Saturday, August 29, 2009

Watercolor Moon

In the past month, I have spent a great deal of time camping and traveling in the northern woods, both in northern Minnesota and northern Michigan. I calculate that nights spent in a tent under pine groves total to almost two weeks, with gaps in the middle.

So when a friend was visiting with her child the other day, and we sat down to paint together, I found myself doing a motif naturally, without even thinking about it, of the full moon passing behind tall white pines. This is something I spent time observing early in the month, on the night of the full moon. It was silent that night, and there were layers of thin, almost misty clouds, whitening the sky, blurring the moon's edges.

I have little control in watercolor, as a medium, and no pretensions towards talent or skill. A definite amateur. I love the effects one can achieve with watercolor: transparent layers built up; soft or hard edges depending on how saturated the brush and paper are; careful blends that create the illusion of depth.

I began this small painting, while simultaneously engaged with my friend's child, with an enso, as I often do, letting the open circle become whatever it wants to become. As with brush calligraphy, we follow the brush where it wants to go, and only begin directing it once the image has started to reveal itself.

This little watercolor is more iconic, more symbolic, not remotely photo-realistic. It symbolizes more than it depicts. While being able to draw accurately is a good skill for a visual artist to have, sometimes—for example, when painting with children—it's refreshing to let all that go, and just paint like a kid again yourself. Not trying to be realistic, not trying to be accurate, just painting from feeling and touch.

I think of these small paintings as sketches, incomplete, unfinished, imperfect—and not trying to be completely, finished, or perfect. A lot of artists make quick on-site sketches, which are later worked into paintings. You strike while the image that you see, or the image in your mind, is fresh, hot, ripe, and burning bright. You can always rework a piece later, or turn it into something larger and more finished.

There are all kinds of sketchbooks. I keep many kinds: journals, brush-calligraphy notebooks, poetry notebooks, musical sketch books. Most of my finished notated music compositions begin in spiral-bound sheet music notebooks. I like the 12-stave sheet music books, letter-size or larger. You feel like you have more room to stretch out. I've filled several such books over the years with sketches of compositions that in some cases became final pieces that were performed, and in other cases remain unfinished sketches. Like poems, etudes are sometimes abandoned rather than formally finished.

Working with a difficult medium like watercolor, over which I have almost no control, is challenging. I like drybrush techniques, where the brush is filled with pigment but not much water. It approaches the feel of working, for me, with good colored pencils; although with watercolor you can be even more translucent in applying color to the paper.

This is only a sketch. Had this been an actual painting, well, for one thing I would have spent more than half an hour on it. Still, it remains rewarding and exciting to me to keep stretching my artistic wings, keep trying my hand new things, new media, keep being a beginner rather than an expert. I learned a few things from making this painting in company with a child; while he was mixing new colors, which he had never done before, and I showed him how to do, I was experimenting with layering translucent washes. I learned a little a few brush techniques from this sketch, a little more about using a very dry brush. I also used some of the colors my companion had blended, as single traces and touches, here and there, to give a shadow or an edge some vibrancy. We all learn by doing.

An artist never retires, never stops exploring or discovering, till the day they die. I think of Matisse near the end of his life, when he could no longer paint due to illness, turning to making paper cutouts: some of his most lucid, most vibrant work.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


3:12 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...


Thanks and welcome aboard. I appreciate the thoughts. Feel free to comment anytime: I enjoy discussion and dialogue.

4:09 PM  

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