Krzysztof Kowalski’s work, Dripping Fragrance was one of 5635 entries to be shortlisted for the Jackson’s Painting Prize this year. In this work, brilliant, light drenched watercolour lilies cover the entire surface of the paper, and, like most of Krzysztof’s flower studies, they’re painted so up close it really does give you the feeling that you’ve stopped to smell the flowers. Here, he talks about his journey from beginning to paint with watercolour through to teaching how to do it. He also offers some practical techniques for watercolourists and shares his preferred materials.
Above image: Amethyst Iris, 2019, Krzysztof Kowalski, Watercolour on paper, 38.5 x 26 cm
Clare: Can you tell us about your artistic background/education?
Krzysztof: My education is not connected with art at all. I did two major degrees, the first one in Indonesian-Malaysian Philology (languages and cultures of Indonesia and Malaysia) and the second one in social readaptation. When it comes to art I’m completely self-taught and it has always been there in my life. In my free time I drew and painted with any tools I had. I also played on the piano which is my second passion, however, I never thought about studying art. I was born in a small town and the idea of being an artist and making a living from art was very distant and elusive. Nowadays I know it is possible, but I guess I needed to move to a bigger city and wait for the right moment to make the decision to start my career as an artist. The fun fact is that I actually started painting with watercolours in 2012 and I never thought I could teach watercolour painting one day. I launched my online school in January 2019. It was a very difficult, but the best decision in my life.
Clare: Where does a painting begin for you? Can you take us through your process?
Krzysztof: My painting process begins at the stage of taking a photo of my subject. An inspiration can come anywhere and anytime. It happens within seconds. Something catches my eyes or not. If it does, I create a possible painting in my imagination. At the stage of taking a photo I try to think about composition and tonal values. My favourite subject to paint is flowers. I have a huge collection of flower photos, but any other subject can draw my attention. Very often it’s a matter of the way light and shadows affect a subject.
I think the most important element of a painting is a wide range of tonal values. It allows you to create a painting with a strong eye-catching effect. If I capture in a photo that striking interplay between lights and darks it is very likely that one day I will create a painting based on that photo.
I used to draw a sketch freehand. Now I just print out my reference photo in the desired size and I use a lightpad to transfer the image onto watercolour paper. It saves so much time! I tend to transfer the main shapes and draw in the details freehand. After making a sketch, I stretch the paper: I wet the back and the front, staple it to my gator board and leave it to dry overnight.
Before I start painting I like to take a moment to analyze my reference photo. I think about any areas that should be masked out. I plan how to approach a painting, where I should start, which techniques would be best to use, in which order I should paint, which colours I should use. If there is a distinct division between the main shapes and the background, I most often mask out the main shapes and start from painting the background. Otherwise, I paint section by section, slowly building my painting as if I would do jigsaw puzzles.
I don’t have one strict method of painting, because each subject is different and requires a different approach. That’s why it’s important to plan beforehand how to tackle a painting. I know the techniques like wet on wet, wet on dry, dry brushing, lifting out. I know theory, how watercolours behave, how colours work with each other. I know my tools, I know what my brushes can do, so now I just have to use this knowledge to go through the process of painting and achieve the desired effect.
Knowing the theory and techniques is crucial. Many of my students are afraid to paint leaves, but feel very comfortable painting the petals. I always say that there is no difference between leaves, petals or anything else. Each subject can be painted using the same techniques. There are no magic tricks. It’s just a matter of putting the theory and techniques into practice. If you can paint a pink petal why couldn’t you paint a leaf? Imagine it’s a petal, but it’s green. Don’t think about the subject. Think about the techniques and colours you should use to get the effect. Observe and paint what you see.
Clare: What was the best piece of advice or the most helpful technique you learned when starting out with watercolour?
Krzysztof: Paper matters! When I started painting with watercolour I used… copy paper from my printer. It may sound weird, but I didn’t realise that there was special paper for watercolours. I bought my first watercolour paper in a local store and I obviously noticed a difference in my paintings. But still, my first blocks were made of cheap cellulose paper. I didn’t have much experience then and I thought it was good paper until I found paper made of 100% cotton. It was Canson Fontenay, unfortunately discontinued. What a difference! Since then I’ve been using only 100% cotton paper (mostly Arches cold pressed). The way paint behaves on this paper is incomparable with the ones made with cellulose. It was also a moment when I understood wet on wet technique, which in my opinion is the essential technique in watercolours and really worth mastering.
I’m also grateful to Susan Harrison-Tustain for her priming method. Basically it’s just one additional water layer, but it can make a huge difference. It’s especially useful for those who live in hot climates. This technique has many benefits, one of them is that paper stays wet longer.
Clare: What is your studio set up like? I imagine it to be very bright and full of flowers. Can you describe it to us?
Krzysztof: Well, surprise! My studio is actually a small desk in the corner of my tiny room with a very small window! Watercolour painting, unlike oil painting, doesn’t really require much space. Of course it’s not convenient as there’s not much space and I dream about my own big studio. I’m currently in the process of renovating my new home. One of the rooms will be arranged as my art studio with a much bigger desk, more space and even a place for my piano. No more packing all the tools away after each painting session, better light, big window, a balcony and much more storage for all art tools. I can’t wait!
Clare: Can you tell us about your online watercolour tutorials? How long have you been doing them? Where would you recommend someone start if they were interested in signing up?
Krzysztof: Somewhere around 2013, so a year after I started painting with watercolours, I recorded my first video and uploaded it to YouTube. It was a request from someone who wanted to see how I painted a dahlia. I received very positive feedback from people and requests for more videos. My first tutorials were available on my YouTube channel. They were without my voiceover and the video was poor quality, because I was still learning how to film correctly.
With time, my videos got better and someone suggested to me that I should sell my tutorials. It was back in 2017 when I started selling my tutorials on the Teachable platform. After some time I thought it was a bit too time-consuming to upload videos on four different platforms (YouTube, Teachable, my Polish and English website). I came up with an idea of having everything in one place and organising it somehow. That’s how my online school came to life in January 2019.
There are four membership plans in my school. I always suggest signing up for the free one first. It allows you to see what’s inside my school, you get access to my free content, including several new, free tutorials and many of my older videos. You get a chance to follow some of my tutorials so you can check whether you like my style of teaching or not. You also get access to our Facebook group, where you can share your art and exchange artworks, thoughts and experience with fellow members. There is also a Members Gallery where you can showcase publicly your paintings based on my tutorials.
Based on many requests some of my tutorials can be also purchased individually on Teachable.
Clare: Where do you get your source photography? Do you take your own photographs?
Krzysztof: I always try to take my own photos and use them as a reference. I feel more connected with a painting and I understand the subject better if I paint from my photos. I like to ride my bike to look for inspiration in the area I live. I always have my smartphone at hand ready to go. Every year I take thousands of photos and I organise them on my computer in folders.
Sometimes, however, it is impossible. If I would like to paint, let’s say, a flower endemic to north-eastern Australia, I would rather ask someone for permission to use a photo than going to Australia to take a picture. The same happens almost always if I wish to paint birds. In this instance I use photos taken by others. I often use websites like Pixabay, PaintMyPhoto, or Facebook groups with free reference photos for artists, but even if the photos are copyright free, I contact the owner to ask for a written permission to use them as a reference. Until now only one person didn’t allow me to do this. In most cases people are happy, sometimes even proud that someone found their photos interesting enough to paint.
Clare: What are your most important artist’s tools? Do you have any favourites?
Krzysztof: The most obvious ones are of course paper, paints and brushes. I try to use the best materials I can afford because I think, in watercolour painting, the quality of art tools really matters. I always use 100% cotton paper, mostly cold pressed. My favourite one is Arches, but I am also a fan of Fabriano Artistico and Winsor & Newton Professional. I buy blocks, rather than sheets, because they are more convenient.
My favourite brushes are round Silver Black Velvet – made with a blend of natural squirrel hair and black synthetics. They hold a lot of water, are excellent for wet in wet painting and they keep a very sharp point. I also use a scrubber brush a lot in my paintings for lifting out the paint or softening the edges. I can recommend Princeton SNAP! Series 9850 White Soft Synthetic Brush. I use a size 4.This brush has quite short hair and it lifts out the paint very gently, but precisely creating thin lines. For bigger paintings or bigger areas I use Winsor & Newton Galeria short flat bright (it has a very long handle). The bristles of this brush are very stiff when the brush is new but with time they become a bit softer. This brush is excellent for softening the edges.
I use professional grade paints, I tend to use single pigmented colours. Most of my paints are from Winsor & Newton brand. I’ve been painting with them for quite a long time and I’m very used to their colours. I’ve written an e-book about my colours and setting up a watercolour palette. It’s free, so if someone is interested you can find it here.
Besides these essentials there are many additional tools that are very helpful while painting. For applying masking fluid (Winsor & Newton, yellow tinged) I like to use a waterbrush filled with soapy water for bigger areas. For smaller areas, dots or lines I use a pen with a nib, a ruling pen or embossing tools. I like to use a gator board to support my paper. My favourite palette is Mijello with 33 wells. I keep all my favourite colours there. I don’t really use the lid to mix my colours. I prefer using porcelain plates of any kind. Porcelain is the best surface for mixing colours. I usually keep to water containers, one for clean water which I use to apply water glazes and one with dirty water where I rinse my brush.
Clare: How has the lockdown of the last few months affected your practice?
Krzysztof: I’m an introvert and I like to be alone so the lockdown itself wasn’t really a problem for me. I make a living from painting so I work from home anyway. However, I must admit that in the beginning it was pretty scary. I’m in the group of higher risk of developing COVID-19 and when it all began I was terrified. After a few days I stopped watching the news because I was not able to do anything calmly. However I had to pull myself together quickly, because I prepare new tutorials for my students every month. So I couldn’t just stop painting at all. It was a very difficult time also because I was in the process of renovating my new home (I still am actually). Due to the virus everything has been delayed or cancelled, so it’s been quite a stressful time. After some time, when I got used to the new situation, I even found a bit more time also for a personal project I’d had in my mind for a while. I finally painted Wayang Golek dolls, which was like a sentimental journey back to Indonesia where I lived for a year.
Clare: What are your art influences? Who are your favourite contemporary or historical artists and why?
Krzysztof: There is a wide range of artists representing very different styles of painting who I truly admire. Janet Whittle‘s book Painting Flowers and Plans was my first book about watercolour painting. Janet’s paintings have been a true inspiration for me from the very beginning. I love the way she composes her paintings, how natural they look. The balance between realism and artistry in her paintings is perfect. I learned a lot from her books and I think she’s played an important role in developing my style.
I have a tendency to paint details, I love details. I admire botanical artists and hyperrealist artists like for example Elaine Searle or Eric Christensen. I’m fascinated by the fact that with watercolours we can achieve a really realistic effect in a painting. Watercolour painting is usually associated with subtle, light and loose washes, but that’s not all that watercolours have to offer. Thierry Duval, Steve Hanks or Stanisław Żołądź show us that there is a different world of watercolours.
Having said that I must say that in my paintings I like to leave some room for my own interpretations. I like realism, but I also like to see that painting is a painting if that makes sense. Susan Harrison-Tustain, Susan Crouch, Marney Ward, Billy Showell, Anna Mason, Soon Y. Warren, Shirley Trevena, Marjolein Bastin, Ray Hendershot – the list goes on! I could look at their works for hours.
Clare: What makes a good day in the studio for you?
Krzysztof: Beautiful day outside, sun is shining, birds are singing, music in the background, endless coffee on the table. I’m quite a slow painter. Watercolour painting has taught me patience. I used to try to finish a painting in one day. Now I enjoy the process, it’s like meditation for me. I can spend days on one painting. I usually plan which part of a painting I’m going to paint. If I implement the plan, I have a feeling of time well spent. It’s important for me to paint when my thoughts and emotions are calm. Otherwise I can make too many mistakes in a painting and the result will not be satisfactory.
Clare: Where else can we see your work online or in the flesh?
Krzysztof: Last opportunity to see my paintings in person was back in 2016. My botanical paintings referring to Maria Sibylla Merian’s artwork were exhibited during the Museums at Night 2016 in the Gdańsk Library, an auxiliary scientific unit of the Polish Academy of Arts and Sciences in Gdańsk. After that I had very intense years, I finished my second major degree, I moved to Indonesia for a year and I had a break from art. I was planning an exhibition this year, but due to the virus I had to change my plans. Currently my paintings can be seen only online on my website and social media pages: