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The Seventh in an Artist Daily Exclusive Series:
Masters of American Watercolor
Monika, I understand you are a native of Warsaw. Were you educated in Poland?
Yes, I was born and raised in Warsaw, Poland and I graduated from the University of Warsaw where I studied Biology and then received a Master’s Degree in Animal Physiology.
When did you first become seriously interested in drawing and painting?
My only prior art education included basic art classes that I took in elementary and high school. In college we were required to make detailed, accurate drawings/sketches of the tissues and cells that we saw under our microscopes. I always enjoyed drawing but it was just for fun. I started painting when I came to the States. It was actually my husband, who encouraged me to take art classes after seeing some of my drawings. I registered for a class at our local art center and I remember thinking that drawing sounds great but there is no way that I will ever paint. For my first class I showed up with a large supply of charcoal and pencils and to my surprise everyone in this class was painting watercolors! I spent my first class drawing but I was very intrigued and decided to give watercolor a try.
You’ve said that with watercolor it was “love at first brush stroke.” Please, tell us more!
Yes, I was definitely hooked from the very first time I tried it. I really loved the transparency, luminosity and spontaneity of watercolor. I painted 10 hours a day, every day trying to figure out how to work with this medium. It was frustrating at times but also very rewarding. I felt like there was no going back once I got the “taste” of watercolor. I’ve been painting with watercolor for over 22 years and I love it. I can’t even imagine not painting, there is just no other medium like it. My style and technique has changed over the years and it’s still changing and evolving. I’m still learning. I also participated in a variety of workshops, so I could learn and experience as many techniques and approaches as possible—from very loose, to abstract, to collage and realistic. I love learning new things and since every painting is different, I’m faced with new challenges each time. I also love the versatility of watercolor—there are so many styles and techniques and so many exciting projects to try!
Who were the watercolor artists who inspired you most?
There are quite a few of them. First, when I was just taking my first steps in watercolor painting, I wanted to explore as much as possible about the medium and started collecting books and magazines. The very first books I bought were “John Pike Paints Watercolors” by John Pike, “How to Make a Painting” by Irving Shapiro and “Painting Watercolor Florals That Glow” by Jan Kunz, which were all very inspirational, informative and helpful.
I really admire Andrew Wyeth, Anders Zorn, John Singer Sargent, and close to my heart—Polish watercolor artist Julian Fałat. Fałat’s story is quite interesting: he was very poor and struggled a lot to get an art education. Since he couldn’t afford oil paints, he had to work with watercolors. Later, when he became a well known and recognized artist who could finally afford oils—he never gave up watercolors. I think I know why!
I frequently visit museums and art exhibits, and I am always inspired by the art displayed, regardless of the medium. Recently I was fortunate to visit the Vatican Museum, the Louvre, the Musee d’Orsay and of course I always visit art museums in Poland during my trips there.
You’ve said, “The common theme for all my paintings is light.” Can you tell us more about that?
I really like to paint a variety of subjects, and in every case I want to capture the illusion of light. I like the fact that a strong light source (especially sunlight) illuminates the forms and textures, makes them more pronounced, colors become more vivid and it makes objects look three-dimensional. Light will create beautiful reflections, shadows, contrasts and patterns—and establish the mood of the painting. It can also indicate the time of day or the season of the year. My goal is to create dramatic paintings. Without light and shadow contrast, I wouldn’t be able to accomplish that.
I understand you work from photos. How do you use photos to their best advantage?
Yes, most of the time I do work from photos. However, occasionally I do small studies from life. My paintings take a long time to complete, and working from photos is just more practical, especially when I travel. I always work from my own reference photos and I take lots of them. I really like photography as a medium as well, especially close-up. I always have my camera with me and keep an eye on my surroundings in case I spot something interesting!
Quite often I use several reference photographs to create one painting as I always take a lot of photos of my “object of interest” from various angles to help me better understand it. I do realize that a camera lens can create some distortions; however this can be corrected and photos can still offer a great reference material. My goal is not to copy the photo, but to create my own vision of the subject. When I paint, I constantly make changes: I move objects, make some of them more important and simplify or eliminate others.
What attracts you most when looking for potential subject matter?
It depends on the subject. For example, in some of my still life paintings I used objects that have a special meaning to me. The inspiration for my painting called “Memories” was my husband’s old camera, to which I added some of my old family photos. In other cases I incorporated crystal and other objects that I brought from Poland. Sometimes the subject matter finds itself: I will notice a beautiful plant and the sunlight coming through the leaves or petals, rusty doorknobs at an antique market, roots of a fallen tree, shiny motorcycle, and many many more. When I started painting, I realized that I became more aware of my surroundings, and I started noticing and appreciating things that sometimes get ignored. Painting has truly changed my everyday life outside of the art studio.
Your work is known for intense color and sharp contrast. Do you make preliminary value studies and color roughs?
I used to do value studies, but now I prefer to adjust the values and contrast as I paint. This approach gives me more freedom, and while I do a lot of planning before I start the painting, I prefer not be limited in this case. Initially, I always have an idea on how I want to approach the painting, what colors I’m going to use, what I’m going to focus on, etc., but this frequently changes when I start working. I would say that the painting will always dictate the next step. I don’t use any “recipes” and really enjoy exploring and experimenting.
When you start a picture, do you begin with a detailed pencil drawing?
Yes, I always do. It all starts with an idea and then figuring out the composition, values, colors and the whole process. I spend a considerable amount of time planning before I do the actual drawing, especially when I am working from several reference photos at one time. My drawings are initially very detailed but as soon as I paint the first washes, I erase (gently) the pencil lines. The first washes create a “map” that provides enough information for me to start adding more glazes and develop more details.
How do you achieve the rich, intense color in your paintings?
Many glazes! I develop colors and values gradually, by applying many layers of paint. Sometimes I work from light to dark and sometimes I start with darker values and layer lighter ones over them. This is all possible due to the transparent nature of watercolor. I still mix colors but layering them creates more depth. For this process it really helps to know the properties of the pigments: staining, non-staining, opaque, etc.
What paper do you generally prefer—brand, cold press, hot press etc.?
I use d’Arches 300 lb cold press or rough, depending on the subject. For example, if I’m going to paint some old rusty machinery, I will always reach for the rough surface. It will help me create the rich, three-dimensional texture. Also, using the 300 lb paper allows me to apply many layers of paint without having issues with lifting. D’Arches paper has been my favorite for the past 20 years.
Do you prepare your paper in any way—wetting it, stretching it, etc.?
I don’t stretch the 300 lb paper. I staple the sheet to a gatorboard, then tape it around the edges and it’s ready to go.
Do you have some colors you rely on—and others that you try to avoid?
I do have my favorite “staple colors” on my palette, like Cobalt Blue, Alizarin Crimson, Burnt Sienna, Burnt Umber, Quinacridone Gold, Quinacridone Burnt Orange, Winsor Blue, New Gamboge, Ultramarine Blue, Cadmium Red and a few others. But since I like to experiment, I will often reach into my drawer full of interesting colors (for example Jadeite Genuine or Scarlet Pyrrol) and incorporate one or two of them as well. This of course depends on the subject. I always avoid colors that are not lightfast. I check what pigments are used by the manufacturer. It’s also important to keep in mind that the name of the color does not ensure that the color will look exactly the same from every manufacturer. Manufacturers have their own formulas so it is very important to check what pigments were used.
Do you ever use black or opaque white?
I very rarely use black paint from the tube. If I do, I usually mix it with other colors. I prefer to layer and mix my own variations of black. I can make them warmer, cooler or more or less opaque. Typically, I don’t use opaque white, I prefer to preserve the white areas of the watercolor paper. If I absolutely have to use it, it will be usually on very small areas. Also, I occasionally enter my paintings into the Transparent Watercolor Society of America and Watercolor West, and using opaque white in these cases is not allowed. These particular organizations accept only watercolors painted in the transparent manner.
What is the best advice you can offer an aspiring watercolor artist?
I think it’s important to learn good basic skills and build a good foundation. Start with simple things, like making color charts, learn basic watercolor techniques, learn how to mix colors, etc. Watercolor will have to became your “best friend” and you will have to spend a lot of time with it and get to know it. Classes and workshops are a great opportunity to interact with other artists, learn and get inspired. However, keep in mind that classes and workshops will only last for a limited amount of time and you will still have to paint and practice a lot on your own. Learn as much as possible but don’t try to compare yourself to other artists or paint like them. Find something that works for you and build on that. Don’t get discouraged and keep learning—this is a journey that will last a lifetime and it will be very rewarding.
Monika Pate was born and raised in Warsaw, Poland and has a Master’s Degree from University of Warsaw. She works with transparent watercolor and is an award winning artist in national and international exhibitions throughout the United States. Monika is a signature member of the American Watercolor Society, National Watercolor Society, Transparent Watercolor Society of America, Watercolor Art Society—Houston (Elite Member), Texas Watercolor Society (Purple Sage Status), Louisiana Watercolor Society, Missouri Watercolor Society and Iowa Watercolor Society. She is also a juried member of the International Guild of Realism. Monika’s work has been featured in many magazines and books and is included in private and corporate collections in the United States, Poland and Germany.