Interview with Artist Iain Stewart - Creative Catalyst Productions

Interview with Artist Iain Stewart

June 24, 2019 10 min read 2 Comments

Iain Stewart wears several hats including watercolorist, juror, instructor, and an architectural illustrator (with a business he’s run for 20 years.) His watercolor work has earned him signature membership in both the American and National Watercolor Societies along with numerous awards in international competitions. Stewart works from instinct and often uses remembered atmosphere and lighting in his work. He lives in Alabama and teaches workshops all over the country.

Could you walk us through your process? What (if any) problems are you trying to solve at each stage?

My process is fairly straightforward, but always changing slightly from year to year.

From the moment I stop and think this is a good view, I begin solving the problems that may occur. The most important step in this is to do small compositional / value studies in my sketchbook. This size and format help me eliminate excessive detail from the start and manipulate what I see in reality to how I wish to portray it.

I do my best not to think about the actual “things” I’m painting but how they combine to create a strong visual statement. Painting only what you see can become problematic. We can get too focused on some part of a scene only to miss opportunities that may lie just below the surface.

The compositional studies are my way of “meeting the scene.” Once we’ve had a chat ( a few drawings ) then I can begin looking at how I can say “place” without getting too involved in the million other things eager for attention.


Why is having a repeatable process important to an artist? (Or is it?)

I believe it is. I will invariably deviate from the plan- but having done the preliminary work I am familiar with the subject and can draw with more understanding of it as a whole.

The idea that a process remains static or does not evolve over the years can put you in a situation where you are repeating the same type of painting over and over. For me, that can become dull.

At times I will do two simultaneous studies. One on a bit of watercolor paper using the brush and one or two in the sketchbook. My degree in architecture helps there. I’m used to solving a design problem and then have to throw all that work away and start from scratch. This underscores the idea that there are multiple solutions compositionally in any scene. The question is what do I want to say now?


Where in your process do you do planning?

So we’ve established that I do studies prior to working on a finished piece. This planning is essential to my further understanding of what I am looking at. If I’m doing a nautical scene I need to study how to draw the boats and accouterment that go along with them. So I will do small sketches of boats (preferably moving) without worrying about the final scene.

In this way, I am making sure that my studies lead me to a realized conclusion. I am also warming up and doing my mental stretching before taking on the actual painting. We all have to do these stretches and I make sure that my students understand the importance of being mentally ready before jumping in and starting a piece.


How do you approach planning your composition? Do you go into a subject with a few preconceived compositions you can trust and then work from there or do you start from scratch in your thinking every time? Could you give us an example?

I always have a few reliable techniques that I tend to use as described above. Still, at times I will see a photograph or be on location and the entire painting reveals itself. This is rare but when that happens I don’t hesitate. I do some quick studies and then dive in.

The caveat is that I don’t like to put pressure on myself to complete a fully realized painting. More often than not the atmosphere of the piece is what speaks to me. That may take a few efforts to capture. There is also the crucial stage in every painting where your reference material’s importance begins to fade and the painting starts whispering to you. It’s so very important to listen to your paintings- they will begin to take on a life of their own. It’s at that time I begin to let the reference work go and work from what I see on my board.

A good plan is a great place to start but having the freedom to deviate from that and the understanding that planning is not the end all be all is a valuable lesson. In my workshops, I suggest that when working on future pieces they write this plan down. Painting in words so to speak- this can help you visualize your painting more clearly than just going for it.


Why is simplification important in watercolor painting? How does a student simplify a subject?

Simplification comes from understanding what you are drawing and that, in essence, is just a shape that can be combined with other very simple shapes to create a larger, more complex, composition. If I am drawing a car on a busy city street I don’t think “ok I’m drawing a car.” I squint my eye and find the rectangle that defines the extents of the car and then look for ways to tie the shadows to something else. In essence, I believe that each piece of a composition relies on how it is connected within the hierarchy of the design. This is a fairly wordy way to say always look for the connections and simplify everything down to its basest form.

Secondly, draw with a blunt pencil. In my sketchbook, I use a Palomino Blackwing. This allows me to utilize an abundance of line-weights, but also it’s a tool that can only go so deep down the rabbit hole.

When doing these sketches in a class setting I ask the students to look at the stance I take and what joint I am using to make a stroke at each stage of the process. If I am working from my shoulder that means that I’m holding the pencil very near the end and drawing lightly and fast. My layouts are typically 4 or 5 lines with a few rectangles placed carefully within. At its heart that is the entire drawing. I can easily judge if I need to manipulate or change elements when looking at a scene in such a basic way. If the layout works I will move forward.

I start drawing using my shoulder, to my elbow, to my wrist, to my fingers as I progress. In this way, the initial strokes of every drawing are a full body movement. From my toes through my torso and up to my shoulder I am fully engaged body and mind in the drawing. Think about the sweep of a brush stroke done from your shoulder and the area it can cover. Then imagine the same stroke done from your elbow.

The distance and gesture get smaller. The wrist is the same but smaller yet. My final strokes are done with just the tips of my fingers grasping the brush closer to the ferrule. So by design, if you follow those steps you have a hard time getting too tight.


Why are sketchbooks an important part of your painting process? How do you use them?

Ah, my books. I’ve written extensively on them. My sketchbooks are the single most important part of my process. They are also my most valued possession. They are the place that I find refuge, study, record my life, and explore. I never tear a page out of one. The beauty in that is no matter how well a certain page turns out it’s still just a page in a book. I don’t think about framing or sales. It’s just me working for me there and that is incredibly freeing.

Do yourself a favor buy 3 at a time. I use the Stillman & Birn Alpha series. It takes watercolor very well and they are made so well.


What advice do you have for students just starting out with using sketchbooks?

First off, skip pages 1-2. Don’t draw on them. Leave that space for notes and phone numbers, hotels to look up and restaurants/pubs to check out.

Chances are even if you do a very nice drawing on page 1 you are going to see it every time you open the book. That gets old.

Second- use it. Draw for 30 minutes every day. Period. Grab your morning coffee and practice drawing cars, people, or anything you have difficulty with. Explore, enjoy, have fun. Ruin a few pages but don’t get rid of them. Those failures teach more than you know.

Teach yourself the ever important lesson of drawing things in motion. A duck isn’t going to stop swimming and set a pose for you just because it sees you giving it the eager eye. You have to look at it and study the size of the body compared to the head. How does the neck angle and connect the two? Most importantly what is going on underwater? Burn that image in your mind then quickly make large gestural strokes to begin defining it. Then look back up. The duck’s probably moved on but if you can still see it reference it again to help you flesh out the rest. That one exercise is worth the price of admission.


How important is learning to draw? Why?

We speak in a visual language. Drawing is at the core of that communication. It’s difficult to learn- but so is playing the violin. If you want it, you have to practice.

Imagine your early drawings as the screeching of a student learning the violin. It’s not pleasant but over time that screeching begins to even out and then you hear scales- and eventually melodies.

Learning to draw is exactly the same thing. We don’t like to hear that screeching as we draw. It is physically painful, but those that succeed, find a way to move beyond it knowing that the real music lies ahead.

This is the reason for a sketchbook. You close the book and the screeching stops. All your ugly mistakes go away. You choose who to share that with and when. It’s private. If you practice, you will get there. Get a good book on drawing or better yet find someone who can actually teach it. Get outside your comfort zone and enjoy yourself. It’s just paper in the end.


What is the biggest challenge you see your students facing? What advice do you have for them?

Never let a painting become precious before it’s worth it.

In my experience, watercolors can start off quite beautifully and then get stuck in the doldrums of mid-tones. It’s the darks that put wind in your sails. So, to answer in real-world terminology, trust that your darks will bring light into your painting. By going too light or being scared of the big move with your darks, you are leaving your painting unfinished or, worse yet, protected and coddled. They aren’t worth the worry until you sit back and see the values working for you.

The other real challenge I find that my students must overcome is the idea that every time you sit down to paint you have to make a painting. Why on earth should that be the case? I think that may be the most overlooked part of how we get where we are. You can’t practice on a painting that you’ve taken time to draw on. You don’t have the freedom to explore when you don’t want to ruin something.

Get a blank piece of watercolor paper and begin to play. This is something new to my workshops that I just introduced this year. Take a piece of paper and mix three wells of color. Take a large mop or similar brush and make a strong directional move anywhere on the paper. Then dip your brush in another mix and counter that move. Look at what the color is doing on your paper. Roll it around, throw some water at it, and watch it mingle. Then begin adding dabs of color and different brush strokes. Use less dilute color and see if you can hold a shape wet in wet. This is one of the most enjoyable exercises we do. I call it the daily warm up. The idea that we have to create a masterpiece let alone a painting every time we sit down to paint is nuts. Play like the child in you would. These paintings teach more than you can imagine.

You should learn to practice for the sake of it and nothing else.


You need to see how to make confident brush strokes. You need to let your colors mingle and watch them. You need to learn how to run a graded wash from dark to absolute light and back to dark in one go.

All of my workshops start off with these techniques and I’ve found a way to make this practice interesting. I think what I’m trying to say is, learn how to play with no goals in mind except to see how these different techniques can aid your painting. It’s no good attempting a sky on something that matters if you’ve never tried before. You have to practice it.


Your painting “Oh to Be Back in the Land of Coca-Cola” won the Marge Soroka award at this years AWS show. (Congratulations!) Could you talk about how you approached the design and color for that painting? What do you feel made this painting particularly strong?

Ah my own work. Hmm. Let me start by saying this. I am a very poor judge of my own work. I’m too close to it. I agonized over painting Venice let alone sending a painting of Venice to the AWS. It’s been done by much better artists than me countless times. Still, in my time there, I always knew I would paint it. I just had to speak my own language.

My painting has evolved over the years. I use more color and at times I let my guard down and allow myself the guilty pleasure of drawing like an architect. Precision vs precious.

In this piece, I paid a little homage to the “old illustrator” I was and the new artist that I am. It’s a mingling of the two Iains. One the architectural illustrator the other the artist trying to push through old ideas and see things clearly and differently. For me, this piece captures me at that moment in my life.

I constantly have a song in my head. It’s just me. Almost the entire time in Venice I had the Band’s version of “When I Paint My Masterpiece” in my head on a loop. The title of the work has nothing to do with masterpieces and everything to do with the song itself. It’s about travel, the good, the bad, the missing home. “Oh to Be Back in the Land of Coca~Cola” is preceded by the lyric “Sailing ‘round the world in a dirty gondola.” The cry for home that follows is staggering when the great Levon Helms sings it. Dylan wrote it but for me, Levon sings it best. It’s that call for the simple, the familiar, in the midst of such grandeur that makes this a special piece for me.

You can learn more about Ian Stewart by visiting him at his website, on Facebook or on Instagram. You can also learn about his excellent video workshops in the shop by clicking here

2 Responses

Alvin de Jesus
Alvin de Jesus

June 27, 2019

Great insights. I wish you could produce a tutorial video with Iain soon. Thanks!

Doug Moench
Doug Moench

June 27, 2019

Superb advice, every bit. My daily practice should begin by reading this, then ‘exercising.’ And putting The Band on play. Thank you Iain.

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