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


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. 

Big shapes

I am trying to make it a daily art habit to make at least three watercolor sketches. I realize that the only way to get better at something is to practice, and the only way to practice effectively is to be consistent with the effort. 

I really enjoy painting light, so I tried to enhance that feeling of light in the pictures I painted. I also tried to see the big shapes, and paint in layers to enhance the feeling of light and shade.

The thing that I do not like about the one below is that it looks very much like an illustration than the real thing. Still, I am reasonably happy with how it turned out I guess. I took Tom Hoffman's advice, did a self-critique and made notes right on the study.

Then I started doing some landscape studies in preparation to the art retreat I will be attending in a few days in the high Sierras! I didn't like the first landscape painting I did, and I was a little disappointed. I didn't much feel like it but I pushed myself to  knock off another quick painting to make my target of three. The funny thing is, the painting I did freely and loosely turned out so much better than the one I planned and overworked :-) I absolutely love the feeling of light and color in this painting of fall colors.

Warm + Cool / Light + Dark

I set myself a little exercise today to explore the contrast achieved by using warm and colors, and light and dark values. This exercise is inspired by Marion Rivolier's workshop at USK Manchester 2016. I saw a little snippet of it on Watercolor Sketching youtube channel.

I chose a photograph that has good composition, so that I didn't have to worry about that aspect. I then did a very quick value study.

I then moved on to doing the following studies :

  1. A study with all cool colors
  2. A study with all warm colors
  3. A study with warm and cool colors but similar values
  4. A study with warm and cool colors with value variation

And then finally attempted a little watercolor painting of the same subject, this time with a little more care and planning (but not too much apparently, it still looks pretty sketchy to me :-) )

Heading home

Today was a day of ups and downs. At once I was inspired and rearing to go, as well as rudely reminded of my own mediocrity and limitations.

The day began with watching Alvaro Castagnet work in some videos. I couldn't stop  watching him apply juicy colors and confident strokes and his sense of design inspired me to try it myself.

I have heard many artists say that it is always best to make a sketch as opposed to depending on a reference photo, and for the first time it sort of hit me how true that is. When you sketch, you are problem-solving, you are designing. When you take a reference photo, the camera captures everything it sees, and sometimes the subject that caught your eye is lost in the commotion. 

I have been trying to sketch from reference photos on the internet, and for the past few days I have found it so hard to be inspired by any of them. I spent countless hours scanning through pictures looking for something that might click and nothing seem to. Finally, I end up picking some random thing because I don't want the day to end without painting something. Artists also recommend to capture your own reference photos, because you have a sense of what interested you about the scene in the first place and you are less likely to be lost.

I am sure you heard all this many times over. I had too. Somehow it didn't hit me until now, the way it did today. 

When I was returning home from work, this scene of daily commute struck me. 

Specifically, I was attracted to the red car, and I thought to crop it in such a way as to make it the star.

Now it was time for me to design how I was going to paint this. I took a couple of minutes to do a quick charcoal sketch to map out the values.

Now, to turn this into watercolor I needed to plan and choose my colors. I thought I will try to keep everything fairly neutral and cool, and this way the car will shine. 

Honestly, I am not happy with how this painting turned out. I envisioned lovely loose brushstrokes and juicy marks like in Alvaro's paintings, and ended up with this. Of course I am disappointed with the painting, and with being struck down to face my own smallness. I think that is good though. It is good to remember that I am very much a beginner, and it takes a lot of work to make things look as easy as some do.

After I have had sometime to process all this, I am proud, though that I tried to do what I did, and I hope to keep up the practice.