March 15, 2021 9 min read 8 Comments
Watercolorist Andy Evansen’s ("Secrets of Painting Watercolors Outdoors") love of art began as a child. It wasn’t until the mid-90s when he began his journey into watercolor painting as a change of pace from his career as a medical illustrator. Andy had always been inspired by the watercolor paintings of British artists Trevor Chamberlain, David Curtis, Ed Seago and John Yardley, among others and it wasn’t hard for him to find his style. Today Andy became a signature member of the prestigious Plein Air Painters of America (PAPA) in 2012 and served as their President from 2015-2017. His paintings have won numerous awards, including the Bronze and High Winds Medals from the American Watercolor Society, and he was their demonstration artist for the 2018 Exhibition.
You’ve mentioned that when you first started painting, you were painting purely for fun. How do you think that affected how you grew as an artist? Do you think there’s danger in trying to go pro too soon? (If yes, what do you see that danger being?)
I think the fact that I didn't have to rely on my paintings as a means of financial stability early on really helped me. I was able to hone my skills and develop a style over a period of several years, and my failures weren't soul-crushing.
I admire young people who strike out to make a living as artists right away and hope they are able to manage the highs and many lows. Painting should be enjoyable, but if you're getting rejected from exhibitions and not selling your work because you're just not good enough yet, there's a temptation to simply give up.
The danger in trying to go pro too soon is you don't allow yourself time to grow and develop a style that is recognizable to collectors. The best artists produce paintings that are not only high quality but have a look that is unique to them. If your work is all over the map it can turn people off.
As painters, we spend a long time as beginners and maybe even longer as intermediates. For you, how did you make the jump between being an OK painter to being a really good painter? Were there particular things you worked on? What were they and how did you go about tackling them?
When you first start painting, you're simply trying to get familiar with materials and techniques. You may study with several instructors, figuring out what works for you. Once you become comfortable with that and can concentrate on skills, you typically make a big jump. Then you have to work a long time on those skills to develop your style, all the while still trying to absorb and learn from those artists you admire. Your 'jumps' become smaller and fewer over time, but I think one of the biggest steps an artist takes is when they learn the importance of strong design. Not just the placement of elements, but creating a hierarchy of those elements. We need to make sure there is a strong area of interest and let the rest of the painting support that, and it's something I'm still working on trying to improve at. A good painting tells a story and if there are too many subplots the story breaks down.
As a medical illustrator, you clearly have a deep understanding of the human body, but you don’t paint figures. Why is that? What draws you to the landscape as subject matter?
I've been asked this question often and I wish I had a good answer! My landscapes do typically include human elements such as buildings, farms, roads and even figures themselves. Painting portraits and figures just never interested me that much, outside of occasionally attending a figure coop. Even then it is mostly just to hone my skills. It's not that I'm intimidated by it, as you said I've been illustrating anatomy for 20 years and am comfortable with my drawing skills.
Making it even more puzzling is the fact that some of my favorite artists use the figure as subject matter a great deal. Wyeth and Sargent are my all-time favorites, and the wonderful Dean Mitchell is one of the best watercolor artists alive. I've often credited a figure painting book of Charles Reid's watercolors as inspiring me to begin painting with watercolors in the first place. I guess the simplest answer is figure paintings are typically interiors and I enjoy being outside.
On that subject, medical illustration seems to be all about precision, and yet you paint loosely and in watercolor. What is it about watercolor that lets you say what you want to say?
Watercolor is the perfect medium for capturing those beautiful, fleeting moments in time. Watercolor doesn't allow for much overworking. It's a very immediate, intuitive medium and I feel it's transparency is perfect for depicting light, which is all we're really painting anyway. I am jealous of the textural possibilities with oils, and I did study oil painting with Joe Paquet here in Minnesota for a few years. I may try it again one day but for now I'm still trying to master this most difficult medium!
You’re a plein air painter, a member of Plein Air Painters of America (PAPA) and even served as the organization's President in 2012. What about plein air keeps you coming back? How does painting plein air enrich a painting?
I painted strictly in the studio from reference photos for the first few years while learning watercolor. It was a safe environment and I didn't have people watching me paint awful works. After a while, I was in need of a jolt and felt comfortable enough to try plein air.
Once I started working outdoors, my paintings took one of those 'jumps' you alluded to earlier. It really is everything, painting from life. When you set up directly in front of your subject and spend an hour or two painting it, you learn so much more about it than you ever could in the few seconds it takes to snap a photo. In addition, that excitement you feel about a subject is best captured in the moment. It can fade quickly, and I have probably hundreds of reference photos that I'll never paint from because they no longer mean anything to me.
I still paint in the studio, but the vast majority of the time my reference for a good studio painting is the plein air work in addition to a photograph for details. The human eye, and heart, is simply superior to any camera.
Until recently, I thought to be a plein air painter meant you started and finished a painting in the field. I think this is a somewhat outdated idea on my part. How is plein air painting part of a landscape studio practice? What does that process look like for you?
I suppose I covered a bit of this in my previous answer, but you're correct that many have the wrong impression about plein air painting. Those that can complete a painting solely outdoors and do it well are to be applauded. Myself, maybe one in four plein air paintings turns out the way I want it to. It's just so hard. The scene is changing constantly, the light is changing, there are distractions, weather, chatty visitors, all while you're trying to concentrate and make the correct decisions about color and composition and value... not ideal.
That's why I approach it more along the lines of information gathering. If everything goes smoothly and I find myself in the groove, that painting may turn out to be the one in four, but if not I still have learned a great deal about my subject and have a much more valuable visual memory of the scene to work from in my studio.
Often I get the majority of the painting done on location, then add some important details and figures back in the studio from photos. Many of those details presented themselves when the painting was well underway, and with watercolor it's difficult to make too many adjustments. It's why I only do a couple plein air festivals each year. In order to have 10 good paintings at the end of the week I have to paint about 30 watercolors, and it's exhausting.
Being on location can be a bit overwhelming. So many details. A silent clock ticking. What advice would you give painters about finding the right subjects to paint? Will any field of flowers do? Should they start setting up as soon as they find a pretty scene?
First and foremost, you have to paint what excites you. Stay true to yourself. Don't fall into the trap of painting what you think people will buy. That's a shallow pool to wade into. I enjoy finding a scene that may appear at first glance to be 'ordinary', but the light and shapes are such that it can be transformed into something extraordinary.
Too many head out searching for something breathtaking to paint. I tell my students all the time, if the scene is really incredible the odds of your painting living up to it are slim, unless you're very experienced. Finding the beauty in the everyday should be one of our goals as artists. Next, find something you can handle. Especially plein air, when you're surrounded by 360 degrees of information, it can be difficult to edit. Zoom in, simplify, squint, whatever you need to do to find a strong subject that can be tackled in a 1 or 2 hour window is vital. Easier said than done, of course, but often what you leave out is just as important as what you put in.
Drawing can feel like such an obstacle to beginning and even intermediate painters. How important do you think drawing is to become a good painter? Why?
Drawing is key, especially with watercolor. I'm extremely lucky in that I've always been able to draw. I realize that gives me a bit of a head start, but you can work on your drawing skills. Like anything, you get better with practice. I draw out every scene with pencil before I paint it. And I paint a lot, which means I draw a lot.
With watercolor, where adjustments aren't easy, having those solid bones gives you the confidence to paint faster, looser, knowing those brushstrokes are in the proper place and at the correct angle. Timidity is not a good thing with a medium as fluid as watercolor. I don't strive for exactness. I prefer a strong confident stroke that may be a little off to something slow and controlled for fear of making a mistake.
Speaking of mental obstacles. Value studies. What does doing value studies teach us? Are they part of that Learning To See? How do they serve as a warm up beyond purely finding the light and dark?
Oh boy, value studies. Nothing gets my students faster results than forcing them to do value studies. If you want to paint stronger watercolors, you have to see large shapes. Bold isn't obsessing over tiny things with a size 3 brush. In order to truly take advantage of watercolor as a medium, you should find areas where the water and pigment can just flow into each other, creating some lost edges.
Unfortunately that's a tough thing to get your brain wrapped around. We tend to look at a scene and instantly begin identifying separate objects- the sky; a tree; a barn; a cow; a truck; etc. Not only that, but color is an additional barrier - blue sky, green tree, red barn, black cow, white truck. Once we've identified those separations, it's awfully difficult to lose them again. If you simplify a scene into large shapes of just light, middle and dark values, it becomes much easier to join shapes and lose edges. And color as value is an extremely tricky thing.
If a student came to you and said her goal was to be the best landscape painter she could be, what would be the top three things you’d tell her to do or work on every day or week?
First I'd tell her to do nothing but value studies for a while. Can't overstate that. You must learn to simplify, and you have to learn to see color as value. Second, spend time doing nothing but small color thumbnails using a very limited palette. Too many students come in with 60 tubes of paint and spend more time trying to pick the right one than learning how to mix colors. Most of the colors you see in nature aren't found in a tube. That and working thumbnail size will force you to begin seeing the large important shapes first and foremost. And third, have a sketchbook with you at all times and draw whenever you have a chance. When students are uncomfortable and timid with their drawing, that sets the tone for an uncomfortable and timid painting.
Learn more about Andy Evansen by visiting his website and following him on Instagram. Learn more about his video "Secrets of Painting Watercolors Outdoors." here.
February 24, 2018
Just happened upon this interview. I’m not an artist, but like your work as I’ve discovered and seen from this interview. I liked what you said, including “We need to make sure there is a strong area of interest and let the rest of the painting support that, and it’s something I’m still working on trying to improve at. A good painting tells a story and if there are too many subplots the story breaks down.” “Watercolor is the perfect medium for capturing those beautiful, fleeting moments in time.” “I still paint in the studio, but the vast majority of the time my reference for a good studio painting is the plein air work in addition to a photograph for details. The human eye, and heart, is simply superior to any camera.”
February 18, 2018
Fantastic teaching! I want to be first in line for your book!!
February 17, 2018
This pretty well sums it up Andy! I feel like I just read 3 volumes on “The Secrets of Good Watercolor Painting”; all in one concise, perfect interview. Northern Minnesota loves all your Southern Minnesota!
February 16, 2018
Excellent in-depth interview! I will share with my artist friends!
February 16, 2018
Great words Andy ,concise ,articulate and true empathy with the beginner.
February 14, 2018
Great advice Andy, as evidenced by your success.
February 14, 2018
Wonderful article! Love your “Fast Movin Train”!
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william j Webster
January 06, 2020
I have been painting watercolors for about a decade. Have been selling my work for the last five years. Still not where I would like to be but am getting there. Value is king as Andy teaches. Doesnt matter what colors are used. Tone and value are what makes or breaks a painting and no one teaches that more effectively than Andy. His paintings are at times gritty , of subjects most would not choose to paint, and that is what makes Andy so real. Andy has somehow managed to make the transition from a highly detailed medical illustrator to a free , loose expressive watercolor artist, not an easy switch. This transition is testimony to his understanding of composition, seeing the large shapes and knowing how to simplify a painting. All of us can make our paintings better if we listen to and understand what Andy teaches over and over in his sessions.