As the son of an artist growing up in Lagrange Park, Illinois, drawing and painting have always been part of Peter Jablokow’s life. After growing up close to a Frank Lloyd Wright house, Peter trained as an architect and then later an architectural illustrator. After taking art classes with Peggy Macnamara at North Shore Art League in Winnetka, Il, he found a way to combine his love of exact drawing with a fresh, loose style of watercolor painting, which he is now known.
What are the individual stages that make up your painting process? What problems are you solving at each of the stages?
Getting a good photograph and composition is my first hurdle. I take thousands of photos of different subjects, then study them at home to see what comes up. I often have to go back and snap more. I then do a detailed drawing with a 2H lead holder, pressing pretty hard, so the drawing doesn’t disappear.
When I start painting, I need to loosen up, so I tend to throw paint and masking fluid at the paper and move it around. I then have something to react to, and the painting can start.
To keep from chopping up larger shapes too much, I get an area close to the overall value and color, then sculpt it, lightening and darkening to create detail while holding on to the larger shape.
At some point, the painting feels like it’s going to work. I then go in and work over all the details and fine tune everything. I like going from one area to another and resolving all sorts of little things. Overworked areas are scrubbed out and redone, so it seems like I knew what I was doing.
See the steps Peter went through for his painting above,On the Beach, here.
You start your pieces quite chaotically, but that doesn’t mean there is no structure. Does a solid design become even more important when starting so loosely? A detailed drawing? Why? (or why not?)
I do a detailed drawing, which I photograph and save for reference. I'm often redrawing. Before I start with paint, I need to have everything solved up front. It’s comforting and calming for me. I like to pretend I’m in control. Changes often need to be made later, but at least I can start confidently.
Where do you do your composition work? Is that in the computer or through sketches? Once you know what you want to paint, how do you get your very detailed drawing onto paper? Why is it important for your process to have such a detailed drawing?
I compose using Adobe Photoshop or affinity photo. I pull pieces together, lighten, darken and crop. I might do some work in Procreate on the iPad as well, where I then trace the major lines and proportions and print it out to size. Most of the detail is added in after that. It’s relaxing to sit and figure out everything that’s going on, like solving the puzzle. I just like doing it.
There is a lot going on in your pieces but the eye still knows where to look. How do you create energy but not overwhelm in a piece?
I usually pick a reference photo with energy to it. It has to have some feeling of motion. I tend to overdo it, so I ask for critiques from other artists, and my wife, who often help me get some quiet areas and larger shapes. It's one of the things I'm trying to improve.
Color: How conscious are you about color going into a piece? Do you start with a general plan for scheme or dominance? In that you start in such a chaotic way how do you keep your colors from becoming overly neutralized with each additional layer?
I do not start with a general color scheme or an idea of dominance. Maybe I should spend more time on that. I have my favorite colors, and I just run them onto the paper, one after another. I lightly paint all the shadow areas first, which simplifies the drawing. As long as the paint is brushed on the paper and left alone, then allowed to dry before the next layer, the paint and colors stay reasonably fresh. I'm often surprised how easy the paint comes up when it's not overworked. As I move further, I start to guide the overall color one way or another.
On your blog, you mention that you scrub out whole areas if you’ve gone too dark and start again. Many people think of watercolor as a medium where you can’t go back and fix mistakes or change your mind. How do you the materials you use (paper, pigments) allow you to work and rework?
(You can see some of what Peter is talking about here.)
I’m not a direct painter. I can’t just put the paint down and move on. I’m always reacting to what I did and going backward, which isn’t ideal for watercolor, but fits my personality. I save Staining and heavier paints until I’m sure of things, though I have been using Peacock Blue (Holbein) lately because it’s such a beautiful color.
If something does get muddy, I will pull up the area by placing tape on it and cutting out a stencil with an Exacto knife, then scrub hard with a toothbrush (hard, but not very long, or the surface suffers). I try not to cut into the paper, but nothing horrible happens when I do. Scrubbing without tape leaves the edges murky. I like clean edges. I then start over in that area, sometimes adding sizing to make up for the scrubbing. When an overworked area is scrubbed halfway, the paint usually feels dense, so I like to rub out as much as I can and start from scratch.
Not wanting to change something because I spent a lot of time on it is often a mistake. I don't care how much work I put into something. If it doesn't look good, I fix it. I do this judiciously though. Going back and forth, continually putting in and taking out is dangerous. By the third try, the paper is near death.
Photography clearly plays a huge role in your work, and yet building up a photo library can take almost as much time as painting the paintings themselves. How have you approached gathering reference photos? Do you make time to consciously go gather source material or are most of the pieces just scenes you happened upon? How important is it to dedicate time (and thought) to good reference photos?
(See two of Peter's paintings side by side with their original photograph here.)
I do spend a lot of time with photos. Adobe Lightroom is a good organizing program. Everything is key-worded and filed in areas like “mills and factories,” “people,” “sky,” “reflections,” and so on.
For references, I find places and structures that look interesting, take a lot of photos, then study them at home. I will often want more angles or different light and go back a few more times.
Just liking a bridge and thinking it’s cool is not enough. The lighting has to be right, and the composition needs to be interesting. I often abandon a subject I love in person, but can’t figure out how to get a painting I would like out of it. The photo has to be a good one; the subject is secondary to a good composition.
Your pieces have such a sense of scale. How do you create that feeling in your work? Are you taking directly from a reference photo or are you exaggerating your reference photo? Why (or why not?) (Is this where understanding perspective comes in?)
I often place the camera as low to the ground as I can and look up. With big bridges and factories, stitching a few photos together creates more drama. If something looks massive and looming, I will often exaggerate the mass or length to approximate the feeling of being there. I play with perspective a lot, organizing everything with vanishing points, so they make sense, even if I change something from the photo. I love perspective. As I learned it in architecture school, I found I could understand it in three dimensions in my head, so all the lines made sense. I enjoy the 3D puzzle.
You’ve said that loosening up is a challenge for you. How do you keep loose in a piece? What have you built into your process to help with that?
Starting with flinging paint at the paper is a good start, at least that's my process at the moment. Unifying dark areas helps too. I’m finding everything is fuzzier in dark areas, so detail and contrast can be minimized. The same is true of light areas; detail can dull the sense of brightness. Painting outside is a wonderful way to loosen up. I’m not good at it, but I see it’s value. Figure drawing with a time limit is great too. In a half hour pose, I’ll draw for 10 minutes, then paint for 20. It’s tough, but the time limit forces looseness.
You teach watercolor classes: What problems do you generally see beginners face, and what advice do you give them? For you, how did you move between being an intermediate and advanced painter? What helped you make that leap?
I talk a lot about how much water and paint are in the brush at any given time. It’s a tough thing to your head around. For years things would happen on the paper, and I didn’t know why. I try to bring an awareness of how central the paint/water mixture is. From there, everyone has to struggle with it on their own.
Running the paint through different areas of the painting is also a stumbling block. If there is a line, it’s scary to cross. Watercolor allows you to run different shapes together, then subdivide as the painting progresses. It’s not intuitive though. Varying edges are essential, but get generalized while struggling with everything else. The importance of designed edges takes a while to figure out. My painting started to improve when I finally found a subject that excited me. As I put more hours in, my skill improved. Practice is essential. I do take classes and workshops, but lose myself if I take too many.
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