Grand Portraits in Watercolor 2

When I’m working on a painting—whether it’s a portrait, a still life, or a landscape, I try not to think about the subject but rather the combination of shapes that are being put together. One of the reasons it’s hard to create a good composition in a portrait is that you have so few shapes to begin with—principally the face. You have to see the exterior shapes and then you have to turn your attention to the interior shapes. You have to consider where the negative spaces are and where you can break up dark spaces with a shape of light. For example, in Mercy there was a boring, negative shape behind the head. I broke up this monotonous shape with shifts in color and value. I wanted these newly created shapes to be interesting but not too interesting: The viewer has to know what’s most important—where to look first and where to look second. Seeing and working with shapes also helps you integrate the subject with the ground so that the face won’t look cut-out or pasted on.

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), George Luks (1867-1933), and James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) were marvelous draftsmen who did admirable portraits in watercolor, but transparent watercolor, as a medium, has traditionally seemed more suited for portraying land- or seascapes: light, land, water and air. Portraits, especially portraits in oils, often seem to grow by accretion: The artist builds up the surface, implying contour and expression with successive strokes of color. In watercolor, it’s another story, especially, if you want to respect the liquid properties of the medium and paint wet-into-wet. You have to have a deft hand and a brave heart.

When you paint on wet paper you have to learn to gauge the amount of water in the paper as it dries. The wetter the paper, the more the paint will run unless you control the amount of water in your brush and the amount of pigment suspended in the water. I start out painting wet-into-wet, in a loose way; I work fast, flying by the seat of my pants. If the paper is drying too fast, I just pick up the bottom of the paper and wet the back. Because I want a “wet” look, the percentage of paint to water is important. It’s a matter of craft, as well as intuition.

I use dark, rich colors that sink into the paper. To know which colors will penetrate the surface, you have to have spent time getting to know your paints and the way paints interact. Some pigments are sedimentary (e.g., French ultramarine blue); they’re generally opaque in nature, often drying with a granular, textural quality. If you’re working wet-into-wet, sedimentary colors tend to stay where they’re placed, while staining colors like permanent rose and aureolin yellow tend to run before they sink into the paper. The art of watercolor is knowing what pigments can work well together in pairs. For example, if you mix a heavy, granular pigment such as manganese blue with a pigment whose particles are smaller (for instance, aureolin), you can get some wonderful effects. The lightweight pigment moves faster than the heavy pigment on wet paper. The lightweight paint creeps away from the heavier paint and can provide you with marvelous edges.

Contributing editor Mark Gottsegen is an associate professor of art at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and the author of The Painter’s Handbook (Watson-Guptill).

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