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The Fifth in an Artist Daily Exclusive Series:
Masters of American Watercolor
How did you become interested in watercolor?
Back in the late 60s early 70s I attended Ringling School of Art. Watercolor was fluid, portable, spontaneous, and most of all it didn’t smell like turpentine.
Who were the watercolor artists who inspired you most?
Before so many books, videos, workshops in watercolor there was a visual divide between east and west coast watercolorists. It could be said that Andrew Wyeth was the big hitter in the east and Millard Sheets in the west. I admired both camps but was drawn more to the west coast influence as theirs was a world of color and light.
You have been teaching watercolor for over 30 years. How did you get started?
Back in ’83 I painted in the daytime and worked at JC Penneys at night to pay the bills. I had a friend who was president of the Southern Watercolor Society at that time. She asked me if I would drive from my home in Mobile, AL to Asheville, NC (about 500 miles) to do the painting demonstration at their annual meeting. I accepted. The demo went well and in the audience was Steve McCray who ran Springmaid Beach Watercolor Workshops in Myrtle Beach. The rest as they say is history. However it occurs to me that had I not accepted the demo invite and driven the 500 miles, I might still be working at JC Penneys!
What do you enjoy most about painting with watercolor?
Because watercolor is transparent it is the best medium to convey a sense of light.
I also enjoy painting on a slant, pre-wetting areas of the page and introducing color into color creating blended or granular washes, unique to watercolor.
You usually advise students to “loosen up”. What are the advantages of doing so?
The comment I hear more than any other in my workshop travels around the country is, “I need to loosen up.” No one ever says, “I need to tighten up.” When we handle the brush in a personal way we create a stroke that is uniquely ours, much like our signature. Also by softening and/or losing edges of shapes as we paint, those shapes become less cut out, hard-edged and in-focus. Through these adjustments the artist is able to create a looser and more personal statement.
Your work is noted for its strong design and color. Do you make small preliminary roughs and value studies?
I can’t stress enough the importance of value sketching. To me the goal of a value sketch isn’t to copy the lights and darks of the subject but to organize them. My value sketches are usually rough thoughts put down casually on location. That night I’ll enhance them while watching TV. I don’t think of my preliminary drawings as art so much as a visual exploration of possible ways to display the subject matter.
Do you work from sketches done on location, from photos or from both?
Both, but there’s nothing more fun than walking around with my sketchbook and pens capturing a particular moment on location.
You’ve said that you work with a computer for some preliminary work.
Can you elaborate on this?
In the past few years I have begun using a video camera on location and then back in the studio printing out 8×11 images on the computer. Wonderful instant reference; however the photographic image, no matter how good, can always be improved and better organized by going through the value sketching process.
You’ve also said that you use a mirror as an aid in your studio. Can you tell us how you use it?
I paint standing up using a French box easel on a table in my studio. On the studio wall, opposite my easel I have a large mirror. A hundred times in the painting process I’ll turn to look at the painting in the mirror. If the studio is 12’ across, I see the painting from 24’ and better yet, I see it in reverse. This abstract view almost always points out some color and/or design problem I wasn’t aware of at arm’s length from my easel.
Do you have some colors you rely on time after time—and others you try to avoid?
I’m a big believer in having my palette loaded with primary colors and then mixing the secondary’s and tertiaries from them. My color selections are concerned with value as well as temperature. Favorites include, Cerulean, Cobalt, Ultramarine (blues); Scarlett Lake, (Red Hot Momma), Cadmium Red, Rose Madder, Alizarin Crimson (reds); Lemon, Gamboge, Raw and Burnt Sienna (yellows).
I don’t avoid any color; however I caution students that Thalo blue, (aka. Winsor, Peacock, or Joe’s blue,) though beautiful, can be visually overpowering and doesn’t play well with its neighbors.
You’ve stated that you like to think of color in a “logical way”. Can you give us some of your thoughts on color?
I can still hear my early watercolor teacher, Robert E. Wood, question the class, “Is a limited palette limited?” By making one selection from each of the three primary colors and intermixing them to acquire the secondaries and tertiaries all colors mixed will be harmonious with the primary colors selected. Bob’s advice was, “Start with a limited palette and mix like crazy.” Once you’ve gotten comfortable using 3 primaries, you can then add a fourth, fifth and so on.
I also believe in the relationship of color and value. It is a truth that color visually dominates in the middle value range. Therefore if you want your painting to be color oriented a major portion of your painting should be painted somewhere between light and dark middle value.
What paper do you prefer—brand, cold press, hot press, etc.?
I used Arches 140# cold press paper for 40 years. A year ago I called to order paper and was told they were out of Arches cold press, but had Arches 140# rough available. I ordered the rough and have enjoyed the slight difference in surface ever since.
Do you prepare your paper in any way—wetting it, stretching it, etc.?
For many years I stretched my watercolor paper before I started painting; even so buckling occurred because some areas of the paper were rewet many times during the painting process and some areas not at all. Nowadays rather than stretching the paper in advance, once the painting is completed and thoroughly dried, I turn the painting face down on the board (which is on a slant of about 45 degrees on my easel), soak the back side with a large brush and water, wait 5 to 7 minutes for the page to relax, then stretch it by pulling it taut, clamping it to the board with bulldog clips and drying it methodically with a hairdryer. This process lays even a severely buckled page beautifully flat.
What is the best advice you can offer an aspiring watercolor artist?
It is imperative that you have a studio or painting space. An extra bedroom is fine, anyplace where you can just wash out your brushes and close the door until you resume work.
Equally important is a regular painting schedule. An hour or two a day is fine but those hours must be protected. If your friends or family call during your painting session tell them you’re in the middle of a wash and will call them back later. My family and friends are somewhat trainable and have learned to respect my painting schedule and work around it.
Don Andrews is a nationally known watercolor artist and teacher. He has conducted painting workshops throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, Europe and Africa for over 30 years. Don is an signature member and past board director of the American Watercolor Society. His paintings have received numerous awards in national watercolor competitions, including three awards from the American Watercolor Society, and two Best of Show awards from the New England Watercolor Society.