Interview with Watercolor Artist Ryan Fox
Ryan Fox took a single watercolor class in college and while he loved it, his life took him in a different direction: photography. For years his watercolors gathered dust as he traveled the world taking photographs. But in 2011, he realized his priorities had changed and he reached again for his watercolor brushes.
You started out as a photographer. How did you transition into painting? What was it that drew you to watercolor specifically?
In college I took one watercolor class and one oil painting class. I loved watercolor because it was fast and the effects were so different than acrylic or oil. It is a direct medium - you have to allow water to move and mix your colors on the paper without hesitancy. The transparency of the medium is unique. As much as I loved watercolor, I chose to pursue a travel photography career while my paints collected dust.
Someday, I knew I would return to painting, and specifically watercolor. It didn’t happen until 2011 when I became disillusioned with the digital photography market. I was a father and my priorities changed. Traveling overseas would have to wait a few years.
Because of my previous travel photography work, I had a wealth of resource materials to paint from. I am still working on paintings from photographs shot nearly two decades ago and have boxes of images waiting to be rediscovered.
How did being a photographer help you as a painter? So much of painting is learning to see. Did you feel like you had a head start?
Composition is the most important rule in art- whether you are a painter, sculpture, or photographer. As a photographer I was always thinking composition- and still do. Transitioning from the immediacy of photography to composing a painting is no different. Now I have the luxury of taking the original photograph and modifying it however I want. It is much easier to paint from my photography because I can modify my scenes at will.
Also, I do not have to wake up anymore at 4am to shoot sunrise! Or sit in the cold hoping for a beautiful sunset. I used to obsess over the perfect light, now I can create it myself.
So many artists struggle to take good reference photos, any advice?
Patience. People need to learn less is more. Wait for the right moment and compose the picture. The difference between a great photograph and an average one could be as simple as lying on the ground to get an unusual perspective, or waiting for your subject to turn towards the camera. Take 30 great pictures instead of 1000 mediocre ones.
Could you walk us through your process? Percentage wise, how much time do you spend preparing for the painting (drawing, thumbnails, etc) and how much time is the actual painting itself? Is preparation an important part of your process? If yes (or no), why?
I run the gamut on work processes and techniques. Sometimes I do a 5 minute contour drawing followed by a 40 minute painting (no value studies- I just paint). Often these are my favorite pieces. Other days I spend hours carefully drawing the image & sketching value studies- followed by weeks of painstaking detail work.
I spend more time thinking about how I am going to paint than I often spend painting. I think about the end result, and then plan the stages in my head. I choose the colors and technique that will best suit my visualization. This is especially true for demonstrations in workshops & classes. There is nothing worse than ruining a painting except when you ruin a painting in front of a group of people. It may look easy because I have already done most of the actual work before I start.
What are the different kinds of papers you use? How do they affect how you paint and the ending painting? How you do decide which paper to reach for when beginning a new piece?
I typically use Arches though I have recently grown fond of Fabriano Artistico. Both papers are capable of handling abuse- whether it be masking, erasing, or scrubbing. For my poured watercolors and plein air pieces I use both papers.
If I am looking to start a semi-representational painting I use YUPO. I like to cover the entire surface with random colors and see what happens. These abstract beginnings become semi-representational paintings through a combination of lifting and careful layering. YUPO retains the amazing color vibrancy of watercolors since nothing is absorbed by the surface.
The watercolor batik method on rice paper is another technique I enjoy. For these pieces I typically use Ginwashi (textured) or Uhuryu (less textured). When I am almost done with the painting I decide whether to crinkle or not crinkle to add texture.
Sometimes I choose an image first and decide a technique that fits. Or, I draw it on paper and wait for inspiration.
Similarly, in some of your watercolors you use pouring while in others you use more traditional washes. How do you decide what techniques to bring to a particular painting? Could you give us any examples of how you make those choices? Do certain techniques evoke different emotional responses?
In my studio I have a bin of paintings completely drawn and ready to be painted- generally 5 or 6 at any time. What these unfinished pieces lack is my vision for the finished painting. What techniques should I use? What style? Which colors? Sometimes it takes me a year to find the inspiration to finish the piece. Usually this happens by seeing other artists’ works and an idea forms.
I recently completed a free-hand drawing of the interior of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. Inspired by the work of Carol Carter, the entire painting is an example of charging colors with no mixing on the palette. The finished painting does not look like Carol’s work, but the roots began with my emotional responses to her art.
You seem to be consistently trying new artistic adventures (woodblock, yupo, pouring, etc). How is artistic exploration important to you as an artist and your process? How do you then decide what to pull into your style and what to leave as pure fun?
Being an artist is great because it is anything but monotonous. Painting is fun. I will try a new technique and create 3-4 paintings. Once I feel comfortable with what I have learned, I add it to my repertoire. This is the reason I jump around with techniques and styles. Watching colors interact on YUPO has led me to discover unique color interactions. Did you know Orange Lake repels Indigo and Cobalt Blue? I don’t understand the chemistry involved but I have seen the results and applied it to my paintings on traditional paper and rice paper.
I have a fear of falling into a rut- creating the same artwork over and over again. I want my work 10 years from now to look different. A traveler at heart, I feel compelled to explore new ideas.
My lino-cut (woodblock) experiment was short lived. Try sticking one of those cutters into your arm! Ouch.
How did you move your abilities from intermediate to advanced? Was there a particular moment where you could tell that your skills had just crossed over into being a very good painter instead of a pretty good painter? What did you do to make that leap?
As a stay-at-home father of two boys I spent years painting late at night after everyone was asleep. I learned a lot but it was difficult. After my children went to school I transitioned from working on the kitchen table to a studio out of the house. I feel my work improved dramatically in the studio because there are fewer distractions. I go to the studio to work, 6 days a week, whether I feel like it or not.
Plus, at the studio I do not step on random Lego pieces or find a painting covered in crayon. It’s safer than being at home.
I also highly recommend taking watercolor workshops. I have taken a few workshops and I choose artists who will teach me a different set of skills or techniques. My goal is never to copy the work of the instructor. I want to learn the techniques and integrate them into my own artwork. My workshop experience has given me a head start on techniques that would have taken years to figure out on my own. Workshops are wonderful too because the other students are often fantastic painters with a wealth of knowledge.
The combinations of studio time, reading any watercolor resource, and following artists on social media has helped my art grow in quality and recognition. My studio is in a building with 30+ artists and being part of this artistic community is a tremendous benefit for resources, critiques, and social interaction that enhance my work.
You’ve accomplished a lot in the last few years including getting accepted in AWS in January (congratulations!). How do you strive to push yourself? Do you set goals for yourself? And if so, what do those goals look like? Do you think setting goals is important for artists and if so why?
If you want to succeed, you need to set goals. My first acceptance in the American Watercolor Society helped validate the hard work I put into my art. It also made me realize I could compete with the best contemporary artists. One of my goals was to achieve signature status with AWS. I am honored to be doing so this year.
Painting is my only job but paintings do not sell themselves. I do not want to be a starving artist and I am too old to eat Ramen noodles for dinner. I use social media to my advantage. Social media connects me to people interested in my art. A portion of every day is spent online interacting with business contacts, admirers, students, and friends. I will never say no to any publicity and actively try to get my information to companies, magazines, and anyone who will listen in the pursuit of creating interest in my artwork.
Competing in juried competition is something I enjoy. Juried exhibitions are a fantastic way see if you art “stacks up” with other artists’ work. When I create a painting, it is not with the mind-set of creating it for a competition. My goal is to create the best painting I possibly can. When I am done, I hope the finished piece is good enough to get into a show and hang with the artists whose work I admire.
A large portion of my income is selling prints of my work. Having the technical knowledge, from a photography background is priceless as I am capable of photographing my work at high resolution, color correcting, and making prints that keep the integrity of the original paintings.
You teach a class about how to let watercolor do what it does best. How do you see your students fighting against watercolor? What advice do you give them?
Students get frustrated when they envision a finished painting but find the interaction of water and color creating something different. The unexpected consequences of watercolors are what I enjoy the most. Instead of rejecting what happens, I teach students to embrace the results.
A little humor goes a long way, and I am never hesitant to tell students that I messed up. Instead of starting over, I reshape my idea and continue painting. The finished artwork is sometimes different than I envisioned- but usually better because I worked through the struggles. These “failures” are in fact successes.
If all else fails, add a monster at the end- that makes everyone smile.