When Everything Goes Right

Annie Strack On Where Her Masterpieces Come From

There is no better feeling than when everything falls into place. With artistic and creative pursuits that feeling can feel particularly sweet — especially if the journey has had a lot of ups and downs, twists and turns. Here, watercolor artist Annie Strack discusses how it feels when everything goes right and how you get there. Alongside her, we delve into a few such favorite moments and delve into the surfaces, specifically, where these masterpieces “live” with discussions on methods and techniques of how they got there, one inspired stroke or mark at a time.

If you are ready to try your own hand at a watercolor masterpiece with a paper that could yield you the results you are after, then be sure to get a pair of free paper samples from Hahnemühle while supplies last!

Best paper for watercolor

Is it a myth?

When you ask Annie Strack about a time in the studio or sketching (an occasion big or small) when everything went right while she was painting she laughs out loud. “That never happens,” she says. “I make a lot of mistakes, and something always goes wrong. Sometimes it’s something really stupid, like using a staining color when I was planning to lift paint later. Or using a non-staining color under a glaze. Or not planning my values correctly, or not planning my composition well, the list goes on and on.”

Seen Better Days by Annie Strack, 20 x 14, watercolor on rough paper. This old ocean liner is tied up on the Delaware River on the south end of Philadelphia. Annie was drawn to the derelict nature of the abandoned ship and used rough paper to depict its peeling paint and uneven patterns of rust stains. She originally planned to make the sky look stormy, but accidentally used Indanthrene blue instead of Indigo blue and then couldn’t manipulate the staining color on the paper to depict the clouds and rain. So, she changed her lighting just enough to make the sky even darker and the shadows more intense and voila: a nocturne.

But she is never that upset about it because she has the experience to know that hiccups, accidents, and mistakes happen. But what is key when such a circumstance arises is Annie’s adaptability. “I change my plans constantly and my paintings evolve as I progress,” she says.

The results are that sometimes her painting ends up looking very different from her initial concepts. “For instance, I was painting a stormy sky as a background for a painting of an ocean liner, and I accidentally used a staining pigment to create my dark sky. I couldn’t lift the paint to depict the storm clouds and rain that I initially wanted, but I already had too much time invested in drawing the ship.”

What did she do?

“I changed my lighting and I made it a nocturne painting, instead. The resulting nocturne painting was way better than the stormy painting I had originally planned,” says Annie.

That adaptability and willingness to change her plans is what allows Annie to keep trucking on the path toward great art. But that doesn’t mean she throws out planning and preparation altogether.

The Right Way to Start

Annie always prepares her watercolor paintings with a very detailed drawing, sometimes spending two or three times the amount of time drawing than she does painting. She checks her drawing in the mirror, upside down, and reduced from a distance to ensure that she has a good composition and perspective before she ever starts painting.

Annie knows herself pretty well and that erasing and re-drawing a lot before she gets it right is key to her process. That is why a durable surface is so important to her.

Morning Hustle by Annie Strack, 9 x 12, watercolor on cold pressed paper. From the artist: “I started by masking out the bird and splattering a few drops of masking fluid in the background, and then painted the background wet into wet. I splattered paint to create a random effect, and flicked drops of water into it while it was damp to create some blooms. When it dried, I realized I had too much of a flat, even value for the entire background, so I re-wet the paper and lifted color from the top corners so that background values would fade away towards the edges of the paper. When, dry, I peeled off the masking fluid to paint the bird.”

Mistakes and How to Make Them

Yes, the best way to deal with mistakes is to try to avoid them. Annie always cautions students (and herself!) to take the time with each brushstroke, and to be careful to not overpaint or place the brush wrong.

She also manages errors by keeping a small piece of watercolor paper next to her palette and tests out her brushstrokes on it before applying the brush to her painting. Why? “I want to make sure I have the right ratio of water to pigment, and that I have the perfect amount of fluid on the brush to get the technique that I want,” she says. “I even mix colors on scrap watercolor paper, so I can see exactly how they will look on the painting. Even so, mistakes will happen. That’s why I like paper that has a lot of sizing – like those from Hahnemühle.” Quality surfaces like Hahnemühle Cézanne and Harmony papers allow Annie to lift and remove paint easier, and correct mistakes without damaging her surface.

“I also try to place every brushstroke deliberately,” says Annie. “People who watch me paint always think that I paint fast, and that my brushstrokes are quick and random. I may be fast, but every brushstroke is carefully thought out and planned.”

Old Man by Annie Strac, 9 x 12, watercolor on cold pressed paper. This painting was done during a plein air competition. Annie didn’t have any masking fluid with her, so she carefully drew the bird and then negative painted the background around him. When dry, she went on to paint the bird, and lifted paint to depict the lighter highlights in the dark feathers. She used a white gel pen to add a few brighter highlights and to draw the tiny white age lines on the bird’s head. She painted this on a block of watercolor paper, and the plein air stamp is on the face of the painting but close enough to the edge that it can be hidden under a mat. Annie always use blocks for painting en plein air because they are easier to work with on an easel than pieces of loose paper.

When to Stop

Annie always tries to stop just before she thinks she is done. “If I wait until I am done, I’ve gone too far.”

It’s easy to overpaint a watercolor painting, and over-working a painting ruins it every time. Many artists will try to paint more, thinking it will improve it, but Annie says that is rare and usually it only makes it worse.

The trick to knowing when a watercolor painting is done, is to stop — and well before you think it’s done. “I encourage my students to use the buddy system to keep an eye on the student next to them and to remind each other to stop early. The confidence to stop early on your own comes with experience, and it helps my students know when to stop when they practice that skill by looking at others in the room.”

The result is that students help each other see their work with fresh eyes, and that paintings that they think are nearly there are in fact well done.

As a painter in her own right, that means Annie doesn’t ever stop and think a painting is done but then has to go back. “Nope. Never. I used to do this a long time ago, but I haven’t done this in many years. I would let them sit for a week or two and get back to them to tweak them around a bit, but now, I know when I’m done and I stop – and I move on to the next one.”

Last Steps

Annie’s last steps with a painting that have nothing to do with actual painting revolve around applying her signature and documenting details about it. “I write the title and my name on the back of the painting  my name, and also the weight, surface, and name of the paper that I used,” she says. This latter attention to detail is because Annie uses a lot of different papers and this allows her to compare them later. It also gives her the opportunity to show her students how different papers work with a myriad of different types of painting techniques. For example, the Hahnemühle Cézanne and Harmony papers are two that Annie uses frequently because each has a different look and feel — unique properties that any watercolor artist could learn a lot from using in the studio.

Annie then photographs all her paintings and posts them to various social media sites, where most of them sell. A handful of paintings are set aside to enter into juried shows. “The competition is stiff, and I only enter my very best work,” confirms Annie. “These paintings get framed before they are shipped off to shows, but I don’t frame anything else – I prefer to sell my paintings unframed, as it is easier to ship them and customers can then frame them however they like. I only frame the paintings that are going into exhibitions.”

Reflecting on Surface

Thinking over the entire process of a painting, Annie confirms that her surface plays a major part in the success of a painting for her.

“I use less expensive papers for my classroom demonstrations, when I’m just demonstrating techniques and I’m not trying to create a great work of art. But for the larger, complex paintings that I create to enter juried shows, I use only the best quality papers available.”

A quality paper will perform well under heavy wet washes and hold it’s shape better. The surface will stand up to multiple layers of glazing and layering paint and will not wear through from rubbing or vigorous brushwork. A good paper has a generous amount of sizing in it, which keeps the paint and water from soaking through, but not so much that the sizing granulates or congeals on the surface.

Tips on Choosing a Surface

+Choose the weight and texture of the paper depending on size of the painting and the techniques you plan to use. For anything larger than a half sheet, use 300 pound paper. Anything lighter will want to buckle and that makes it difficult to paint upon.

+Use 300 pound on smaller paintings if you are planning to use a lot of water to create really wet washes or use wet into wet techniques.

+Heavier paper also has more texture than lighter papers, so if you really want the maximum amount of texture, Annie recommends using a heavier paper – 300 pound rough has substantially more texture than 140 pound rough. This is also true of all surfaces – 300 pound cold pressed always has a rougher texture than 140 pound cold pressed, and 300 pound hot pressed will not be as smooth as 140 pound hot pressed. Knowing these things makes it easier to choose the right weight and texture for each painting.

Annie recommends exploring tons of different surfaces, as she does, so that you know what you like and what will lead you to the kind of paintings you want to create. To help each artist discover what surface is right for them, Hahnemühle is offering a sample of Harmony and Cézanne paper to us while supplies last. Get your free samples now!

About the Artist

Annie Strack is a classically trained artist with extensive experience in many mediums. Her work and instruction have been featured in numerous magazines, including Art Calendar, The Artists Magazine, Watercolor Magazine, and House & Home among others. Annie’s paintings have received hundreds of awards. Her art is in over 1,000 collections worldwide. She is the author of The Artists Guide to Business & Marketing. She is a Signature Member of 13 international and national artist societies. Annie is an expert exhibit curator, art business consultant, and art show juror. She travels around the world to teach workshops. Annie is also the host of the popular television show Painting Seascapes in Watercolor, which is broadcast on over 190 television stations worldwide.

About Hahnemühle

Very few companies worldwide have as long a history as Hahnemühle. Founded in 1584 as a paper mill in South Lower Saxony’s Solling uplands, Hahnemühle has spent centuries as a customer-oriented, innovative manufacturer of papers for artists, technicians and scientists.

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