A roundup of full-of-life paintings by artists who use watercolor’s natural properties to their advantage.
These artists harness the natural properties of watercolor to depict people and animals on the move. Read about their tips and tricks for trying to control the drips, runs, and spatters, along with their attempts to harness the joy and freedom of the medium’s tendency toward entropy. Both have their place in this roundup of paintings full of life, motion, and movement.
Stephen Zhang’s Haircut
In Stephen Zhang’s Haircut, figures abound, although it’s not immediately apparent. The mother and daughter in the foreground dominate the scene, with the girl’s stillness emphasized by the mother’s working contrapposto. Upon closer inspection, the background vibrates with a movement of its own.
Two Kinds of Movement
“There are two kinds of movements in Haircut,” the artist says. “First is the literal movement, mainly represented by the mother who is cutting the hair. Her posture—the lines of her arm and jacket— create a visible tension in this otherwise stable composition.
The second movement is deliberately implied. On the back wall, the color blocks, value variations, and choppy brushstrokes create a dynamic and nonlinear patchwork; the horizontal and vertical lines function as stabilizing elements. “Overall, I intended for a flow to cascade from the top down to the bottom, like a waterfall, leading to the main character—the child,” Zhang says.
The purples, pinks, and oranges on the child’s barber cape, reflected on her face, are all tied into the background, rooting her in the scene. Although the color is quite saturated, it looks realistic from the careful placement and restraint, just as Zhang witnessed the scene. “I believe you can capture movement in both plein air and the studio,” he says. “I paint mostly in the studio; however, for me, it’s important to experience movement on location with observation and sketches and to document it with photography.”
Of course, not everything in Haircut was planned, and like most watercolorists, Zhang knows that’s a given going in. “The movement of the water and color isn’t entirely controllable,” he says. “One should be open to the spontaneous happenings and respond to the result accordingly. This also affects the movement of the painting.”
Charles Henry Rouse’s Little Italy Pizza Brigade
Charles Henry Rouse’s Little Italy Pizza Brigade is a study in contrasts. Colorful, modern figures walk in front of a black-and-white still background featuring an old world feel. The difference in styles makes the passersby appear more active.
A Crazy Idea
Rouse has received a lot of questions about this painting in particular. “I wish I could say it was genius,” he says. “I had the setting I liked, so all I had to do was find some interesting characters to populate the foreground.” He had planned to paint it in gritty color, as he had other New York scenes. “But this crazy idea sprang into my head that it would be even grittier in black and white with the primary subjects in color, as well as two different styles or techniques.”
Adding to the impact is the waiter, dressed in period style, inviting interest in the restaurant behind him. “A little old, a little new. A challenge, but great fun,” says Rouse.
Rouse maintains that the backgrounds of paintings are important in creating overall flow. Paint handling can make them an integral part of the mission to enhance a sense of movement around the paper. “Blur the background in varying degrees of soft- ness or fuzziness,” he says. “Watercolor, as well as acrylic, gouache and tempera, also can be drybrushed onto the surface with much more control than using transparent washes, creating a smoke-like haze to soften the color beneath the brushstrokes.”
Ali A. Aryan’s Crosswise No. 7
In Crosswise No. 7, the question isn’t where is there movement; the question is where is there stillness. Ali A. Aryan painted a scene layered with activity stemming from the subjects and lots of vertical and horizontal lines across the surface. “One of my interests and goals is to challenge myself to create something totally new and exciting,” says Aryan. “I often endeavor to avoid creating a work that feels flat or static. Movement, in general, leads the viewer’s eye around the painting instead of stopping it in a single place.”
Lines and Leashes
If a viewer were to try looking in a single place in Crosswise No. 7, his or her eye might fall somewhere on the dog walker or her small, leashed charges. Although the image is fragmented with layers of edges and color, the figure is arresting, painted with several carefully placed red lines on her hat and purse to integrate her with the background, which is also accented with red and orange lines. The eye is naturally drawn to the dogs as it moves from the subject’s head downward, toward the diagonal lines made by the leashes.
“I don’t consider myself a plein air painter,” says Aryan. “However, I do sketch my surroundings—objects, flowers, and especially figures. I’ve been fascinated with people’s daily lives for a long time, and attempt to capture their transitory moments and movements and anything that catches my attention. I like to disrupt the traditional way of composing an image, break the rules, and cross boundaries to present something new.”
Marnie Becker’s Communal Table
Small Abstract Shapes
“I was taught to use a larger brush by Ted Nuttall,” says Marnie Becker. “In this way, I avoid painting too tightly or getting involved with too much detail.” The artist painted Communal Table in this style, using small abstract shapes to compose a larger scene. The shapes make small shifts at the corner of a viewer’s eye, creating the illusion that the subjects really are carrying on at the dinner table in the familiar way friends and families do. “I chose to paint shapes rather than individual features,” she says. “For example, I accented the movement of the arms over hands and fingers. Although the arms and hands are suspended, their placement shows movement.”
Another trick Becker employs to make her figures more vibrant is using varied edges to her advantage. “For Communal Table,” she says, “I chose to edit the subjects into a softer, more abstract composition, which makes distinct edges blur or merge with each other. Even in the faces, the blurred shapes and dabs of paint suggest a sense of movement.”
A Vivid Palette
Another feature that stands out in Becker’s painting is the palette. It seems that each tiny abstract shape has its own color, combining with all the others to make for a dynamic and slightly more vivid-than-natural scene.
“I always underpaint figures with a red, yellow, and blue,” says Becker. “In Communal Table, I did this to connect the figures. The setting of this painting was indoors, and the light came from above, so it was a challenge to keep the painting warm, including the shadows. I chose a palette of warm colors, mainly yellows, siennas, and accents of mineral violet. The strong shadows under the plates confirm the lighting from above.”
Calvin Chua Cheng Koon’s Swing 1506
A Relaxed Mind
A lot is happening at once in Calvin Chua Cheng Koon’s joyful Swing 1506. Two girls fly through the air, clutching onto swing handles as one looks off to the side, indicating more activity happening away from the glance of curious viewers. That look acts like the winding country road in a landscape, drawing the viewer both in and out of the scene. The subjects’ purple shirts pop against a full spectrum of its half-complement, green, perfectly centering the girls’ activity. Blues, oranges, and pinks burst around the page. It’s a painting full of life. What’s Koon’s best tool to portray so much movement? Ironically, he says it’s “a relaxed mind.”
Koon isn’t immune to a good technique, though. Swing 1506 is layered with wash after wash, and was painted wet-into-wet, so the paint’s natural patterns and drips lend a hand in some of that final controlled chaos on the paper. “I convey movement through the strength of touches—the pressure exerted onto paper, direction of strokes, and, a personal favorite—tonal and color changes,” he says. “My technique for showing motion is to apply heavy strokes with a flat brush and bring the details into focus with crisp, clear strokes.” Each stroke can be found throughout Koon’s composition, perfectly balancing heavy and light applications.
Kathryn Keller Larkins‘s Mirage
In Mirage, a sense of euphoric freedom permeates the painting. It’s a kind of freedom that only can be experienced by riding a horse, and one that Kathryn Keller Larkins knows well. Her approach and techniques with the paint itself were attempts to imitate her experience—allowing the viewer to get a sense of the open air simply by seeing it. “I rode horses as a child, and I loved the freedom and the feeling of the wind,” says Larkins.
A Faraway Horizon
“In Mirage, I tried to capture the expanse of the land by hanging the painting vertically and letting a thick drip of Payne’s gray run along midway to indicate a faraway horizon. Above the line of Payne’s and behind the head of the horse, I left blurred areas of paper white to show the sun high in the sky, glowing through the whipping of the mane and the rhythm of the galloping legs.” This vast, stark landscape frames the dynamic figure of the horse and rider.
Across the bottom of the painting, Larkins let large drops of a mix of titanium white and raw sienna splash and pool to show the dust clouds raised by the churn of the horse’s hooves. She built up the surface of the musculature by alternating blue and brown washes. Then she used a hair dryer to create the gesture lines of the mane and tail. “The surprise of watercolor makes the imperfect line the perfect line, one we couldn’t paint if we tried.”
Kathleen Conover’s Street Scene: Industrial Evolution
“Watercolor is a great medium for capturing motion,” says Kathleen Conover. “Paint and water flow directionally to the pull of gravity with a slight tilt of the paper; it also moves with blowing air and separates with any interference. All of this creates interest and a sense of motion beyond what I can do with a paintbrush.”
Still, the paintbrush in Conover’s hand does a great deal. Street Scene: Industrial Evolution shows a moving bird three ways: a raven in flight, an origami bird trailing in the wind, and a shadow of the raven dragging beneath its creator at a lag. All of this pops against a background full of texture and shapes.
The Use of Diagonals
“Composition can’t be overstated,” says Conover. “Street Scene isn’t a complex composition, but the use of diagonals is most important to transport the viewer through the painting. Directional and bold diagonals in the raven and telephone pole shadows, smaller contrasting diagonals in the origami bird—down to the small diagonals in the ground frost texture—all keep a viewer’s eye moving. There’s no rest in this painting.”
An Experimental Start
Texture plays an important role in Conover’s painting. Each element has its own surface texture, including the unique background. “My first application of paint is always wet, loose, and often experimental,” she says. “Before I even know what I might want to paint, I’ll intentionally ‘play’ with my materials (without brushes): paint, water, mark-making tools, texturing mediums or techniques, unusual patterns, etc. In Street Scene, I created an overall texture by freezing pigment and water in 20-degree weather outside in winter. Working with this experimental start that looked like the texture of freezing rain on asphalt helped me to develop my plan for the painting.”
A version of this story first appeared in Watercolor Artist. For more watermedia articles and art inspiration, subscribe now.
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