Michael Reardon Workshop at SCVWS

Last week I was privileged to attend the highly popular watercolor workshop by Michael Reardon. The workshop had filled up in a day, but I got on the waiting list and was lucky enough to finally find a spot at the workshop. This was my very first watercolor class/workshop, so I was quite nervous about it, but just a couple of hours with Michael Reardon put everyone at ease and we were all painting happily along for the next few days.

A bit about the instructor

Michael is a architecture illustrator turned fine artist, who works exclusively in watercolor and has a very distinct style. Check out his website and his book to see his paintings. He paints mostly landscapes, cityscapes and statues in urbanscape, and his style is spontaneous, working wet-in-wet from top to bottom. HIs choice of pigments is unusual, and so is his use of color. He is a self-proclaimed tonalist, and his use of color is as a support to a painting whose composition depends on a backbone of value. And about him as an instructor, if I had only one word to describe him I would say 'kind'. And as a beginner artist, that was important to me.

The unusual palette

DS Ultramarine blue
Holbein Cobalt Blue
DS Cerulean Chromium
DS Cobalt Turquoise
DS Viridian
DS Phthalo Green (Yellow Shade)
DS Quinacridone Burnt Orange
DS Quinacridone Burnt Scarlet
DS Organic Vermillion
DS Carmine
DS Permanent Orange

DS : Daniel Smith

As you can see he doesn't have a yellow in his palette. The closest to yellow in his palette is Permanent Orange. (Actually, I lie. He does have Quin Gold in his palette, but I have not seen him use it in any of the paintings during the workshop). His saying is that yellow almost never exists in its pure form in nature, so he doesn't need it.

One of the paintings that Micheal demo'ed in the workshop

Teachings

There was a ton of good information through out the workshop, and I learned as much from watching Michael help others, as I did from his help on my own paintings. The day always started with a demo, which took anywhere between 1-2 hours depending on the complexity of the painting. Michael had a thumbnail sketch and line drawing ready to go before the day began. 

To him, the most important thing was getting the idea down in a thumbnail sketch. After he has the sketch, he doesn't look at the reference anymore. He works directly from the sketch, working top to bottom (with the watercolor paper at a slight angle, allowing the water to flow down and form a bead), manipulating the bead, taking advantage of it to keep certain areas wet, while he worked on others. He arrives at the values mapped out in the sketch in first pass, and does not go back into painted areas once the area is complete. Someone at the workshop joked that he is like a 'printer'. It is an unusual way to paint, but it keeps the painting spontaneous and fresh, and the simple statement is emphasized. 

He encouraged us to make a thumbnail sketch of our reference, and worked with us to find the most interesting composition. His emphasis throughout the workshop was on composition, and not so much on watercolor technique (transparent vs. opaque, wet-in-wet vs wet on dry etc.), which I appreciated a lot. 

If there were only five things I took away from the workshop, these five would be it :

  1. Framing is important. Just because the quarter sheet is 11x15 doesn't mean you have to use all of it. The 4 walls of the painting are the most important compositional lines in the painting, and use them effectively. A long and tall painting creates drama, vs a square painting is calm. Think about this when you plan the painting.
  2. SImplify the scene into 5-6 shapes. When you do the thumbnail sketch, you should be able to break the scene into 5-6 simple shapes. Make these shapes as interesting as possible, and pay attention to the negative shapes and corners created at the intersection of the shapes with each other or against the edges. If you are not convinced that these shapes work, then move on to another design.
  3. Think about your focal point. Find the most interesting part of your painting, the part where you want the viewer's eye to rest first, and make sure that area is only area where is pure white next to pure black. There can be value changes in other parts of painting, but the focal point is where there should be the most difference in value.
  4. Break the scene into foreground, middle ground and background. A landscape or cityscape has the most clarity when there is a sense of foreground, middle ground and background. Try to find this clarity when you do the thumbnail sketch. 
  5. Make the corners interesting. The corners are as important as the edges. If possible, make all four corners different. 

It was great to have all this drummed into us for 4 days, it meant a ton of practice and clearly some of it got through :-) Here are some of my paintings from the workshop.