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

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