January 18, 2021 6 min read
Tony White is a Watercolour Artist from Newcastle, Australia who currently resides in Hobart. He is a regular contributor to Australian Artist Magazine. His style is traditional impressionistic landscape with a strong emphasis on light and atmosphere, but above-all else, FUN!
What does watercolor give you as an artist?
For me it is all about freedom of expression. The fact that it is, by nature, uncontrollable to an extent really appeals to me and allows for some amazing moments that happen all on their own. Aside from that, it just looks SO DAMN GOOD when it is painted with authority and flair. So fresh.
What are the basics that an artist needs to understand going into watercolor.
Patience. It is probably the hardest medium to develop as a beginner because it is all backwards. We paint light to dark and the viscosity of our paint, coupled with the moisture level of our paper dictates our tonal values and the type of effect we are striving for. What happens when THIS paint goes on paper of THAT moisture-level is the hardest lesson to learn and surprise surprise, the understanding that only comes together with hard work and practice.
What do you need in your reference? What don’t you need?
This is where I sometimes differ from a lot of painters out there. While I DO paint some pretty paintings, I tend to gravitate towards the simpler scenes that aren't as 'obvious' as subjects. The tried and true street scenes, vast landscapes, farmhouses, boats are all part of my repertoire, but equally important are things like the corners of buildings, the side street, the alleyway, the graveyard, the interior of an old shed with broken windows.... just to name a few. I edit my scenes a lot (we have artistic license, USE IT!) so that they work better compositionally. eg, if I don't want that tree there, I move it or get rid of it completely. We must remember not to be a slave to our references. They are JUST THAT; References! As far as elements go, I would say movement and light are essential for me. Movement can come from cars, figures, clouds or even a waving flag. Light is paramount. Whenever a painting stops me in my tracks at a gallery somewhere, it is always because the light is strong. If your reference has no real light to speak of, don't be afraid to invent it!
Walk us through your process? What do you need to have figured out at each stage?
Observation. I am constantly (to the point of it becoming annoying - ha) looking around at things, editing them in my head and translating it to a potential painting. So, my first stage is simply choosing a decent subject. If it is a subject I've not painted before or there are a few tricky drawing elements then I'll do a pencil sketch first, but I don't really do value-study paintings or anything. As long as I'm feeling confident going into it, I'm usually ok. That's not always the case though. hah. I tend to paint things more than once. Especially when I'm teaching, Doing tutorials on Youtube as well as in-person workshops really allows me to develop some works beyond my initial vision for them. Some scenes are just great for teaching so I repeat them over and over but, being watercolour, they're different every time. The ending stage of the painting is the hardest. We have all had paintings that looked better a half-hour before we stopped painting. Overall, Have a plan, but know when to go with the flow of the watercolour itself. Be observant as you paint and the pigment and paper will give you little gifts along the way that you can and should use.
How important is drawing? What does having drawing skills allow you to do?
Very! Personally I have to work very hard on my drawing. I don't put as much time into it as I should, but as far as it relates to the painting goes, it is essential that it be right. By that, I don't mean detailed and stiff. I mean, things like perspective, proportions, verticals, horizontals all have to make sense in relation to one another, otherwise the painting will never work. Applying the paint brilliantly over the top of a bad drawing will just result in a bad painting.
What sort of planning do you do before you go into a full piece. Why?
Mostly, I just paint and it'll either work out or it won't. We MUST be comfortable with failure and throwing things away that just didn't work. That's ok, it is all part of the process. My planning is usually done on a sketchbook or in my head, whatever is closest to hand. As long as I've at least thought my way through it, it should be ok. You mustn't OVER-plan with watercolour. That results in us trying to control it too much and you'll lose that battle every time. My philosophy is 'think long, paint fast'. So, have a think about what you're going to do and then just go for it.
How do you approach the color in your work?
I see colour as a vital part of my work. Even if I am going for a grey or neutral kind of overall hue, I still want those initial colours to provide the glow and the atmosphere that is so beautiful in watercolor. Usually I like to go fairly bright, then subdue it with greys and purples. You still get that colour shining through. Pops of string colour toward the end of a painting can be great too. Little highlights or handbags on a figure or lights on a car, they can all bring the piece to life. Just don't overdo it!
How do you decide where you’ll have hard and soft edges?
Most of the time that is dictated by the overall feel I am going for in the scene. I try to treat it as a photographer would, getting that depth-of-field is essential. otherwise we'll end up with flat, lifeless paintings. As a general rule, softness is reserved for distance but when I am finished with a scene, I do like to come back to it a day or so later, then see if I can soften up a few areas or straighten up a few things here and there. Nothing beats looking at your work with fresh eyes to make those final decisions.
How do you decide when and where to use texture in your work?
I believe that we need elements of mystery in our work and that when we try to spell everything out for the viewer, we lose vibrancy and 'art'. Texture, for me, is all about helping the scene gain a certain level of interest as well as losing the 'cartoon' or 'coloured-in' feel that a lot of students struggle with. Eg, if we were to paint an old European street, would we have perfect painted, clean buildings or would we have rough textures and rusty marks and untidiness? Of course the latter. We have a variety of ways to create texture too.... Splashing water, tissuing out, lifting, even spitting if you're alone and not grossed out by it... ha. Dry Brush, wet on wet, damp on wet.... they're all great texture techniques.
When a piece isn’t working, how do you assess it to figure out why?
Usually, the first sign of something not working is that it becomes a chore to paint. We end up over-working it and trying to wrestle it into submission and ultimately it ends up in the burn pile. I find that 9 out of 10 times it is due to me not planning quite enough or something being wrong with the drawing. Sometimes it can be rescued, but I find that it is best just to take that lesson-learned and redo the piece. It is ALL about learning. we never stop and never should.
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