The Second in an Artist Daily Exclusive Series:
Masters of American Watercolor—Frank Eber
How did you become interested in watercolor?
I really didn’t get interested in it until about 15 years ago when I first saw a painting by Percy Gray. I had always associated watercolor with paintings of puppies in a basket, vignettes with lots of white paper, or something you’d see on a sign at a construction site. I couldn’t believe someone could paint like that in watercolor. A painting, like a real piece of art! Yes, I was very much part of the crowd who looks at watercolor as the “sketch medium”.
I basically educated myself in the medium, studying the 19th Century British watercolor scene, the California Scene painters and “the Barbizons of California” from the early 20th century. I was hooked on the medium’s natural strength to convey mood, atmosphere and a soft tonal feel. I was trained in oil and gouache; from gouache it was a small step to watercolor painting.
Who were the watercolor painters who inspired you most?
My heroes are Percy Gray and Marion Wachtel from the California Scene movement and Edward Harrison Compton. Later I was also inspired by Andrew Wyeth. I would also have to mention John Singer Sargent, of course!
I have to say that I was always more inspired by oil painters, like Corot, Compton, Zorn, Sargent or Carl von Marr. I have this fascination to paint watercolor just like an oil painter and I actually applied many oil painting techniques to my watercolor work. It’s nothing new, painters of the British watercolor movement did that too.
What do you look for—what attracts you most—when looking for potential subject matter?
Almost anything can be made into a painting. I do like bucolic scenes but I also do a lot of portraits and urban scenes. Still life subjects can be great too! It’s mostly about light and dark patterns, not so much about what it is! A painter once said, “A head is something you choose for the light to fall upon.” That goes for landscape painting also. A barn can look spectacular in the right light and super boring on a dull day! I also look for design elements. When painting the human figure I am attracted to emotion, expression, and gesture.
You have said that painting on location—en plein air—is the greatest teacher.
Can you elaborate?
Plein air painting teaches you to work under pressure and produce something. Anything. Distractions like changing light, flies, wind, traffic, and annoying onlookers will sharpen your ability to focus.
Painting outdoors helped me understand color and value better. There are very subtle color and value changes in nature that the camera has a hard time picking up. When you paint on location, you can see, smell, feel, and touch your subject matter. Some of that energy goes into the work.
Do you think there are some limitations to plein air painting?
Definitely. While what I said before is true, it is very hard to paint more thought-out, elaborate (not necessarily more detailed), or larger paintings outside. Changing light situations force you to make quick decisions that can be good, but are not always better. A quieter, undisturbed approach can yield a more elegant and sophisticated painting. Furthermore, extreme light conditions that only last minutes can only be done in the studio from photographic materials, i.e. a scene minutes before sunset etc.
What do you mean by looking at a scene with the eyes of a painter?
Painters see what objects and shapes do, that is how they interact in terms of light, value, color and design. Painters don’t care so much what it is, they only see what effect the light has on it. Non-artists see objects for what they are, i.e. a car, a tree or a building. They often do not even see the play of light and shadow. This also relates to the third question, regarding subject matter.
Do you think a painter can change—or edit—a scene too much when painting on location?
It’s easy to do. I have messed up many paintings like that. I think the key is to recognize what the scene is about, first and foremost. If you understand it, the editing process is not that hard. Since we are mostly dealing with too much information, the editing process must be swift and decisive, and support the vision and the story you’re telling but not take away from the essence of what is painted.
Changing a scene—rather than simply editing—is much more difficult and things can quickly go wrong. It’s very hard to make up different light. Once I wanted to paint the statue of Albrecht Dürer in Germany after seeing it in wonderful light. On painting day there was, of course, no sunlight and I hadn’t taken pictures. I tried to do it from memory but it came out looking wrong, somehow fake. I don’t know what it was. So changing a scene drastically is tricky business and I don’t recommend it. Making up a shadow is not so hard or changing certain colors a bit can sometimes enhance a scene, but I definitely stay away from major changes.
You have always stressed the importance of values and value patterns. Are they the keys—the starting points—for a good painting?
I guess you could call them starting points. The key to a good painting is a combination of many different things. Noticing the value pattern is certainly an important first step. We must first see something that stirs our artistic soul. To answer your question differently, I think the most important thing for a good painting is inspiration. We have to be inspired. That is a big, big deal! Without inspiration, we start going through the motions, painting the “same old, same old” and the art starts looking formulaic and boring. The artistic plateau would be when a painter goes around the world and produces the same-looking painting no matter where it is painted!
Do you make small value studies or preliminary color roughs?
I only do value studies if there’s something about a scene that I don’t fully understand or know how to resolve. That’s when a value study can really help. If you’re just starting out painting, I highly recommend them and we do them in my workshops also. I don’t do preliminary color roughs, I’d rather just paint a small painting instead.
Speaking of value studies: I found through teaching that there are a lot of students who can pull off a real nice value study in black and white, and completely fail to do a color version right after. That told me that value studies can only do so much and I started changing my teaching accordingly.
Many of your paintings feature complex subjects such as buildings and cars. How much preliminary drawing do you do?
The preliminary drawing is very much part of my painting process. Drawing is the soul of painting, everything depends on it. I enjoy the drawing part very much and some days it’s a gauge for me as to how the painting will go. That sounds strange but it is really true: If I am stiff and tentative during the drawing process, it will most likely carry on over to the painting! If my drawing is sluggish and insecure first, I really try to relax, shake my hand out and empty my head to calm down. Once I have nice line-work in pencil, I know I will paint well. Everything is connected. Like the saying goes, “It’s all in your head.”
That reminds me of another unfortunate thing I see a lot in students: they don’t actually believe they can paint well. They are controlled by fear, which is nothing but ego, right? You’re afraid you’re not good enough, etc., etc. The thing is, you can’t express yourself artistically if you’re afraid.
What are the biggest drawbacks of working from photos?
Not experiencing the scene in real life carries some problems with it. My goal in plein air painting is to always capture the mood of the scene, as much as possible. It’s hard to feel the mood in a photograph, without having been to the place. If you take the pictures yourself while on location, it is good and will be a big help when painting.
Other drawbacks are that the camera distorts the image, what I call the fisheye lens effect. This is especially tricky in urban scenes. If you’re standing on a street corner looking down the street, try holding your camera at eye level and compare the screen image to what your eyes see. The camera puts too much in it, even the stuff that’s ten feet to the right. I always make sure to zoom in and bring it closer to its “real size”, so to speak.
Another bad thing happens when you try to take pictures of tall buildings. It can’t be done! They end up looking like spiky triangles in the photograph!
Do you have some colors you rely on time after time—and others you try to avoid?
Sure! I always use all the colors in nature! Blues, reds, and yellows… oh, and earth tones! I am only half joking here!
Most of my bigger washes are a mix of primaries. I do use convenience colors like cobalt turquoise (the viridian in oil pigments) or ultramarine violet—basically secondary colors and mixes. For the primaries, I use cobalt blue, carmine, and verona gold ochre or ultramarine blue, magenta, and burnt sienna.
I stay clear of staining pigments like Prussian blue or anything that starts with “Thalo”. I always hear that I have a “limited palette” but I don’t think so. How is it limited when I use all primary and secondary colors?
What paper do you generally prefer?
I like the Arches block, 140lb, rough. I only wish they made blocks in more varied sizes. Regular Arches sheets are great too but they are definitely a different paper.
Do you have any thoughts about the future of watercolor?
Yes. I am concerned that there is such a small percentage of young people who are interested in watercolor. The large watercolor societies should focus more on obtaining young members. They should sponsor exhibitions featuring the work of young artists and offer scholarships to promising young artists working in watercolor. Also, the large watercolor societies should try to align themselves with the art programs of the universities in their immediate areas.
What is the best advice you can offer a young aspiring watercolor artist?
Advice? I could use some myself! Seriously, work hard on your craft! Learn how to draw well. Study painting, if not academically, at least at a school that teaches all the basics, i.e. drawing, perspective, anatomy, etc. Believe in yourself and your art. Don’t ask your family and friends for critiques. Don’t take yourself too seriously! It’s pigment on paper.
Do group shows and competitions when starting out. One-man shows are for established artists, not for someone who is beginning. Develop a thick skin. Get ready to deal with rejection, petty fellow artists, jealousy, and envy. Oh, and remember this one: People will tell you what you want to hear.
Often it’s who you know and how well-connected you are that can make all the difference. Be aware of the realities: The Western world has little regard for the watercolor medium. Many galleries will not accept watercolors. Watercolors will not fetch as much as oil paintings. Jurors usually don’t award watercolors.
Remember, the greatest artists remain students all their lives. Make it about creating art, painting is priority. Everything else comes after. And read that again!
Frank Eber was born in Europe and is a full-time professional watercolor artist living in California. Frank has painted throughout Europe and America. He is a signature member of the American Watercolor Society, the National watercolor Society, the Transparent Watercolor Society of America and Watercolor West. Frank teaches and conducts workshops and demonstrations on both national and international levels.