Interview with Watercolorist Alexis Lavine
Alexis Lavine has been painting for two decades. She finds inspiration for her luminous watercolors in her summer home of central North Carolina and her winter home in the Virgin Islands. She divides her time between painting in her studio and painting outdoors on location. Watercolor Artist Magazine recently named Lavine "Ones to Watch."
You have your masters degree in medical illustration from John Hopkins. How did your time both training to be and then being a medical illustrator prepare you for your fine art career?
Training and working as a medical illustrator had two very important and lasting influences on me. First, I learned to draw really well. Medical illustrators need to create highly detailed and accurate renderings of human anatomy and medical procedures. So it was essential to learn to observe my subjects and translate them into accurate drawings, maintaining proportions, defining shapes, describing textures, and developing focal areas.
I also needed to learn to paint with watercolor. Most medical illustrations were done with pen and ink, or graphite or carbon pencils. But, when color was called for, watercolor was the medium of choice. Thus began my exploration, and love affair, with watercolor!
Could you walk us through your process? What are the steps you take before you paint the actual painting. Then, how do you approach the painting itself?
Let’s talk about studio painting first.
My most successful paintings have an emotional component to them, but I am always thinking about what I want to express and communicate and how I intend to do that. Sometimes I set up a still life in my studio, but more often I use digital photos to inspire and inform my paintings.
My first step is to choose a photo, or frequently several photos to combine into one painting. I start to think about the story I see in the photos, the story I wish to invent from them, what I wish to communicate to my viewer, how I want my viewer to feel, and then, critically, how I want to design my painting. Initial decisions about size, format, viewpoint, and cropping make a huge difference in the final presentation.
Once I have made these initial and very important decisions, then it is time to draw. I start with small pencil sketches, in which I concentrate on drawing my large, important shapes, arranging them into value patterns which help to define my focal area and to visually move my viewer through my work. I do not draw any details or textures at this point, and I work fast, relying on my instinctive feelings, as well as my preliminary decisions.
Once I have designed and drawn a successful small sketch, then it is time to enlarge it and draw it onto my watercolor paper. I draw freehand, starting loose and big, and gradually refining and defining my shapes. Usually, if I am drawing a landscape, floral, or still life, I draw directly onto my watercolor paper, not worrying too much about corrections and erasures.
If I am drawing a figurative piece, I generally start drawing it about one quarter size, and gradually enlarge it to full size, refining and finessing it with each enlargement. I am extremely particular, with my figurative paintings, to get the anatomy and gestures just right.
Sometimes I spend a couple of days just drawing my figurative subjects ... before I ever pick up my brushes. Once I am satisfied with my full sized drawing, I transfer it onto my watercolor paper, using graphite transfer paper, and I end up with a sharp, clean drawing, ready to paint.
When I work plein air, I work much more quickly. I must be very decisive, make my mind up quickly, and get down to the business of painting, before I lose the light, or the weather changes, or my subject changes in other ways. My years as a plein air painter taught me to trust my instincts and dive right in ... and ultimately made me a better studio painter today.
In terms of the actual painting, I employ many techniques, choosing specific techniques according to my pictorial goals: texture? light? atmosphere? flesh? I lay on color, frequently in multiple glazes. I lift color for varying effects. I don’t rely on a lot of tricky or gimmicky techniques. I avoid the use of white paint. I pay a lot of attention to my edges. I don’t panic if I see a watermark starting to bloom. And I deliberately move my brush across my carefully drawn pencil lines, to avoid feeling constrained in a coloring book fashion, and to move and weave my colors throughout my work.
You change places to paint during the year. What does a change in location bring to your art? And to you as an artist?
For many years I have spent as much as two months each winter on St. Croix, In the U.S. Virgin Islands. The brilliant colors of the Caribbean Sea, the tropical flora, and the island architecture always wake up my eyes and brain, which have been lulled into their North Carolina winter grayness. Stepping off the airplane onto the tarmac there, always sends a sizzle into my brain, and I can’t wait to get to my easel!
St. Croix has truly become my muse. I love to paint the people, the land, the architecture, and the seascape, truly everything on and around the island. The strong colors infuse and enliven my work, even after I am home in North Carolina. And I paint island subjects all year long, using my many photo references.
Let’s talk about materials: Could you talk about the papers you use? What characteristics does a paper like cold press give your work that a different paper may not? Why do you like to work on it specifically?
I paint on many different surfaces, including cold press and hot press, in different brands, Bristol board, Yupo, watercolor canvas, and Aquaboard. I choose a particular surface for a painting, according to my subject, the techniques I expect to use, and framing requirements.
My favorite surface of all is, indeed, cold pressed watercolor paper. I think that cold pressed paper is the best surface for glazing multiple layers of color, which I love to do. Combined with my mostly non staining pigments, cold pressed paper allows me to soften edges, lift back to lights or whites, and even make significant corrections.
You have a live workshop called Design for Success. How do people design for success? How do you in your work?
I believe that good design is essential for creating art that is expressive, engaging, and powerful. Good design can elevate a humble, ordinary subject into an extraordinary visual experience. And good design is ultimately more important than slick technique in creating a fabulous work of art.
In this workshop, I teach my students about the elements and principles of design as a starting point. And then I teach them about other important issues such as defining a focal area, creating visual pathways to move our viewers through our work, cropping shapes out of the picture to improve them or add interest or mystery, and designing beautiful negative shapes which support, enhance, and interact with our positive shapes.
I believe that well placed values and value contrasts are ultimately more important than color. However, it is also crucial to have a good understanding of color theory and simultaneous contrast, so we can design with color. Strategic choices in hue, temperature, intensity and value, can go a long way towards organizing our paintings and helping our viewers to understand our goals.
I teach all this with lots of explanations and demonstrations. And I use all of these ideas in my own work ... every day ... every time I pick up a pencil or a brush!
How do beginning painters get better at design? It feels like a daunting task especially when you are just learning to draw or paint.
I have two main categories of students: workshop students, who I see for a few days, and then perhaps (sadly) never again, and my local students, who come to my classes in my studio every week. Some of them have been coming to my classes for ten years or longer! Watching them grow from beginners into experienced painters exhibiting in galleries and exhibitions is tremendously exciting and gratifying. They are all becoming superb, thoughtful designers. I work with them in every class, on every painting, utilizing all of the same ideas, which I teach in my workshops.
The secret to learning and improving, in designing, drawing, or applying paint ... is practice, practice, practice! The students who work hard in class, and then work hard at home, during the week before the next class, learn way more and advance faster and farther than the students, who only paint when they are in a class. And of course having a teacher who is articulate, organized, nurturing, and sharing is most helpful.
There’s a sense of texture in your work. What kind of pigments do you use? (For example: opaque vs transparent, granular?) What qualities do you rely on to create your textures? How do you use the characteristic of your pigments to work for you?
I use mostly non staining or lightly staining pigments. I steadfastly avoid any of the heavy, aggressive stainers, opting for the flexibility of the non stainers. My preferred pigments run the gamut from transparent to semi opaque. I love the idea of transparent watercolor and avoid the use of white paint or gouache. The transparency of watercolor and beautiful white watercolor paper create a spectacular luminosity, which I believe cannot be matched by other media. I also like to build up my colors and values via glazing. I think that transparent glazes stacked together can create colors with unmatched depth and complexity. Hmmm, it sounds like I am talking about a fine wine!
Understanding the characteristics of each pigment is crucial in painting textures. For example, I was recently painting an old, weathered, cracked stucco wall for a workshop demonstration. I started off with an under-painting using three of my more opaque, granular pigments: yellow ochre, cerulean blue, and cobalt violet. I used plenty of water, so they did not get too opaque, and let them mix and mingle on the cold-pressed surface.
I let them drip and run, granulate and collide, create watermarks, pushed them around with my fingers, and spritzed them with water and a toothbrush loaded with paint. So much fun! This made a lovely “mess” and was a great underpainting to glaze upon, to further develop the textures, stains, and cracks in the old wall. Knowing which pigments to reach for is indeed most helpful.
And, by the way, I do not use black or gray paint, preferring to mix my own luminous, beautiful, varied grays and darks.
Why did you make the transition from being mainly a plein air landscape painter to a studio painter? Why make the transition and then what did it mean for your art both from a subject standpoint but also an approach standpoint?
I am so glad you asked me this, because this transition has been of supreme importance in my personal artistic journey.
I was primarily a plein air painter for a long time. It was my passion and my identity. When I was “forced” to paint in my studio due to bad weather, I always felt restless, anxious to get back outside again.
And then, around ten years ago, I started to feel a little bored with it all. That was most distressing! Around the same time, I had the opportunity to see the traveling exhibition of the National Watercolor Society. I was blown away by the magnificence of the work. And I also observed that only a small number of the paintings appeared to be plein air. That really got me thinking ... why would plein air paintings have a harder time getting into prestigious, juried exhibitions? All I could figure was that there must be something special going on in the studio, so I decided to spend more time in my own studio and see what it was all about.
I discovered that I really liked the luxury of TIME. Unlike plein air painting, which must be done fast, in a race against the weather and the always moving sun, studio work is consistent, controlled, comfortable, and dependable. I allowed my pencil and my brush to slow down, reveled in the luxury of being able to think, ponder deeply, consider all alternatives, and yes, design more carefully. My paintings began to achieve acceptance by national show jurors, and in 2016 I was honored with signature membership in the National Watercolor Society, where this transition had started!
I’d also like to mention that, as I was heading back into the studio from the great outdoors, I was also discovering a new and fascinating subject - - - people! I had painted so many landscapes over the years, and was looking for a new pictorial challenge, and discovered that I loved to draw and paint people. I found myself taking photos of people everywhere, mostly candid shots of people on the street, on the beach, at the park, walking their dogs, eating dinner, talking on their cell phones. These photos became much more interesting to me than my photos of the streets, beaches, and parks, which I used to prefer to paint. Painting people is terrifically hard, much harder (for me) than landscape painting. But tackling something difficult makes the process even more fascinating and the successes so much more gratifying!
As an instructor, what is the biggest challenges you see your students facing and what advice do you give them?
This question is easy to answer: Overworking!
It is remarkably easy to overwork a watercolor, sacrificing its clarity and cleanness, and ending up with a muddy, dull painting.
I tell my students two things, over and over again:
Always use the biggest brush you can, for any application, because it will keep you from fiddling around in your shapes.
Use the fewest strokes you can. Get your paint on quickly and economically. And then get out. Leave it alone! Don’t keep working and reworking the paint, pushing it around, trying to make it behave perfectly. Let the watercolor move on its own, as it surely will, dry at its own pace, and work its magic.
Along those same lines. With photographs, what is the biggest mistake you see artists making with reference photos? Any advice?
Copying.That is surely the biggest mistake.
Let’s say you have a photo of a red house. It’s very easy and tempting to paint that red house right in the middle of a painting, because that’s where it is in the photo. But that painting might be much more interesting and engaging if you make the house white, or move it off center, or if you fill the painting with the house zoomed in up close, or you crop out one end of it, or you turn the scene into a snowy day, or cast a great, dark shadow over the foreground, to highlight your house in the middle distance sunlight. I recently saw a magnificent painting of the Acropolis in Athens, painted by Frederick Edwin Church in 1871, in which he used a huge, foreground shadow in just that way. I am eager to try this effect on my next landscape painting, whether it is in my source photo or not...
I consider photos to be a source of inspiration and ideas, but always prefer to interpret them, and make my paintings more personal, and hopefully more interesting than the photos that gave them their start. I actually have another workshop which I love to teach. It is called “Painting Creatively from Photographs” and in it I teach and explore many ways of using photos as tools for ideas, without becoming a copying slave to them. The creative possibilities are endless and fascinating and marvelous!