Interview with Artist Shuang Li

April 08, 2019 9 min read

Shuang Li -and next CCP artist was born, raised and classically trained in China.  She studied art from an early age and received her BA Degree in Graphic Design and Master Degree in Art History in China before getting her MFA (Master of Fine Art) Degree in the states. Following the traditional “En Plein Air” Impressionism approach, Shuang paints watercolor both on locations and in her studio, portrays the extraordinary variety of life with her unique perspective. Her work has earned her signature status in the National Watercolor Society, Watercolor West, San Diego Watercolor Society just to name a few. Shuang will be releasing a NEW video workshop with Creative catalyst soon. Sign up for the VIP list here and get notifications and a discount when the video is available. 

Learn how to paint waterfalls - and moving water- in watercolor with Shuang Li's video workshop

One of your videos is focused on painting water. What is it that you love about painting water? What does water give you as a subject?

Water is one of the most common elements in landscape painting. I am a landscape painter, so I paint water, often.

Plus, as human beings, we are all associated with water in our daily life. Each time I paint water, I know my emotions can be expressed through a variety of visual forms, and this means I have a deeper visual communication and connection with my viewers through my waterscapes.


Learn how to paint still water in watercolor with Shuang Li's video workshop

What is the biggest misconception you run into about painting water?

Water is often considered to be a difficult landscape element to paint. It does not have to be difficult if we understand the character of water. In general, we can’t just paint “water” because water does not hold its own shape. Water borrows and relies on whatever holds it. From a cup to a river bed or cliffs to the ocean bottom and rocks, water reflects the object above its surface. As an artist, painting water actually means painting the other shapes that surround it.


Could you walk us through your painting process? What are you trying to do at each stage?

Planning: what I am going to paint and why
This stage sometimes only takes a few minutes (especial in plein air sessions). Sometimes it can take days to achieve. This depends on the complexity of the subject matter, or the visual languages I try to use for the subject matter. At the end of this stage, most of the time, the result is one or few value sketches with design variations. Sometimes the “value sketch” is not done on paper, but rather in my mind, especial in plein air situation. While it may appear to others that I haven’t planned anything before painting, planning always plays a very important role though as an “invisible” form.

Drawing: finalize the design on my painting surface
At this stage, after I’ve chosen my final design, I draw a very loose drawing with pencil on my watercolor paper. During the drawing process, I am only emphasizing major shapes from my design. I’m not drawing any details.

First wash: paint all of my largest shapes, keep whites if needed
At this stage, I usually use large, soft brushes and paint with lots of water and pigments. I work from back to front, with a combination of warm/cool colors. I keep my paint as transparent as possible, covering all of my largest shapes but I keep any sharp white areas as needed. At the end of stage, I usually refer back to my value sketch to make sure I’m staying the course with my design, especial the value structure. No details are complete at this stage.

Bold with “sure marks”: establish mid value shapes and darks
At this stage, I take advantage of the perfect moisture from my previous stage. Before my paper is dry, I use “sure marks” that have enough pigment mixed in to establish all mid-values and to create a variety of edge types. I complete fresh darks when the moisture condition is still ideal. Only the necessary details are suggested for the focal areas. In this stage, I complete about 80% work, and usually, it’s in one go. Because I need the paper to have a perfect level of moisture, once I start this phase, I can’t stop.

Finishing up: compare and connect
At the beginning of this stage, I always refer back to my original value sketch, compare my painting-in-progress to the original design and value sketch, and make sure the painting progress still aligns with the original goal. Again, this still doesn’t include details. Then I use drier pigment mixing to finish up important areas, adjust varies edges, connect shapes and emphasize on uniting.

This is a slow thinking stage with very few, but important, strokes. I add and enhance with finishing touch details only with what’s absolutely necessary for the painting. Aiming for the completion of a successful painting, I keep “less is more” in mind.


Learn how to paint lakes and still water in watercolor with Shuang Li's video workshop

Why is planning important in watercolor?

Watercolor is famous for its intolerance for corrections of mistakes or for keeping whites. Because of this, it helps enormously to plan before actually painting. Planning not only greatly improves your chances of a successful design, but it also helps you avoid any irreversible issues like keeping whites or creating soft edges.

It can be hard to get an artist to slow down. What’s the danger in not slowing down?

I would say my speed is usually determined by my painting in progress. Most of the time, my painting makes the call and I just “listen to” it and then respond with the proper speed. For example, when my painting is at the perfect moisture conditions (e.g. soft and wet or damp and needs more darks, etc.), it calls for a relatively fast speed with a non-stop process to quickly establish large shapes and proper value structure.

However, at other stages, when my painting is calling me to compare and connect shapes, I slow down accordingly and paint with this major task in mind. When it comes time to finish a painting, I slow down significantly, only to add or adjust a few details as needed.

To just keep painting without paying attention to what your painting needs (and the speed it needs) will not guarantee a successful painting. Most likely, in fact, it will guarantee the opposite result.


Learn how to paint lakes and still water in watercolor with Shuang Li's video workshop

What is it that you love about plein air painting? Why is painting from life important?

For me, plein air painting is an extremely rewarding pursuit. It’s filled with stimulation and inspiration through direct observation. Mother Nature not only provides us with endless subject matter, but she also shows us incredible possibilities and inspires us to explore creative composition, color choices and more. We are drawn to express Nature’s inner beauty with our own visual language (personal style). The knowledge and ability I’ve gained through my plein air practice and direct observation of light, shape, form, texture, etc., has surpassed what any art schools or workshops could teach me.

Though today’s camera and technology can produce some amazing results, it is still very primitive compared to what the human eye and mind can perceive. Not to mention what a well-trained artist can interpret with his or her unique personal approaches. 

Through painting from life, we develop both our physical capability and coordination between our eyes, hand, and mind. This practice and continued learning make us better artists. Practicing direct observation not only makes our plein air paintings better, but it also energizes and enriches our studio creations as well.


Learn how to paint waterfalls and moving water in watercolor with Shuang Li's video workshop

What do you look for in a scene when you’re out plein air painting? What does it need to have to make a good painting? (As opposed to just being a beautiful scene.).

Good paintings require good visual forms such as strong shapes, unique lighting, and dramatic color schemes. When I am out looking for subject matter, I look for those elements.

At the same time, I also seek for the atmospheric feeling or poetic moods that I can personally associate with any scene, and I’d try to visually communicate my emotions through both my design and painting process.

To paint a beautiful scene does not automatically result in a beautiful painting. A beautiful painting is a painting that can connect the artist and the viewer through visual effects and the emotion they create.

Learn how to paint bays in watercolor with Shuang Li's video workshop


Along those same lines, from a composition standpoint, how much do you take directly from what’s in front of you and how much do you change? Why?

Once I know how I emotionally feel about the scene (or “get the atmospheric” sense of the scene), I begin to think about what visual forms I can use to express both that emotion and the physical elements I see. I begin creating my composition and I enhance anything that will more fully help express the character of the scene and I eliminate anything that’s not helping express that original vision.

As I mentioned above, for any painting I am creating, no matter if it’s painted plein air or in my studio, my goal is to always create a beautiful painting that can both emotionally and visually affect me and my viewers.

This thought process also applies to my studio painting processes where I use sketches or photographic references. For studio paintings, I rarely try to produce a painting that looks exactly like the reference photo I’m using. Instead, I always try and use multiple resources to recreate a painting that fills with stronger emotional and visual affection than the original reference photos.


Learn how to paint beaches and waves in watercolor with Shuang Li's video workshop

Where do you think about design in your process? What are you thinking about and deciding from a design standpoint?

I think about design throughout my entire painting process. Painting a watercolor is like building a house: the design elements (shapes line, color value, texture, etc) are my building materials. The design principles (unity and harmony, dominance and conflict, balance, repetition, and alternation, etc) are my blueprints for the final painting. Watercolor techniques are important, but true success for an artist comes from the ability to combine both the principles of design and the design elements in a painting process.

Learn how to paint still and quiet water in watercolor with Shuang Li's video workshop

How and where do you use hard and soft edges? Is it planned or does it just happen as you paint? How do you keep everything from being one or the other? This can be challenging.

How and where to use different edges in a painting is determined by the painting itself. Mainly, it’s an issue of what I want to visually express through this particular painting.

For the star of the show, aka the focal point, I design and paint shapes that have both a stronger value contrast and more defined, harder edges. For the details that play only supporting roles, I give them less definition with softer edges and reduced value differences.

A painting with all hard edges can create visual chaos for the viewer, while a painting with all soft edges can result in a weaker visual communication and a no visual purpose. For these reasons, I plan ahead for the types and locations of edges I’d like for a painting. And then along the way, I allow for adjustments. Watercolor is spontaneous and always creates a lot of interesting and surprising results with edges. I usually do some final adjustment before I finish a painting.

However, overall, my principles of how the edges are used don’t change. It’s a combination of technique and planning. Technically, I need to understand both the proper ratio of water and pigment and also the timing for paper’s various stages of moisture. But clear planning in advance always helps me to paint various edges with confidence.

Learn how to paint habour water in watercolor with Shuang Li's video workshop


So many people struggle with drawing. How is drawing important to your work? Why?

I would consider drawing and painting as the same thing but with a different medium. Drawing is not only a process to start a painting, it is the bone structure of a painting. Without good drawing skills, a representational painting just won’t be able to stand on its own. In addition, good drawing skills can give an artist great freedom and power to create strong and personal visual expression through brushstrokes and sure marks. As an acquired skill, it is not too hard to learn, although, without routine practice, it seems very easy to get rusty. That’s why I cautiously remind myself to continue with drawing and sketching exercises as often as I can. The result is really an award, too: The more I draw, the better my paintings become!

Learn how to paint beaches in watercolor with Shuang Li's video workshop

What is the biggest challenge you see students facing in watercolor? What advice do you give them?

I would say the lack of drawing skills. For some strange reason, drawing has always been considered a fun activity for kids, but not for many adults. I constantly hear, “I can paint watercolor, but I can’t draw.” I really disagree with the statement. To me, anyone who wants to paint watercolor and become a good watercolor artist will need a good set of fundamental skills and drawing should be among the MUST and the FIRST.

My advice for my artist friends would be: if you want to be a better artist, don’t put it off any longer, start strengthening your drawing skills right away. You don’t need to stop painting watercolor while you learn how to draw. But as an artist, you do need to put drawing as a high priority and a key skill. Once you have it, keep practicing it. The greatest rewards from this skill may not appear the next day in your work, but will show and support through your entire career.

Learn more about Shuang Li by visiting her website. And don’t forget to get on her VIP presale list by signing up here.


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