Watercolor painter Michael Holter -7 Steps to Watercolor Landscapes (now available in the CCP shop) - has had a lot of jobs including owning two galleries, teaching art classes and working as a creative director. And through all of it, he’s been painting. Today Holter can be found winning awards (he’s got quite a few letters after his name) and teaching nationally.
Could you walk us through your process? What steps or studies do you do before you start your painting? How does each step address a particular problem or problems?
Since I paint landscapes, portraits, studio and plein air, the process can vary. Each painting provides a unique set of problems to solve. I try to make sure the steps I take to create a painting are not formulaic or else every result will appear the same (probably good for a consistent portfolio, but not much fun).
On the other hand, following the same process in every painting does provide a continuity of style and technique that can become as important as a signature.
When working from nature, good observation and sketches are key to developing the composition and value structure. The same applies to working from photos in the studio. The camera can be a useful aid but when photos are taken too literally, (unless you are a photo realist) your outcome is a lifeless painting lacking the emotion that you gain when painting from life. The camera flattens the values that are critical to creating depth and feeling in a painting.
You teach a watercolor class called Expressive Watercolor: Steps to Success. What are the steps that a student should go through each time they create a watercolor painting? Why is having a repeatable approach important? How does that free you up to create better more interesting paintings?
When I talk about steps I refer to everything from the first impression of a subject through to the finished piece. Whether one is sketching from nature or taking photos to bring back to the studio, what catches the artist's eye is just the beginning of the process, but a very important one.
As an example: For my portrait workshops I talk about the following steps:
Step One: Shoot Straight
For most of my portraits I work from photographs. Either controlled setting from a model, or candid images shot when the subject perhaps is not aware of my camera. I like the images when the person is engaged in their own world and not conscious of me. I may take hundreds of photos in some settings to find one or two that give me what I want. I am looking for light and shadow. I usually shoot in direct sun to get the most from the way light plays on the figure. (unlike portrait photographers who like soft diffused lighting, I like to see the lines and wrinkles, the effect of reflected light and the way a shadow can enhance the shape of the face).
Step Two: Plan Stan
Once I have the photos in my computer I go through them looking for the right combination of light and shadow on the face, and a composition that will work aesthetically. I crop my figures to make the greatest impact. In many cases I like to get in close and intimate with the face and form of the person. I work hard to make sure that the whole composition is aesthetically interesting.
I then transfer the image to my paper. At this stage, I am not trying to prove my drawing skills. I recommend that my students use whatever means at their disposal to get the drawing accurately onto the paper. I am looking for a simple line drawing that captures all of the facial features, cast shadows, clothing detail and/or anything that attracted me to the image in the first place.
Step Four: Glaze Phase
Let the painting begin. I start with my fist value and place local color on the entire sheet of paper. As the painting progresses, having eliminated the pure white helps the eye see the correct values. The second value is then added which includes all of the shadow areas. More glazes will probably be added as the process continues.
Step Five:Detail Detail
Starting with the Eyes, Nose and Mouth I carefully indicate the details. The detailing continues with additional values placed within the shadow area and within the lighted area. The face is sculpted by observing the slight changes in the contour of the face. This process may continue for quite some time depending on the complexity of the clothing and any background. It is the most intuitive part of the process and is the most difficult to communicate to students.
Step Six: Jewel Setting
I reserve some of the sparkle for the end of the painting when I add small facets of light and shadow to the appropriate part of the painting.
Step Seven: Sign It
You work with both beginners and more experienced painters in your classes. How are the struggles different between these two groups of painters? What should beginners be focused on? How should that focus shift as a painter gets better?
Some beginners are so very eager to learn that they make the challenges worth the reward. They should focus on absorbing the demos and then following the exercises that I present. Sometimes advanced painters have a difficult time translating what I am teaching into what they already know. One of the biggest challenges is to help students (beginner and advanced) overcome fear. Fear of failure, fear of wasting paint and paper, fear of what others might think, or even fear of what their third grade teacher said about the art they created 40 years ago.
How are light and shadow important to your work? How do you use them to create strong compositions?
Light and shadow are vital to what I do as an artist. Even my portraits rely on strong light and shadow. Light and shadow are the keys to creating a believable representational landscape. I teach about Solar Perspective—the way the light and shadow create depth in a painting that is just as important as aerial or linear perspective.
In terms of composition, what is the biggest composition struggle you see your students facing? What advice do you give them?
Many are so engrossed in learning the techniques and use of the materials that they can’t see the forest for the trees. They are also not familiar with the basic compositional schemes and the principles of design that are the building blocks of good design. So, they should study composition, design as well as practice the techniques. Good painting requires all facets working together.
You paint many subjects. What are the design challenges of painting people specifically? What does good design look like when working with the figure? How is that different than when working with a subject like landscape?
I often choose to use an intimate view of my figurative subjects. So when I crop in tightly, I break down the background into varying sized shapes. This gives a nice hierarchy to the areas that make up the painting. I believe that the viewer finds a composition that is planned in this way to be pleasing to the eye, whether they know why or not. It seems jurors like it too, since my work has been accepted into hundreds of national and international shows.
Where does the main design planning happen in your process? Could you walk us through how you think through the principles of design when you work?
When working with photos, often it is accomplished on the computer. I use basic tools to crop photos in interesting ways. I have cropped the same image in multiple ways to explore the composition to it’s fullest. And I always keep my mind open to altering an image by moving parts to create a more interesting composition. That is especially true with landscapes and cityscapes. Part of creating is to engage with the painting and let the painting inform the next stroke or passage. Always keeping in mind where you intend the painting to go.
From a color stand point, how much adjusting do you do between what you see in your reference and what you use in the painting itself? Why? How do the pigment qualities of the colors you choose affect your work? How important is it to think about those qualities of color? Why or why not?
First of all, I believe that value is more important than color. This allows me to vary the actual paint color as I see fit. However, when painting scenes in sunlight, I make sure that I emphasize (and often over emphasize) warm light from the sun against cool light in the shadows. The local color of an object is the outcome of the way light is embracing it and the perspective you are seeing it from—that is what you want your viewer to see when they look at the painting. The objective of the representational landscape artist is to represent what the eye of a human will see when observing a scene. For instance; If the sunlight is coming toward you the color temperature of the shadow area will have less intensity than if the sunlight is from the side.
What do you think through when looking at a reference photo? What aspects of it do you adjust most often when translating it to a painting? What do you exaggerate or change (for example, light and shadow)? Or do you just paint what you see?
A reference photo for my portraits most often has good light and shadow helping to define the shape and features of the face. Landscape reference photos can be anything. Often quick iphone shots or what I call “drive-by” photos are all you need for inspiration. I like photos with good light and shadow or strong back lighting but that is not necessary. An interesting building shape or light hitting a particular item will often be enough to start the creative process going. Every element of a photograph is subject to being changed, moved or eliminated to develop an exciting painting.
What should a good reference photo include? Can students still work from bad reference photos? Why or why not?
For portraits, I prefer good light and shadow. For landscape/cityscape anything can work to make a painting. I have found that having a beautiful postcard quality photograph can stifle creativity and expression when painting. Many students bring the best photo that they have ever taken and want to turn it into a painted masterpiece. I would rather have them create a painting that is better than the reference photo. After all, that is what art is all about. Not seeing things as they are, but as they ought to be.
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