learning to watercolor
In exactly four weeks I will be on a train headed from Paris to the Cote D’Azur, with my family, sketchbook, watercolor paper and paints, and new easel. I wanted to write an essay to revisit the steps that led me to follow this dream of going to the south of France and desire to paint. Also to pay homage to my teachers thus far, who have been incredibly inspirational and helpful in different ways.
The watercolor journey first began after a discussion with a friend about wanting to host a creative salon for women to learn a new (or old) craft together. I had always wanted to learn how to watercolor, and although I’d experimented with it through the years, I’d never been taught a method. I thought it would be enjoyable to learn this skill in the company of women architects.
We invite Joyce Rosner (senior lecturer at UT Architecture and Gabriel Prize Laureate) to share her incredible watercolor skill set with a small group of us. She very graciously agreed and first taught us on a Sunday over tea, coffee, mimosas and light snacks.
Joyce is particularly skilled at the subtle interplay of colors and has a very precise way of laying in gradients within sharp profiles. Before our lesson, she sent out an incredibly detailed supply list in preparation, which was half the battle of getting started on this new hobby. She led us though a color study which allowed us to experiment with all the new tubes of paint and see how they react together.
Our next meeting with Joyce, we jumped in feet first with a painting of a shade and shadow over a geometric object. I worked from a photograph of a scupper casting a shadow on a stucco wall on a bright day in San Antonio. The play of Ultramarine Blue against Burnt Sienna was a revelation unto itself. But it was also fun to feel that lack of control that is water moving across paper.
My next experience in group instruction happened with Urban Sketchers. Our group here in Austin is led by several women who have an interest in pleine air watercolor, working on ambitious use of color while sitting out in the heat and under watchful eye of the passer-by. I found this challenging but exhilarating… there was something about suffering a little, but with a group, that took my mind away from the inner critical voice and engaged with my surroundings. Although, I chickened out and didn’t attempt watercolor. I used a acetone marker and ink to get to a quicker result, but still tried to use the principals of layering shades.
After this I started really looking at other artists, how they achieved a richness of color without going muddy. I adore the work of David Gentleman, a British illustrator with books such as ‘London, You’re Beautiful’, ‘In the Country’, and ‘Paris.’ That last one in particular floored me. He emotive watercolor and ink sketches capture what he sees on the street - workers, trash trucks, pidgeons, fire hydrants - but also the charm and vigor of great architecture.
As I read through Gentleman’s books I thought about just how FUN it would be to paint that way, and to eventually include those details in our own work. For years I felt that artistic rendering was off limits and architects sketched with a purpose. But David Gentleman’s style proves that illustrative drawing techniques could bring a building to life in a whole new way.
Driven by this desire, I took the plunge to attend the ICAA Christopher H Browne Paris Drawing Tour: seven days of drawing instruction taught by classically-trained architects, with opportunities to visit Versailles, Fondation de Coubertin, Bibliotheque Ste. Geneviève, the Louvre and watercolor and plein air sittings at neoclassical Parisian sites.
Our first meeting in Paris was at Studio Zega + Dams, our home base for the week. Our instructors, Andrew Zega and Berndt Dams, are masters of their craft in watercolor and architectural drafting, respectively. They collaborated on highly detailed watercolors of the palaces at Versailles for their book ‘Palaces of The Sun King’ and instructed us through their methodology.
We spent two full days in the studio, and the rest out and around Paris, instructed by our two other great instructors Kahlil Hamady and Leslie-Jon Vickery. Kahlil referenced the work of Hubert Robert, a French artist of the 18th century. Robert’s plein air watercolor and ink sketches served as studies for highly detailed landscape oil paintings later created in his studio. In a particularly liberating exercise, we copied several of Robert’s smaller sketches to learn his ink and layered wash technique. This was one of my favorites, with Robert’s original on the right:
The next day we took this exercise out into the real world: Place Des Vosges in Paris. Kahlil and Leslie-Jon showed us how to see values and work quickly, so as to preserve the gesture. Monochromatic watercolor washes were added in successive layers from light to dark; I chose a color similar to the fallen leaves and granite paths.
A major focus of the trip was the Petite Trianon at Versailles. We had a truly incredible private tour experience at the Petite Trianon, exploring in every room and then having a bit of time for a watercolor study outside from the garden perspective. I had a tricky time getting the perspective and color to come together en pleine air, but managed to do this study that evening in my hotel room:
The study provided the foundation and understanding of shadows for this much more detailed watercolor of the Petite Trianon. Kahlil & Leslie drafted this particular drawing for us, and printed onto watercolor paper so we could jump right into the color exercise.. Andrew Zega led us through a precise application of paint and a relatively dry brush to achieve the golden tones of the French limestone, including details of shadows, texture and aging. I love how the black windows turned out - no reflections here!
The final day of the tour was spent at three of Paris’ most beautiful libraries: Bibliothèque Ste. Geneviève, Bibliothèque Richelieu and Bibliothèque Mazarine. The instruction of the week came together in the small painting I did at Bibliothèque Ste. Geneviève, with five successive washes that went from white to almost black. I finished the drawing later in my hotel room with the ink sketched on top.
Just eight months later on the ICAA Rome Drawing Tour, instructor Richard Piccolo took the lead on watercolor instruction. Here for the first time I was painting in full color, on site, with lots of tourists looking on. However, Richard kept us going… he has a way of seeing color inside of color that was enlightening. In this painting of the Arch of Constantine, he taught me how to capture the gesture and depth of spaces created by shadow.
The drawing tour concluded with a sitting at the terrace adjacent to the Campidoglio, overlooking the whole of Rome with its domes, tile roofs and hillsides beyond. This was just a pure joy to paint and nice to get away from the ink, under the bright beautiful Italian sun.
Back in Texas, we took a trip down to San Antonio for a watercolor excursion with Stephen Harby, another Gabriel Prize laureate who does beautiful pleine air architecture paintings. He shared some great tips about the pleine air set-up: light weight easel, tiny saucers & brushes, a custom built tray for the easel, all packed into an efficient travel bag. Love it! I will be trying out those things in France.
Last but not least, I learned a radically different approach to painting with Uma Kelkar. She is a world-renowned pleine air watercolorist. According to Uma, painting is as much about seeing as it is about laying down paint. We spent about half of the first day dissecting photos and proposing ways that the values could be composed into a painting. A painter’s job, in her view, is not to represent accurately what is in real life, but to find the beauty and interest. In that way, you could paint anything and it would be beautiful.
On site at Lady Bird Lake, she showed me how to diagram 1-5 of the tones of value from the view I had chosen. This really helped me from getting lost in the details or making a painting that was too busy and unfocused. Another thing Uma taught us was how to use a REALLY big brush with a LOT of water. This couldn’t be more different than Andrew Zega’s approach, so that was super interesting to see her in action! To achieve her ephemeral blend of colors and soft focus of things in the distance, you must paint wet!
I feel like each of these techniques will be helpful in different ways on the trip. I have visions of what I want to paint, but I’ll be variously restricted by time, the set up and materials, daylight, and lack of inspiration. I’m hoping that I can pull on each of these methods to help me through!