Sunday, May 13, 2012

Watercolors, glazes, lessons from Trina Schart Hyman

Used Binney and Smith Watercolors coming to me
from the San Diego-based store, Becaruns
On the front page of Etsy on Friday was a treasury featuring an image of the kind of watercolors I used in the art classes of my childhood. The watercolors residing in my (now slightly vague) memories were packed in cardboard boxes and kept in the art room of the new school building, where I was--as a sixth grader--part of 'upper school'. (I was in private school then, regularly having the crap kicked out of me, as often happens in private schools).

 But I digress....I saw in those Etsy watercolors the kind of artistic freedom I felt as a child. And I bought them. It was part impulse, part carefully considered purchase. (Um, can impulse and careful consideration co-exist? Depends on the circumstances.) Now, I say carefully considered because there are colors in the Binney and Smith set that I don't have in my Niji tube set: purple, magenta, tangerine, sea glass, indigo. I can do things with these I can't do with the set I have now.....I like expanded possibilities.

My classes were over last Saturday, and with my grading done and my book review column complete for this month, I can devote a great deal more time to creating. I started concepts for the new project I mentioned I was working on. I'm still getting comfortable with color. I still tend to gravitate towards black and white because that seems to impose fewer creative restrictions. Waterborne color, whether it comes in the form of paints, like those above, or ink pigments, have a tendency to change the texture of paper. Paper that has been wet, whose pulp has been saturated with water and pigment molecules, has a tendency to coarsen in texture. Sometimes it warps and buckles. Watercolor paper presents an entirely different set of challenges for someone interested in augmenting paintings with ballpoint pen because watercolor paper is pressed into a naturally bumpy pattern, perfect for absorbing pigments, less ideal for capturing the continuous and lightly applied ballpoint lines so important to communicating fine details. You have to be tougher and more direct and color competes with the pen ink. My first concept drawing came out okay, and there are some elements that I will certainly keep, but it lacks the crisp linearity and detail possible with straight ballpoint pen on cardstock drawings.

Bee Over Cleveland (concept illustration) 2012
On doing some research about famous illustrators I remember poring over during my childhood, I found that one of my heroes, the late Trina Schart Hyman, who was artistic director for Cricket Magazine in the early 1980s, actually used burnt umber (cooler, darker brown) and burnt sienna (warmer, redder brown) glazes in her drawings to mute the effect of background elements she felt stood out too starkly. In this case, a glaze is not like that which you would put on a ceramic pot and re-fire. In painting, a glaze is a heavily watered down pigment, in Hyman's case, acrylic. It becomes a kind of watercolor but has the effect of veiling the elements it covers. White can also be used as a glaze, for example. In the image above, as an experiment, I surrounded the bee in a bubble of white glaze. Same idea. Below, you can  see how Hyman creates a sense of pervasive darkness using a glaze (likely burnt umber) on the shadowy recesses near the ceiling and walls. It creates a moood, while also making the sky stand out and the female become the focal point, muting the details of the walls and bed. Lovely.

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