Many watercolorists are fearful of working on a large scale. What is "large scale" to a watercolorist? For many, it is a full sheet, which measures 22" x 30". A few dare to step up to 30" x 40". After churning out many paintings in this range over the years, and seeing them dwarfed by the work of oil painters and other artists, I realized that I wanted to create larger, more dramatic watercolors that could hold their own with the big boys. I tried to achieve this with traditional watercolor techniques, and completed some sizable work - one piece was a diptych ten feet long. I wasn't all that pleased with the look of those pieces, though, and ultimately decided a different approach was in order.
What follows is not the only way to paint large watercolors, but it is one that may help other watercolorists break out of the confines that have, in part, contributed to watercolor's second-class status in the art world.
A few words about materials: I normally use acrylic watercolor, but often mix it with regular watercolor paints. Acrylic watercolor is acrylic paint thinned with water, or watercolor mixed with acrylic medium. I like the liquid or medium viscosity acrylics, as they feel about the same as watercolor. It has some distinct advantages over standard watercolor:
1. It is permanent.
2. It is much less expensive.
3. The bottles are easier to handle.
4. If you squeeze out too much, you can put it back in.
5. There are some great metallic and iridescent colors available.
There is also a disadvantage: you cannot lift or scrub. This doesn't bother me, because I don't use those techniques anyway - they often lend a dry, dull look that robs life and spontaneity from a watercolor. Besides, the very idea of removing paint after it is dry, strikes me as undesirable.
I use a combination of synthetic and sable watercolor brushes. My prized 3" red sable finally bit the dust, so I am down to a 2" white sable which is now my favorite. For the technique in this painting, I won't have the opportunity to use the large flat brushes; I'll being using rounds exclusively. I prefer a large metal butcher's tray as a palette. The only other things I use are a spray bottle, hair dryer, and a toothbrush for applying fine spatter.
I buy paper in rolls. I especially like the Arches 156 lb. hot press, which is 52" x 10 yards. I've never stretched a piece of watercolor paper in my life. Never needed to - I think it's one of those watercolor myths. If paper buckles, I mist the back with water, and put it under a big piece of glass overnight. Never fails. One reason I've never understood the ritual of stretching/taping paper to a board, is that you can't manipulate the paper and paint beyond tilting the whole thing one way or another. I like being able to do anything with the paper, or just part of the paper.
For some subjects - natural subjects in particular - I often coat the paper with a thin wash of gesso. Gesso creates a texture and resist that makes for beautiful effects with watercolor or acrylic watercolor paint. I use just enough to create a smooth, chalky finish; if it's too thick, it can crack. Brush strokes show, so sometimes I apply it with thought to the composition of the painting. It's great to draw on. With acrylic watercolor, the paint just glides on; with regular watercolor, there is more of a resist. Either way, you get a lot of action with the paint, and it seems to stay brighter. Here are a few pictures displaying textures created by gesso-coated paper.
It can make an effective abstract underpainting, too.
On to the painting!
Many people enjoy painting flowers. I improvised all of my flowers for years; at least the first 250 paintings of my watercolor career were done without a speck of drawing. I was so excited about the properties of the medium, I didn't see any point in trying to tame it - the paint is a better artist than I was (and still is!). I think it's a tremendous way to exercise the imagination, since you have to look for things to develop, and adapt to the countless situations that arise. However, as I started to work larger, I found it increasingly risky to invent paintings on the spot, and started planning more things out.
I'll work from a photograph. Most people photograph flowers in full bloom, and shoot them from the same angles. I photographed a dying bouquet of roses, and concentrated on the undersides of the wilting flowers. This intrigues me more than the basic floral mug shot. Here is the photograph I selected, in black and white. I like the motion, angles, and aura of faded glory.
I projected the photo onto the paper, taped to the wall. I use a digital projector. As anybody who has traced large complex pictures from a projector or one of those mirror gizmos can tell you, it's no cakewalk . There are few, if any, definite lines, things look out of focus, and gradations of color and value make tracing a painstaking process of decisions and, ultimately, some degree of simplification, or complication, depending on your point of view. There is, I suppose, an art - an intuition, at least - to it. But it gets lonely - sometimes ugly - out there in the Artist Twilight Zone, eyes burning, neck craned, back aching, hand in a death-cramp. Weird stuff begins to loom in the mind: "If nobody sees this line, does it exist? Do I really want to draw that shadow half way over to the part that might come up to the far edge, if I decide to draw the reflection that meets it across the other side? Does that shape look too much like a pair of _____ ? (fill in the blank) Why am I doing this?" Ahhh, you wants the muse, you pays the dues.
The drawing is 34" x 45", and I tried to photograph it, but all you could see is paper. I made a type of drawing that is effective for large watercolors. The maze of passages, when filled with color, look abstract up close, but from a distance create a different effect that is startling.
Getting off on the wrong foot, I did the drawing before I coated the paper with gesso. Ouch. I gave it the gesso treatment anyway, and it didn't cover up the pencil lines much. Can't erase them now, that's for sure!
I brushed it on fairly randomly, changing the direction of the brush strokes often, and covered about 75% of the paper.
I can hardly even look at color straight from the tube, so I mix just about everything. Generally, I go brighter than I really want; it can easily be toned down, which is a whole lot easier than doing the opposite. I envision this painting with an overall subdued, almost antiqued, color scheme, but it won't start out that way. After painting a section, I drop in water or another color to create some action. The gesso helps. The idea is to preserve that wet, fluid look.