Interview with Artist René Eisenbart
René Eisenbart - Marbling Magic (in the CCP shop) - has been making art all her life. What started as a childhood love has developed into a multi-faceted career, including 25 years as artist for The Oregonian where she created weekly botanical illustrations. Hundreds of her paintings have been published in the Homes & Gardens section and the book, “Plant This” by NPR correspondent Ketzel Levine. Today Eisenbart paints and teaches from her home, is a signature member of the National Watercolor Society and runs painting workshops across the globe.
You are a watercolor painter and have been for decades. How did you come to paint watercolor?
Watercolor has a reputation for being difficult to learn but it has always seemed easy to me. I won an award for a watercolor painting when I was a child. Then as an adult I gravitated toward it because I love how fresh and immediate it is. As artist for The Oregonian I could create a painting quickly enough to satisfy my editors and then it was the perfect medium for botanical work for the Homes & Gardens magazine.
2. Could you explain the basics of marbling to those watermedia artists who may not yet be familiar with the technique?
Marbling is a way of applying a complex pattern of paint onto paper, by floating bits of thinned down acrylic paint over a tray filled with thickened water. The paint is often combed into patterns, then a sheet of paper that has been treated with alum is placed in the tray. When the paper is lifted the pattern has been transferred.
What was it about marbling that first drew your attention? Does marbling technique bring something to a painting that other watercolor and acrylic techniques can’t?
Repeating pattern is a powerful way to move the eye. I am also enchanted with ambiguity, and images we do not immediately understand hold more interest for us. Acrylic marbling can do both — add patterning and obscure imagery in our work.
Marbling is a magical tool — vibrant and immediate and complex. I never expected to turn marbling technique into an art form but the results of early experiments were so compelling that I keep going back to it. Technically it might be conceivable to hand paint a simple marbled pattern but it would be ridiculously time consuming.
Not all of your watercolor paintings include marbling. How do you decide which to marble and which to not? When do you decide that in the design process?
Design decisions can happen at any time. With The Dancer (above) I had planned before I even painted the figure to use the marbled patterning to create a feeling of motion. With the Heron King I marbled a white paper intentionally leaving a space in the center for a painting. I had no idea what the subject would be — that came later.
Sometimes in the process of painting I will realize that marbling will enhance it, creating a cohesiveness between foreground and background, a sense of movement or suggesting ambiguity.
Occasionally I’ll marble over an unfinished painting that I’ve grown tired of and the result will spark me to complete it. Other times I’ve used marbling to hide a flaw in a painting. Making papers for collage happens as I pick up unused paint from the tray and they might inspire a painting but I also plan specific colors and patterns for an intended painting. I recently spent 3 days marbling sheets of paper to make a ling cod.
Speaking of design: where in your panting process do you consider and plan design? Is that in the beginning with thumbnail and studies or after you already have a drawing on your watercolor sheet? How important is design in your process?
Design is key to making good art. I am a planner. I like to have a clear idea of where I am going with a painting and find that making small value sketches early in the process saves a lot of time in the end. But as it progresses it is the painting that determines what happens next. I let go of preconception and respond to what is happening. Sometimes what a painting needs is not revealed until late in the game.
Process: How do you approach painting a painting? Could you walk us through your steps? How did your process change as you moved through being a beginner, intermediate and then advanced painter?
First comes the concept. The idea might originate from an image or from my imagination, then I look for reference. Next comes the design and making a few thumbnails or quick sketches to work out the shapes. I’ve always approached art making this way, but as I’ve gained experience I’ve learned the importance of making a value sketch. A good value pattern makes a strong painting and working that out in advance frees me to paint more expressively.
When painters begin to add marbling to their work, do they need to consider any adjustments in how they approach their paintings in terms of values or pigments? How about design?
Design is your biggest consideration and the adjustment happens with the marbling. One question is how much of the painting to cover up? The marbling pattern can be made totally opaque or fairly transparent. It can be manipulated to create large openings, covering the perimeter or into an overall lacy texture. Understanding how the marbling will effect the painting is essential to the outcome and trying to imagine it is part of the fun! Sometimes it comes out perfectly but more often improvements are needed. Values can be adjusted or areas of patterning can be softened by darkening with transparent paint or lightening with opaques.
With marbling, you have unlimited color options to add to a panting that also has color. How do you choose the colors you’ll use when marbling? What do you base those choices on?
Playing with color is one way to evoke feeling. I normally take clues from within the painting to choose color families for the marbling, sometimes adding a contrasting color for spice. A marbled pattern often appears very cohesive even when using a wide variety of color. It is possible of course to make a garish pattern or use the wrong pattern for a particular painting. Understanding color theory is helpful.
For your watercolor paintings, how do you approach colors? Do you mainly use transparent or opaque pigments? Why? And do those choices change at all if you know you’re going to marble?
Transparent watercolor is what I love because of how the light plays through it but I do use opaque paint whenever it is needed for covering power. This holds true if I’m marbling or not.
How important is texture to your work? We’ve talked about marbling. How else do you bring texture to your paintings? What should an artist consider when bringing texture into her work.
Texture may be the first thing in the creative process that adds the marks of the artist, enhancing and supporting their concept behind the work. It creates a sense of depth, causing the viewer to emotionally connect with a painting. A textured painting is visually active and comes across as being dynamic. In my work it might be the visual texture of granulating pigment or the tactile texture of applied acrylic mediums underneath the paint.
As a teacher, what are the biggest challenges you see your students facing and what advice do you give them? What advice do you wish you'd gotten early on?
Tenacity is really useful in making art. Step back and evaluate, but don’t give up! It’s challenging to imagine what a painting will look like when it is finished and we become discouraged midway when the message is still developing. Cultivate tolerance. Often I see students stressing over things that are not important. It’s so easy to get lost in the details and miss the big picture. I say, “Find ways to keep on painting. Follow your heart! And keep it fun.”