Baltimore artist Stewart White began his studies at the Pratt Institute, but after serving 3 years in the US Army, he returned to graduate from UC Berkeley with a BFA. He’s worked as an architectural illustrator and designer both of which have added to his deep knowledge of buildings and good design. Stewart, a transparent watercolorist, paints plein air and teaches workshops across the country and the world, including every other year in Paris.
You teach workshops abroad. A a painter, what is the benefit of travel for you and your work? How do you see it benefit your students?
I think the senses are most alert when put in unfamiliar surroundings. The lack of the familiar opens up awareness of new insights. Students are in the throes of the excitement of exploration which is an ideal learning environment.
It also tends to bond a class to the shared experience of travel and cooperation especially in travel related challenges. In a world where global branding makes for an homogenous environment, it’s good to get away to other parts of the world. I’ve seen good paintings of a parking lot of a Kroger’s grocery but a small medieval village in Southern France would be my preference for a classroom.
(Note from Stewart: Gion Roof Repair (above) is also good reason to see the world. Gion is a historic district of Kyoto Japan. To a westerner's eyes everywhere I look is a feast of pure design and lovely shapes.")
Why is working in plein air important to you as an artist? What does painting plein air give you that working from a reference photo does not?
In Plein air painting the student experiences the passing of time, the air temperature, the environmental smells and sounds absent from just the visual information present in a photo. A changing shadow can highly improve a design that was not initially conceived. The eye is more subtle to nuance than most cameras are and are in a state of alert observation during a painting session. While painting plein air, certain events might take place that can change the narrative that a photograph would miss.
Working in plein air can be overwhelming. How do you break down the information on site? What type of information are you looking for to start the painting? As your painting develops, how does what you are looking for and at change?
The student must stand for something by establishing a focal point, an idea or a theme. They need to edit information to serve the greater idea. This is a skill required of every artist. The art of simplification and editing are the key disciplines learned in outdoor observation. The craft of painting comes by the desire to honor those observations as effectively as possible.
You mention in your workshop description the importance of planning. Why is planning so important in watercolor? How do you encourage your students to plan? What are the consequences of not planning?
Planning does two things. It helps the artist avoid “getting trapped.” By that I mean, there are times that one cannot go back and fix hastily painted areas of work. Light areas and clean washes need to be laid down with confidence that comes from having a good plan and preparation.
Secondly, planning can result from doing small “dress rehearsals” in a 6x8 square or even a postage stamp sized sketch. That is where revisions and cautions can be discovered prior to executing the final work and measures can be taken to avoid calamity.
Without planning there is a lack of focus, a lack of light and a lack of idea development.
(Image note From Stewart: “ Paris Sketch” is an example of the dress rehearsal and the importance of planning. The use of white paper is important to the sense of light here. This is also a small 4x4 study that I find particularly pleasing despite its small size. I can see from the study that a larger painting of this would more than likely be successful if I stick to the plan.)
Design is clearly important to your work. Where in your process do you think about design? What questions do you ask yourself as you are trying to decide on a design?
Design happens in the preplanning phase of sketching. It can happen in value studies or notans.
I try to visualize a completed, realized image and head in that direction. I’m always open though to the possibilities that watercolor presents during the process, those happy accidents as it were.
I want to consider the mood and atmosphere as this will determine the quality of my edges, the local color and the color scheme. In forming a design or composition I want to consider 5 elements
1. Repetition: Of shapes, line and color,
2. Harmony: The world between monotony and discord,
3.Gradation: The various bridges of sequences between light and dark, cool and warm.
4. Contrast: the relationships between values and colors and finally
5. Unity: what devices of paint handling can I use to create cohesion in the work?
Have I considered the painting from corner to corner? Am I prejudiced towards certain colors and forms at the expense of others that I may be bored with ? Do all the elements “dance “ together?
(Image note from Stewart:" “Assisi” is an example of the principle of repetition in design.The similar shapes lead the eye to the Tower. The arches are repeated in the tree shapes and other round shapes that play off the rectilinear architecture.")
From a standpoint of composition and design, where does a student begin? How does a student begin understanding and then practicing good composition and design? (They can both feel like pretty intangible concepts. )
This is a difficult question to answer. I think we all have likes and dislikes but good design can be taught. An immersion in good wines will show up poor quality wines that make it difficult to go back to the swill you thought was once pretty good.
Do lots of studies. Do not always fall in love with your first ideas. Keep working the design elements (mentioned in the previous question). Consider as many options as possible. You must be considering design constantly and not just in painting but in all the arts. Music has structure, architecture, city planning, interiors, etc.
Exercises like color charts and value studies are dry as a course of study but will provide excellent appreciation and facility much as a musician practices scales.
(Image note from Stewart: "The "Kyoto Study" shows the power of Contrast, Chroma and neutrals light and dark. It's also shows the power of flat, simple passages and the checkerboard kimono pattern. (It's also a good reason to travel.)")
Is there an element or principle of design that is especially important in your paintings? Could you talk about how it plays a role in your work?
Most important element. Line. Line is the underlying skeleton that holds up all other considerations. It determines the flow and direction of all else.
Color: When you’re painting a scene, are you primarily interested in capturing the local color or do you choose color based more on the mood you’re trying to convey? How do you approach your color choices?
I try to rely on the local color as the experience of time and place intricately mesh with the mood and atmosphere. However, at times I will take some liberties to set a color palette to make a picture harmonize and simplify the composition. Perhaps color will take a back seat to other elements of design such as the importance of shapes and edges.
There seems to be a sense of play in your paintings between soft edges and hard edges. How do you decide what will be a soft edge vs hard edge? Do you make those choices before you start a painting or do those happen more spontaneously as you work? How conscious are you of having one be more dominant than the other?
Edges create depth in a picture. They recede or come forward depending on the quality of their edges. Edges in a shadow compete with the depth of that shadow. The fewer edges within a shadow, the more focus is given to the light that that shadow expresses.
In watercolor planning your edges are key. When transitioning from shade to shade or color to color, soft edges can delight the eyes with the effects it can create. The student must PLAN for opportunities to exploit this wonderful quality of the medium. Lost and found edges are one of watercolors strong suits. The range of depth is as striking as a strong dry stroke of color on a soft wash and the subtle haziness of trees in a distant fog. Chinese scroll painting, besides its mastery of mark making with the brush is best known for the illusions created by edge control.
The leap between beginner and intermediate is one that can take a fair amount of diligence. What does a beginning student need to master in order to make that step? Why?
When do you consider yourself no longer a beginner? Beginners move to intermediate painters when they can create effects with all of the various washes easily and can confidently repeat them consistently.
The washes include both flat washes and graded washes. Grades washes light to dark, cool to warm (See Quarry Sundown below), color to color and vibrant to neutral.
From there the Intermediate student learns to effectively repeat success with applying paint with the right amount of pigment with the right amount of water with the right amount of air and gravity all at the right time.
(Image note from Stewart: "The Quarry Sundown painting is a good example of gradation both from light to dark and warm to cool.")
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