Why I like Watercolor.

The Assumption of the Virgin (Exit Through the Gift Shop), watercolor, 40″ x 32″

First off, it’s a medium that is best when left alone. You certainly don’t want to be painting as in, working with a stiff brush, making stabs with color like the Impressionists. Or, smoothing color into a version of foundation make-up like Nicolas Poussin. His picture of The Assumption of the Virgin (1632) is one I looked at as a student (1966-1970) in DC (it lives in DC’s National Gallery). It didn’t pair well with The Velvet Underground which was on repeat-play in those days; a hard scrabble fact-check, a kind of Mad Magazine of Rock, meaning; telling truth to power. But I did enjoy looking at Poussin’s painting if only for it’s psychedelic dimension. I also liked that the columns weren’t in some forced symmetry. And who doesn’t like chubby, flying babes with wings pointing the way? “Exit Through the Gift Shop” they are telling Mary.

Sometimes I think of watercolor painting like cooking, having your mise-en place, ready-set to preform the painting. When watercolor is good, it’s like that, like down-hill skiing, like rock climbing, like the golf swing (which is a 2-second version, in which a 1000 things can interrupt the arc of a struck little ball into a skittering grounder or whanging in a curving banana-ball). Watercolor painting takes some practice, but mostly it’s the sureness of desire which makes it like long-married sex (which The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnick has so humorously described as Civil War re-enactment).

This painting came from looking at roses in the garden, best in a certain light with a certain background. The photographic view which creates a depth-of-field distortion where the distance is blurred. Regular vision keeps everything in focus far & near—the camera blurs the background. I took a quick shot of this rose, and looking at the developed slide, I had a kind of thrill in my body. Whenever I painted from a slide it was my habit to look through a loop holding the slide up to the light. This narrowing of vision feels like the original impulse that got me to take the snap in the first place. Looking at the image this way also feels like a narrowing of focus to make it more like I’m on the scene, instead of having photo to hand-hold or a projection on the wall. There’s a phenomenon, well-documented in the literature of image making, how miniaturization can paradoxically feel large. Think of a doll’s house. As a frequent visitor to Chicago’s Art Institute, I would always add a gander into the Thorne Rooms, consistently fascinating. One room, a 1930’s style moderne environment was complete with a tiny painting by Ferdinand Léger, commissioned by Mrs. Thorne.

Looking at the slide of the white rose, held up to the eye I began with a quick out-line drawing. Painting happened like working a puzzle, each piece having its own territory of light passing over shape. For example, the petal curving toward you on the left was first carefully (keeping in the outlines) painted with water, pigment was added as the water evaporated giving less and less fluid motion until the darkest shadow, added last is painted into almost, but not quite dry paper. The dampness allows the pigments to settle into the fibres of the paper—made of cotton rag. Too much “painting” disturbs the fibres of the paper, messing up the freshness.

Arches 100% rag watercolor paper at 100x.

The matter of pigments. The best paints are made from pure pigment with just a small amount of binder (glue). And the paints are basically made from ground up minerals, stains, and dyes. The minerals are my go-to as they sit into the fibres with a pebbly texture and as they dry into the paper they will characteristically separate from one another adding to the feeling tone of a passage of one color to another in its “territory”. As the dance, swing, the climb up the cliff, proceeds, the whole comes together. When one like this one comes together, it feels like a flare has been lit on a night time runway, and the plane lands safely.

I began watercolor painting as a conceptual exercise, a bravado act of flouting the art conventions of the time—the Post-Modern, jokey, campy take at the rise of the Information Age, the cybernetic age. “Painting watercolors? How droll.” I got into doing these paintings because there was something very calming, very positive in the act of sureness of doing something well. And, I found I could teach others how to do it.

Now, these paintings are finding their way back to center stage as I work on this project of “Picture in Picture.” I wonder what I will place about this image to tell the story of “now?”

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