James Toogood: Behind the Scenes

Weber’s (watercolor, 14-1/2×21)

I build my watercolors around contemporary life, and I find that today?s urban and suburban environments provide landscape scenes that are just as inspiring as those found in nature. Although the ordinary places and situations that make up these scenes are often overlooked, I believe that virtually any of them can be a suitable subject for a painting. The trick lies in finding a way to make the painting interesting. To that end, I focus first on developing a strong composition, then use light, color and texture to bring my paintings to life.

  • Format. Certain subjects often lend themselves to one format or another?either horizontal or vertical. Many artists automatically use a horizontal format in landscape painting and ignore the benefits of a vertical format. This can be a mistake. For example, in some alley scenes, the elements dictate a vertical format. Trying to force that type of scene into a horizontal format would make the composition appear unbalanced.
  • Balance. Visual balance in a painting is seldom symmetrical. Rather, it?s usually a balance of relative weights where different points of interest move your eye through the composition. Size, shape, value and color all have an effect on visual balance. It?s important to maintain balance in a painting?too much of one thing or too little of another can throw off the balance of your painting.

Cranberry Harvest (watercolor, 15-1/2×29)

When I?ve settled on a composition, I turn my attention to light, color and texture. I like to depict various types of light under various types of circumstances?natural light, artificial light and reflective light. I often use light to create a specific mood or to influence the color in one way or another?to brighten or subdue it.

To get the type of rich color I?m after, I play up the transparent nature of watercolor. In particular, I capitalize on the way light can pass through many layers of paint, hit the paper and bounce back out again. When handled properly, this characteristic gives watercolor its special luminosity and allows you to mix the paint both physically and optically.

Ross Merrill is chief of conservation at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

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