Earlier this month I presented a workshop at Eastern Illinois University. Patricia Belleville, former art education teacher of mine from the University of Illinois, saw an article about me in the local paper last summer and remembered me from my days as an art ed student nearly twenty years ago. Patricia is working at Eastern now and helps put together its 27th annual Media and Methods conference for art educators. Last fall she asked me if I'd like to be one of the seven presenters, and I agreed.
So I would be teaching art teachers about watercolor. Most art education majors are encouraged to take as many different kinds of art courses as they can during their four years in college--sculpture, printmaking, fibers, design, painting, drawing, etc.--along with their education courses. Obviously, the more well-rounded an art ed major is in terms of studio classes, the more versatile he or she will be as a teacher. The drawback to this approach is that many art education majors do not get the chance to pursue one particular art obsession.
I did things a little differently: I was a studio art major in undergrad for four years, immediately followed by two years of grad school for art education. This way I was able to focus on my painting exclusively for four years before learning how to teach, and I'm glad I chose this particular route, as I am an obsessive, not a dabbler.
On the Saturday of the conference, I presented the same 90-minute workshop three times in a row to small groups of art teachers of varying experience, grade levels, and abilities. I was kind of nervous. I don't like to presume that I know more about teaching than people who do it themselves, but I do know a whole lot about watercolor. Surprisingly, some colleges (including Eastern Illinois) do not offer courses in watercolor at all, so a lot of my techniques and teaching ideas were new to the participants. Some knew what they were doing, but most of them had little experience with the medium and found it challenging, so I kept things basic.
I showed the teachers examples of my paintings along with some short still-life-technique videos I had made using my computer's web cam. Then everybody painted small watercolors of still-life setups composed of everyday fruits and vegetables, a lesson I thought they would enjoy and would be able to share with their students. The images below are paintings I made during the week before the conference, and I've dropped in my little how-to videos in case you'd like to see how I made the paintings.
Note: as I made the videos below, I was listening to a cool-to-me-but-annoying-to-most collection of music: five seconds from every #1 pop song in history. I couldn't figure out how to remove the sound from the videos, so please turn your computer's volume way down if you do not wish to be annoyed. All of the paintings took two hours or less for me to complete, so they do not have my usual razor-sharp edges and control-freak finishing touches. This is me in sketch mode, and all of the videos are recorded in real-time, not sped up. (I paused and skipped through parts of the videos as I showed them to the teachers at the conference.)
I think one of the simplest, most beautiful things to paint with watercolors are eggs on a colored sheet of paper. The blue paper seen above reflects onto the white eggs. After drawing some quick outlines in pencil, I always wet down the entire egg with clear water. In the video below you'll see me take a good minute "painting" my egg with water before I drop in the color. The water helps the color spread across the blue, shadowed areas, and when it dries, the egg is perfectly smooth and free of streaky lines.
Again, turn down your volume. :)
I brought in bags of produce for my teachers to paint--all of which Jeff and I eventually consumed. It was a joy to go shopping for fruits and vegetables that were beautiful and interesting, as opposed to nutritious or useful in a recipe, and I came up with a nice variety of shapes, sizes, textures, and colors for my workshop.
Here's how I painted that big fat tomato near the center. Instead of thinking, "Well, that's a red tomato, so obviously I'll need red paint," I created a foundation of underlying colors, starting with yellow before moving into the oranges and reds. The shiny part at around 1 o'clock gave me fits, but I kept dabbing at it with paper towels until I didn't hate it anymore. Near the end you can see me picking up color with a dry (a.k.a. "thirsty") brush to create some highlights on the tomato's underside.
Like eggs, garlic can reflect colors of neighboring objects, and I like to place it next to my brightest items. This video demonstrates how easy it is to make that effect happen with watercolor: you simply wet down the area with clear water and drop in the colors reflected from neighboring objects.
And finally, one of my favorite techniques is drybrush, and I'm using it here to add a rough, darker texture to a pre-painted (dry) turnip. All you need is a truly awful brush whose bristles are going in 100 different directions. Barely moisten it with your color of choice, and gently drag or "dust" the tips of the bristles over the paper. The watercolor paper I use has a tooth (or texture), and the nearly-dry paint will stay on the paper's raised areas without sinking into its tiny grooves. So I've already painted this turnip a light lavender; you'll still be able to see bits of that color peeking through the darker purple that I'll add in the video. This is a great technique to use when painting fur, grass, whiskers, or even skin, if you've got a very steady hand and light touch.
The purple, black, and white example at the top of this post and again below is an easier version of this project and is designed for beginners. In a nutshell, students paint an entire sheet of paper a solid mid-tone color (or combination of colors). Once dry, they outline the still life in pencil and paint the darkest areas with black watercolor, diluting it with water to create dark gray shadows. The color of the paper represents the painting's light grays, and white acrylic or tempera paint can be used to create highlights. This was how I taught myself to paint with watercolor when I was in high school. Using a single color is a lot less intimidating than an entire full-color palette. After I got used to the way one color behaved, I was able to take on more.
So now that I have my first big watercolor workshop under my belt, I'd be happy to do it again with other artist/teacher groups. Feel free to contact me if you'd like me to show you how it's done!