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.
Phillips 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:
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.