP set from Germany if that would please yr fancy :)

    Marctaro - What a good idea..would anyone out there care to send me off somewhere? Perhaps I do need a PayPal piggie bank installed...hmmm
    I do plan to go to Paris in October but I;ve heard that Prague is SO beautiful and I've never even been there :O Yeah all those pretty little paint boxes taht I never use anymore...

    Peter you'll be happy to know I went back into the closet today :)

  15. Anonymous2:15 PM

    Hi Carol, it's so nice to see the watercolors and thanks for the lesson and tips! Your watercolors are such an inspiration - I will start my experiments soon!

  16. Anonymous10:13 AM

    2 complementary colors, eh? I'll begin with my mini buddha board, it involves brush and water, and I'm sure I'll graduate to paper and 2 colors before you come back from Paris. Bon séjour là-bas!

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  18. Oh I so agree with you about the galleries and even people in general! So few respect watercolor! Its considered a student or a hobbyist medium or worse a bored housewife medium. And until someone tries it and invests in it its nearly impossible to appreciate its complexity. Sad but true. Somehow - we - Watercolor artists too often end up on a back burner while Oil stands strong and Acrylic takes over the world.


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