Watercolorist Robert J. O’Brien has been painting in watercolor for over forty years. In 1977, with a move to Vermont, he began to focus his work on landscape and architectural studies. With four distinct seasons, Vermont also gave the artist another focus, light. Robert teaches landscape painting workshops across the country.
You have been painting in watercolor for over 40 years. What is it about the medium that keeps you coming back to it? As an artist, what does staying with one medium give you that maybe you would have missed if you had jumped from medium to medium?
First and foremost, I just love the transparency of the medium. Even though I also work in pastel, my first love is watercolor. There is so much to be learned in painting with this unpredictable and challenging medium. I love to “push the envelope” as far as subject matter and values are concerned. There is so much to explore and to build on in watercolor. It forces you to stick with it. I will never stop learning.
Artists have different struggles at each stage of their development: What were you working on as a beginner and intermediate? What did you finally master that allowed you to become an advanced artist?
I began as a landscape painter. I still paint landscapes and love winter scenes.
My paintings have become more close focused over the years and have since broadened my subject matter to include flowers and portraits. Learning how to recognize the importance of values in a composition was a big step forward for me.
Light is an important element in your work. When you are looking at a scene or a reference photo, what information are you looking for specifically about the light? How does light change season to season and how do you reflect that in a piece?
I have a saying “it takes dark to make light.” I look for subjects where shadow shapes are more predominant. The light that makes it through is intense and glows as depicted in my painting “Boston Coach”. My winter scenes often have a softer cooler light that you can see in “Hillside Buckets”. I also look for the slanted light of early morning and late afternoon.
You mention in your bio that you travel to Southern France, a region known for its light. How did traveling there the first time change how you approached light or deepen your understanding of light? Why?
The light in Southern France is special, especially in Provence. What immediately struck me in my early visits were the clusters of stone villages in the near distance. The stone emits an intense warm glow when reflected in the sun, something I don’t really see here in Northern New England. I found painting with the range of values in a French scene a challenge, especially in my plein air work. I learned that I needed to make my darks darker to accurately capture my desired light effect.
You talk about painting ordinary images. What about the idea of ordinary images draws you as an artist. What are you looking for in one of these ordinary images that will call you to paint it? Is it shadow and light? Pattern?
It’s all about shadow and light. I love old tools, cans, items that have seen a lot of use through the years. I look for all of the above, and pattern. (See “Block and Tackle," above, and “Kerosene Can,” below.)
Walk us through your process. Once you’ve decided to paint something, what problems do you need to solve before you begin the piece? How do you solve them? (For example, studies, etc.) Why is this part important to your process?
I start with a value sketch. Lately I have been using a water-soluble graphite block. So it’s actually a value painting. Here I can make adjustments in certain value shapes that may not be as evident in the reference photo and work them into my painting. It also gives me the opportunity to eliminate unnecessary elements and to perhaps move things around to strengthen the composition. I then analyze my finished sketch. If I’m satisfied, then chances are the painting will turn out well. If not, I haven’t wasted all of that time and energy in painting something that may not be as successful.
On the flip side, after all this planning, what do you want to focus on when you’re painting the piece itself? What do you leave for discovery on the page as the painting develops?
The actual painting is the fun part, and I mainly focus on getting the values right. I use a value finder when I paint to help in this process. I’m never quite sure how a painting is going to turn out, but I guess that’s the joy of it. I am a slow deliberate painter and build up my values through the layering process.
Could you talk about design in your work? Where in your process do you really consider design? Are there any principles of design that are particularly important in your work? (If this would be easier referencing a specific painting, please feel free.)
Design starts with my camera when looking for subject matter. I like to keep it simple and focused. Contrasting values add interest, with diagonal lines and shapes helping to create an element of movement. (See “Block and Tackle” above). I also like to add an element of mystery to my work. A good painting should always keep the viewer guessing.
Within landscape painting there are so many different subjects to paint. The vibrant colors of fall are very different from doors and windows. For someone just starting out in landscape, where do you suggest they start? Are there important landscape fundamentals students should master first? What are they and why is mastering them important?
Landscape is a good subject to start with when painting watercolor for the first time. Many elements of design and composition pertain to the landscape motif. I feel that the beginning watercolorist gets a broad overview of techniques and how to arrange shapes in a landscape composition.
Start with a simple composition with not a lot of clutter, such as a winter scene, which lends itself beautifully to watercolor. Since winter is devoid of a lot of color, unlike fall, the student will get a grasp of the importance of value in a painting, which will make for a successful painting in any season.
In teaching landscape to the beginning student, I stress technique and how to suggest various elements, such as trees and water in a realistic manner. These techniques can eventually be carried over and used with a variety of other subject matter.
Color- when you’re looking at a scene, do you paint purely what you see in local color or do you make changes? How do you adjust the colors to make a better painting?
When painting a landscape, I try to capture the local color as best I can. When painting subjects like flowers, I like to make the colors more vibrant. I’m able to achieve this through a layering process with thin washes of color.
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