Watercolorist, Dan Marshall, ("Cityscapes in Watercolor") has traveled the world in his first career as a successful tattoo artist. This travel allowed him the frequent opportunity to paint the scenes he found. When he discovered watercolor, working plein air was a natural fit. Today Dan is an avid plein air painter, producing the majority of his work outside and on location. This has helped him to develop a confident style with an immediacy and freshness infused into each painting.
What are the steps you go through when you paint? How does this process (if it does) change between plein air and studio painting?
The first step is choosing a good composition and a subject I am somehow connected to, whether emotionally or visually. The next steps are 100% consistent whether studio or plein air. Pre-visualization is key. I visualize the finished painting in my mind and then think about the steps and techniques to get to the finished result. By looking for the biggest shapes to smallest, working background to foreground, Big brushes to little brushes, thin washes to thicker pigment, smallest details are saved for last.
I keep my studio and plein air process as consistent as possible. By finding a process that works for you as an artist and approaching each painting in a similar manner you will have a much higher degree of success. That’s not to say there isn’t room for experimentation, Things rarely go as planned in watercolor. It’s important to pay attention to “mistakes “ And be able to improvise and use them to your benefit. Keeping them in your library of techniques to use on future paintings.
Why is plein air painting important? Why not just paint from photos in your studio? Why is plein air painting important for learning?
Being immersed in your subject and experiencing it firsthand, by painting in plein air, is the best possible way to study your subject. There is no better way to see tone and proper color than by painting plein air. Photos become too stark and you will lose the nuance of contrast that you see from your own eyes. Studio work is important to be able to concentrate and focus on technique but it will only take you so far. Studio work will give you the proper tools to use when you are in the unpredictability of plein air, but it is important to do both regularly. You will bring the benefits of painting plein air back into the studio and vice versa.
What advice would you give an artist who wants to do plein air but is nervous about getting started? Any tips for how to transition from studio only to plein air painting?
The only advice I could give to an artist that wants to start painting plein air is to just go out and do it. There is a bit of a learning curve with plein air painting and the more you do it the more comfortable you will become. Keep your painting set up as light and comfortable to work and go out being as prepared as possible. If you’re worried about people watching you etc, You’re growth as an artist, development and happiness should outweigh any concerns of being judged by people on the street. The majority of the time you will meet nice people, and even more than that, people will just ignore you.
If you are a studio only painter looking to start plein air, just embrace the experience, Roll with the process and enjoy being outside! I would also say don’t try to duplicate what you do in the studio, find ways to paint quicker and just worry about capturing the essence of the scene.
What do you want to have solved before you begin a painting and how do you solve those issues? (Thumbnails? Value studies? Etc) Do you still work this way when you’re outside with limited time? Why? Do you have ways of speeding up any of that process?
It all comes down to pre-visualization. I don’t necessarily do thumbnails or tonal studies, really only for commissions. I try to work with my initial impression and keep the energy and the immediacy of a scene. This is where studio work and studying is important. When I am not painting I’m drawing, sketching, studying composition. I take those tools with me plein air to be able to execute straight away.
How have you seen the wrong materials (or maybe too many materials) work against students just beginning to paint?
Most students paint with way too much water and use too big of a soft brush for the entire painting. It’s important to use the right tool for the right job, abandoning your largest brush once you’ve finished the initial washes. I hold all the brushes I need in my left hand while I am working. Selecting these brushes at the start of the painting is one more step in thinking through the painting start to finish. As I move through the painting I disregard a brush when I am finished with it and by the end of the painting my left hand is empty.
What is the Zbukvic watercolor clock and why is it important?
The watercolor clock was developed by Joseph Zbukvic and is a method of determining pigment to water ratio (thin to thick) as well as identifying the moisture level of the paper (dry to wet). It is key to knowing what consistency of pigment to use on what level of wetness of paper and when to use it for the desired effect. Informing the mixing of proper washes for correct tonal effects. Using it properly you can give your paintings a real sense of pigment (not weak paintings), To produce watercolors that look like “paintings” Full of tone and body and a sense of gravitas.
You do an incredible amount while the painting is wet. Why work that way? What does working that way give your paintings and you as an artist?
Working while CONTROLLED areas of a painting are wet Is key to creating soft and lost edges to suggest subtle details or add atmospheric perspective. Working in this manner the background may be wet but the foreground is dry or just the middle ground shape. It keeps your paintings from looking like a cut paper collage of tone and color. It keeps unity to the large shapes while still suggesting complexity and detail.
You use a lot of neutrals in your work. How do neutrals help you create a sense of atmosphere that more intense colors wouldn’t? How do you adjust them while you’re painting so that you’re painting is still visually interesting?
I’m just not really interested in bright color work, I’m much more of a tonalist. It's not to say I don’t use color, I use all the colors of my palette. I still use cooler colors to recede and warmer colors to approach, just in a more subtle way.
I prefer backlit subjects that are more moody and dreamy at times. I’m attracted to the mystery and soft suggested detail rather than being hit over the head with a color hammer and precise information. I want the viewer’s mind to engage and fill in the details. Otherwise, you have a boring painting. I love the elegance and sophistication that toned down color adds to a painting, creating a thing of romance and poetry. I believe this is what creates a visually interesting painting rather than having everything all laid out for the viewer.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with intense color work and there are people who love that, They’re just not “my” people. There’s room for everybody and everyone has to follow their own unique vision of what speaks to them.
How important are doing painting studies? Especially when people have limited time, the instinct is to spend as much of that time on painting full /complete paintings. Is it important to spend time on studies? How important is it to spend time on studies? Why?
This is a little bit of a tricky question. Most oil painters I know do small studies before a large painting because they will be investing a great deal of time in the completed work. My method of watercolor painting is quick and immediate as it is, so doing a quick and immediate smaller version can sometimes take as much time as doing a full painting.
In a sense, I do small studies but to me, it is actually a totally separate aspect of my work. I always carry a sketchbook with me and do little 4 x 6 or 5 x 7 painted sketches when I am out and about and traveling that I will then use as reference combined with photos to inform more completed studio work at a later time.
My general rule of thumb is that if I want to take a photo of something to use as a painting, I’ve developed the discipline to sit and do a five-minute sketch rather than just rely on the photo alone. By sitting and studying your subject intensity, even for five or 10 minutes, You will gain so much more information and connectivity that again, you will not get from a photo.
Watercolor has a reputation for being difficult. Why do you think watercolor has the reputation of being the hardest medium? Do you think that's deserved (or undeserved)? Why?
I think the myth of watercolor being difficult is really from a control viewpoint. You really need to have a plan and prevision to execute a proper watercolor painting. The medium is unforgiving in the sense that your rework options are limited.
You also need to develop your drawing skills as you can’t cut in and develop your shapes in the same way as oil or acrylic. In my experience, the majority of students starting out in watercolor lack drawing skills. These need to be developed as much if not more than handling the medium.
But think about it. Watercolor has one medium-WATER!- to make the pigment fluid. And one support, paper. Oil, on the other hand, has countless medium and support options and centuries of methods and techniques to decide between to execute a painting. Oil should be far more daunting to the beginner. So I think it’s an undeserved reputation, But I’m glad when oil painters are so impressed!
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