You are on page 1of 3

T

41 WATERCOLOUR NO. 13 /DECEMBER 2013-FEBRUARY 2014


Michael Reardon
40 WATERCOLOUR NO. 13 /DECEMBER 2013-FEBRUARY 2014
Plein air painting is the best
AMERICAN ARTIST MICHAEL
REARDON HAS TRAVELLED THE
WORLD. HIS TRIP TO LADAKH
IN NORTHERN INDIA WAS AN AN
OPPORTUNITY TO COMBINE HIS LOVE
OF ARCHITECTURE AND LANDSCAPE.
A

P
A
I
N
T
E
R

S

W
O
R
L
D
The Art of Watercolour: Judging by the subjects of your
watercolours, you are a seasoned traveller
Michael Reardon : I had the opportunity of visiting Ladakh,
a former kingdom in northern India, in the mostly uncon-
tested part of Kashmir. It is also known as Little Tibet
since, as an extension of the Tibetan plateau, it is a Buddhist
region that shares many cultural practices with Tibet. Last
June was my third Himalayan trek and my second visit to
Ladakh.
To what extent does your choice of subject inuence
your style and way of painting?
It is very important that the subject one chooses is compel-
ling on a personal level. I love architecture and the natural
world. You will often nd some architectural element situ-
ated in nature as the subject of my paintings. The paintings
of Ladakh are a prime example of this contrast between the
cultivated and the wild, situating the smallness of monas-
teries and chortens in a very wild landscape. I try to look
beyond the actual subject to discern its more abstract qual-
ities. There is no major difference in the way I approach any
subject, be it a street scene, a landscape, or a Buddhist
monastery.
What attracts you to a landscape as a painting subject?
It is the arrangement of shapes, their composition and
their values that drive a painting. When I wander around
looking for a subject to paint, I usually stop when there is a
certain play of light, contrast, or an arrangement of shapes
that I nd compelling. I am often attracted to architecture,
but buildings alone rarely make for great paintings. There
needs to be a dialogue between the structure and some-
thing else. In 2005, I won the Gabriel Prize, which sent me
to Paris for three months to paint. For the prize I needed to
study one subject as the theme of my sojourn. When apply-
ing my wife pointed out that I never saw a fountain that I
didnt want to paint. There is something magical about
water owing over structures. This goes back to the culti-
vated and the wild, the wild being the water. So I decided to
Lamayuru Chorten. 56 x 28 cm. Lamayuru Terraces. 56 x 28 cm. Lamayuru Monastery. 56 x 28 cm.
M
I
C
H
A
E
L

R
E
A
R
D
O
N
42 WATERCOLOUR NO. 13 /DECEMBER 2013-FEBRUARY 2014
in black and white in order to not be limited in my colour
scheme, do a sketch to capture the basic information in
the photo, and then put the photo away. I usually continue
to sketch without the photo, using my imagination to guide
the nal painting.
How do you reach such deep and rich hues?
One of the best ways to achieve luminosity in watercolour is
to paint all in one go; achieving the colour and value in one
pass, and not touching the paint once its dry. This allows
the bounced light from the white paper to shine through
creating luminous colour. Since I try to get the colour and
values I want with one wash, I rarely go back to darken
areas after the paper is dry, preferring to maintain the fresh-
ness of the watercolour in spite of the fact that the value
should be a bit darker. Going over an already painted area
in wet-in-wet can deaden the area because the white paper
is already pigmented.
Have you always painted in a wet technique?
When I was first learning watercolour, my training was
based on the Ecole des Beaux Arts technique of layering
washes and glazing. In my architectural illustration career,
this technique was very useful. However it wasnt very prac-
tical when painting outdoors, so I developed my direct wet-
in-wet technique. When glazing, you must let each layer dry
before the next layer is applied. This can take a lot of time,
which isnt always convenient when painting in the ele-
ments. Painting all in one go and wet-in-wet shortens the
time spent on a single painting. It also achieves effects that
I nd exciting. Even in my studio, I use the same technique.
Do you use masking uid or all the whites gured out
before you start painting?
I never use masking uid. I bought a bottle 25 years ago
and it is still sitting all dried out in my supply drawer. 95% of
my whites are the white of the paper. I simply paint around
the areas I want to leave white. On rare occasions I use
opaque white to bring back white that may have been lost.
Im not opposed to using opaque white, but Ive found it to
be easiest to just leave the white of the paper where I want
it to be. This comes back to the idea of carefully planning
a painting before starting. Masking uid might make sense
to many artists, but I nd it awful to use. In my workshops
I ask every student before they start to paint, Where are
the white areas in the painting? I do the same thing when
I begin a painting. If you make a mistake, there is always
opaque white, but it isnt too hard just to keep mindful of
where one wants their whites to be.
TEXT: LAURENT BENOIST. PHOTOS: MICHAEL REARDON.
do the public fountains of Paris. I did close to forty paintings
of that beautiful citys fountains.
Does a beautiful landscape necessarily make a beau-
tiful painting?
No, but it helps. Seriously, a strikingly beautiful landscape is
usually more likely to be successful than a garbage dump,
but if it doesnt have compelling shapes and light it might
not make a great painting. In September, I was one of four
instructors in a workshop in the beautiful landscape of
Whistler, British Columbia. I can assure you many painters
discovered that natural beauty wasnt enough by itself to
carry a painting. But there were many painters who, through
the careful planning of shapes and light, created very strong
works.
Your framing and viewpoints are also quite surprising...
To create even more interest, I rarely show an entire sub-
ject in a painting. Showing less is often much sexier than
depicting the entire scene. Im a strong advocate of less is
more in composition. For example, when painting a build-
ing, I crop out part of it. I use thumbnail sketches before
starting a painting, one of the reasons being that they help
to reduce the scene to its essential elements, those which
tell the story. I also nd that this allows the imagination of
the viewer to ll in the rest, eliciting a more engaging image.
Do you always paint on-site?
Usually when I travel I am constantly sketching and paint-
ing. However, I met my match in the harsh conditions of
Ladakh. After hiking 7-10 miles per day between 12,000
and 17,000 feet (between 3600 and 5200 meters), I was
too drained to do much sketching, not to mention painting.
But immediately upon my return, I did a series of paintings
while the memories were fresh. Although I did have to use a
camera for reference, the gist of these images was already
composed in my head. Plein air is the best. The depth and
colour that the eyes can perceive is far superior to any
camera. The complete sensory immersion in a scene yields
greater depth in a painting than working from a photograph
can possibly achieve.
What are the pitfalls of working from photos?
Until couple of years ago I rarely worked from photos. I
found it unsatisfactory for a number of reasons, preferring
to use my plein air sketches as the basis for larger work.
But when it is just too difcult to work outdoors, such as in
Ladakh. I learned that if youre careful, strong images do
result by using photographs as reference. It is necessary
to take several precautions to ensure that the information
in the photograph doesnt dominate a composition and
overwhelm your creativity. When using photos, I print them
The depth and colour that the eyes can perceive
is far superior to any camera.
MY CREATIVE PROCESS
I only paint subjects to which I feel attracted to.
I have learnt from experience to trust my instinct
in making choices and improving my paintings.
In order to make my paintings more enticing,
I crop rather than show the whole subject.
I nd that for me one of the best ways of
painting the light is to paint it in one wash,
with the right hue and value.
I am aware that our eyes perceive depth and
colour to a far greater extent than is possible
with a camera.
I ensure that the information in the photograph
doesnt dominate my composition and overwhelm
my creativity. When using photos, I print them in
black and white in order to not be limited in my
colour scheme, do a sketch to capture the basic
information in the photo, and then put it away.
Often, my best paintings are the ones that I see
nished in my mind before painting them.
I always paint around my white areas which
means that my painting is resolved before I actually
start painting it.
Stakna
Gompa.
56 x 28 cm.
Hankar
Ruins.
56 x 28 cm.
Basgo
Ruins.
56 x 28 cm.
43
44 WATERCOLOUR NO. 13 /DECEMBER 2013-FEBRUARY 2014 45 WATERCOLOUR NO. 13 /DECEMBER 2013-FEBRUARY 2014
UNDER-PAINTING
Using cadmium orange and cobalt blue,
the entire sheet of paper is covered with
a light wash, except where the white of
the paper is preserved on the lighted
sides of the gompa and the sunrise on
the left. Much of the sky and the lightest
values are complete.
2
VALUE STUDY
I begin by taking the basic information
from the photo printed out in grey scale
and doing repeated sketches until
the value composition is satisfactory.
Here, the lighting was changed to a
more dramatic sunrise, as well as the
hill and the foreground.
1
BACKGROUND
I turn the painting right side up and
do the background mountains and
elds, using the same colours plus
some quinacridone burnt scarlet.
Working wet-in-wet softens the
edges, making the mountains seem
further away in the mist.
3
THE GOMPA
I preserve the white of the paper on the
lighted side of the buildings. I continue the
bead of water at the bottom of the wash
into the hill, using the same colours. I mix
the paint in different densities to create
texture and the illusion of rocks. I also use
value changes to dene the steep stairway.
4
FOREGROUND TREES
For the foreground trees, I introduce some
darker colours, such as ultramarine blue,
phthalo green-yellow shade, carmine,
and some neutral tint. I rst put down a
light wash of cobalt and quinacridone
burnt scarlet, and drop the darker colours
into the wash, letting them mingle on the
paper.
5
FINAL
I use the same process for the trees on
this hill, using warmer colours to bring
the hill forward. I also create some very
dark areas of value to sharpen the focus
of the foreground, bringing it forward and
pushing the hill and gompa into the mid-
ground mist. I paint the monk on the trail.
6
Stakna Gompa Step by step
Technical advice
The myriad qualities of light are what
rst attracts me to a subject. Through the
manipulation of light I create mood and
atmosphere. This manipulation of light is
brought about by the careful placement
of values. Values are the main tools I use
to portray light, mood, and atmosphere.
- Prior to every painting I do a thumbnail
value sketch to carefully plan my values.
The sketch only takes a few minutes, but
it claries my ideas, alerts me to potential
compositional problems, and creates a
roadmap of my lights, mid-values, and
darks. It is instrumental to bringing a
sense of light to a painting.
- Creating atmosphere is a crucial
element of my painting. The depth
created by the use of foreground, middle
ground, and background in part achieves
this. Sometimes its necessary to
exaggerate these three pictorial zones to
elicit a mood, i.e. making the background
misty and distant to bring the middle
ground and foreground forward.
- Im a rm believer in not showing
everything. In fact, by using fog and mist,
for example, to obscure or suggest helps
to engage the viewer, allowing their
imagination to ll in what is missing. I also
use lost or soft edges to make objects
less distinct to achieve the same effect.
- The use of soft edges makes the hard
edges seem sharper in comparison,
which can be useful to direct the eye of
the viewer and link the shapes to create
a more harmonious painting.
- I paint from top to bottom. That is, after
Ive done my under-painting, I start at
the upper right corner (since Im left-
handed, this keeps my hand from touching
wet paint), and work down the page,
completing a small area before moving
to the next. This is all done while the paper
is damp, so the distinction between the
areas is softened. When I reach the bottom,
Im done.
I only use professional quality watercolours
and paper. My palette is composed almost
exclusively of Daniel Smith watercolours,
which a very high pigment to ller ratio. I have
also replaced my earth colours with the DS
quinacridone colours, which are quite vibrant
compared to usual earth hues. My paper
is almost always Arches 140 lb. cold press
or rough paper. Arches allows for a deep
application of paint and very dark values.
My range of colours:
Almost all of my colours are Daniel Smith.
They discontinued cadmium orange, so I
get it from American Journey. I use Daniel
Smith watercolours because of their intensity,
luminosity, and their extensive line of
quinacridone colours: cobalt blue, ultramarine
blue, cerulean blue, phthalo blue red shade
phthalo green yellow shade, viridian,
jadeite genuine carmine, cadmium scarlet,
quinacridone burnt scarlet, quinacridone burnt
orange, cadmium orange, quinacridone gold,
cadmium yellow.
Im a big fan of granulation. One of my go to
colours is cobalt blue. In most brands, cobalt
blue doesnt granulate. However the Daniel
Smith version does. So its the base for many
of my granulating mixtures. Other colours I use
that granulate well are viridian, cerulean blue,
and cadmium orange. All of these pigments
have large particles that oat in a wash and
sit on top of the paper. The way I achieve
granulation is to mix the colours on the paper
rather than on the palette, mixing them around
while wet on the paper. This must be done
wet-in-wet. I also keep my paper at a roughly
a 45 degree slant, which allows gravity to help
in the process.
CONTACT
www.mreardon.com
HOW TO RENDER THE ATMOSPHERE IN A PAINTING? TOOLS, PALETTE AND GRANULATION