Studio Views: Pen, Ink, Watercolor, Repeat

locomotive Studio Views: Pen, Ink, Watercolor, RepeatI began my illustration career with black and white work. I was much more of a drawer than a painter, much more comfortable with line than with color. One of the things that attracted me to the combination of pen-and-ink and watercolor back then was that watercolor’s transparency allowed me to create color pieces while still working primarily as a drawer. It allowed me simply to color a drawing rather than to make a painting, is how it seemed.

I’m still probably more of a drawer than a painter, but with time and practice I’ve come to love watercolors not just for what they might help me avoid but for what they can do. I now especially enjoy those stretches of picture making — often involving smoke, clouds, or something moving at speed, blurring across the picture — in which the watercolor can most be itself, can bleed or pool or catch the tooth of the paper, can work and look like pigment on a surface.

And yet I never open the watercolor palette without being aware of the difficulties particular to the medium. Because it’s meant to be translucent on the paper, it’s hard to repaint or to cover completely a mistake in watercolor. Thus the right mark can ruin a picture if it ends up in the wrong place. (“Not the face, please not the face” is not just a plea in the movies.) The irreversible, semi-opaque quality of watercolor, and its tendency to run and to bleed, also make it easy for a painting to end up fussy, muddy, overworked. For these reasons many paintings that begin as final art end, sadly, as color studies. When this happens the only option is to start again, and sometimes again and again, and in this manner I spend a great deal of time and labor, all in the effort to create an impression of spontaneity and ease.

Such incidents can turn the mind to the idea of working digitally and, specifically, to Command-Z, the keyboard shortcut for that most magical of software functions: undo. Wouldn’t that be an easier life? Why not? Well, because I stare at screens too much already. And because I like painting and I like, at the end of an afternoon, to have made a thing. And because in truth I even like the particular difficulties of watercolor. There’s a balance to be sought in artwork between planning and spontaneity. Because of the difficulty in undoing or covering the unexpected in watercolor, when the unexpected occurs — and it always occurs — watercolor forces improvisation into the work. Often it’s at this moment that a painting becomes truly interesting for me. If I can just keep the thing on this side of another color study — if I can just stay on the tightrope — then the difficulties and challenges of watercolor (incidentally, the things about painting I was hoping to avoid when I took up the medium) will end up giving me the best parts of the painting, and often end up giving the painting its life.

From the March/April 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Illustration. Click on the tag Studio Views for more illustrators.

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Comments

  1. Brian’s thoughts on using watercolor resonate with my own experiences in painting. Watercolor is a medium where you look for those happy accidents and it is a tightrope because the wrong accident or wrong decision can destroy a painting. That’s what makes a successful painting such a joy and a miracle. I enjoy hearing that Brian’s loosely rendered, spontaneous looking illustrations are intensely labored over—my experience exactly. Thanks for an insightful article aimed at illustrators.

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