Painting Michigan: From 4 Techniques to Spirituality
Painting Michigan is a follow up to my previous blog “Drawing Michigan“. In this post, I’ll begin with my watercolor influences, then a review of 4 important watercolor techniques. I will show how one of these techniques has enriched my spirituality and love of nature. I’ll end with how outdoor work has strengthened my studio painting.
Background and Influences
While pursuing my Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at Northern Michigan University, very little was taught about transparent watercolor as a serious medium for fine artists. Oils, gauche, and acrylics were encouraged, but watercolor was downplayed. I enjoyed oils and my mom has kept the only painting to survive from my college years-an oil titled “Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions”.
However, in my senior year at Northern Michigan University, my illustration professor brought in a local watercolorist, Kathleen Conover, and her demonstration intrigued me. I didn’t buy watercolor paints until 15 years later-shortly before I participated in another workshop by Conover, which are the only workshops I have ever attended.
I continued my informal study, reading everything I could about watercolorists like New England Artists Andrew Wyeth and Winslow Homer (although I wasn’t interested in the media they are most noted for: tempera for Wyeth and oils for Homer). My father was from Massachusetts and these artists also provided a connection to my New England heritage.
The internet has almost as many watercolor technique classes as it has of cat videos. I have often thought there is too much emphasis on technique and not enough on drawing skills. Yet every artist needs technique. Here are 4 that I find essential to painting Michigan:
2. Foregoing the Pencil
Early on in my watercolor endeavors, I usually penciled in what I wanted to paint prior to applying the washes.
On one stormy spring day I was getting ready to paint from my car but had forgotten my pencils. I decided to give it a go with my brushes alone. I was very pleased with the spontaneity and looseness of the 3 watercolor sketches I made on that outing.
Now many of my plein air (french for painting outdoors) works are done with just brushes. The takeaway is if you think your paintings are too tight and missing spontaneity, try going out and paint in nature without using a pencil.
3. Dry Brush
When drybrushing, most of the paint and water is squeezed or wiped off a brush, leaving small amounts of drier pigment which is then applied to the paper in short, quick strokes. Andrew Wyeth was a master of drybrush and there is a link to his website at the end of this blog.
Drybrush is a way to get strong “realism” into a painting. It can be a satisfyingly tedious process, especially when representing barnwood, grasses, and fur. Drybrush can be therapeutic, although the detailed work can be hard on my eyes, back, and wrist.
The painting titled A “Barn With Character” and the commission work “Molly”are good example of extensive drybrush applied to washes.
4. Dry on Wet
Sunsets are majical times that I try to capture with watercolors. After a day of traveling the countryside, I often stop on my way home to paint the last light. I have to work fast, putting dry paint on a wet wash-most watercolorists will let a wet wash dry first before applying more paint.
I often separated the horizon line and the ground, leaving a thin strip of dry paper. Sometimes it got so dark I couldn’t see most of the hue anymore-just value (gray shades) of the colors-but I knew my palette so well I could proceed.
Often when I got home and turned on the lights, I discovered a mess, but sometimes I was very pleased with the result. The dry paint on the wet surface often creates a vibrant “halo” effect as the dry paint began bleeding into the wet background. A fan commented on a painting I posted on Flickr that this is known as the “dry on wet” technique and I had a name to what I was doing.
These kinds of paintings can often be abstract, opposite of my “realist” art. The three works below, “Painting by Moonlight Feels Right” and “Dry on Wet Sunset” and “Three Sunset Colors” are good examples of this technique and their online shop page has more about Dry on Wet.
Overwhelmed by Nature
Being in awe of a landscape is common while painting. This awe goes beyond passively watching a sunset. While outdoors, the physical act of painting, combined with decisions on composition, color, and mixing paints, taps into something greater than just appreciating nature.
On rare occasions the awe becomes so overwhelming I start crying, with my hands trembling to the point I needed to pause from painting. There is a strong sense of a higher power and that everything in nature, from the air, land, rocks, trees, etc are bursting with life and sentience. At the same time there is a deep undefined longing.
Painting Michigan is always a peaceful and joyful activity. However the intense rapturial experiences are very rare. They can’t be planned or manufactured but all these experiences have the following in common:
- First, I’m painting outside on an easel or from the hood of my vehicle; painting in the car somewhat separates me from nature. I have arrived well before sunset to set up my gear.
- These paintings are usually large. Working on bigger paper allows more expression and connection with the physical act of painting and the subject matter.
- Conditions need to be conducive to painting and not distracting. Mid to late summer or a mild fall evening is best with dramatically changing light and biting flies aren’t a big issue.
- Finally, painting needs to be in a very rural area with little traffic. It doesn’t take much diversion to get “out of the moment.” That’s not to say I can’t do good work with distractions, or enjoy sunsets with others; it just means I probably won’t get these peak, private experiences.
The sunset painting below is a visual expression of these spiritual experiences, done in a rapturous bliss. The watercolor itself isn’t what is most important. The act of painting itself is and is my connection to nature and a higher power
I can’t always paint outdoors and as I get older I find myself more in the studio and painting less in the field. However I have decades and thousands of images of art and photos that I use as reference. I find this source material can reflect some of that awe and wonder of nature to my studio painting and drawings.
I never use other source material for my own paintings (major exception is commission work) because I still want that personal connection via my own stuff. Here is a good example of recent studio work that still reflects my direct experience with being at the location. While painting “Sunrise Barn“, I felt some of the awe and joy I did when I took the source photo.
“Moon Behind White Pine” was done after a moonlit drive. No photo was taken but the image of the moon behind the white pine burned in my heart and memory. When I got home, I did a quick dry on wet painting to capture the experience:
I hope to never have to give up that direct connection with nature from painting outdoors and the spiritual experiences that comes with it. Even if I’m mostly in the studio now, I will need to recharge and refresh by getting outdoors to paint.
Sketching and painting Michigan, studying artists, reading, nature, and watercolor techniques- all have contributed to my skill and to deeper spiritual understanding of what my life, nature, and art is about. Therefore I have attempted to write about my foundation for painting, technique, and how they all have interconnected to develop my art and spirituality.
Thank you for reading this blog and perhaps you have had similar experiences as well. I would love to hear about yours. Sharing your spiritual experiences with art and/or nature can help all of us!