Watercolorist Yuki Hall did not start out with art as her path. Born and raised in Tokyo, Japan, Hall earned a degree in Mechanical Engineering. She worked as an engineer in the automotive industry until 2006, when she decided to leave the workforce and start her artistic journey full time.
What is it that draws you to the landscape as a subject?
Looking back, I do not remember making a conscious decision to become a landscape painter at any time in my journey with watercolor. When I first started painting, I painted many different subject types including still life, figures and portraits and even abstract. Over the years, I started finding myself more and more drawn to landscape artists who really push the sense of space on the picture plane to create the mood and atmosphere, such as J.M.W. Turner.
I think the best part of painting landscapes is that, if painting on location, it allows me to have an intimate connection to the outside world through both visual and tactile senses. Even painting in a studio from a reference photo will take me back to the moment and the space I was in. All the memories of the place, what was happening, what I was hearing, who I was with and the emotion I was feeling at that time will all come back to me as I paint it, and I get to relive that moment.
What sort of studies do you do before you begin a piece? What problems are you trying to solve with them?
For the first several years, I did not do any preliminary studies whatsoever. I would find an interesting subject, get excited and just start painting. Luckily, over time, I came to realize the importance of planning, and I started doing a pencil thumbnail sketch to work out the design issues before I start a painting.
Around 2013, I also began to do a small monochromatic painting as a preliminary study. Sometimes I do that as a replacement for a thumbnail sketch and other times I do it in addition to a thumbnail sketch. By doing a small monochromatic study, I get to work out not only shapes and tonal values, but also edge quality, which is an important design element in my painting.
Starting to do a monochromatic painting as a preliminary study was probably the most important turning point in my artistic journey. After I started doing it regularly, my work improved substantially.
I always emphasize the benefit of doing monochromatic paintings to all of my students and it is one of the most important elements in my teaching curricula. Too many students get hung up with colors, as they think that if they use right colors that will make the painting. Doing a monochromatic study allows them to focus on shapes, tonal values and edge quality which are crucial to creating a landscape with atmosphere.
Once you’re ready to begin a piece, what are the steps you take for the painting itself?
In most cases, I start the painting with an initial bold wash with a big mop brush and lots of water and pigment. The goal of this initial wash is to establish the sky and the ground and also to set the so-called “Mother color,” the underlining color that permeates throughout the picture plane. Most parts of this stage are done with light to medium-light values.
The next step is to establish a few large shapes with mainly medium to medium-dark tonal values. This stage is probably the most crucial stage in my painting. I have to keep reminding myself that my goal is not to paint each individual thing, like trees, mountains, and buildings, but to create a few major shapes which hold the entire painting together. When I drift away from this mission and start paying too much attention to actual things rather than shapes, my painting tends to fail and I have to start over. Having done a monochromatic painting helps tremendously and I always work from it, along with a reference photo.
The final step is to add some punch using dark values and some details, including calligraphy, to pull the painting together. In the case of cityscapes, this is the stage where I add some small figures.
Why is depth important to your work? How do you create that sense of depth? what sort of planning do you do to ensure that you do?
Having a sense of depth is extremely important for my work. Using both linear and real perspective tools, I try to create an illusion of a space where viewers can step right in and experience what I was experiencing - the air, the sound, the smell and all the magic of that scene at that time. I am intrigued by the fact that even though what I paint is an illusion of a space on a two-dimensional picture plane, the emotion I convey to the viewers’ heart is real.
I always make sure that I have a background, middle ground, and foreground in my painting. This is crucial to ensure that I have a reasonable amount of depth in my painting. Sometimes I have difficulty finding a background and I have to make up one from my own imagination or from other reference photos. During a monochromatic study, I try out to see how much I can push that background to a far distance, with light values and soft edges, regardless of the appearance of the actual scene. Often times, this alone can create a sense of depth in my painting.
What are the biggest challenges you see your students facing when it comes to perspective? What advice do you give them?
Many students do not take full advantage of a real perspective but instead paint everything with similar tonal values, often mostly mid values, and with all hard edges. I encourage them to think of executing a landscape in terms of a series of planes, starting from the plane furthest away then gradually coming to the plane nearest, just like a stage setting for a theater play. In general, objects associated with each plane should be painted with a tonal value and edge quality that most creates and emphasizes a sense of space.
In terms of linear perspective, students often fail to keep consistency in the viewpoint and elevation from which they are perceiving the scene. This happens often when they are dealing with a cityscape because of its complexity. The most common mistake they make is that they draw the background and buildings as they are looking at them from the ground level, but then when it comes to the time cars and figures are added, they put them as they are viewed from an elevated level, putting nearby figures and cars at the bottom.
I encourage students to make an effort to learn basic perspective tools. There are so many resources available in books, DVDs, and YouTube videos, and they only need to learn fundamental concepts to be able to incorporate perspective in their paintings.
When you travel, how do you collect inspiration for your work? Is that strictly through reference photos? Sketching on site? What are you trying to capture or think through while you are standing in front of the thing so that when you head home, months later, you are ready to paint it?
I enjoy painting both in my studio from a reference photo and painting outdoors with an actual scene in front of my eyes. Lately, when I paint outdoors, I tend to do more small sketches rather than setting up an easel and painting a larger piece. Sketching allows me to capture multiple scenes in a shorter period of time, with fewer things to carry around. I then paint a larger painting from the sketch, along with a reference photo, in my studio. Because a great degree of simplification of the subject matter is already done during the sketching process, painting from a sketch helps me to focus on the key features of the scene that I was first attracted to and often produces a stronger painting.
Whether painting on site or taking reference photos for later painting, I look for compositions that include strong light effects as key components of the subject’s atmosphere. Strong light effects do not necessarily mean casting dark shadows from direct sunlight. It can also include soft hazy daylight that fades distant objects almost to nothing. These latter light conditions are equally if not more attractive to me and inspire me to paint.
Reference photos: What do you take more or less directly from the photo and then what do you add that isn’t there to create atmosphere and emotion?
I normally I keep the basic structure of the scene with some minor adjustments. For instance, if it is a cityscape, I directly take the overall shape composed of multiple buildings, because it is usually this big shape that I was attracted to in the first place. If the reference photo already has at least some degree of atmosphere, I try to emphasize that by exaggerating the sense of depth or light effect by manipulating tonal value, edge quality or color.
Most of my rainy day cityscapes were painted this way. They were painted from reference photos that were taken on overcast days. Somehow, the mood evoked my desire to paint a rainy day scene out of it and it was painted in such a way as to elicit the atmosphere of a cool rainy day.
What are the qualities you love most about watercolor? How do those qualities create opportunities but also challenges for you as a watercolor painter? What about for watercolorist starting out?
Definitely, fluidity and the ability to produce a variety of beautiful edge qualities - hard edge, soft edge, and broken edges - in a way no other medium can. I am always puzzled about the fact that not all watercolor painters take full advantage of this and instead paint everything with hard edges. I strongly believe that incorporating such wonderful edge qualities will make your watercolor paintings more expressive and painterly.
The flip side of this is that producing a desired edge with the right timing requires an understanding of the moisture content of the paper, the pigment concentration on the paintbrush and the speed of execution, and it takes some time and practice to get to the stage where you can execute it with some degree of confidence. Often beginning students get discouraged and frustrated when they feel as though the watercolor has its own will and they cannot control it. I myself do not succeed all of the time. More often than I want, I fail miserably. However, this challenging nature of the watercolor medium, that forces me to walk on the borderline between a success and a disaster, is what keeps me moving forward.
You encourage students to use (and teach a course) on Notan. What is Notan? How can a student practice the concept and how can using it strengthen an artist’s work?
Notan is a Japanese word describing a harmony of Dark and Light. In the form of art, it represents a harmonious arrangement of dark & light shapes.
In my Notan workshops, I start by helping my students recognize existing Notan patterns in old masters’ paintings. We first convert an image of a painting to gray-scale, and then we reduce the value scale to 2 so that the image becomes a pattern of black and white. Many of the masters’ artworks have very simple yet distinct Notan structures, indicating the importance of Notan in a successful composition. I then let students create their own Notan design from a reference photograph of a scene. During this process, students are encouraged to pay attention to design principles such as simplicity, dominance, balance, movement, and harmony.
There are many benefits of studying Notan, such as recognizing the importance of connecting shapes and creating a visual flow in a picture plane. Among all, the greatest benefit is that understanding Notan will force us to break away from seeing the subject matter as a collection of actual things, and leads us to perceive it in terms of abstract shapes of dark and light.
Pigments: What do you look for in your pigments? Transparency? Granulation? What sorts of pigments make up your palette? How do you use those particular qualities in your work?
I work with both transparent and opaque watercolor pigments. Examples of opaque pigments are Yellow Ochre, Cerulean Blue and Cobalt Turquoise Blue. I do not do a lot of layering in my work, so I do not worry too much about losing transparency by using such rather opaque pigments
I like the granulating qualities of pigments and I use pigments that have such qualities. Often, I utilize this granulating quality to depict stormy skies and rough surface textures such as those of old buildings, etc.
In general, I work with a very limited palette to keep color harmony in my painting. I have 17 colors in my palette, but I only use 6 or 7 of them at most in a given painting. Cobalt Blue, French Ultramarine Blue, Burnt Sienna, Raw Umber and Brown Madder are my work-horse colors and I use them in most of my paintings.
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