Susan Keith discovered her love of art as a child through painting and drawing. She went on to earn her Bachelor of Arts Degree in Painting and Printmaking and taught art in high school. Originally Keith’s work focused on pastel and acrylic but eventually, she found her way into watercolor, which since retirement has been her focus as a full-time painter.
What does watercolor as a medium allows you to explore as an artist? What is it that you love about painting in watercolor?
Watercolor is an amazing medium. I love its spontaneity and unpredictable nature. The fluidity of color and pigment lend to its uncontrollable nature. I also love the way the vibrant colors mingle and separate to create something new, like a breath of fresh air. I never know exactly what will transpire on the paper. I find that fun, exciting and intriguing. Always something new!
You have a background in acrylic and pastel, how do you think learning to paint first in those media affected how you approach watercolor?
I found myself painting very realistically in acrylic, along the lines of photorealism. My pastel paintings brought me closer to a more impressionistic style. The fluidity of watercolor has helped me develop a looser style. Each medium has broadened my artistic approach and rethink my own style. I am always looking to explore and "grow" with each painting to challenge myself. There is so much to learn about watercolor. Each painting is a new adventure.
Walk us through your painting process. What does a subject need to have for you to want to paint it? What planning do you do before you begin painting? What is the thinking you do before you start a painting and what does that thinking look like (for example, thumbnail studies or color studies, etc)
My mind is constantly searching and exploring the world around me for my next painting. What draws me in initially to a subject is the way the light hits it, reflects on the subject, and the shapes created by the cast shadows.
I really am drawn to all kinds of subjects. I take lots and lots of pictures. From those photos that have those elements of strong light and shadow, I develop the composition. I spend a lot of time looking at my photos to plan, not only the composition but how the painting will evolve from start to finish. I create a color chart for each painting so I know exactly which colors I will be using and how they mix together for the values needed.
Sometimes I paint a smaller watercolor, very loose, about 8x10 to see how those colors work together and make adjustments. At this point, I draw a detailed contour line drawing on tracing paper. I like the surface of tracing paper and find it easy to erase and make adjustments to the drawing. I reduce the size of the drawing using my copier to about 4"x4" and place it inside my projector to enlarge it onto my watercolor paper. Using a #2B mechanical pencil I carefully trace the image onto the paper. That way I have a clean, detailed drawing to work from. I can incorporate the details or leave them out intuitively as the watercolor develops.
When you’re setting up a still life to photograph, how do you get the light you want? Does that change depending on whether your photographing pears or flowers in a glass jar? What is important to remember in the photography process if you want to paint light and shadow?
I absolutely love setting up a still life for a painting. Like a kid in a candy store, I get so excited about the possibilities.
I believe it is all about the natural light when working from photographs. My bedroom has a large window that gets fabulous morning light. I have a large wooden parquet desk where I set up all of my still life. The light is best from 8-11 in the morning hours, glowing and luminous.
I keep in mind I am looking for an unusual viewpoint to draw my viewer into the painting. So I begin taking pictures with my camera always moving and changing the still life objects around taking pictures from directly overhead to below eye level checking the dynamics of the composition through the viewfinder. I will take anywhere between 200- 300 pictures.
From these photos I look for reflected color variation in glass objects and the shape/color of cast shadows and of course the way the light plays out with each color. I use the computer to enhance color, intensify the contrast of light and shadow, and crop and splice photos together until the image of a watercolor painting comes together.
Your paintings have wonderful texture. What is it about your materials (paint/paper) and the kinds of washes you do that gives you that texture?
Texture and style have developed over the past few years for me. Especially when I started to paint on hot press paper using larger round brushes. The slick surface of the hot press paper makes it easier to create watercolor blooms, which I love. Water and paint have a mind of their own, why not go for it and see what wonderful texture develops. The paint also puddles because it sits on the top of the smooth surface of the paper and is not as easily absorbed.
I primarily use Gold Class Mission Watercolors and Daniel Smith Quinacridone Watercolors. I love their strong, vibrant, and clear color which dry true to their color value as when they are wet. My favorite brushes are the larger round Kolinsky Sables.
I begin my paintings with loose wet-in-wet washes using lots of water, paint, and large round brush. At this point I let the first wash begin to dry and I will use an eye dropper to drop in clean water to force blooms. This is where the fun begins, seeing what develops when the first wash is dry. Keeping in mind, I will only have two to three passes with color before it gets muddy and loses its transparency. I am thoughtful about washes and layering glazes of color. Less is more and I am keenly aware not to overwork and layer too much pigment. Keep it fresh and transparent.
Where and how do you do plan color in your process? What choices do you make about color before you begin a piece? For example, do you choose a color combination before starting or do you lay down color and then respond as you paint?
I am a painter with a plan. As I mentioned before, at the beginning stages of a painting I make a specific color chart with the title of the painting and the name/color listed. Not only does this help identify the colors I will be using but it also helps me remember the colors I used for future reference.
I am drawn to complementary color schemes especially blues/oranges. Before I begin, I like to work out the darkest values of the color combinations and any mixing of those colors. Keeping the watercolor transparent is foremost to me, letting the color mix and run together as I lay them next to one another. It is important to know the colors on your palette, their qualities, transparent, semi-transparent, opaque, and how they work in combination with each other.
Where do you think about design in your work? What does that thinking look like?
When I think about design in my paintings it comes through in a variety of shape and pattern. It could be in the shapes of the cast shadows or the light patterns reflected in a glass jar. There needs to be a variety in both size and shape to move the viewer’s eye through the composition of the painting.
While painting, I remind myself to paint the shape and not the subject as I move through and to keep it interesting with variety. Not only is shape and pattern important in the subject matter of the painting but also in the interesting shapes created in the negative space or background. Incorporating the background into the subject as I paint keeps the painting fluid and cohesive.
How much realism do you use in a piece? How and where do you push past realism in a painting?
I incorporate some aspect of realism in my subjects. Sometimes this becomes the focal point of my painting. I usually push way past the realism and enhance the color of my subjects. Moving in all directions away from the focal point my watercolors take on a more impressionistic style with less hard edges becoming more softer with disappearing edges. I always "kick up the color," a few notches in, not only the subject but the color combinations for the values of the shadows.
How do you capture the sense of sunlight (and shadow) in a piece? Is that through color, through value, etc? What elements do you have to have in place for the light in a painting to read as sunlight specifically?
The lightest and brightest areas of light in my watercolors are the white of the paper. I truly believe these bright white shapes in contrast to the darkest values in your painting are the shining jewels that give your painting it's sparkle and pizzaz. It is important to incorporate the full range of value, the brightest white(paper) to the darkest darks(paint) in all my watercolor paintings. Color often gets the credit, when I hear someone say, "Oh, I love the color in your painting!" In reality, it is those values and range of the color that makes the painting "pop and sing."
What skills did you learn to help you get from beginner to intermediate skill level? What did you then have to tackle to make the jump between intermediate and advanced painter? What advice would you give to someone working on each of those themselves?
One of my, "Ahhhhaaa," moments as a watercolorist was when I decided not to try and control the water and paint but to let it "do its thing." Let the water and paint do what is natural. It is more fun to work with those unexpected surprises because they will happen.
Watercolor is so much trial and error, getting to know your materials and paints and how they work together. It is also important to get the best quality materials that you can afford. It will work in your favor. Take all of these in combination together, along with time, lots of time, will give you greater confidence and success as a watercolorist. Practice, practice, practice, and paint, paint, paint some more. Put the time in and commit to it full heartedly. Nothing will move you forward more than your commitment to spending lots of time painting!
Learn more about Susan Keith by visiting her at her website and on Facebook.
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