Florida Artist John Bowen increases his palette of colors and adds texture to his paintings by mixing zinc white gouache with his transparent watercolors.
by M. Stephen Doherty
Many watercolorists avoid using Chinese white or zinc white gouache with their transparent watercolors because they think they might appear to be lazy or breaking rules. But there are just as many artists who like expanding their range of creative options by changing the physical appearance of their paints with the addition of opaque white paints. For example, Burton Silverman wrote an entire book—Breaking the Rules of Watercolor (Watson-Guptill Publications, New York, New York)—exploring the benefits of adding body color, gouache, or zinc white to watercolors and applying the mixtures to hot-pressed board.
2002, watercolor and zinc
white gouache, 39 x 30.
Collection the artist.
John Bowen's award-winning paintings certainly demonstrate the options available to an artist who uses a combination of opaque and transparent paints. "Sometimes I paint with just transparent colors, but most of the time I see a distinct advantage to mixing zinc white gouache with the colors to create certain visual effects," he explains. "This allows me to paint light values over dark, adding strong textural effects that can't be created with just transparent colors.
"For example, I can create appropriate textures by scratching the watercolor paper with sandpaper, an X-acto knife, or a single-edge razor blade and then painting over those rough areas with a mixture of zinc white and watercolor paint," Bowen explains. "I might also apply the combination of paints with a Q-tip, spatter it from the tip of a toothbrush, or drop table salt into the wet paint. I also use drybrush techniques to add lines, speckles, and rough marks. I can then paint over the established texture with lighter colors or glazes of transparent color. It's fun to try a variety of techniques until I find the ones that enhance the appearance of a stone wall, marble column, metal trellis, brick façade, plank of wood, or rusted farm implement."
2005, watercolor and zinc
white gouache, 19 1/2 x 27.
Because the zinc white gouache adds such variety to the appearance of the paints, Bowen finds it easy to work with a limited palette of colors. "I have about 30 different colors I use at various times in my watercolor palette, but I try to keep it down to five or six tube colors on a particular painting," he explains. "I can use the paint right from the tube or adjust it with varying amounts of zinc white for my special effects. That provides variety while bringing harmony to the colors within a picture. I mix almost everything on the palette and not on the surface of the paper."
Bowen sometimes adjusts the appearance of these colors by adding Winsor & Newton's Granulation Medium, which causes the pigment to particulate and take on a mottled appearance. "Some colors, such as manganese blue, automatically particulate as they dry; but the Winsor & Newton medium can create a similar look with other colors. I've also used some of their other watercolor mediums to vary the final look of the paints.
|Vizcaya Garden 2005,
watercolor and zinc
white gouache, 20 x 38.
"I know all these effects can become gimmicks, but if they are used to achieve an artist's concept I think they have real value," Bowen explains. "I believe all these aids are out there to be used tastefully to create certain effects for different images, and practicing with them can create wonderful results."
Most of Bowen's paintings are created from photographs taken as he travels throughout his home state of Florida and around the United States. "I love painting scenes from small towns around Florida—especially in the Keys—and about 90 percent of my watercolors are of the state," he explains. "But I've also enjoyed painting scenes from New England and California. Amusingly, I won a prize in an exhibition in Colorado for a painting I did of Marin County, California."
Bowen uses an HB graphite pencil to draw the outlines of the major shapes either by projecting the photographs onto a sheet of 300-lb Arches rough watercolor paper with an Artograph projector or by looking at two or more photographs of the same location. If a scene is particularly complicated, he might first draw the image on a sheet of tracing paper, work it up, and then transfer it onto the watercolor paper; but in most cases he works directly on the painting surface. The watercolor paper is stapled onto a board and the edges are taped to create a white border around the edges.
2002, watercolor and zinc
white gouache, 43 x 31½.
On some occasions, Bowen will make a small color study of a subject to establish the most appropriate composition and palette of colors. Otherwise, he starts painting the largest shapes within the scene using washes of transparent color. "I almost always paint the sky first with a blend of wet-in-wet washes because that's usually my biggest concern," he explains. "If I spend too much time on the sky, it usually looks overworked, so I try to first determine what colors I want to use so I can execute it quickly and precisely. Then I jump around the picture bringing each section up to the same level of completion before I resolve any one area with detail.
"I'm somewhat impatient when I paint, so I let one area dry while I am working on another, and then I go back to it when it's ready for the next layer of color. If I'm uncertain what to do, I prop the painting up against a wall and look at it for a day or so until I can clearly identify what more needs to be done. I'll even write notes to myself about what I'm planning so I don't waste time when I start painting again. I often save those pages of notes because they can be useful when I'm painting another watercolor and want to remember how I achieved certain effects that proved to be appealing. That's particularly useful when the textures I created involved several steps and combinations of colors."
2005, watercolor and zinc
white gouache, 30 x 38.
Most of the paints Bowen uses are manufactured by Winsor & Newton, but he also uses some from Daniel Smith and Sennelier, including a Sennelier Chinese orange that is an excellent alternative to burnt sienna because of its brilliance. He uses mostly round synthetic-hair brushes, but he has a few larger flats (1/4", 1/2", 1", and 2") for applying washes and broad glazes of color. He even uses inexpensive housepainting brushes for applying the initial background washes of color.
As Bowen is working, he reviews a list of items that will help him create better paintings. "I have a tendency to get absorbed in the painting process, so I remind myself to pay attention to four important aspects of a good painting," he explains (see sidebar). "Composition has been so important to me throughout my career that I start thinking about it when I take the reference photographs, but it always helps to re-evaluate a scene when I'm translating it onto the watercolor paper."
|Bougainvillea on Fence
2003, watercolor and zinc
white gouache, 29 x 38.
Collection the artist.
During the course of painting, Bowen will apply several layers of wash to the paper, especially in the darker areas of the scene. "I prefer to build up the darks rather than apply heavy mixtures of color in one stroke," he explains. "That way I can layer several colors and develop a richer tone and, at the same time, avoid going too dark in value."
Painting is a solitary pursuit, but Bowen makes an effort to meet with other artists. "I studied with Diane Nance for two years and really got a lot out of her critiques as well as the comments from the other students," he explains. "I try to mingle with other artists whenever I can because I really enjoy their company and I learn a lot that I can take back to my studio."
About the Artist
The earliest influences on John Bowen's art career were his father, who drew in pen-and-ink and painted in oil and pastel; three art-instruction books written by Ted Kautzky; and his teacher at Irvington High School, Ludlow Thurston. Bowen's paintings have been exhibited in a number of galleries and art festivals, and they have won major awards in those competitions. He has also been invited to participate in several museum and university-gallery exhibitions. He is a signature member of both the Florida Watercolor Society and the Gold Coast Watercolor Society, and is associated with the International Society of Marine Painters and Allied Artists of America. For more information on Bowen, visit his website: www.johnbowenwatercolorist.com.
M. Stephen Doherty is the editor-in-chief of American Artist.