Figures Moving in Light

There’s nothing more beautiful than the dynamic, lithe bodies of high-spirited children at play. Because I want to emphasize the lines of that movement, I dispense with the setting. Children playing tag or monkey-in-the-middle run with the same exuberance whether they’re in South Carolina or Michigan. Rather than spell out the context, I paint the forms and place them against the brightest light—which is the white of my favorite paper, Lanaquarelle (mold-made by Lana, of 100-percent cotton).

My early work in watercolor was fairly conventional: in the foreground were figures and in the background was the setting. I thought a background was obligatory. Once when I was taking a workshop with Robert E. Wood, he paused before my work: “You’ve got a foreground that’s great and you have a background that’s great, but they look as if they’ve been painted by two different artists.” So I endeavored to have the background and the foreground work in unison. Around the time I’d almost mastered integrating figure and ground, I took another workshop, this time with Glenn Bradshaw. As he stepped by my worktable, I said, in frustration, “I’d like to throw this damn background away.” His response was immediate and liberating: “Do it.”

If you’re painting a conventional composition that isn’t working, you can turn your attention to the background and work with it until it supports the foreground. But if you have dispensed with the background, it’s a different story. The figures must carry the entire painting. The bodies themselves—how they move or remain still—are the sources of interest. Negative spaces (made up of the white of the paper) become crucial. The negative spaces on the white paper must be interesting in shape as well. The overall pattern (the figures and the shapes of the white spaces) contributes to the mood. And it’s vital, when white is the background, to choose the colors carefully. The color of skin or hair, the color of a shirt or pair of shorts—no choice is insignificant. Each color has to have a presence at the same time it interacts with the others. This interaction can be soothing or startling, depending on whether your pictorial theme is calm or intense. You have to decide at the start what effect you want the picture to have.

Cathy Johnson is a contributing editor for Watercolor Magic, The Artist’s Magazine and Country Living. She’s written 22 books, and is currently working on a book on using watercolor pencils for North Light Books.

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