I recently moved into a new house that includes a 12 x 12 foot art studio with its own sink! This is the first time that I have had my own four walls for making art. To have this space is definitely a blessing as I am now able to paint without having to pack everything up. I am also planing on working with oils as well as watercolor in the future. It is so comfortable that leaving the comfort of this new studio space to go plein air painting seems daunting. Painting outside is not always comfortable. First, you have to find a place to set up. Then you are contending with the sunlight, the bugs, and any other intrusive elements that might come your way. You also have to deal with being "Out There" in the open with people watching. For many it is difficult to deal with this self conscious element and, let's face it, this can make us feel nervous (even though it is mainly us making assumptions about what other people might think). Why leave the comfort of your own studio? Why make the trek outside to go Plein air painting? For me it is the challenge, it is the discomfort that drives me forward. If I can paint amidst all of these challenges then I can paint just about anywhere. Plein air painting also leads to more confident bold and beautiful brush strokes. Painting is immediate outside and completed within a time frame. I have found that my work painting outside definitely has developed my in-studio practices and skills. For now I am enjoying summer and the best of both worlds: the comfort of the studio for late night painting sessions and the challenge and thrill of painting outdoors. Where is your favorite place to paint? Post your pictures below.
"Wow! You are so talented!" is a phrase that I am used to hearing from people when they look at my artwork. Yes, it is true at a young age I took to art, but more than that I found something that I am passionate about and continues to captivate me. It was that initial finding that is very important. Have you found your passion? The word that I prefer to use now instead of talented is "driven." Talent is the easy part--the more difficult part is keeping a regular artmaking practice. Six years ago I wasn't making art on a regular basis, it was only when I started to commit myself to regular practice, attend workshops by artists, started my own art Facebook page etc. that I grew as an artist. So...yes, I am Driven. You can be driven too! What are you passionate about? Skiing, crochet, painting? Committing yourself to a regular practice schedule will increase your skills. Try just 30 minutes a day, and you'll be surprised where that might lead. Don't think you have the time? What about not watching Netflix at night? What can you give up that does not feed your passion, that will give you time to feed your passion? The problem is that those things are often the first things to be put on the back burner when something "more important" comes along. Shouldn't your passion be just as important as anything else? It feeds your soul.
My first early morning painting this summer was at the boat launch at the open space in Traverse City, Michigan. I arrived bright and early at 7am. The sun had come up but was still low on the horizon. The clouds formed a V-shaped pattern and the atmosphere and colors in the distance glowed a cool yellow. The flies were out and about. As I set up my gear along the break wall, dozens of small fish jumped out of the water to eat the flies. The splash of the fish and the morning silence enveloped me as I started my first painting. Only a few people were out and about, walking their dogs or taking a morning jog. The smell of the freshwater wakes up the senses and brings about a renewed hope for another beautiful day in Northern Michigan. A small boat jetted by quickly and I was able to capture an image of it on my phone. As I worked my sole focus was the scene before me and getting it down in the next hour. After an hour the light would change so drastically and the scene before me would look nothing like it did currently. As I started to paint the boat into the image, a man walking his dog stopped to look at the painting. He reminisced about being artistic in high school and as he walked away he uttered, “I really should do some painting.” As I was putting my finishing touches on the painting another man walked over to see my painting and talk to me about my artwork. As it turned out he was a local radio personality, and we had a good conversation about art and photography. As it happens he is avid photographer and sells his work. We shook hands, and he walked away his shoes echoing in the distance. My thoughts of our conversation took hold and I went back to the painting, putting a few final touches before packing up my supplies. This morning is ingrained into my conscious. This snapshot of a moment in time is reinforced by the product of the painting. Time stood still and the memory of the painting will not soon be forgotten. Each painting recalls a moment of time. Some relaxing, some anxious, some funny, some peaceful, some beautiful, and some unnerving. But each moment is a slice of life. A life of painting in Northern Michigan.
This summer I have had a great time getting outside when I can and painting en plein air. Recently, a student in a workshop asked me, do you find that people come over and ask you a lot of questions? There are a couple of other questions/meanings lurking behind that question. One: is it uncomfortable for you to paint in public? Secondly, do people interrupt your process, and wouldn't you rather that they just leave you alone? My work has evolved, and I have started to move my work into public view through galleries and online forums. I have been able to receive feedback from others, and the confidence in my own work has grown. So the next challenge in my own artistic journey was to start to enter plein air competitions and see what it was like to paint outside. My first experience in Leland was a bit humbling. I lugged tons of gear (three trips from my car), combatted lots of bugs on the beach, and had the sun glaring off of the bright white paper. The challenges were many! But it is that challenge that keeps me moving forward. It is that uncomfortable feeling that gets creativity moving--it isn't always this fluid and perfect thing. So to tackle the first question--do I feel uncomfortable performing my art in public? At first it is a little awkward (much like public speaking) but as you get used to it you get over it. I have gotten over the voices in my head that try to get me to think how others feel about me and my paintings. To tell you the truth, I couldn't care less. I am not outside painting to get noticed, and if they want to pick on me...go ahead! And nothing says that everyone has to like your artwork. It's my work and if they don't like it, so be it. Plein air forces you to stop thinking about what others think about you and your work and worry about the scene and painting right in front of you. In fact many times I am so focused on what I am painting that I forget to notice others around me, which is a little scary when it seems they just pop up out of nowhere. Second Idea: Do people interrupt your process and do you get a little cranky with this? Of course they interrupt. But mainly because they are curious, they want to see what you are doing and aren't usually accustomed to seeing an artist work. For me it is a chance to showcase not me, but the visual arts in our community, to advocate for art, and to make a statement that creating art is still alive in the 21st century. When people ask me questions I continue to work, but I never come off bothered... I answer and am pleasant to those around me. I also tell them that I don't mind if they watch me paint. When you paint plein air, visual art becomes less of a product and more of a performance. People see the process which provides them insight to a world that is usually behind a studio door. For me engaging with the public in this way is the fun of plein air painting. Next week I will be in Dexter, Michigan painting en plein air during their plein air festival. I will be posting to my facebook all week. Follow me on my page for updates. https://www.facebook.com/adamvanhoutenartist
This past week I attended a plein air workshop led by artist Mark Mehaffey at Interlochen Center for the Arts. It was a terrific workshop and I learned much from Mark's demonstrations, one-on-one instruction and casual conversations. I am excited to put all this new knowledge to work out in the field and in my studio. As I reflect on this experience I realize that I need to continue to put in what Mark terms "brush miles." I realize that I am at a point where I have learned an incredible amount about watercolor painting, and I will continue to learn for the rest of my life. But that knowledge and learning won't do me any good if I don't continue to paint. So, no matter how crazy life gets I am determined to keep up the secret of painting--- "Hard Work."
Another quote from Mark this week, "The only rules in painting are the ones you make for yourself." I really thought about this-- what rules am I adhering to that I should break or discard to move forward with my art? What new rules should I try out or make? Mark challenged me to make quick, loose, confident brush strokes in watercolor. I found that the shorter painting 20-30 minutes were a lot more fresh free, and very fun to paint. The ones I labored over more didn't really excite me. As I continue to plein air paint I would like my paintings to be free and loose, and this is one of those instances where putting a time limit on the painting process really helps.
I would highly recommend Mark Mehaffey as instructor to anyone interested in water media and/or plein air painting. I might just take the workshop a second time!
This painting entitled "Old Fashioned Selfie" took me about a month to complete. I spent at least 8 hours on just the pencil drawing of this image. It was a very slow and painstaking process, but I learned a lot about painting, myself and really pushed it to the limits with this one. During each painting session I took images in order to show how the painting evolved. Looking back on these images it is fun to see the work from first sketch to final painting.
Amazing things happen when two pigments are allowed to mingle and flow into each other. I term this "floating" colors. Really it is a wet-on-wet application of paint where two pigments are mixed while the paint is still wet.
This method takes a very delicate light touch and should not be overworked (brushed again-and-again) or the effect will be lost. For the above photograph I used Ultramarine deep and mixed it with water to get a coffee like consistency of paint. I did one brush stroke of the of this blue color. Then I allowed the pigment to slightly settle into the paper for a minute or two. Note: This pigment is a coursley ground granulating pigment. While the pigment was still wet I used a Quinacridone violet with a little less water than the blue (if you use more water there will be a watercolor bloom). I gently brushed this color into the wet ultramarine allowing the brush to just touch the paper and trying not to diturb the blue underneath. An interesting thing happens in that the finely ground pigement moves the granulating pigment. Again I stress this is only 2-3 brush strokes and I do not go over it or I disturb the paint and the way they "float" one on top of the other would be ruined. I just love the way watercolors mingle in this manner and every 2 pigments "float" a little differently depending on which is laid down first, along with the density and mixture of water. This is what makes a watercolor painting interesting! Give it a shot try floating your watercolor pigments and let me know how it works.
#4 Granulating Pigments
During the last three years I have learned that watercolorists love pigments and not just color choices (and there are many), but the special properties that these pigments hold and how they interact with the paper and other pigments.
One of the most amazing things watercolor does is called granulation. Granulation occurs when the powdered pigment is more coursely ground, and/or is also a heavy pigment. As you add water the pigment spreads out and when it is applied the pigment settles on the paper. Granulating pigments due to their weight and size, settle further down into the texture of the paper, producing granulation as seen in the photograph above. Granulating pigments create awesome textures in nature for bark, rocks and more! If you want to know which pigments are granulating check out Daniels Smiths website. You can actually choose "granulating" in a drop down menu and it will list any of it's 1600+ colors that give this texture. If you are interested in learning more about creating texture in watercolor I will be teaching a two evening class in August--more details to follow.
***Important items to note:
During my "college years" I painted with oils, thinning the colors with turpentine to get them to run and drip. Many people would say you thin your oils down so much why not just use watercolors? The fact was that I had tried watercolors a couple of times, and I didn't like them. My limited knowledge of the techniques, and my limited supply of tools gave me poor results. So I set them aside. After picking up watercolors again in 2010, I found them to be magnificent! I was now ready to let this be my medium, and I have put in a lot of time gaining new knowledge, and supplies to achieve a lot better results. So with this series of articles I would like to let everyone know why I love watercolors and what it is about them that makes them so spectacular.
Watercolors are resoluble! What exactly does this mean? Watercolors are made using the binder gum arabic. Gum arabic is able to dry and then be rewetted into a liquid form. Before painting I use a spray bottle and squirt my palette and colors allowing the water to soak into the colors for about 10-15 minutes. Personally I like the dry colors because #1 I can control the amount of paint on my brush. The more I swipe over the dryer paint with water on it the darker the color. When the paint is fresh from the tube you put your brush into the paint and you have no idea how much pigment you have on your brush. #2 No waste of paint--When the paint runs out on the palette I squeeze fresh paint and let it dry. When squeezing fresh paint I put a couple of drops of gum arabic into the paint and mix it with a palette knife. I find the extra gum arabic helps the paint when rewetting. Also, if I am going to paint a very deep dark area I will squeeze fresh paint and add just a little bit of water. The fresh paint will give you the deepest darkest value. Some watercolorist will say "Only use fresh paint!" But remember that is their way of working, be careful of those who think there is only ONE WAY. For me this is the way I prefer to work; it is producing some good work, and gives me a lot of flexibility. It is not the only way, but being able to rewet the colors after they dry is one reason I love watercolors! My colors are now ready for painting... off to have some fun!
The past three Wednesday evenings I taught a watercolor class at NMC with 8 enthusiastic adult students. In the past I have had students bring in their own photographs to work from, but I found it difficult to give meaningful instruction when one students is painting a portrait, another a boat and another a forest of trees. Each subject requires a little different handling and giving feedback to the students was much more difficult. The big change I made in this class was having everyone (including the instructor) paint the same scene. I chose an "old mission" scene at sunset because it gives a lot of opportunity to work with a broad range of values, textures, and lends itself to multiple techniques. Students were very receptive and as I was teaching I found that I could refer to my painting pinpointing how I was handling composition, color choices, and creating mood through values.
Students asked a lot of questions, and worked extremely hard on these paintings. In 3 evenings they saw what it takes to create a watercolor painting from start to finish. It is my hope that as they continue on their journey they will be able to take what they have learned and apply it to their own painting projects.
Thanks to all of these students who made for a really great class.
If you are interested in watercolor painting and don't really know how to start or what to do, I would love to see you in one of my classes!