The Watercolor Crystal Ball
by Tom Hoffmann
To avoid getting painted into a corner, watercolor artists need to develop the skill of seeing a couple of layers ahead of themselves. I usually paint the darks last, for example, but I still need to know right from the start roughly what the final layer will look like if I want to understand its role in the big picture. Basically, I’m asking myself, “How will what I’m doing now be affected by what comes later?”
'Most Used Set' Colors
- Naples Yellow
- Lemon Yellow
- Quinacridone Gold
- Transparent Pyrrol Orange
- Quinacridone Red
- Carbazole Violet
- Cobalt Blue
- Phthalo Blue (RS)
- Indanthrone Blue
- Green Gold
Many of the scenes that attract me involve a powerful pattern of darks and lights, in which the darks do much of the work of describing the content. In pictures like this market scene from Puerto Escondido, for example, most of the individual forms are given their final defi nition by the darks. Until those darks go down, there is very little in place to tell the story. To me, this is good news, since it means I don’t have to be very careful in the earlier stages. Theoretically, I can let go of control, giving the paint lots of room to show off its fluidity and transparency, while trusting that the final layer will pull the whole thing together.
To get a good sense of how much of the narrative content of the scene will be carried by the darks, it helps to isolate them. Working from photos, especially digital images, it is relatively easy to separate the darks from the lights and middle values that precede them, revealing how much work they do on their own. Squinting also helps, since it tends to round everything up to black or down to white.
Try squinting hard at the market image. Both the top and the bottom of the picture plane are significantly darker than the middle—so much so that we can begin to imagine how apparent the content would be even if all those lights were just white paper.
Can you picture the pattern that the darks would make by themselves? Here’s a digitally altered version that reduces everything to either black or white.
Even abstracted to this extent, it is still easy to recognize the content. Th is image could almost stand alone. In fact, the darks tell so much of the story that any information that comes earlier could be applied very casually. To test this, I made a very loose version of just the lights and middle values.
Compared to the picture of the darks only, this image does not give the viewer much to go on. Th ere is no space or light. In fact, there is nothing at all recognizable as content. Let’s see if adding the darks makes this seemingly random collection of strokes meaningful.
If you are painting from life, you probably won’t have the luxury of manipulating an image digitally, but making a quick study of just the darks will go a long way toward revealing their role in the painting. Knowing in advance when you need to be careful and when you can be carefree keeps the painting from becoming specific prematurely. Why restrain the paint if you don’t have to?
Visit Tom at www.hoffmannwatercolors.com