Artist and workshop instructor Stan Kurth has drawn and painted most of his life. An aunt, who was an artist and art instructor, became a big influence even before he began school. Stan lives with the conviction of “fear not” and that same attitude permeates not just his life but his art. His focus and dedication to his work have earned him signature member status in several watercolor societies including the National Watercolor Society, San Diego Watercolor Society and the Western Federation of Watercolor Societies. He currently lives in Arizona.
What do you do before you start a painting?
I make color sketches regularly. For me, they are intuitive compositional practice. Practice is how one gets better at one’s chosen profession. None of these sketches become larger version paintings nor do I ever make any sketches for that purpose. They start with ink followed by watercolor and gouache. These are done in an intuitive manner like my other work but smaller in scale. Other than these small practice pieces I don’t do anything in preparation for larger paintings.
When you want to work on a painting, what kind of choices do you make before you begin a painting? Why (or why not) do you begin this way? What does it give you?
I don’t really make many choices before I begin a painting other than mediums and materials to use. I most often start a painting with arbitrary marks and color application. This gives me the freedom to move in any number of directions. The elements and principles of design come in to play as the painting progresses.
Once you start a painting, what are the steps you take in your process? What are the goals for each stage of your painting process?
Beginning stages would be arbitrary mark making and color application. As a painting progresses, I become more conscious of the elements and principles of design and start developing a useful library of line, color, shape, texture, value, size, and direction (elements of design). Some of the components of this library are already utilizing the principles of design. For example, a shape may have contrasting hard and soft edges, repetition of texture within and a gradation of value or color within.
The goal for any stage in my painting would be to get a glimpse of a possible path forward. Those choices make the painting my own. They are intuitive decisions based on a lifetime of seeing and feeling. In the final stages of a painting, I’m mostly using principles of design to create unity, dominance, contrast, balance, and harmony. For example, I might glaze a dark color over a large area to create balance or dominance of color and/or value. As a painting progresses much of the library I’ve created dissipates or becomes obscure.
So many people want to work fast when they work abstractly. Could you talk about where in your process you work fast and where in your process you slow down? Is slowing down important? What does an artist miss if they never slow down?
I work faster beginning a painting, getting down random marks and color to be used later. I think there is an emotional quality to this part of the work that can only be obtained with some amount of spontaneous gesture of marks and strokes.
As a painting progresses it works best for me to pause and observe, to find a direction whether it be addition or subtraction. I personally would miss a lot if I didn’t. There is a reciprocal relationship between me and the painting and during these observation periods, opportunistic windows appear which would otherwise be missed.
Where in your process do you really consider design and make design choices? What kind of decisions are you making at this point?
I don’t think of design much at all during the early stages of a painting. Somewhere in the middle, I start working on design and heading for the home stretch it becomes the focal point of my process. I let the work dictate the use of elements and principles. In the last stages, design principles tie it all together, hopefully.
Design and composition can be overwhelming subjects to new painters. Is it worth struggling work on design early in your painting path or is it something that can wait until you’ve had some time in the paint? Where does a student start with such a complex subject?
I think it’s overwhelming for many seasoned painters as well. I don’t think too much about it in the beginning, but make no mistake, good paintings are well composed. If you don’t know composition, do some research or perhaps take a fine art basic design class. This is something you’re not going to learn in a single workshop. I don’t care how fantastic a painter the instructor might be. Composition in painting is simply the artists choice and execution of elements and principles. All design principles can be applied to all design elements. I see some students create one very nice element in their painting ignoring everything else and consequently the work fails. There is no unity or balance. They might as well just paint arrows pointing to that one single element.
Composition is not easy, but if you want to be good at anything let it consume you, live it, breathe it and practice it.
For someone who isn’t familiar with the term contrast, could you (1) describe what contrast from a design standpoint and (2) talk about what contrasts you use in your work and why?
Contrast is a principle of design which can and most often should be used with the elements of design. I would venture to say most of the population thinks that contrast is light and dark, but contrast can be applied to all elements of design not just value. Unless you are painting with one color, you are going to have color contrast. Unless you are painting with one value, you are going to have value contrast. Unless you are using one shape, you are using contrast in shape. Unless you are using one size for all shapes, you are using contrast in size, etc., etc., etc. Contrast is the antonym to simile. Without contrast paintings are boring.
There are many different reasons one could and should use contrast with all elements of design in a painting. An example of contrast I often incorporate in my paintings would be soft and hard edges. I use this mixture of edges because it creates a tone of ambiguity -something vague and somewhat undefined which I like in a painting. It offers mystery and imagination to the viewer.
I use another design principle, dominance, to enhance ambiguity with more soft edges than hard. So, soft edges dominate the hard edges.
Color: What do you decide about color before you begin a painting? Do you have a general palette or a color relationship (for example, analogous or complementary) chosen beforehand? How firmly set is that choice?
I really don’t decide anything about color before I start a painting, maybe warm or cool. Most of the time color is an arbitrary last second decision as my brush moves toward the palette. Once a color goes down it’s like any other move I make in a painting, it influences the direction I go from there. I think I use more complimentary color relationships because of the harmonious grays that can be mixed from them. Those grays mixed from colors in the painting help unify the color element. Again, harmony and unity being design principles applied to the element of color.
In your workshops, you stop and give feedback on a piece. How would you suggest a student think through their own work during the process? What questions should they ask and answer?
This depends on the student and the work. There really is no set formula here. Good composition is the key to a good painting. I guess the questions they need to ask themselves should be or pertain to how principles are being applied to elements, at least in the latter stages of the painting.
For students, what is the hardest part of painting intuitively? What advice do you give them?
I’d say for many students, it’s the whole concept of painting and composing on the fly. What do I do next and where do I go from there? These are the questions I get often. Sometimes students have ideas and are just looking for verification to execute them. I find many students are afraid to make risky moves, so they make the same old meaningless, repetitious and emotionless brush strokes one on top of another not unlike painting a fence.
I have an exercise I use now and then when a student gets into a rut with a painting. I have them take the painting in question and do something to it bold and daring, something they’ve never done before like use a super ugly color and make a gestural swipe or two with a large brush held with the opposite of their dominant hand and perhaps right across their favorite part of the painting.
The advice I give most often is learn and understand the relationships between the elements and principles of design. Composition and design get the viewer’s attention and content holds it. Without the initial attention, an artist’s view or slant is pretty much ignored.
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