On a painting cruise in the Caribbean, Roy Robinson caught sight of this landscape when the ship docked in Montego Bay, Jamaica. He immediately carted his watercolor gear to the top deck (about five stories high) to take a stab at capturing the beautiful harbor scene. ?The day was overcast and there was a stiff breeze,? Robinson says. ?My paper was blowing away, the paints were flying off in the wind and my easel kept collapsing. It was plein air painting at its most challenging.?
Situations such as these can indeed be quite daunting, but they’re a great learning experience. Leaving the safety and comfort of the studio requires a new look at equipment and developing logical on-location working methods. Do you have a sturdy outdoor easel? Is the paper properly fastened and your equipment within reach? After all, this is your studio without walls, and Mother Nature is a willing model.
Of course, choosing exactly what to paint is quite a challenge itself. Robinson’s subject provided him with an excellent range of values to work with. The major white area of the boat is placed well for a focal point and then nicely balanced with smaller whites repeated throughout the painting. Blue is the dominant color, and so the temperature dominance is cool, with nonchallenging accents of warm in the red hull and elsewhere throughout. And compositionally, the foreground boat forms an excellent entrance into the painting.
?I painted in broad strokes, rapidly, in order to beat an approaching storm,? Robinson says. ?With no opportunity for retouching I retreated to the lower deck before the rain could dissolve my work.?
Art Principles At Work
Montego Bay is a small work and time was pressing. Yet some preparatory work will always help to clarify the scene and how to approach it. All it takes is a small sketch to roughly indicate value masses, shapes and gradations. Perhaps even a quick line drawing to recall some detail. This will then enable the artist to finish the scene in a more comfortable location.
Clarifying shapes. No matter how quick and direct the approach, in a representational painting of this kind items need to clearly explain themselves. For instance, I question the white umbrella shape in front of the blue hull. It’s a confusing silhouette: Is it indeed an umbrella? Could it be a shed roof instead?
Another confusing area is where the foreground boat adjoins the pier. A value alternation in that area would have helped tell the story. As it stands, the boat and pier are dark, forming one unclear shape. Since the pier is a ground plane and therefore receives the most light, it may have been better if that area had remained light against a darker outline of the boat. The addition of pilings would break the long, monotonous line there as well, as shown in my sketch at right. I also extended the boat’s mast so it forms a good overlap and ties the foreground to the background shapes.
Enhancing depth. Atmospheric perspective gives the impression of depth. So distant items can be represented with cooler and lighter colors, softer edges and less detail. When the same dark value is used in the foreground as well as the background, there’s a danger of destroying depth. And here, that makes me question the dark areas in the distant mountain as well as along the right edge of the painting. Again, we’re dealing with shape and value alternation. The blue hull is a good shape, but the dark area below it raises unnecessary questions.
To quote watercolorist Edgar Whitney, ?We are shape-makers, entertainers and symbol collectors.? Whitney also used to say during critiques that ?you cannot judge a shape you cannot see.? Robinson has done well with entertaining the viewer, simply with the selection of subject matter. More attention to shapes, alternating values and gradation would have increased the success of Montego Bay. Sometimes, especially when circumstances are extreme, a lot of good knowledge goes by the wayside. We know better, but in the heat of the battle ?
You are the most important ingredient for the success of your painting. You should be comfortable and have equipment that works for you. Try selecting a subject that has three major values plus accents of dark and white. Spend some time on preparation—sketching and thinking the subject through will help. Look at the shapes you’re putting down. Do they tell a story? Then squeeze out some fresh paint, jump in and have fun. Remember, you can’t learn from timidity.
About the Artist
Roy Robinson of Abita Springs, Louisiana, loves the intensity and luminosity of transparent watercolor. In his lifelong quest to ?make war against ugly,? he stays motivated by the opportunity to stumble onto new ideas, new subjects and new means of expression. ?Fight the habit of comparing your progress to the other guy’s progress,? he advises. ?When I was in art school, I easily could have been voted the student least likely to succeed. But I’ve derived enormous satisfaction from working at my art, and at age 80 I’m enjoying it more than ever.?
A winner of the Medal of Honor of the National Association of Women Artists and a Dolphin Fellow of the American Watercolor Society, Pat San Soucie says, “I’m a newspaper man’s daughter, so there’s almost always a story—but for me the story’s never linear; the painting?s never realistic.” San Soucie recently moved with her husband from New Jersey to Portland, Oregon. “We had begun married life in Eugene 45 years ago, but left to live in New York, Missouri and New Jersey. However, we never lost a fondness for the Oregon scene. I feel I just might grow up in this vast and energizing area because here everything—the mountains, the trees—grows tall.”