Ohio artist Rick Surowicz left art for many years but in 2016, he came back in force. He started his now well known Youtube channel in 2017 and in 2018 had work accepted into the International Exhibition of the American Watercolor Society. He teaches watercolor workshops across the county.
How much time do you spend thinking about a piece before you commit anything to paper? We often only see what begins at the paper but I image a painting begins before the line drawing. What about a subject makes you excited to paint it?
It depends on the significance of the piece. There are paintings I would consider minor paintings or studies that might be spontaneous or experimental which, I don’t spend too much time thinking about ahead of time. There are other pieces I consider major paintings. Those, I might be thinking about and planning for days or weeks before I commit to the final painting.
Subjects that the average person might not consider painting I find interesting, especially with landscapes. I like working with close, unusual, or partially obstructed viewpoints. I also enjoy working with stylized florals and cityscapes which provide great opportunities for shape making.
Once you’ve decided to paint a subject, what problems do you need to solve before you begin? How do you solve them? (Value studies? Color studies? Etc?) Why is it important to do that work before you start the main piece? What does that work give you later on?
One of the first steps for me is to think about my interpretation of the subject. Am I after a realistic, stylized, or abstracted representation? I think about my composition. What are the major shapes, where is my focal point, where can I achieve direction and movement, where is the light source? Value structure needs to be solved as it relates to the foreground, middle ground, and background as well as dominance. As far as color, will I be working with a limited palette, local color, or a planned color scheme?
Thumbnails, sketches, and value studies are all valuable tools. I also use a library of color charts I created for reference.
When working with transparent watercolor, it’s especially important to do the up-front planning or you can lose the opportunity to fully explore the value scale using the white of the paper.
If you do the problem solving up-front using the appropriate tools, the actual execution of the final piece will go much smoother.
You mention that your intention isn’t to replicate but to interpret. When you’re looking at a scene (either in plein air or a photograph), what do you take from the scene in a pretty direct way and where do you do the most interpretation?
For the most part, I take the major shapes in a pretty direct manner. Much of my interpretation relates to simplification and suggestion. The level of detail can’t be the same throughout the entire composition. There needs to be some resting places. I like to break up shapes with lost edges or play hard edges against soft edges. I often let negative space tell the story with little brushwork on the positive shapes. Rather than paint every branch in a landscape, I’ll suggest it with texture or patterns. I also design out tangents.
You work both positively and negatively. When you look at a subject how do you decide if you will approach it in a positive or negative way?
While I always do brushwork along both the positive and negative edges of shapes, dominance is influenced by my interpretation of the subject. A negative dominance is more likely when taking a stylized approach.
What is the biggest challenge you see your students facing with negative painting? What advice do you give them? Is there a way students should approach negative painting when they are first starting out?
We’re used to seeing things, objects, and we can relate to the shapes of objects. We don’t tend to see the space between objects as well and don’t relate to the resulting shapes that are created.
The shapes created by the space between objects are just as important as the shapes of the objects themselves.
When two shapes come together, they create an edge. When one shape overlaps the other, there is a positive and negative relationship. Pay particular attention to the positive and negative relationship of edges.
As a painter, what helped you move from beginner to intermediate and then intermediate to advanced? Were there certain things you were focusing on at each of these jumps?
I probably view things a bit different than most. My personal view is that the artist’s journey has four major areas of development: drawing and perspective, composition and design, the artist’s mentality, and the technical aspects of your chosen medium.
I feel the first three are relevant no matter what your chosen medium. Excelling in one doesn’t mean you excel in the others, therefore, I feel it’s hard to apply such a broad-brushed label. If you have a solid foundation with respect to drawing and perspective, composition and design and your mental approach, what remains is your understanding of the equipment, materials, and application of your chosen medium. It doesn’t matter if it’s watercolor, oil, acrylic, pastel or sculpture.
I feel I received a solid foundation in drawing/perspective and composition/design in art college. My understanding of the technical aspects of watercolor developed through classes, workshops, and experimentation.
My biggest jump came with the evolution of my mental approach to art, which, was influenced heavily by Frederick C. Graff. The majority of watercolor workshops I’ve attended have been Fred’s. I learned to interpret and not just record. I became more interested in shapes and less interested in things or objects. I continue to evolve and make every painting I do or see done a learning experience.
What is an element or principle of design that you use consistently and consciously in your wok? Could you talk about how you use it and why it makes your work stronger?
While all the principles and elements of design are important, I focus on Value Contrast more than any other. It’s very hard to produce a strong painting without value contrast. You see many paintings where the artist struggles to go get much darker than middle value and the result is an average painting. Adding just few darks in the right places can make that average painting very good. I often want the strongest value contrast around my focal point. I’ll put my lightest lights near my darkest darks in that area to give me the strongest contrast.
You paint with transparent watercolor. What does working with transparent watercolor give you that working with more opaque colors wouldn’t?
I like the challenge of using the white of the paper and the freshness that transparent watercolor gives you.
So many watercolor students want to jump directly into painting full and complex scenes without learning the fundamentals. What do you see as the most important fundamentals in watercolor and why would you recommend a beginner master those first? Why not just jump into the subjects that are the most exciting?
As an artist, identify and strengthen weaknesses in key areas of development, especially, drawing and perspective. As far as the technical aspects of watercolor, take time to learn a few fundamentals. Understand how to plan for and use the white of the paper. Learn how to lead a bead of watercolor down a page using gravity. Understand how the moisture content in your paint, brush, and paper influences the painting process. Get comfortable working with larger brushes.
I have a lot of interaction with people from all over the world through my YouTube channel. It’s surprising how many people have been working with watercolor for quite some time and are still frustrated with the medium, because they never learned how to lead a bead of water down a page or don’t understand moisture content. It’s rewarding when someone who watched my video mentions in the comments “after all this time, I get it.”
Learn more about watercolorist Rick Surowicz at his website, Facebook page, Twitter, Pinterest and Youtube channel.
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