Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Wade in the Water(color)!

Class participants Pammy (from left) Rachel, Shirelene,
Suenette and Michelle stand behind their completed iris paintings

Well, I am still recovering from the whirlwind workshop held this weekend as part of the Grant County Summer Arts Program. I taught a beginner watercolor workshop to five energetic and talented ladies (and one very talented 9-year-old boy as well) and we packed a bunch of information and projects into a day and half.

I can't say enough about the willingness of the group to work hard and stick with me because I probably tried to do too much given the limited time period.

A congratulatory group hug with some of the ladies.
When I teach a beginner-level class, I go through the basics of materials, as well as discuss some of the essential "tools" of the trade -- flat washes, graded washes, wet-into-wet, dry brush,  masking, textural effects, etc.

I believe that success in painting is more a result of determination and effort rather than a reward for "talent," and I want students to have some basic skills when they walk out of my class. My hope is that they will be interested enough in the painting experience that they want to work on developing those skills and adding to their repertoire of "tools."

As part of that step-by-step progression, the group worked its way through some introductory exercises to become familiar with the feel of the brushes and the paint.

I had several projects prepared for the class, which allowed them to sample a couple of different watercolor papers (a "student-grade" paper from Canson, as well as 140# cold press Arches).  I predraw the basic outlines of the projects on the papers ahead of time. I do this for two reason: first, as a simple time-saving element, and second, because I am teaching a painting class, not a drawing class.

For nearly every participant, this is the first time they have attempted watercolor (aside from playing with the cheap children's kits), so they have enough to worry about in just getting the pigment off their brushes and onto the paper. I don't want to place undue stress on them by making them draw. Instead, I want them to concentrate on how the paper and pigment react.

Once we had the warm-ups finished, we turned to a rural landscape depicted with a single pigment. It's essentially a value study, and the goal is to apply the warm-up skills to a painting, to see how a graded wash adds realism to a cast shadow, how charging pigment into a wet area can create soft foliage, and how a painting can come to life through patient problem solving.

We followed that painting with a couple of color exercises - one a star-spangled decorative item that illustrated the magic that water and pigment can make when left to their own devices, and the other a simple yet dramatic sunset over a mountain range. And that was only the first day!!!

The second session started in the afternoon, with a small floral as the capstone project for the workshop. I did a small amount of demonstrating with this subject, mostly to give everyone ideas on how to approach the initial washes, and to impress upon the group that soft glazes are often key to building realism -- and confidence. I tend to "sneak up" on most paintings, using multiple washes and glazes. After watching me, the group proceeded to work on their own irises, and I went around to each as they painted.

That final session ran long (we were supposed to conclude at 4 p.m. but it was well after 5 when we did finish), but ultimately everyone came out with a really nice iris painting. And, more importantly, the group all seemed happy with what they had learned, were pleased with at least some, if not all their results, and were amenable to further explorations in the medium. And that's what I truly hope for -- that they might consider picking up a brush again in the future.

I want to thank the organizers for the Summer Arts Program in Grant County for inviting me to participate in their program and I also want to thank the Grant County Press ( and the Grant County Arts Council for helping to publicize the class.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Bill Vrscak workshop in Morgantown

Photo by D. Byron Witt and used with permission.
Bill Vrscak (left) talks to participants at the
Morgantown Art Association's spring workshop in April 2013.

Photo sourced from Morgantown Art Association's Facebook page:

I'm going to try to encapsulate my experience at the Bill Vrscak workshop in early April, hosted by the Morgantown Art Association ( Bill is a painter and graphic artist from the Pittsburgh area, and I've known about his watercolors for quite some time. (You can see examples at his website So it was with great excitement that I learned that MAA was organizing a four-day watercolor workshop with him.

Bill demonstrated each morning, and then we turned to our own boards and attempted to nail his ideas and techniques down with brush and paper. At times I would vaguely feel that I was "getting it" and at other times I flat out didn't, but I never felt extremely frustrated. I could see such value in his ideas and suggestions that I wanted to absorb everything to the fullest extent possible.

I would like to share a detailed record of the workshop, but there is so much that I learned over the course of the four days that I don't know if I can really do justice to the full experience. But I will try.

I'll synthesize Vrscak's philosophy, as I understood it, into one short sentence: The best watercolors do more with less.

That one statement applies to nearly every stage of an individual painting's development. I will try to explain that central idea in a step-by-step way.

Here is one of Bill Vrscak's sketches as he begins to develop a painting.
SKETCHING: For Vrscak, the best compositions are developed via sketching and simplification -- to him a painting should not be an exact copy of a scene or subject because that's what photography is for. Instead, painters must remember that what is on the surface of the paper is far more important than what the painter is seeing.

So, Vrscak  pares down the subject matter and looks for what he finds vital. And one area in the composition should be of greatest importance -- this is the point of entry for a viewer  and everything else is secondary. Sketching helps a painter develop that entry point and then simplify the rest of the scene. As you can see in the photograph of one of his sketches (shown above), there's nothing elaborate about the sketch. It's a road map of sorts -- the relative shapes of the masses have been worked out, there's a hierarchy of dark and light values, and the overall composition within the frame has been established.

A painting in progress, reflected in the overhead mirror.
Here you can see Vrscak's limited palette.
THE PALETTE: Next, Vrscak only uses six colors on his palette - a split primary palette composed of a warm and cool version of Yellow, Red and Blue. The colors he used in our workshop, listing the cool version in each pair first followed by the warm version, were Aureolin and Cad Yellow, Permanent Alizarin Crimson and Cad Red, and Winsor Blue (Green Shade), and Ultramarine Blue.

He said he will mix those up from time to time, substituting Cobalt Blue for Ultramarine, for instance, and maybe he will add some specific color to the palette, such as a earth color, for a particular subject. But for the most part, his large, white palette had mostly empty wells. He said he went to this limited palette some time ago because he wanted to simplify his color mixes and concentrate more on values. The limited palette also makes it easier for him to replicate color mixes, and after years of using it, he knows exactly what ratios of which colors will produce what he needs at a given time with minimal fuss.

Photo by D. Byron Witt and used with permission.
Bill Vrscak
Photo sourced from Morgantown Art Association's Facebook page:
THE BRUSHES: Vrscak says he likes flats, and he specifically likes flats with extra long bristles. Often marketed as "one stroke" brushes, I found these brushes to be a revelation. I've always liked the look of paintings that obviously were created using flats -- but when I have tried to use flat wash brushes, they have always felt too stiff and seemed to pull off as much pigment as I was trying to put down. I have a massive collection of flat brushes that I have purchased and then set aside because I did not like how they felt.

However, these "one stroke" versions have a much softer feel, more like a nice pointed round. Vrscak said he likes them because of the amount of pigment they can hold. The fewer times he has to go back into his palette to pick up pigment, the better. They also have nice spring and flexibility and can make great "marks." He uses the edges in smaller areas and tries to use as big a brush as he can for as long as he can. He warns that relying on only small brushes leads to excessive concern for the detailed areas, and a loss of vision of the painting as a whole.

In this demo painting by Bill Vrscak, broad washes went down first, followed by a limited number of detailed marks. An obvious entry point, nice value contrasts, interesting contours, and just the right amount of texture make this a wonderful example of a watercolor painting. I am very proud to say that I am now the owner of this painting!!!
THE PAINTING: As for the painting itself -- Vrscak works to establish the big areas first with broad washes applied with big brushes, and he gets most of the white of the paper covered quickly, because it helps him to make more accurate value judgements He also establishes a dark early in a painting's development for the same reason.

He slants his paper as a way of controlling washes and eliminating back runs, and he aways makes subtle changes in the color mixes of the large washes. A good example of this is in the photo above with the distant mountain to the right. A slighter pinker color grades into a greyish green to the right, with a touch of a greyish purple at the base. It's simple, yet so effective. Many more slight color shifts can be seen in the large foreground area. These touches help keep large washes from becoming boring and flat, yet they are subtle and don't distract from the focal point. The overall effect is a feast for the eyes.

Vrscak's goal with the really large areas is to get something down on the first application, make it look interesting, and not go back into it. And that's the secret of "fresh" watercolors. Don't mess with it!

As the painting moves along, smaller brushes are used to develop the important bits of the painting, but only those most important parts get special treatment and more work. Vrscak reiterates that getting too concerned with all the details all over a painting means that you have lost the focus of the painting.

Here is another demo painting by Bill Vrscak from the Morgantown workshop. This painting still has more development in store, but you can see just how much can be accomplished with the skillful application of large value masses.
FINALLY: More good advice from Vrscak: Make interesting washes, interesting shapes and interesting contours. Accept that a watercolor is a simply a collection of flat shapes and marks and that they must relate to one another for a painting to be successful. So arrange the marks in a pleasing way and keep it simple!

This really was a wonderful workshop for me, and it came at the right time in my development as an artist. I'm beginning to get a sense of what I'm good at doing, and I really enjoy playing with and controlling compositional elements now, so much of what Bill Vrscak offered us in the way of advice and ideas was exceptionally helpful to me. I absolutely would attend another of his workshops and would encourage any watercolorist at any level to take from him as well. He is a great teacher as well as being a great painter, and that is a combination that I really admire.