Experimenting with style and texture in watercolours - "Eastern Yellow Robin" WIP 1-7
Ever have those days where you really feel the need to experiment?
I have a kind of 'grand vision' for where I would like to take my art down the track - it's still focused on wildlife, biodiversity and nature, but I envisage less of the traditional 'photorealistic wildlife art', and more stylistic elements as I develop more competence with watercolours and begin to explore my own artistic preferences.
It's easy with wildlife art to fall into the trap of simply 'copying' light, shade and colour straight from reference photographs. Initially this seems a worthwhile endeavour - you want to demonstrate that you can make your painting quite similar to the original photograph - that your technical skills are up to par.
But once you've proven this to yourself, copying becomes a somewhat less creative and more repetitive activity - which is ultimately not what I feel art is about. If people want photorealism, why not just use the photos?
This is one reason I'm particularly drawn to watercolours - that inherent randomness means I cannot control every element of the painting, and it provides an opportunity to explore patterns and shapes in new and interesting ways.
Some months ago I started a new painting, using this photograph (Fig. 1) of an eastern yellow robin perched on the gnarled trunk of an aged melaleuca (paperbark) tree - it had beautiful patterns and colours to explore. I took the photo at Eungella National Park on a week-long camping trip north up to Townsville in August 2015. In particular I loved the brilliant cadmium yellow of the robin's breast, against the peachy tint of the multi-layered bark, contrasting with the green moss and ferns.
So after stretching my smooth watercolour paper on a board, I drew outlines for the major elements I wanted to explore (WIP 1). I was extremely happy with the initial drawing and found the patterns of the bark whorls and moss particularly intriguing.
I then started layering washes and using salt to create some unusual textures (WIPs 2-3). But as often happens, because I otherwise work full-time at my research job, things got busy and I didn't make any progress on the painting beyond that point.
Coming back to a half-started painting is often difficult - the ideas and inspiration I had when I started the project had somewhat faded.
But that's when my recent day of experimenting came in! I had an urgent desire to get back to watercolours, and my wisdom tooth extraction the day before left me off work and looking for something to do, when sensible tasks were impossible!
So I pulled the painting off the shelf and chose the easiest thing I could think of to do, which was adding shadows (WIP 4). I was distanced enough to no longer feel 'precious' about the painting, which meant I could get on and make some real progress...
I finished all the shadow areas (WIP 5), and by that stage I was engaged with the audiobook I had started listening to - enough to not worry overly much what colours went on next. I continued to work up various sections of the painting with glazing and outlines, only vaguely referencing the original photograph (WIP 6).
And the more I explored layering glazes of various colours and placing different patterns of strokes, the happier I became! Sure the detailed patterns in the bark and moss draw attention away from the bird, but I started thinking of the bark as a 'second character' in the painting - it took on a life of its own!
I have perhaps not quite yet finished the painting, but overall I am happy with the stylistic elements and the results of my experimentation! I actually feel as though it is moving me closer towards my overall artistic goals!
Have you ever had days of experimentation where you didn't really worry about the outcome and were happy just to create?