Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Jeannie McGuire workshop

I am finally getting around to a report on the Jeannie McGuire workshop hosted by the Morgantown Art Association on Oct. 2-3.

McGuire is steadily gaining attention in watercolor circles for her distinctive style and approach to painting. Most of her paintings include the figure, and her painting energies are devoted to incorporating those figures into spare and suggestive compositions.

One of my early impressions during the workshop was contrast. McGuire is a slender, petite woman, her voice is soft, and in the crowded workshop setting, it took a while for everyone to stop chatting and turn their attention to her.

However, McGuire carries a big brush, and she's not afraid to use it. Faced with a piece of pristine watercolor paper, I still feel weak in the knees. McGuire looks at the same paper and immediately slaps down some fat, dark washes just to show the paper who's boss.

Most of her work is completed with large flats, Robert Simmons White Sables, in 1-, 2-, and 3-inch widths. The large sizes are helpful when working on large-scale paintings, and she enjoys the sense of confidence necessary in using such large brushes.

As she demonstrated for the group, she explained that she doesn't have any set palette, other than her unorthodox use of titanium white. She is open to experimentation, and watching her paint is a little like watching a performance. She readily admits that she's not sure what's going to happen, but she intends to enjoy the journey.

That's the point where I had some difficult distilling the process McGuire utilizes. She is a very intuitive painter, and will change course in an instant if she creates a particular "mark" that she feels will advance the work and strengthen the composition.

So there's no step-by-step guide for painting like Jeannie McGuire. And that's a good thing, when you think about it. Because she moves so intuitively around her work, the end result is very much a personal statement about a moment and a mood.

Mark-making, as she she describes it, is important to her process, and the large flats assist in this style. Large swaths of color go down quickly, and then she steps back to reflect on the next step. There are no super-soft graduated blends and tentative, watery effects in McGuire's work. The end result, after multiple revisions, is painterly and energetic, captures movement and mood, and is carefully composed -- values and shapes lead the viewer over and around and through her figures' environments.

What I learned from the workshop was to let go, if only a little bit. I had brought some black and white reference photos that I had already cropped into compositions. I created drawings based on the photographs, transferred the drawings to my watercolor paper -- and then I panicked. It was the weak-in-the-knees moment, as usual.

The first day's painting was left incomplete, but I did try to carefully think about creating shapes and values in and around my figures that would help direct the viewer's gaze. I made bolder marks that I usually do, and I left that evening with a positive sense of what was possible.

The next day, on a separate project, I panicked again. This time I stared at the drawing on my paper for an hour, wandered around the room to see how others were progressing, and determined that I had no chance of being successful. When I finally put my first marks on the paper, I immediately did not like them, and knew I had ruined the painting.

Then I got a little angry. Since it was just a piece of paper, as I kept telling myself, I started slapping paint in a reckless sort of way, just to get through the afternoon. I was ready to crawl back into my watery glazes and overworked details, but I still had to ride out this workshop.

And an amazing thing happened. I looked down at the painting at some point, and nearly fell over. It was bold and realistic and exhibited movement and character. I had unwittingly gleaned something from McGuire's discussion and demonstrations, and had managed to paint outside myself for a while.

And I liked what I saw.

Where I go from here is uncertain. I have the ideas of some great painters percolating in my mind, and I don't know how to go about fitting these ideas into my "style." Honestly, I'm not sure that I even have a style.

But it's been an eye-opening year in many ways, and I am excited about what will develop as I continue painting.

Thank you to Jeannie McGuire for being such an inspiring teacher.

For more about McGuire's techniques, read the the August 2010 Watercolor Artist magazine, where she is featured by writer Christine Proskow. And to see more of McGuire's amazing work, visit her website at

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Class at Women's Retreat

Things were so busy at my beginner watercolor class at Camp Pinnacle over the last weekend that I never had the opportunity to take any photographs of the ladies at work. But here they are at the end, each holding the two completed paintings (to see a larger image, click on the photograph).

Etta Mae (from left), Shirlene, Cindy, and Becky tackled multiple projects over the three days. On the first evening, we went over basic materials, and discussed watercolor paper, paints and brushes. They also completed some basic exercises: flat washes, graded washes, wet into wet, glazing, etc., to get a feel for the medium and for the proper consistency of their paint and water mixture.

They also had some fun with completing background foliage exercises, a matter of wetting paper and then dropping pigment to create spreading blossoms. With a hard edge along the bottom, the blooms easily transform into clumps of trees and bushes with spreading branches.

The next morning, we set to work on color mixing. The landscape the four were tasked with involved only two pigments: French Ultramarine Blue and Burnt Sienna. I explained how the two colors were complementary, and how that created possibilities for chromatic shifts between the two, with the middle neutral as a critical component of the painting.

The wet-into-wet foliage exercises from the evening before were quickly put into use, and more wet-into-wet work defined the winter pasture and hill surrounding what would become an old, white farmhouse. Careful application of the mixed neutral from the two pigments developed the house's shadows and created its form.

The large pine tree to the side of the house caused some consternation. In the example painting I had done prior to the class, I had fussed over the tree and tried to develop more detail than was necessary in its branches. The tree is secondary to the house in the composition, but my decades-long struggle with creating realistic tree shapes got the better of me.

That fussiness quickly was emulated by the students. I tried to explain that they did not need to replicate what I had done with the tree, and in fact many of their early, loose washes were superior to mine, but they could not help themselves either. I think we finally found a happy medium for everyone, but it was a lesson for me in creating class demonstrations in the future.

With the detail in the house complete, the group took on the foreground areas, and created the fence line and the long cast shadows from the setting sun.

And after that long day, I decided they all needed a break. We were going to face a troublesome project in the morning: a still life that depended on smooth graded washes to create the curvature of a round crock, but I could not expect them to dive into that after struggling with and then succeeding in their landscapes.

We quickly rushed into the project early Sunday morning. I switched the paper to 140# Arches, cold press, for this project (the landscape was on Canson's Montval, cold press) because I knew the Arches could handle the attempts at smooth, graded washes better than the heavily sized Montval could.

We used the same two colors for the gray crock and added a touch of raw sienna to the palette just to create the soft bounced light on the shadowed side of the crock. For this project the group also used a reference photo to guide their work. I had painting an example painting beforehand, but it incorporated an egg into the composition's foreground, so it was not an accurate example of their subject.

We rushed into our washes, constantly switched on the hairdryer to quickly dry damp areas, and completed the pieces just in time. In many ways this was a much harder project than the landscape because the touch needed to get smooth gradients is so critical to the creation of rounded forms, but the ladies did very well with a difficult task.

In the end, I think everyone was pleased with what they had learned.

I also hope that they want to wade in watercolor a bit more.

Catching up

Oh it's been a while since my last post, but it's been for lack of time, not for lack of painting. The last three weeks are probably the most productive period I've had in years!

In brief, I have been engaged in a series of tiny color studies to work out the palette for the landscape of my dad's childhood home. So far I've completed five, and have made several modifications from my original plan in a effort to maintain realistic colors in a very limited palette.

Essentially, I want to boil this down to a value painting as much as possible, but still maintain harmonious color relationships. I'm not a colorist by nature, and since this entire scene has been recomposed in my head, I don't have any color references. So, keeping it simple is my plan.

I also had a very interesting watercolor workshop the first weekend in October with Jeannie McGuire of Pittsburgh. She works mostly with figure drawing, and her work is evocative and striking.

She was recently featured in Watercolor Artist magazine, and that's how I learned about the workshop. I saw the piece in the magazine, liked her work, and went to her website: There I saw her workshop list, and Morgantown, W.Va., was one of her upcoming stops.

Nearly the next day, the Morgantown Art Association (the sponsors) sent a flier to the West Virginia Watercolor Society about the class, and I was quick to sign up. I'll be sure to talk more about Jeannie's workshop in an upcoming post.

Lastly, I've also had to prepare for my beginning watercolor class at Camp Pinnacle this past weekend. I will write more about that experience soon, but, in short, the four ladies in my class worked hard and came away with excellent paintings of which they can be very proud. Thanks to the Hardy County Extension Office for sponsoring the retreat!