Watercolor portrait: Strength

Strength Watercolor on Arches #300 © 2014 Margaret Sloan
Watercolor on Arches #300
© 2014 Margaret Sloan


My thought while I painted this portrait at Ted Nuttall’s workshop at Kowana Valley Folk School and Lodge was “strength despite frailty.” This is of my mom. She’s been very ill through out the last year, but she still is strong enough to make dinner, work in the garden, and boss us all around. She’s also quite beautiful, and was pretty nice about posing for about 500 photographs for me.

I’m thinking that I maybe made another breakthrough at the workshop. I hope so. I’m liking what I’m doing. What a delightful week that was!

If you go back to this post, you can see the tiny abstract paintings that I found in this larger work. Can you tell where they were?

But now it’s back to getting ready for Open Studios. The first weekend is May 3 and 4!

Things learned and a few abstractions

Abstract 1
Abstract 1

Last week I lived beyond cell phone and internet reach as I  attended a week long workshop taught by watercolorist Ted Nuttall. As I expected, I learned so much (yes, the back of my head blew off a couple times!). Let me share just a few of the most important concepts I took away from this wonderful experience..

1. Slow down. No, I mean s-l-o-w d-o-w-n. I spent a lot of time thinking about my next brush stroke. Where should it go? What color should it be? How would it react with the other colors already on the paper? When I finally acted, it was with intention rather than panicked splashiness.

Abstract 2
Abstract 2

2. Think abstractly. This was probably the single most important concept I tried to internalize. I’ve been unhappy with my work lately, finding it a bit flat, and lacking the broken color and fine edges that make my head ring with internal music. By concentrating on making each small passage its own tiny abstract painting, (that of course, relates to the whole image) I was able to add interest and visual variety to otherwise flat passages.

Abstract 3
Abstract 3

3. Think color. I tend to get stuck in one single color: orangey-red flesh tone. But that’s not what a person looks like. Skin tones are made up of many different hues and chromas. By varying color, saturation, and value, the painting is not only more exciting, but more like life. So I went (a little) crazy with color, using combinations I don’t normally choose.

Abstract 4
Abstract 4

4. Be uncomfortable. I made a decision that every brush stroke I put down would make me uncomfortable. I not only walked a watercolor tight rope, but I bounced a bit on the artistic high wire.  Sometimes my brushstrokes set me teetering and wheeling, but after a bit of nail biting (and whining), I regained my balance and continued  painting. You know what? Those seemingly near disasters turned out to be the best parts of the painting.

My workshop painting is still not quite finished, so I’ll not post it yet, but I’ve cropped a few of the tiny abstract paintings that make up the whole. I find them quite lovely all by themselves.

The eyes have it

Painting is not all flow and happy splashing. There’s a fair amount of angst as well. Tears. Ranting. Tantrums sometimes ensue.

Especially when, after hours of work, the painting looks like this:

beginning of baby painting
Early photo of baby painting

I start to get a little nervous. Happy Baby now looks like  Zombie Baby (my apologies to babies and zombies everywhere.) But as someone once said, painting is an act of controlled panic.

My portrait teacher, Rob Anderson, taught me to put the eyes into a portrait last, or at least later, so that they don’t distract you from the rest of the face. I generally try to abide by that; I find that as I work on the surrounding face, I sometimes have to redraw the eyes a bit. But there comes a point when the lack of eyes is more distracting than not having eyes.

Even after more work and adding eyes, this painting still disturbs. My blood pressure and frustration level are rising.

beginning of baby painting
Beginning of painting, with eyes added

But when I finally put in the eyes, the painting began to lose some of the creep factor. But not all. I’m really getting worried that time, my most precious resource, has been frittered on a loser painting. I’m babbling and ranting at this point.

My fiddler, the best coach I have, said, “be quiet and forge ahead. If it’s ruined now, you’re not going to make it worse.”

So, after a few more hours of painting and public radio, my blood cortisol level has gone down as the painting begins to take shape.

baby painting
Unfinished watercolor on Arches #300 hot press
© Margaret Sloan 2014

There are still some things I’m unhappy about, like the yellow I just added to the face (the yellow is exaggerated by the photo, but not by much), but I’m not so worried about that. A cooler color layered transparently over that bright yellow will soften it, and the brightness will glow through the coolness.

Next: Finishing up.

Watercolor portrait

Watercolor portrait

Portrait of Norm
9″ x 12″
Watercolor on Arches #300 paper
© 2013 Margaret Sloan

This is the entire portrait—the face that belongs with the teeth in my tutorial.  (I’m posting this with permission from the client.)

This was a difficult portrait, but ultimately one that gave me great joy. The subject has been ill, and my job was to see through the illness to the warm, sparkling man underneath. Sometimes a painted portrait can capture something that the best camera can not. I was very pleased to present this to the family.

Watercolor portrait
Portrait of Norm detail
Click on picture for a larger version

Preparing for a watercolor painting

I’m planning a large painting—a full sheet of watercolor paper—of a figure. As eager as I am to start slopping paint around on such a large space, I know I”ll be happier if I first paint some smaller studies. I often make lots of studies before beginning a painting; with watercolor, it helps to know where you’re going.

Watercolor sketch of coat
Watercolor sketch of coat 8″ x 10″

The painting is based around an old coat of my mother’s. My grandmother made it in the 50s, and as a testament to my mother’s care and thoughtfulness with her things,  the coat is still like new. Getting the right red-orange color is difficult. It’s an unusual shade of red.

Watercolor figure sketch
Figure sketch in watercolor 10″ x 8″

I got my niece to pose for me in the garden and I sketched, took photos, and made color studies. She’s a lovely young woman and I wish she would be my model always, but sitting still for so long made her feet fall asleep. It’s hard work to be a model.

Watercolor painting of a young woman's face
Watercolor portrait study 7″ x 5″

This is much larger than it will be in the painting, but I couldn’t resist painting a close-up of her face.

Hungry for Yiddish; a Mitzvah Project

My work will be gracing the walls of the Subterranean Arthouse in Berkeley on December 13. I hope it will provide inspiration for these wonderful musicians, and joy to all the folks in attendance. For the next couple posts, I’ll be interviewing two of the singers in the show, founder Heather Klein and  Anthony Russell. So come back to learn more about the project!

Click on the poster to order tickets.

The mess and the makings

A new painting is taking shape, which means I’m making lots of color sketches at my little art desk. This is a shot of the mess and the makings.

I use a metal palette for nearly all my watercolor paintings, although sometimes I dip into a round plastic palette when I need a color that’s not in my metal palette. You can see by the stacks of yogurt containers that I eat a lot of Pavel’s yogurt.

These are a few of the studies I’ve made for this painting. The earlier ones don’t really look like anything, just blobs of color.  You can see that the Space Shuttle Endeavor is going to be part of this painting.

Don’t worry, the stained paper towel on the table has been used to mop up cadmium red and burnt sienna. It just looks like blood in the photo. Well, it looks like blood in real life too. While painting, I go through a lot of paper towels—Viva brand is my favorite—and they litter the floor around the easel. When I’m working on a particularly red-heavy painting, the drifts of  red-covered paper towels make the studio look like a scene from a Stephen King novel.

These two studies are my favorites. They will go together somehow. I’m still working that out.

And this is part of the final drawing. I spend a stupid amount of time on drawing—nearly 12 hours for this piece. But while I’m drawing, I’m also planning the painting, thinking about what I want to do. Where will I lose edges, where will I find them? How will I place the value pattern? How will I apply the paint?

I paint in my head many times before I ever put paintbrush to paper. I often dream about it in the early morning hours when I’m in that half-sleep waiting for the alarm to go off. Those are pleasant dreams, mostly, because watercolor wipes off easily in dreams.

First show!

Landscape Study of Nevada desert
© Margaret Sloan 2012
Watercolor on paper

If I’ve been absent from music parties, family functions, and the blogoshpere, it’s only because I’ve been preparing for a show. My first solo show! (You can read about it on Facebook here, although I’ll be posting more about it as the time draws near. Oh yes, you can bet I will.).

I’ve been painting my brushes ragged to complete a couple more paintings, but as usual, it’s a slow process, with many studies, and lots of time spent staring and pondering. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again, painting (for me) is not a relaxing weekend hobby. It’s Work.

Okay, I admit,  it’s work that I like to do, but that doesn’t mitigate the struggle of forcing my interior thoughts onto smooth white paper. It’s focused work, which means I have to take a break every couple hours and do something that’s not work, like cleaning the bathtub or doing the laundry. And yet, while I’m scrubbing, I’m still thinking about the painting, still considering colors, shapes, and brush strokes. While folding socks, I ruminate, talk to myself, and plan my next few passages.

The picture above is the landscape I’m putting into one of the paintings. Below, you’ll see a study for the man in the portrait. In my mind, he’s inseparable from the landscape where we met. When he’s finished I’ll tell you that story.