DEAR ERIC COLUMN
Do you have an issue in your development as an artist you would like Eric to address? Whether you are struggling with a particular area of your work or just a general question, Eric will share his expertise and insights to help you grow as an artist and find your own style. Much like Question of the Month, Eric will address your questions but he also encourages you to share your experiences in DEAR ERIC COLUMN. This will be published every month for 2016. (We will address one issue per month, so if you don’t see your issue addressed in the month you sent in your email, look for them in the following months. Issues will be addressed in the order they are received and for educational value.)
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2017 DEAR ERIC COLUMN
December DEAR ERIC COLUMN
12-1-16 December (PDF)
Why is it so hard to finish a painting? I seem to have an easy time of starting, but the finishing part gives me the “shakes”.
Carol from Texas
Finishing a painting can be difficult for several reasons. Fatigue can be one. An overriding fascination with detail can be another. But I think one of the major reasons is the tendency to neglect what the painting calls for.
The construction of a painting is not unlike the building of a pyramid. The block-in stage is the easiest and most fun because it offers tremendous latitude of expression, but it also sets the style of painting to follow. As you build up the pyramid, the underlying foundation increasingly determines the subsequent stroke character. By the time you are at the finish, the baton has been passed over to the painting- it determines the last strokes. The top of the pyramid has to fit the style of painting it caps, otherwise it won’t work.
This releasing of control to the painting takes discipline, but it is necessary; otherwise you will end up with some finished paintings like I have experienced: a great finish, but it doesn’t fit the rest of the painting.
January DEAR ERIC COLUMN
1-1-17 January (PDF)
Why did you choose Venice for your 2017 foreign workshop? Gail from Chicago.
I don’t know where to begin, as Venice offers a plethora of painting material, sightseeing, and historical opportunities:
First off, Venice is just plain unbelievable- it is like a real life movie set. It is surreal. There is simply no other place like it! The visual stimuli has it all for the watercolorist: canals with water taxis and gondolas, beautiful sunsets splashing a kaleidoscope of color against Venetian façades, merchants plying their wares. The city has a quiet, yet magical, atmosphere as there are no roads, only canals.
There is no end to painting material of courtyards, markets, and of the Venetian light reflecting off the ancient architectural to the canals below just outside our motel, a beautifully remodeled four star hotel. Historically, we will relive and paint the same subject material that so many famous artists painted, such as John Singer Sargent.
The sites offer a once in a lifetime opportunity: the incredible Doge’s Palace and the Bridge of Sighs, evening concerts in St. Marks Square and St Mark’s Cathedral (what a subject to paint!), the famous Rialto Bridge. Visit the many museums to see original paintings by Titan, Tiepolo, and other famous artists, or see the contemporary paintings at the Guggenheim museum. Take a water taxi and visit the unique islands of Murano, known for its glass making, and Burano for its lace, and so much more.
The food: unbelievable Italian cuisine. Need I say more? The sights and smells of Italian culture will all come together in the unique plein air painting adventure at Venice.
February DEAR ERIC COLUMN
2-1-17 February (PDF)
Karen from Florida shared her disappointment with a batch of 140 lb cold pressed paper and continued:
…Well, I set up my easel, did my drawing, and when I put down my first stroke, the paint sat on top of the paper as if it was coated in wax. I had to “lick” the paper, as you warn us not to do, in order to get the paper to absorb the paint. Once it dried, which was very fast, there was a weird texture to the wash that looked like it had been sanded down. Someone thought perhaps the sizing had gone bad. Can that happen? Can it be prevented? Has this ever happened to you?
I wondered what a professional such as yourself would have done. Are there other brands of paper you recommend? Thank you for your help!
There have been times, though rare, when a sheet of Watercolor paper seems to have been improperly sized by the manufacturer. I can think of one time when a prominent company decided to change the formula of its sizing – I think it was because of too many complaints about it giving off an unpleasant odor when dampened. This was not problem with the quality of the paper; it was a result of bacteria in the air reacting with the sizing- and I unfortunately received a package of poorly sized paper. The retailer who sold me the paper gladly substituted another and I was happy.
Once in a while, I will receive a sheet of paper that just doesn’t seem to respond well; it may cause me to “lick” the paper unnecessarily, or it may behave like a blotter. I don’t struggle with it at all- I immediately get rid of it and pull out a new sheet. Painting is hard enough without a defective sheet of paper.
However, paper that is stored for a long time against a contaminating substance, such as cardboard, wood, or exposed to compromising elements as in a garage, can be damaged and not be as responsive as it should be. I have also seen students with pock marks on their clean washes, and I suspect lotion from their hands was transferred.
As far as a recommendation, I feel there are many great papers being manufactured. The main thing I look for is that it is archival. Traditionally “rag”, meaning that it has been made from %100 cotton, was the preferred paper. However, there are some contemporary ones that are not rag but still archival that gives beautiful results, such as Masa and Yupo.
I do, however, recommend staying away from the less expensive spiral bound watercolor tablets- they may say “archival” or “acid-free”- but will lead to inferior results. The monetary savings are not worth the frustration. So often I have seen students frustrated with their insipid paintings, only to be told they need better paper.
March DEAR ERIC COLUMN
3-1-17 March (PDF)
Do acrylics on paper behave differently than acrylics on a canvas board surface (such as Raymar)? A recent instructor mentioned that using acrylics as a wash, similar to watercolor, on a canvas board surface would tend to make them unstable. Would the adhesion be different on paper? Gurukirn, Phoenix, AZ
As I have recently expanded my exploration of the acrylic medium, I can share with you my unscientific knowledge of the medium, and how it behaves under certain conditions. First of all, in general, acrylic medium is very stable and archival. The paint intensity (color fastness) is permanent and the paint bonding durable under harsh treatment. I expect no cracking of the pigment, even after extensive display time under normal conditions. It is really quiet a marvel of achievement in the artistic world.
For the most part, I find that acrylics behave differently on various surfaces due to the surface influence, not a change in the medium.
For example, if I paint on wood, the paint will leave a thicker impression as the paint absorbs in the individual fibers, and a slicker more transparent look upon a glass surface. Yes, both of these surfaces are acceptable for acrylic. So, for traditional canvas surfaces, the varieties available will provide a varying degree of visual and tactile texture. Watercolor paper is an excellent base for acrylic painting- it is made of cotton just like many oil canvas products.
I have not experimented with acrylic washes -thinned down so much that the painting strongly resembles a traditional watercolor painting- but those paintings I have seen can be very attractive. To my knowledge, it is an acceptable practice by many regardless of the surface chosen, and also one being used by my instructor at the Academy, who would never use anything less than archival.
April DEAR ERIC COLUMN
4-1-17 April (PDF)
Eric, what makes an effective composition? There are so many “rules” out there, that I am all tied up in knots before I even start painting! Karen from Hawaii
Good question, and it can seem somewhat overwhelming -enough to make one not want to paint- to try and figure out which compositional theory should be followed, and which ignored. I can empathize with anyone new in this business of painting who is trying to make sense of it all.
I have found all compositional theories may be violated. Yet there are still three objectives I try to meet, and I find that if I am able to so, I probably have a good painting:
First I try to catch the eye at a distance. This boils down to a simplified value pattern consisting of large interesting shapes. For a shape to be interesting, it is best if it is interlocking like a puzzle piece, rather than geometric like a square or circle.
Second, the viewer’s eye needs to be able to travel around the picture plane We want the viewer to have the full experience of the image and not be stuck in one spot, called a “bulls eye”.
Finally, we then need to draw the viewer’s attention to an Area of Dominance and hold it there as long as possible. We want them to get the full impact of our visual statement.
I think, in time, we can sense if our paintings are meeting these three objectives A superb way is to look at the painting in a mirror; the reversed image fools the mind so that patterns are realized before the subject’s identity is. This is only momentarily, but it is long enough for the subconscious to make a judgment.
For more on this, I would recommend DVD #6: Creating an Area of Dominance of my “Painting Loosely from Photographs” DVD series.
May DEAR ERIC COLUMN
Eric, why do you like to paint your objects flat, or with no volume, when blocking in the painting? Chris from Tucson
Think of it this way: with every object we paint, the natural tendency is to want to make it look real. We are driven by the world we view as the goal to emulate in our paintings. Unfortunately, nature doesn’t do a very good job of designing itself; we as creative individuals need to do that. One important aspect of a good design is limiting the number of shapes in a painting: too many shapes lead to visual confusion.
The error in showing a sense of realism is that we may need to show too many value changes. For an example, a cube, being one object, may require four shifts in value from front, top, side, and shadow in order to show depth, or realism. Each one of these value changes create a new shape within the one object – the cube – and there is our dilemma: we want to show realism, but all the value shifts required can create too many shapes and a confusing design.
My suggestion is to block in the painting with sweeping flat patterns, and then reserve the rendering of form for the Area of Dominance. This will simplify the number of shapes. The periphery of the painting is “flat”, but by its association with the Area of Dominance the viewer will mentally force a sense of volume into those areas. In essence, the viewer completes the sense of realism- without all the shapes. I hope this helps.
June DEAR ERIC COLUMN
Do you always start your painting with the lightest washes, like the sky, as is traditional for watercolor painting?
Karen from Vermont
You are right in saying that traditional watercolor painters would begin a painting by laying down the lightest washes, such as the sky, first. Usually that wash would be run through the portions of the painting that would eventually be darker. This harmonizes the color temperature of the painting and unifies it by eliminating any “halos”, or visual discomforts of white patterns surrounding shapes. Watercolor also is a medium, as you well know, that lends itself to working from light to dark.
However, there is one problem with the aforementioned — I may not know what I want to do with the lighter values as I begin the painting. It doesn’t make sense for me to insist on a procedure when it seems inappropriate. Instead, I will leave the light areas of my painting the white of the paper and aggressively attack the mid tones. The darks may follow, with the lights being resolved at the very end. I also find that the sky, or any other light patterns, are usually a supportive statement to the rest of the painting–the best way to support the rest of the painting is to leave their execution for the last.
Essentially, I think it is the wisest — and most freeing — to begin a painting by addressing the easiest, simplest, largest shape first; regardless of the shape’s value and a traditional procedure. Why make it hard for ourselves?
July DEAR ERIC COLUMN
My tubes of paint are certainly not the consistency of sour cream so I invested in a few tubes of Graham and one of Danial Smith. None of them are like sour cream either! In fact, the DS tube is mostly binder even after I’ve squirted out quite a bit. I can’t pick up several colors on my brush without mashing in to the color somewhat. What’s up with that? Could these be old as well? I’m thinking of taking them back. Leslie from Portland
There is some variation between manufacturers and the tube colors themselves as to moistness. Some colors, such as cobalt violet, can have more glycerin run out of the tube before the pigment finally comes out.
However, if you can’t “stack” multiple layers of color upon the tip of your brush without grinding your brush into the paint wells, I would suggest either trying a different brand of paint, or a newer tube as your paints may be getting old, especially if the tube was opened some time ago. If you are using a new tube, as it seems you are implying, it maybe you have received a poor batch of paint. I think the problem may be with the latter as I have enjoyed using both Daniel Smith and Graham paints.
The “sour cream” consistency is the best analogy I can come up with. The most important thing is that you can load several layers of paint upon the brush by easily dipping into the paint, in order to eliminate the extra mixing – both in the paint wells and on the palette- that leads to muddiness.
I have been happy with the Sennelier watercolors that we carry on line – they keep moist for a long time.
August DEAR ERIC COLUMN
I was wondering about the pros and cons of using watercolor art board. I’m referring to the watercolor paper that is laminated to a board backing. For one, it eliminates the step of applying a backing to a watercolor painting when complete. However, do you thinking it absorbs water sufficiently to do big “juicy” washes? Arches and Canson make this product.
Robin from Ocean Park
I think the overriding marketing push for providing a surface such as watercolor board is the elimination of glass. Unfortunately, many galleries, especially in the higher end markets, do not want to display a glazed image. There are several marketing reasons, along with practical ones such as no glass glare and transport and storage. Recently there has been an interest by watercolorists and art materials manufacturers to circumvent glass by trying such products as watercolor board. I am not impressed with the product I have seen so far. I don’t care for the even weave of the texture, the paint seems to sit on top of the paper, and I have been told glazing of layered color can be difficult. I still prefer a traditional top quality watercolor paper.
However, I have enjoyed a different approach to offer watercolor paintings framed without glass. I glue the watercolor paper on a 1/4″ foam board product called Gatorboard and follow up with a varnish. They are quite attractive, and are especially helpful in reducing the weight of paintings larger than a full sheet that otherwise would have been framed in glass.
September DEAR ERIC COLUMN
How does one go about developing their own style? Jenny in Indiana
Just disciplined, thoughtful, creative painting without the use of a photographic projection will help you to be on your way. I answered this common question in the following email newsletter recently sent to my collectors:
The greatest asset any artist has is his or her individual creativity. This seems obvious, but unfortunately this may not be understood, especially with regard to the art market in general and national competitions. Over the years I have become increasingly aware of how the art market is driven by the media- especially the photograph. It has overtaken the advertising industry- illustrators are no more. The photograph is viewed as reality, but it is far from it.
Several years ago, we were at the Vatican, and I was surprised by the bus loads of tourists who were not looking at Michelangelo’s masterpiece, the Pieta, but rather taking photographs to be viewed later. This is the new reality for many young adults.
Nowhere am I more aware of the dominance of the photograph than in national art competitions. Painstakingly detailed realistic paintings can receive the top awards (why it looks just like a photograph!) and yet the public, and even the judges are turning a blind eye to the fact that the painting is nothing more than a projected photograph with a careful coloring applied. Even worse, the computer industry has helped out by developing Photo Editing Software with “Impressionist, Value Distribution, and whatever type of painting you want” buttons. The award should be for the patience required to fill in the blanks, like a coloring book, but certainly not for creativity! I have seen it a number of times: a student with superficial knowledge of painting shows me a painting of theirs that won an award — but it’s nothing more than a copy of a photograph- Photo-shopped or not.
Creativity is rare, and the artists who have the courage to express their own creativity, coupled with the disciplined knowledge, skill, and experience of painting, should be celebrated.
October DEAR ERIC COLUMN
What brand and type of varnish do you use? Gretchen
Gretchen, I believe you are referring to the technique I use to “varnish” watercolors. Being able to have a large watercolor – larger than a full sheet- without the excess weight of glass is convenient and attractive. I frame them up just like an oil painting.
I use a Liquitex acrylic gloss medium varnish, but I am sure any brand is fine. I would imagine that simply an acrylic gloss medium would be fine too. I thin the varnish with a one-part medium to three parts water mixture. The tricky part is applying the varnish without drifting the watercolor image. The answer is to use an inexpensive camel hair brush. The bristles are very soft and tend not to pull up the painting. The first stage I am careful to not over-stroke and disturb the painting. After this dries, the second layer is more easily applied because the image has been previously secured.
Finally, when it is all dry, I hand rub an oil painter’s product: cold wax medium (Dorland or Gamblin) to give a nice luster and reduce any unwanted gloss by pooling of the gloss medium. A light buffing afterwards can give a nice luster.
I would suggest you do a few trials runs to get the hang of it first.
November DEAR ERIC COLUMN