I traveled to Colorado at the end of June 2017 for 3 days of intense master training with Daniel Marshall. This was my first introduction to the basics of watercolor from a Master watercolor artist.
So, as you well know, I flew to Colorado for a 3 day masterclass with Dan Marshall. I arrived at his studio and was immediately taken by the space. A large work area and many of his paintings hanging on the walls. There are even a few Zbuckvic paintings adorned. Conveniently, there is a coffee shop right next door. Dan and I obviously share an interest in coffee as well as painting!
We first began to talk about paper, paper sizes and texture. This is very important in watercolor. Certain papers will allow certain things to happen when you paint. We also touched on timing in the painting process while using certain paper textures. I used Saunders rough, which is what he also uses, so I was off to a good start.
We started with some simple sketches and discussion on the way to sketch for a painting. The point is to not get too overly detailed with your sketching, unless you want to frame a sketch or drawing. In watercolor, it’s good to have your lines and loose shapes. Some detailing, like windows on a barn, etc. can be sketched a little heavier, but overall, don’t get too overly detailed in your sketch. We talked about sketching and how the pencil should stay on your paper.
I had already brought a few sketches from the plane ride and we went over some of those. We went over the use of models and the importance of practicing your sketching techniques, lighting in sketches and how to effectively erase your sketch marks on watercolor paper without ruining it.
Color and Paint Mixing
We spent some time on color and mixing. We used the Quiller Color wheel as an example. The point here is to use mostly your primary colors in the correct amounts to mix secondary colors. For instance, yellow and blue make green. However, within that green, by adding either more blue or more green, you can get different varieties of green. Another important point I learned was taking opposite colors on the wheel to make your grays. For instance, on the color wheel , yellow and violet are at opposite ends. Mixing these 2 will give you greys and direct you to a neutral color.
It’s obvious the a complete understanding of the color wheel is crucial to mixing the colors that you want in your paintings. It’s no wonder many of my watercolors appear muddy and lack some of the lustrous colors from poor mixing.
The demo in real-time was eye-opening for me. I finally realized that I wasn’t really washing the paper correctly and applying tried and true concepts in how to achieve the final look in a watercolor painting.
For instance, in many of my watercolors, I would start from the top (which is important), but I tended to remix colors and go over initial washes 2 or 3 times. This is a recipe for disaster in watercolor. The colors will just begin to mix and muddy. We also discussed timing in the washes, which is crucial for you to achieve an initial wash texture.
Probably the most important thing I learned from this exercise was that the initial wash is the backbone to your final painting. Without a good wash that takes into account your background, midground and foreground, you are doomed to fail.
Spritzing, spattering, dry brushing, etc in the initial wash is acceptable, but has to be done at the right times. Time in watercolor is crucial to getting the right (special) effect.
We finished off the day with a complete demo and some techniques on brushstrokes and adding jewelry to the work. All in all, this first day was full of golden information for me. I have watched some videos on YouTube and films by APV, but there is nothing like a real-time lesson. And having no formal training in painting watercolor, this was a great start for me.
So, today, we really began to get into the meat of watercolor painting. We started the day with setting up my palette and discussing tones and color mixing. The main focus today was tone, color mixing and composition.
While getting some things ready in the studio, we discussed some watercolor history. He gave me a few books to thumb through including Andrew Wyeth (At Kuerners Farm), an excellent book. Other books included John Singer Sargent Watercolors, Venise Aquarelles de Turner and watercolors by Bonington.
Our first exercise today was a discussion on composition. This included some of Zbuckvic’s watercolor clock.
This is crucial in understanding the consistency of paint in the washes and also when to put them down. Timing is obviously everything to get a successful painting. When you put down a certain paint consistency on dry, damp, moist and wet paper, we get different effects. It’s important to try and combine these effects in your painting. A successful watercolor will have a combination of the clock in the final work.
We discussed wet on wet, soft – controlled edgers, dry brush strokes , lost and found edges and more. This is basically taking the watercolor clock concepts and putting them to paper. From here, we went into some exercises on tones and created a tone bar with a single color (neutral tint).
Another thing we discussed was composing a painting, some of the elements of a composition and general concepts.
I found an interesting video concerning composition, as described by Joseph Zbuckvic.
The video is self explanatory. Z describes various letters to describe the core of composition:
Z or ‘zeds’ lead you through a painting and drags your eye back and forth across the painting. “It takes you into the picture”. A river of road that will take you into the distance. A powerful tool in composition.
A for “Alvaro”, they are great friends. However, in this sense it is like a pyramide. It takes you into the picture.
L can be a strong vertical. You can combine them with and A or even a Z. Typically, the L may be a church.
H for “Herman Pekel”. The H is usually a vertical with 2 sides and a connecting middle.
Looking through something, arches or trees in the picture. “Looking through a tunnel.” It leads the eye usually to a vanashing point.
Another point to composition is distribution. He describes this as “Picasso”. Uneven distribution of hay bales or chickens, people and birds. They are random and not even. Not like “soldiers”. Many students tend to make these too symmetrical. Asymmetry is king. Just like tone.
This painting combines almost all of these elements:
And, if you can combine the different times of your watercolor clock, the ZALHO and PICASSO into ONE PAINTING, you have created a MASTERPIECE like the one above.
Another important concept in composition was our discussion of the Golden ratio or Fibonacci swirl.
This is somewhat similar concepts I learned in photography class when I was in high school, but is also important in painting and composition. The rule of thirds is also a basic concept in composition and Dan showed me an easy way on my phone to adapt this concept to a photo to get an idea. Most advanced painters will find this second nature.
I found some view finder aids when I googled this on the internet such as artwork essentials. However, when you go to your edit screen to adjust and crop a photo, a nice grid will come up on the screen that will show you a simple grid to aid in your composition.
So, my first real painting using some tonal qualities was a single painting we did from a photo of the Lexington Aircraft carrier on a sunny day, where most of the colors were washed out by the sun. This was a good exercise in tones, some washes and my first introduction in getting that water effect. I used Payne’s gray to paint this one.
It was not a bad effort. I added some simple red highlights to give it some life.
On my second effort, I combined tones with a simple color wash using ultramarine blue, burnt sienna, yellow ochre and a touch of neutral tint. I found mixing the colors a little challenging, but it just comes down to understanding your washes and use of brushes.
It’s important to use large brushes (big shapes and washes) that hold lots of water and work your way down to the final stages of your painting using little brushes (little shapes) that holds little water and more pigment for the details. It’s a simple concept, but it’s amazing when you start painting, that I had to consciously think about it.
I did OK with this one. I found some of the calligraphy challenging since I never really drew a chicken before. Anyway, I’m excited to move forward with these concepts. It’s obvious it will take lots of practice and reinforcement to get it right!
This was a super productive day for me! I now have some concepts and things to work on that will help to improve my results.
On my final full day with Dan, we started this day again with a nice breakfast and went straight in the morning to the studio for a demo on beach and water/boat scenes. I asked Dan for this lesson in particular because I live in a city that has a large harbor/boats and also a beach.
Even though I had already painted my series of ships and attempted a harbor scene, I really didn’t know how to go about it. I desperately wanted to also improve my rendering of water.
The first demo involved the beach scene. So we chose a simple beach scene with some figures, sand, water and waves.
This scene as well as all other scenes begins from top to bottom with the sky to the horizon. The steps are crucial creating a successful watercolor. We leave a small separation on the horizon and it key to keep your lines straight.
Our reference photo (from a beach in California from one of Dan’s recent trips) was angled with a slight hill. We discussed and hammered down the importance of perspective. This is true even for waves. Waves starting near us recede away in the distance towards a vanishing point on a perspective line. The white in the waves have purpose and should stay connected. I began to realize that even with waves, as well as anything else, brushstrokes are important to get some sparkle and leave a little white for the waves.
Once we have our waves, we work right through to the foreground. I also quickly realized and learned that you don’t want to completely cut out your figures and the ‘actors on the stage’. They all need to be connected. If your wash completely cuts around them, the actors will appear stuck on the paper.
As we work our way down to the foreground, you can texture a bit and increase your wash from a tea to coffee consistency ever slightly increasing the tone. This is the first wash and should be completely dry.
Now we began to work on the stage and it’s actors. Again, it’s important to keep them interconnected. They way they are connected should also be planned way in advance when composing your painting. Actors that are disconnected will only confuse your audience.
As I continued to paint, I began to realize how important calligraphy is in this stage. Your painting will not look convincing without good, solid technique and brushstrokes.
When placing people on the page, Dan showed me how to ‘hang them on a cloths line’. It’s important to keep their body ratios and places in the painting accurate and not displaced. Depending on your perspective, heads need to remain on the same line. If we are looking down on figures this will be different.
So for this first exercise in a beach scene, I just took it all in.
I wasn’t particularly happy with the final result. The perspective is off on the waves and I learned some crucial lessons. Hopefully, this exercise will come in handy in my next beach painting.
On our second painting of the boat, we took a photo from my phone of my harbor in Corpus Christi bay. It was a simple picture with a bat on the left and some distant buildings. Again, we started by composing the painting, adjusting our actors and looking at light. Here, we wanted light on the water in the distance and the boat in shadow (light coming from behind).
Again, we start every painting the same way, from top with a tea wash to horizon line. Then we work our way through the water, leaving light in the background. There is a pier with boats under the horizon line and we left a little highlight with paper, but it’s not that important. I just continued to bring the wash down through to the bottom. An important point was to leave a small highlight of paper on top of the boat roof where the light reflects.
I realized now that light, tone, shadows, etc. need to be planned in the composition and then executed accordingly while painting. Once these highlights are gone, they are gone, so I tried to capture them in the first wash and anticipate them in our composition stage of the painting.
Now, with water it’s important to add some ripples while the paper is still damp, but not completely wet. This water scene was intended to be calm, so the ripples need to be calm and not too angles and busy.
At this point, we are also not worried about the reflection of the boat in the water. This will come later.
We now let the wash completely dry.
The most distance objects should be painted in next and the tone needs to be correct. Not too light, and certainly not too dark in tone.
The pier and boats are next and then our focal point (the actor on this stage is the single shrimp boat). Here, again, brush strokes, technique, and tone is king.
The top of the boat is done first and then we concentrated on the reflection. This is done by painting the hull of the boat in a wet on wet technique and extending the shadow and reflection along the bottom of the water line. The boat needs to be anchored to the water with a strong, dark line.
This pretty much ended our morning session. We then headed up to the mountains for some plein air painting.
I found this exercise the most challenging of all. Not being outside, but doing a landscape properly. I really forces you to look at tone qualities rather than color. We ended our day with a wonderful dinner in Golden, Coloroado.
It was a good day!
On my final morning with Dan, I got up and attempted a quick landscape painting again. It was a good exercise, but far from good.
We grabbed a quick breakfast at a local diner and then headed to downtown Denver close to Union Station. He we painted a street corner.
Again, this was a great exercise that covered just about everything I learned through these past few days. (1) The process of composing a scene. (2) Looking at light and shadows and where they go in your painting, (3) Sketching a thumbnail sketch of your vision for the painting, (4) where to place the actors on your stage and (5) the step by step washes and tones required to make a great watercolor painting.
This was a helpful week and the importance here is to persevere and continue. Watercolor can be frustrating, and for me, it’s finding a style that you can call your own.