Making a Start

I do rough drafts of my paintings the way a writer does a rough draft of a story or poem. Confronting the white page or paper and creating ex nihilo (out of nothing) is terrifying. As soon as we’ve got something down, the task becomes easier—not creating, but revising. To try a “rough,” pretend you’re in one of my painting classes. For a lesson in painting whites, I arrange a cauliflower, a white bowl and white flowers on a white tablecloth. I set a timer to five minutes and tell you to paint—using a brush and no pencil—with a full palette. When the timer goes off, I rearrange the elements—maybe adding a white teddy bear and taking out the flowers. I set the timer to five minutes, and you paint again. We do this three or four times. You’re learning the importance of value and placement: you’re seeing the colors you can use to emphasize the predominant color, white. You’re overcoming your fear of the white paper. And your paintings begin to flow.

This method may remind you of life drawing classes where a model does one to five minute poses during which you draw like crazy. Working that quickly teaches eye-hand coordination, discernment of light and dark values, and fearlessness in facing white paper (with either a pencil or a brush). In my own painting, I feel free and exuberant when I’m doing my rough paintings. Part of my freedom comes from knowing I’m not going to keep them; I discard the roughs as soon as I’ve learned what I can from them. By the time I get to the actual painting and a fresh sheet of paper, I’ve worked out problems in tone and scale. The actual painting is a joy—pure pleasure. I don’t have to worry about making mistakes then: I’ve already made them!

“Working with synthetic paper and traditional watercolors, I feel I’ve been able to take the medium to a new level,” says George James. A Professor Emeritus of Art at California State University in Fullerton, he’s participated in numerous national and international exhibitions. Most recently, James garnered the Gold Medal in the 1999 American Watercolor Society Exhibition and the top award in the Louisiana Watercolor Society’s 1999 International Show. A signature member of the National Watercolor Society, he’s served on the board of directors three times, including a stint as president in 1995. His work has been featured in several publications, including the Winter 2000 issue of Watercolor Magic.

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