What Went Wrong? – Part 2

Before I recount my tale of woe and share the steps I took from hopeful start to disastrous finish of my “Winter Stream” painting, let me take a moment first to more properly introduce Aubrey Phillips.

Aubrey Phillips ArtistPhillips was from the United Kingdom and was primarily known as a pastel artist. He was a member of the Pastel Society and the Royal West of England Academy as well as a Gold Medal winner at the Paris Salon. He was also the author of several books on pastel painting.

I became acquainted with the work of Aubrey Phillips soon after I began playing with watercolors — back in 2016. I was still very new to the world of art, having started learning to draw less than a year earlier. I saw several of his watercolors and was drawn in by the soft, evocative mood and colors. His paintings weren’t detailed, but were very loose, suggestive more than representative, and for a novice watercolorist like me, seemingly very approachable.

Eager to learn, I found a used copy of Watercolor Painting with Aubrey Phillips. When it arrived and I looked through it, seeing more examples of his watercolor style, I wasn’t as excited as before. In fact, if I’m honest here, I have to say that I soon realized that I didn’t like too many of his paintings.

I’m not alone in that. Edo Hannema’s initial impression of Phillips was “that this was just very bad quality in watercolor…just not my taste and not attractive.” He decided that Aubrey Phillips did not represent who and what he hoped to become as a watercolor artist.

Hannema has since changed his mind and has come to appreciate all the softness, the moodiness, the subtleties in Phillips work. I haven’t changed my mind yet. While I love some of his paintings, overall, I can’t say that I really like his style. As for his approach to watercolor…

Well, Edo Hannema points out that Phillips was first and foremost a pastel artist and suggests that Phillips approached watercolor painting from the same point, making brushstrokes similar to those a pastel artist might make. Maybe so. Maybe that’s what accounts for his personal style.

Now, you may be asking why, if I am not a fan of Aubrey Phillips, I would choose to read and explore his watercolor book once again, and especially why I would build a 100-day creative project around the book. Excellent questions. I’m doing it for the same reason some people climb a mountain: because it’s there. The book was on my art shelf. When I decided to do a watercolor adventure for my 100-day project, I went to that shelf and took down the first watercolor book I saw.

You might consider that a foolish method for choosing a project, but I love having randomness in my life. I have a belief that by turning certain things over to “whatever powers may be” in my creative adventures, I will be led and guided to experiences I need, that in a strange, synchronous manner things that I need to know and do and learn will be somehow drawn into my experience. Maybe that sounds “woo-woo, far-out, off the deep end” to some of you. But, you know what? It works for me.

I believe, too, that learning from Aubrey Phillips will be helpful for me in developing my own style. I can learn and practice his techniques. I can work with his color palette. I can see for myself what I like and don’t like in his methods. Because I don’t care for much of his work, I think I’ll feel freer to play with my own ideas in the process. I won’t be trying to copy his style, so hopefully I’ll find my own.

So far, I’ve struggled with the project. I’ve grown frustrated, and with my “Winter Stream” painting, I was on the verge of tears.  As much as I hate showing this awful painting, here it is again:

Judith Kraus
My version of “Winter Stream”

The most painful part of this particular process is that I tried so hard to do everything right. Yet despite my best efforts, nothing worked.

I began the project the night before by stretching my watercolor paper. The paper I used was not “top-quality”, but one which I felt should be reasonably good for this exercise. It’s Canson’s 140-lb cold-pressed watercolor paper. I soaked it, I taped it to my board, I allowed it to dry, and when morning came, yep, I had buckles. I don’t care what I do, what method I try, or what paper I use. I always end up with buckled paper. That, however, is a post for another day.

I smoothed the buckles out as best I could and moved on the next step: preparing my paints.

This is a step I usually skip, and my paintings always suffer for it. For this exercise, I started with freshly-washed palettes, and I gleefully squeezed out the colors I’d be using. Then I filled several wells with mixes — the blue sky mixture, a dusky pink, what was supposed to be a light gray. I was ready to paint.

I had previously watched Edo Hannema’s entire video on Watercolor the Aubrey Phillips Way so I knew the steps. I watched it a second time and followed along, doing what I saw Hannema do, but obviously not doing it very well.

  • I used a pencil to lightly sketch in the scene
  • I wet the paper and put down colors for the sky

Already it was going wrong. Obviously I didn’t use enough water to wet my paper. And maybe my brushstroke technique wasn’t right. I did my best. I tried. I really, really tried.

Instead of quitting at that point, I decided to stick it out. After all, it couldn’t get any worse. Step by step, I made the brushstrokes, tried to place the colors correctly, and resigned myself to the simple fact that I need a lot more practice before I’ll be able to create a watercolor like the one Edo Hannema painted.

Yet it was a positive experience, never mind the tears that threatened. I moved beyond the emotions and took solace in completing the painting, identifying problems, and developing new practice exercises to help me improve in those specific areas.

The biggest — most glaring — problem, of course, is the heavy, streaking sky. What happened? Not enough water on the paper, maybe not enough water in my brush, and maybe too much pigment. Maybe my brushstrokes were too heavy-handed, as well.

Over the next few days I’m going to be working more with creating soft, pastel skies, dropping bits of color on water-covered paper, learning how to get the effects I want. If there is one thing I do like in Aubrey Phillips paintings, it’s the skies he creates. I want to find the way to create that softness, that pastel mood, that gentle beauty.

I failed this time, but as the saying goes, we really only fail when we give up. I’m definitely not giving up.

 

 

 

 

 

12 Comments

  1. Watercolour is daunting, but oh those soft skies… I haven’t tried doing watercolour painting in years, I have a couple of small paintings that I did over twenty years ago; those are copies of David Bellamy paintings from The Wild Coast of Britain and somehow I fluked doing a not awful job – I can only put it down to not knowing anything about watercolour at the time so I didn’t try to do it “the right way”. Of course, now I know more about watercolour I am terrified of the mess I’ll make next time I pick up a brush! There’s that gap between learning what to do intellectually and learning how to do it practically (never mind getting to point where it’s second nature), and there’s an awful lot of overthinking that can go on in between…

    Liked by 3 people

  2. You only learn and improve by ‘doing’ – so good for you for trying this and keeping at it. You have very good artistic skills and I am sure that you will master this particular technique in the end too.
    I am rubbish at painting – but I have always wanted to do watercolours.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I’m beginning to see watercolor as having a split personality. In one sense, watercolors are playful and lots of fun. In another sense, they’re the most challenging and frustrating medium I’ve ever attempted to learn. The difference, I’m seeing, is in my approach. When I pick up watercolors and just want to have fun and not worry about the results, I really do enjoy them, and as often as not I’m happy with the results. But if I “get serious” and try to do everything “just right”, I always end up disappointed. That in itself is a good lesson to learn. The best results come when we focus on the pleasure of the process and not on the outcome.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. As the saying goes ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day.’ I was wondering if there is a class you could attend, as I find having a tutor on the spot, to guide you, and for you to question, works better. Maybe you’re trying to build Rome too quickly.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Right now all of our in-person clubs and workshops have been cancelled. I don’t usually do anything with watercolors, so I haven’t checked into what’s available — or what will be available. A class would be very helpful, for sure.

      Like

  4. I was lucky enough many many years ago to attend a 5 day workshop with Aubrey. He was a character indeed and didn’t suffer fools but his demo and thoughts were really instructive and enjoyable. He swept the wet washes over the paper and didn’t “fiddle”. I now teach watercolours and I am lucky enough to teach on the cruise ships and have met many thousands of people who have discovered watercolour painting.
    So here is a critique of your stream painting which I hope will be helpful. I only every try and inspire and encourage as there is no right or wrong way in absolute terms but some general ideas that may help. Firstly, did you do a tonal/value sketch so you could work out your lights and darks.? I doubt it as your tones are the same all the way through the painting.Your sky should be the lightest light in the painting (unless you have a white building or posts etc. So from the back the distant hills should always be greyish or blue to keep them cooler and in the background. The colour become warmer and stronger as you approach the foreground. Your two trees look about the same size and tone and colour and compete against each other. Make one taller and stronger. The stream cuts the picture in half. Have it come in from one side and wind through the picture to give you more interest.
    Always paint at an angle and have a bead of colour under your brushstroke. This will give you transparency . So…paint it again but do a small tonal sketch first to work out the composition and tones then enjoy the process and let the paint do it’s own thing. Don’t fiddle. You will be amazed at the result and this will inspire you. You have the talent and the passion. Keep at it.
    Kind regards
    Brian

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for your critique. Having a workshop with Phillips must have been quite interesting. I did repaint the scene about two months later — with much better results. You can see it here: https://artistcoveries.wordpress.com/2020/07/20/winter-stream-revisited/

      I’m not (and never will be) an accomplished watercolor artist. I have fun with it, and I hope to continue learning new techniques. Your suggestions will be very helpful, I’m sure.

      If you have a chance, take a look at the “re-do” and let me know what you think. 🙂

      Like

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