Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Workshop on the rivulet technique with the Delaware Watercolor Society

I was invited to teach a two day workshop for the Delaware Watercolor Society in Rehoboth Beach.  The workshop took place at the beautiful Glade Community Clubhouse.  The workshop centered around painting the image of a statue using my rivulet and lifting techniques.

I have talked about this "rivulet technique" before (see October 2012).  What the heck is it?  It is a technique I developed about 30 years ago to create an interesting texture on the watercolor paper at the beginning of the painting process.  After the entire background is washed in using this texture, the painting is then developed by lifting off the light areas and glazing the darker areas.  Here is an example

Gudea of Lagash   13x20"  Susan Avis Murphy

detail showing rivulet effect




The Martyr (a statue of Saint Sebastian by Joseph Sheppard)
I started by showing examples of paintings done in this manner.  Originally I applied this technique to my construction rubble paintings, and gradually expanded to other subject matter.  It is an unusual way to paint in watercolor, in some ways more akin to oil painting where we start with a raw umber background wash and then work toward lighter and darker areas from there.





Students either brought their own photo references of statues or they borrowed one of mine.  The first step was to get the drawing onto the watercolor paper, either by drawing freehand or using a paper template to trace the image with graphite transfer paper.  I feel that this is justified to save time (especially in a workshop) if you are already skilled at drawing.  If not, please practice!

Students came in with some fabulous reference photos!


Now I started my demonstration of the rivulet technique.  Below is an example of the first step.  You start by mixing up a small tub of raw or burnt umber (best if by Winsor & Newton) to a heavy cream consistency.  Have other non-staining colors ready.  This approach relies heavily on using non-staining colors that are "liftable".  Now wet the paper (Arches 140 lb. cold press) all over and then put splotches of color, mainly raw umber, all over the sheet.  Be sure to keep it wet throughout this process.  Add a few splotches of raw umber that is much thicker too, since this is where many of the rivulets will form.

Next you are going to hold this sheet vertically (really must be on a board) and then spray gently with water.  The paint will begin to drip down, and form "rivulets".  This is more than just dripping paint, which any color will do.  There is something unique about the raw umber, where its sticky quality causes the water to run down through it forming interesting little channels or striations.  Sorry but I don't have a photo of the water spraying step.

After this background wash has dried thoroughly, you can start "lifting out" the light areas with a stencil brush.  The painting I did as a demonstration was of a statue of a shaman that I photographed in Sedona, Arizona, shown below.  He is already very textured, and I thought he would lend himself beautifully to the rivulet technique!

I usually begin lifting with the fine details of the face.  Very small stencil brushes with a flat top are best for this.  For this purpose, you need stencil brushes that are made of natural hog's bristle, that are a medium stiffness, and that are round and flat across the top.  For fine details, you need a small one of these with hairs about 1/8" long.  You can make your own by giving a small bristle brush a little crew cut!  To lift the paint, just wet the brush, scrub gently on the paint, and blot with a paper towel.  You will be amazed at how easily the raw umber lifts off, and how nicely you can create form with soft and somewhat hard edges.


As you can see, I have also started to glaze darker colors on the figure.  For glazing, you want to use clear transparent colors and apply them gently so that you do not wash off the underlying rivulet wash.  The rivulets can show through the entire picture if you are careful!  Some of the other colors used in the painting were:
     for the background wash: verditer blue and brown madder (both liftable)
     for the transparent glazing: permanent violet, cobalt blue, titanium white, brown madder

I continued working on the body.  Lots of decisions to make about what to emphasize and how to handle things.  Below you can see I have glazed the upper background with a thin wash of titanium white to take it down a notch and provide more contrast with the figure.

The shaman had an interesting kind of "shield" on his chest which was challenging, but I finally figured out how to paint it with a combination of lifting and glazing techniques.  Also, below you can see that I have glazed the lower background with dark permanent violet, gradated up to a lighter shade, to bring out his body.

This photo was taken back home under different lighting, so the color appears a little different.  This is as far as I have gotten during the workshop.  I am thinking of introducing some petroglyph shapes into the background.

In this close-up, you can see how the rivulet wash looks, and see how the verditer blue applied in the very beginning is still showing though with nice splotches of bright color.
Now the students tried it!  First they practiced achieving the rivulet effect on a small piece of paper.  It is not easy the first time, and takes some practice to get the right consistency of paint, and to spray the right way.



Here are some of the rivulet washes that people successfully put on their final paintings:




And here are some examples of students at work the second day, when they were fairly far along:








 Last but not least, here are some samples of almost finished paintings!  I wish I had more photos of the finished paintings.  If you were in the workshop, please email me with photo of your painting, even if it is not quite finished.  I would love to add it to this article!  If you give me a title, I will include your name and title with the image.


Art Institute, Chicago   watercolor by Cathy Walls

As you can see, the members of the Delaware Watercolor Society who took this workshop did some fabulous work!  People seemed to enjoy the process of using stencil brushes to lift out their shapes and give form to their statues.  I feel it is very liberating because it is so easy to achieve those elusive soft edges just the way you want!  I don't always paint this way, but even with my other painting I often use stencil brushes to soften edges and get exactly the look I want.  After all, they say "it all happens at the edges", and I think this is really true with watercolor.  So, the take home message of this article is: Consider using liftable paints and stencil brushes to create form in your paintings!

Thanks to the Delaware Watercolor Society for inviting me to teach this workshop--  it was a wonderful group and a lot of fun!

Susan Avis Murphy,  ARThouse,  9/9/14

Monday, June 2, 2014

Watercolor Demo Class: Shasta Daisy Daydream

Continuing with my demonstration class on flower painting, I decided to use the photo below, which was actually a small part of a large flower arrangement.  We spent quite a bit of time discussing getting good reference photos of flowers.  It is just as difficult to photograph flowers as it is to paint them!  One of the main problems is getting a good balance of light, so the shadows are not too dark, and the lights not too light. Contrary to what you might think, flower photos taken on an overcast day or in the shade often come out better.  But dazzling sunlight is so beautiful on flowers, so here are some tips on photographing flowers in sunlight:
  • In situations of very bright sunlight and dappled light on flowers the resulting images can be very confusing.  However sunlight on flowers can be so beautiful.  Compose the picture so the bright light effects fall upon a darker, simple background, not a tangle of leaves and stems. 
  • The camera will exaggerate light and dark, making very stark value patterns, unlike what you see with the naked eye.  Just keep this in mind when you paint the picture—you may not want the darks so dark.
  • Bring out details in the shadow areas by aiming the camera at the dark shadows while you are focusing and holding the button down halfway.  This way the light meter will adjust the exposure for the shadow areas, making them lighter.  However, this will make the sunlit areas even lighter.  You can take several shots, changing where you aim and take light readings. 
  • Try to compose an interesting interconnected white or light area through the painting—this will help give it a good overall abstract design.
Step 1.  I like the composition as is, and traced it onto my watercolor paper using Saral Graphite Transfer Paper.  To make the template, I enlarged the image with Photoshop to fit the available space (9x13") and then I printed it out in two sections on my desktop printer and taped them together.  Actually I lightened the template a little to save ink:

Step 2.  Here is how the transfer came out.  I lightened it a little with a kneaded eraser so the lines would not show too much.

Step 3.  I applied masking fluid to the absolute white areas so that I would not accidentally cover them:


Step 4.  Now I applied a background wash that would represent the shaded parts of the flowers.  White flowers are fun to paint because you can infuse the white shadows with subtle color.  Their general color needs to be shades of gray, though, and here I have mixed three primary colors to create various shades of gray:  hansa yellow, cobalt blue, and quindacridone red.  This may seem crazy, but I decided to impose a certain style on this painting in which every single part of the painting will have the salt effect!  Hence I sprinkled plain table salt all over the wet paint and let it dry naturally for a while.


Step 5.  Negative painting around the white flowers brought them out.  I have eliminated the green spider mum, but am using primarily greens and blues in the painting, and keeping a cool color dominance.  There are hints of orange added for contrast.  Also, notice that the background wash is gradating from light in the upper left to dark in the lower right.  I salted the background wash to keep the style consistent.
Step 6.  Here is the painting pretty much finished.  Sorry, I didn't take many step-by-step photos of this one!  After taking off the masking fluid, I decided to do more shadows on some of the petals.  Also the petals in the lower right were too dark, so I tried scrubbing them out a bit, but the paint was not lifting very well.  So I used a little titanium white on those and several others.  If you are going to use opaques in one area of a painting, you really need to use them elsewhere too, or they will stick out light a sore thumb!  Also, darkening the background behind these petals made them appear brighter.  It's all about the contrast and value changes!
"Shasta Daisy Daydream"   watercolor 9x13"






Thursday, May 29, 2014

Watercolor Demo Class: "Blu' Island Blur"

Hello again, friends.  We just had a class on painting that time-honored watercolor subject, Flowers!  How can you teach just one class on flower painting??  You can barely scratch the surface.  I've always had a love/hate relationship with watercolor flower painting, and feel like picking off the petals one at a time, saying "I love you, I love you not"!  For me, flower painting has always been a lot harder than it looks.  Part of the problem is that flowers can be so incredibly beautiful in person, and it is almost impossible to adequately capture that glowing, ephemeral beauty.

The appeal of painting flowers is largely about the color, though, and I decided to use this opportunity to go crazy with color.  I have been experimenting with using Photoshop to adapt my reference photos into a less detailed, blurrier image, that focuses our attention on the big shapes and colors.

Here is the photo I started with.  I took it at an adorable little cafe in Venice, Florida, called the "Blu' Island Bistro" where we had breakfast.  This unusual table is made from two large slabs of rough-hewn wood with a big piece of glass on top.  They had the nicest little flower arrangements at each table, and I photographed many of them.  The morning light was gorgeous.

I cropped out this bouquet for my painting.

Next I reduced the pixel size of the image to 500 pixels across, and I applied one of the Photoshop "filters" to it, namely the "paint daub" filter:





I like the way this blurred out the image and got rid of the tiny details.  Yes, the original photo could have been used to create a beautiful painting, but my goal here was to do something more semi-abstract.  I am not going to address right now the controversial aspects of using a computer to aid me in abstracting my image.  If you have qualms about it, I suggest you try to paint from one of these photos before you conclude that we are making the process too easy.  Believe me, it is still quite difficult to get a good painting out of this!

I also used the computer and my medium format printer to create a template that I could trace to get the image onto my watercolor paper.  Another controversial practice, but one I feel justified in using since I know I can draw perfectly well, and wanted to save time.  Here is the template attached to the paper, which is a half sheet of Arches 140 lb cold-press:
And here is the image transfer that resulted after using Saral Graphite Transfer Paper (wax free) to trace the image onto the paper:
Step 1.  Applying masking fluid.  I masked out only the absolute white areas so that I wouldn't accidentally loose them.  Let me give you a big tip on using masking fluid so that it goes on smoothly and doesn't clog up your brush.  A few years ago, my husband (who is a chemist) and I created a masking fluid solvent and flow extender that we call "Sue's Solution".  It contains a chemical that masking fluid can dissolve in and it will not hurt your brushes.  We actually sell it on Amazon.com!  You pour a little out in a bowl and dip your brush in it before dipping into the masking fluid.  You rinse your brush in it every 3-5 minutes while painting with masking fluid.  It will completely prevent your brush from getting gobbed up with the masking fluid!  You can also unclog applicators such as Masquepens and brushes with dried masking fluid on them.  We have tested sable brushes in Sue's Solution for up to six hours, and no damage or change at all occurred in the brushes.

Step 2.  Start with the light, bright colors.  I started with the bright yellows, using Hansa yellow by Da Vinci (also carried as Winsor yellow by W & N, generic name arylide yellow).  I covered areas under the oranges and greens too, since they can use yellow.  Nothing makes a painting glow like yellow!
Step 3.  Next I added some of the red areas, using quinacridone red, and some Winsor red.  Quin red and Hansa yellow make a beautiful orange!  I am going to have a full range of values, so I added some darks very early in the process so that I would have a means of comparing values.

Step 4.  Keeping my colors pure and clean, I started adding the blues and greens.  Generally I am using transparent, non-granulating colors in this painting to preserve the transparency.  Flower paintings generally benefit from using clean transparent colors, rather than semi-opaque colors which can sometimes produce a muddy look.  I actually have a separate palette for flower painting that avoids the semi-opaque watercolors and contains more staining transparents than I would normally use.  Here I am mixing greens with Hansa yellow and peacock blue (Holbein's thalo blue), and using a little perylene green for the darkest greens (later).  The purple is permanet violet by W & N and I have used a little opera rose in the pinks and oranges to make them brighter.
 Step 5.  Working on the darks.  I really like the division of space in the background area on the left in the photo, and am planning to use it as is.  There is a peculiar white streak coming down from the pink flower on the left, though, and although I kind of like it I will probably have to kill it...  Also, at this point I am still laying down base colors and will have to adjust all the values later.  For blacks I am mixing permanent magenta and thalo green, and getting a beautiful dark that varies from warm to cool.
Step 6.  Glazed over the background.  I knew my brown spots at left above were too light, so I mixed up a big wash of purplish black and glazed over the left background.  Also I filled in the large white shape on the left and am debating what to do about the composition.  At this point my demonstration class had gone home and I had more time to think about it.
Step 7.  Major decision about the background.  I decided to change the division of space in the lower left and make it more horizontal.  All the weird vertical shapes seem to be hurting the composition.  So I applied drafting tape around the edges and removed a lot of paint using Mr. Clean Magic Eraser.
Step 8.  A this point I am working all over the painting.  I've made an almost black section behind the flowers, and I really like this as it adds a point of sharp contrast and also a resting place.  Also I've been working more in the vase, trying to convey the feeling of the glass pebbles without actually painting them.  I am diverging quite a bit from the photo at this point, and will not refer to it much from here on.  The main thing is to make a good painting, not make a copy of the photo!  Also as you can see below, I've added a continuation of the shaft of light to the right of the flowers.  I like the way this moves your eye across the picture with the flowers in between.
Step 9.  Add signature!  I am not sure if it is really done yet, but I signed it so that I would not forget!  I may do something with the odd shapes in the upper right, perhaps extend the black over into that area a little.  Also I will tweak the values a little and think about the whole thing for a few days before I really call it done.  It was a lot of fun to paint this picture and I am pretty happy with it!  Let me know if you have any questions or comments, especially my students who attended this class.
Susan Avis Murphy, ARThouse, May 29, 2014