Cold Spring Harbor

Some Personal Thoughts On Art and Technique

August 05, 2010

As I look at the art of other artists I admire, I find a style, a unique combination of pigments and techniques that defines that artist. I can identify a work immediately by the style. I have been constantly reminded that there are no formulas in creating a painting, yet when I see the work of others, it looks as tho there is a formula. There are times when I feel that I should develop a “look” and then think to myself that this is something that may just happen naturally.

All artists are influenced one way or another by other artists. It has always been that way. It is only natural that you want your work to look like that of those artists you admire. You are better off applying what you have learned from other artists instead of trying to emulate their style.

Once I began to understand the characteristics of the watercolor medium, I was able to have more control over how I applied the pigment. It is similar to mastering the music scale with an instrument. You know what valve to press or string to pluck or key to press to achieve a certain tone. You also know how long to hold that note or how fast to play that bar of music. Once you have mastered the fundamentals, you are free to improvise to make that piece of music your own. So it is with painting, the way you design, use color, value and intensity will make the painting yours and consequently a style is created without you even realizing it.

I used to think that using opaque white while working on a transparent watercolor was taboo. Then I discovered that John Singer Sargent used opaque pigments quite often. Suddenly, it didn't seem so bad. Maybe technique wasn't as important as portraying the truth and painting honestly. My gut feeling is to convey the impression of what it was that excited me about any given observation. And to do this by any means possible within boundaries that I have set up for myself.

It amazes me to think that I painted nearly thirty years without a clear understanding of certain fundamental principles of painting. The turning point for me was when I read Hawthorne On Painting, a collection of notes by Charles W. Hawthorne. He said “painting is nothing but one spot of color placed next to another spot of color”. He referred to these spots of color as the tonal note. To make that note sing, it had to be the right value, the right hue and the right intensity. Of those three elements, it was the right value that had the most effect on my work. I begin to understand contrast and what it meant to have the right value.

One who is serious about becoming an artist will go through many phases. The time will come when producing pretty paintings is not enough. I have come to realize that a painting must stimulate the emotion of the viewer to reflect that of the artist. The painting must be exciting, dramatic and above all truthful.

So, I am now resolved to the fact that I will know when I have succeeded with a painting. If I am not excited by what I have accomplished, it is a sure bet that others looking at my work will not be excited either.

There is no easy path in becoming a fine artist. It is true for all creative arts. Curiosity is the key to the creative mind. You must be curious about the world around you then have the passion to translate what stirs you so that others may benefit from your art.

You can't go into the art profession or any profession half heartedly and expect to succeed. You have to love art to the point that you can put up with the countless mistakes you will make and the frustrations you will experience. Eventually you will succeed.

In one of the workshops I attended by the great watercolor artist, Alvaro Castagnet, he said “have no fear”. What he meant is that if it feels right, do it and do it with enthusiasm. Load that brush up with plenty of pigment and put it down with authority. If it doesn't turn out the way you expected, so be it. Move on. You will find that sooner or later you will achieve the results you are looking for and at the same time build more confidence in yourself. Experiment constantly. Don't hesitate to try new things. It is from these experiments that you learn what works and what doesn't.

Truth be told, the only way you are going to reach a higher level of painting is by painting and painting and painting. The learning process should never end.