Sketches for the Rainy Season

I haven’t been doing a lot of sketches lately, instead working directly toward finished paintings. I had some downtime this week though, and a bit of rain, so I put a few things in my sketchbook.

Flowers and geta

Flowers and geta on my balcony.

Goldfish

Pet goldfish. They’re always hungry.

Hashi and Sake

Chopsticks and sake – things on the table.

Whiskey that still isn't opened.

Whiskey. A gift.

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Gifu Stroll – Gifu, Japan

GIfu Japan - Gifu Stroll

Gifu Stroll – Gifu, Japan

 

Gifu Stroll – Watercolor on Fabriano Artistico – 9.25 x 13.25

I recently took a trip to Nagoya, and while I was there stopped by Mitarashi in Gifu City to enjoy the old historic buildings, shops, ryokan and restaurants along the Nagara River. This painting is of a small path that wanders between the back of the buildings on the main street and the park. To the right, unseen in this painting, is a remarkable Japanese restaurant and art gallery which I also painted and will post shortly. It was a brilliant and scorching day, and nearly all of the women were using parasols and/or black UV hats and gloves.

Watercolor Lesson 3 – Papers

Pen on journal

This is part of my Watercolor Lessons series of posts, where I share personal experiences that I feel have not been sufficiently or succinctly covered elsewhere. If you’re interested only in the lessons and not my normal blog posts, you can easily select them in the categories box on the right. ”


Importance of  Good Papers

I’m going to tell you a little secret. While some watercolor instructors will tell you that they’ve seen many students do their best work on El Cheapo Brand watercolor paper, you want to start using the good stuff as soon as possible. I keep some cheap paper around for quick color studies or testing colors before I lay them down, but that’s it.

Benefits of good paper:

  • Colors will look more vibrant.
  • Paint will apply to the paper better and more evenly.
  • It just feels better to work on.
  • Paper will definitely change the way you paint, so it’s better to learn and become accustomed to good quality paper from the beginning.
  • The ladies love a man who knows the value of good paper.

There are many kinds of paper out there, and I’m not going to review them all. I’d suggest buying a sample pack from Cheap Joe’s and seeing what works well for you. When it comes right down to it, nothing I say can make that decision for you. What paper you use is a very personal choice, and probably one of the most important. I’ll talk about two kinds here which I love, but are quite different. Arches Aquarelle Rough and Fabriano Artistico Rough Extra White, both in 140 lb (300 gsm). Both are high quality professional papers.

Arches Watercolor Paper close-up

Arches paper has a beautiful surface texture.

Arches: Arches is a sexy paper. I absolutely love the texture, and the surface is quite durable. It allows for lifting and a fair amount of scrubbing. It’s very easy to lay down incredibly even washes, if you’re into that kind of thing. A negative point, in my opinion, is that it seems to really suck up the water. Maybe it’s just the way I work, but unless I really slop on a lot of paint and water, my brushes go dry much more quickly than on the Fabriano. Arches is considered by many to be the best of the best, and it’s easy to see why. It’s quite expensive, but worth the price. Up until recently, it was my go-to surface.

Fabriano Artistico Extra White

Fabriano Artistico Extra White Rough allows for incredibly vivid colors and interesting washes.

Fabriano Artistico Extra White: The manufacturer of this paper has been in the business since the 13th century, so you know they’re doing something right. This is what I use now. It has its drawbacks when compared to the Arches. It’s much softer and will handle neither scrubbing nor lifting well. Heck, even painting over an area too much will cause it to start to go “funny.” There are two reasons I use it. First, the colors seem to sit on top of the paper and are so incredibly bright, and with my style, this is important. I’ve tested it against the Aches, and when the painting is dry, the colors really “pop” more. The second point is a little more difficult to explain, but essentially, my washes tend to get these really cool looking runs and imperfections in them that I just love. It’s not a defect of the paper, but just the way it handles the paint. Lastly, it feels very comfortable and natural to me, and maybe that’s the most important thing. I just don’t struggle with it like with some other papers.

Preparing and Stretching

Some people will tell you to soak your paper in the bathtub, tape it to a board with butcher’s tape, sprinkle magic pixie dust on it, dance around naked under a full moon, and just do a whole lot of unnecessary work. I never do any of this (except for the naked moonlight dancing, but that’s unrelated). I tried it in the beginning, got sick of it, and quickly found the method below to be the most painless and offer great results.

Easy mounting tools

What you need.

Here’s what you need:

  • Watercolor paper
  • Artist’s masking tape
  • Water resistant board
  • Spray bottle
  • Foam brush
  • 5 minutes
Taping the paper

Step 1: Tape the paper to the board.

Step One: Using a very wide roll, tape the paper to the board. Go all the way around, and if your board is cut just slightly larger than the paper, you can wrap the tape over the edge of the board to give a little extra strength. Carefully press the edge of the tape into the paper so the paint doesn’t bleed underneath. I use a very thin tape and it works perfectly. Be careful! Not all masking tape is created equal, and some will tear the paper when you remove it, or let loose when it gets wet. Buy some and test it on a scrap piece of the paper you’ll be using.

Wetting the paper

Step 2: Wet the paper using the spray bottle.

Step Two: Spray a mist of water on your paper. Make it enough to bead and soak into the paper, but not so much that you could float the Titanic on it.

Remove excess water

Step 3: Push excess water off the edges of the paper with a foam brush.

Step Three: In even strokes, gently push the water off the edges of the paper using the foam brush. I do this almost immediately.

Relax! You're finished!

Step 4: Relax with a frosty beverage. Everybody loves apple juice.

Step Four: Have a frosty beverage and wait for it to dry. You’re done!

Okay, so why do we wet the paper and use the foam brush? Most papers will buckle, bubble and warp (see photos above) when they get wet making them difficult to paint on. Some of them, are really, really bad about this. It’s like painting on the rolling hills of, er, someplace hilly. However, once it dries, it won’t buckle again the next time it becomes wet, or at least not nearly so much. It’s already adjusted. So by doing this first, when you do paint on it, it will stay nice and flat.

In the beginning I mentioned that some watercolor teachers say their students often do their best work on cheap paper. Why do you think that is? Lack of inhibition. The students aren’t worried about screwing up their El Cheapo watercolor paper, and they just paint freely. When you take the step to the good stuff, don’t tighten up because it’s more expensive. Watercolor should not be painted rigidly. If you find yourself working that way unintentionally, step back, shake it off, maybe grab some scrap paper and throw down some color, and get back into the right frame of mind. The subject and your style should dictate how you paint, not the cost of the paper. If it does, you’re just going to screw it up anyway.

What paper do you use, and why? Love to hear your comments and suggestions, as I’m always trying out new things, too. Next time I’ll be talking very, very briefly about paint.

Tahoto Pagoda – Miyajima, Japan

Tohoto Pagoda in Miyajima - Japan

Tohoto Pagoda in Miyajima – Japan

 

Tahoto Pagoda, Miyajima Island, Hiroshima Prefecture, Japan

A new painting is in my gallery today. I painted a piece very similar to this when I first started in watercolor, and I wanted to come back and revisit it now. This is a view from outside the wall below the Tahoto pagoda and shrine area in Miyajima, Hiroshima. I don’t remember now what structure was behind me creating the strong sections of light and dark on the wall. I love Miyajima and hope to visit again soon and do some more painting. Here’s a little information from Miyajima Island’s official website:

Tahoto Pogada (Two-storied Pagoda)
Tahoto

Designated as a Specially Preserved Building on August 2, 1901.

Designated as a National Important Cultural Property on December 26, 1963.

The Tahoto pagoda is said to have been built in 1523. The Buddha of Medicine was worshipped here, but was moved to Daiganji Temple following the Meiji Restoration (1868).

The name of the pagoda was changed to Hozan Shrine in 1880, and the deified warlord Kato Kiyomasa was then worshipped here, while the building itself came under the jurisdiction of Itsukushima Shrine. In 1918,the spirit of Kato Kiyomasa was moved to Toyokuni Shrine, where he is worshipped to this day.

A particular architecture

The Tahoto pagoda exterior is traditionally Japanese, but various architectural styles can be seen in the pagoda’s details. For example, the Daibutsu (Great Buddha) style can be observed in the protruding ends, called kobushibana, of the horizontal bars that penetrate the structure’s vertical pillars. Another example is the Zen style applied to the daiwa, which are the beams connecting the tops of the pillars.

The kaerumata (frog lap) is a wooden support that resembles two open legs of a frog. Its function is to carry the weight of the upper beams of the structure. There is one kaerumata in the center under each of the lower eaves. These highly decorative parts are engraved with Sanskrit characters.

Watercolor Lesson 2 – Brushes

Pen on journal

This is part of my Watercolor Lessons series of posts, where I share personal experiences that I feel have not been sufficiently or succinctly covered elsewhere. If you’re interested only in the lessons and not my normal blog posts, you can easily select them in the categories box on the right. ”


 

If you’re anything like me, I was just chomping at the bit to buy some new watercolor brushes. You have a few different directions to go at this point, but they really come down to two things. Available cash, and the style factor we talk about in my first lesson (click here). There are of course many styles and methods, so please consider these two styles as generalizations.

Fast, Expressive, and Energetic Style Brushes

If you’re interested in working like Alvaro Castagnet or Joseph Zbukvic, i.e., quickly, splashing a lot of paint and water around and really slopping it on, there’s no real reason to go out and buy ultra expensive Kolinsky sables. You’re just going to destroy them. You’ll probably want to pick up a mixture of synthetics and squirrel. Synthetic brushes are quite inexpensive, generally have a nice feel when painting, and spring back well, but they don’t hold a lot of water and you’ll have to replace them from time to time. The squirrel brushes will hold a great deal of water (really, lots and lots) and have the added benefit of quite an expressive range of stroke size variation, so you don’t have to have so many brushes. A nice squirrel brush is usually very wide when you bear down on it, but has a fine tip. The drawbacks are that they don’t have any spring and are limp, and they tend to drop hairs. Even the fancy Isabeys. Not a big deal. You can just brush them away when the painting dries. I have cheaper and expensive squirrel brushes, and honestly, I don’t see much of a difference.

Here are some examples. In the pictures, the brushes are quite wet so you can see what they look like full. Note that different companies size their brushes differently, so you’ll have to do a little research when choosing the size you want if you are ordering online.

From top to bottom (shown wet): Remrandt/Royal Talens Series 114 #12, Isabey Squirrel Series 6234 #5, Jackson's Squirrel Series  828 #17

From top to bottom (shown wet): Remrandt/Royal Talens Series 114 #12, Isabey Squirrel Series 6234 #5, Jackson’s Squirrel Series 828 #17

Jackson’s Pure Squirrel Mop Brush series 828: These squirrel mop brushes are very nice quality and nearly identical to the Isabey except at the price point, which is much lower. They might use different hair or materials, but when painting, they work great. They are only available from Jackson’s Art Supply in Europe, but Jackson’s offers free shipping globally on brushes.

Isabey Kazan Squirrel Quill Mop Series 6234: A nice brush, but for the price, I’d stick with the Jackson’s or something less expensive.

Remrandt/Royal Talens Series 114 #12: While the other two brushes are good for laying down a wash, and I’ve seen many artists use them to paint with, I like this one the best for actual painting. I have a size #8 and a size #12 and with them, I could lay down washes or paint fine details due to their fine point, although for large washes, you’ll probably need something bigger. Not sure how available these are outside of Japan.

 

Traditional Style Brushes

From top to bottom (show wet): Winsor & Newton Artist #4, Isabey Series 6228 #8, DaVinci Maestro Series 35 #8, Escoda Travel Series 1210 #10, Escoda Series  1212 #12

From top to bottom (show wet): Winsor & Newton Artist #4, Isabey Series 6228 #8, Da Vinci Maestro Series 35 #8, Escoda Travel Series 1210 #10, Escoda Series 1212 #12

Same brushes as above seen from directly overhead for comparison.

Same brushes as above seen from directly overhead for comparison.

If you love the work of John Singer Sargent, Charles Reid, Andrew Wyeth, or more classical watercolor artists, you’ll want to invest in some Kolinsky sable brushes. These brushes will last decades, if not a lifetime, if properly taken care of. I’ll discuss that in a later lesson.

Escoda Kolinsky-Tajmyr Sable Round Series 1210 or 1212: These are my favorite brushes based on the price to quality ratio. They hold a nice amount of water (though not quite as much as the Isabey or Da Vinci), have a wonderful snap (better than the Isabey), and feel very good while painting. On top of that, though this isn’t important, they’re the prettiest of the brushes to look at. The 1210 and 1212 are essentially the same brush, but the 1210 is a travel brush that can fold into the handle for protection while out and about.

Da Vinci Maestro Kolinsky Tobolsky Red Sable Series 35: This is my favorite brush. It’s like painting with a fuzzy bunny rabbit wrapped in tissue paper and dipped in hair conditioner. And the best thing is it has a great big wide belly that holds a tremendous amount of water, but it tapers to a needle-like point, so you can use one brush for both washes and details. Unfortunately, this was the last brush I bought, so now I’m going to have to go out and buy more in sizes I already have just because I love them so much.  Notice I even bolded it?

Isabey Kolinsky Sable Series 6228: This is a very nice brush that points well and holds a good deal of water. It would be an easy brush to recommend, but at nearly the same price, I wouldn’t recommend it over the Da Vinci.

Winsor & Newton Series 7 (*not shown): Let me just say I don’t have one of these. When I first started looking into watercolor, I was told that the quality was decreasing, but they were still incredibly expensive. You’ll likely pay more than three times the amount of the other brushes I’ve listed. Still, I can’t speak from personal experience, so I thought I should mention them.

Winsor & Newton Artist Sable: This is a very inexpensive sable brush. I picked two of these up on sale for about ten dollars. One is small (#4), and one is a rigger, so I can’t really judge well how much paint they can hold. I will say that the #4 paints very well, has an excellent point and snap, but seems to go dry quickly. After I use it for a while, it gets better. I don’t know what kind of sable they use, and I’ve read mixed reviews on other sites. I rather like mine for small work were I don’t have to cover a large area. The point is excellent.

My recommendation:

If money is no object, try similar sizes in the brands I have listed above. Maybe go with a #6 in the Isabey, a #8 in the Da Vinci, and a #12 in the Escoda. Sky’s the limit? Try the Series 7 (and share some info my way). But lets face it, for most of us, money is and object, so if you’re just starting out and only want to invest in one serious brush, go with a Da Vinci Maestro #8. You can’t go wrong with either the Da Vinci, Isabey, or Escoda, but I think the Da Vinci is the best, so I recommend you start with one so you have a basis for comparison.

If you expect to lay down washes, pick up a large, inexpensive squirrel mop brush no matter which style you work in. I tend not to wash large areas at a time, so I rarely use them any more. Most instructors will tell you to always use the biggest brushes you can, to which I generally agree, but it’s not a rule without exception.

Pick up a rigger in maybe a #2, and you should buy a few small brushes for details, and don’t be afraid to use them. Just don’t go overboard. Big shapes are most important in watercolor. I find the Escodas in the small sizes work very well. American watercolorist Charles Reid recommends the Raphael 8404 series, which I haven’t tried yet. He says they hold the most water in the smaller sizes, but they’re quite expensive.

Where to buy:

With brushes, the most important thing is you buy from somewhere that has an easy return policy, or will let you try them out in the shop. Sometimes, no matter how good the brand, you get a brush that just isn’t ‘right.’ Maybe it’s limp, or it doesn’t point well or whatever. Don’t even muck around with it. Ask for a replacement.

Where I live the prices on watercolor brushes are ridiculous, so I import them from Europe or America. For brushes, I can highly recommend both Jackson’s Art Supplies (who ship brushes for free globally!) and Cheap Joe’s from personal experience. I’ve also heard good things about Dick Blick, but their shipping costs overseas are far too high. As a side note, I hold customer service in very high regards, and on the occasion I had to deal with Jackson’s, they were wonderful to work with. * Note: I am not affiliated with, nor do I receive any compensation, from the above companies or retailers. This is all based on personal experience.

Good luck! Feel free to drop any questions in the comments below, or share your own experiences.

 

Nara Temple – Next to the Falls

A small temple hidden in the forest. Nara, Japan

A small temple hidden in the forest. Nara, Japan

I found this small temple while walking along one of the many, many forested mountainside trails in Nara. Beside it was a small waterfall cascading down to a pool where the monks stand and let the water flow over them from above to purify themselves. In front of the building is a large stone with very old Japanese script. You can see the stone (but there’s a tree blocking the writing), in the pictures below. There was nobody else around, and I had such a serene, peaceful feeling while I was there.

Looking down at the pool from the building in the painting.

Looking down at the pool from the building in the painting.

 

Looking up at the small waterfall, you can make out the building and stone I painted.

Looking up at the small waterfall, you can make out the building and stone I painted.

Watercolor Lessons 1 – Intro and Style

Pen on journal

Watercolor – Lesson 1: Style

I’ve decided to write down a few notes and tips on what I’ve learned, often the hard way, about watercolor. My hope is that it will be helpful to others as they begin their journey into this compelling and challenging medium. I intend to keep each post as short as possible so you don’t have to wade through a lot of nonsense to get to the meat. I’m not going to go into the nitty gritty details of how to paint watercolor. There are plenty of great resources for that. Instead I’m going to give you personal experiences and insights into things that I feel have not been sufficiently or succinctly covered elsewhere. If you’re interested only in the lessons and not my normal blog posts, you can search for them by category on the right. This first one is going to be a little more long winded.

A brief history of me:

I’ve been painting for twenty years and change, but up until the last six or seven, I’ve worked almost exclusively in oils, with a little acrylic and computer on the side. I’ve sketched in watercolor from time to time, but it wasn’t really a medium I focused on. This is unfortunate, because now I adore it. When I first started, I scoured the internet, comparing supplies and trying to figure out the best way to get set up. That’s where I’m going to start. Materials. Or, should I say…

Style: The Horse Before the Cart.

This is huge, something most sites and books don’t discuss, and will determine all the factors to follow, including what you’ll buy to get set up. The style in which you work with watercolor will determine the supplies you use. Far more so than in other mediums. Now, I know what you’re thinking:

Craig, I’m new at this. I have no idea what style I’ll work in!

I understand, but here’s what I recommend. Look at books and websites and find artists that make art that really moves you. When I first started, I loved the often dark, always mysterious, almost oil like work of modern artists like Alvaro Castagnet, Joseph Zbukvic, Dusand Jukaric and Thomas W. Schaller.

But here’s the kicker, and it’s really important in the quest to finding your own style. What you love, and the way you work, are not always one and the same. I remember when I was a young student at the Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida, I had done an en plein air oil painting that my teacher liked but wasn’t what I wanted in my work. She told me that one of the biggest mistakes artists often make is to fight what comes naturally.

Brilliant. Of course, I promptly ignored this advice for a good ten years and struggled on trying to make what I was inspired by, but I’ve come to realize how wonderful that simple advice was. Once you let go, it’s like the proverbial weight from the shoulders. Don’t fall so in love with a style or a type of work that you think you have to do it yourself. It’s okay to love something, and just look at it. If you love a style, by all means try to work that way, but if you find yourself naturally going a different direction, then don’t fight it.

You are, however, going to have to buy materials. In the next post, we’ll look at the style you like and talk about matching some brushes, papers, and a setup to the way you want to work.

 

Watercolor: Takayama Bamboo Garden and Museum (Takayama Chikurinn-en)

 

Takayama Bamboo Garden and Museum in Nara, Japan

Takayama Bamboo Garden and Museum in Nara, Japan

Bamboo Park in Nara - A nice place to work.

A nice shady place to work.

 

Spent an enjoyable morning at the Takayama Bamboo Garden in Nara last week. A tiny little place, but there was a nice pavilion next to a stream with a Japanese stone lantern. Above this area is a little pond filled with koi. I may have to go back and try to paint that one afternoon in the near future.

Ballerinas

 

Iris and Her Pupil - Watercolor

Iris and Her Pupil

 

Ballerina Waiting

Ballerina Waiting

Here are a couple of small, quick studies I took from some old photographs. I’m planning a full sized painting based on the first one… eventually.