21 February 2015

Day Two: Keiko Tanabe

This morning, Keiko started with a demo of a watercolor value sketch, of what I considered to be a fairly mundane street scene. She painted it all in Neutral Tint to show us how to simplify our picture into three, or at most five levels of value, from lightest light (white of the page) to darkest dark. I thought I understood value, but this was an eye-opening demo, especially as regards color and also watercolor as a medium. She put in a light wash, and then jumped in with something so dark I thought Oh, that's a mistake! But then it dried, and she went darker still and the one I thought was too dark became a light-medium element in the picture! It was a good lesson in getting rid of the color so you can really see what you're doing. Here is the photo:

I thought I had a photo of the value sketch, but I missed that one--I'll add it later if I can get a photo tomorrow.

Then she put up an easel so we could all see her, and we did this under-drawing together step by step, so she could walk us through it. Again, I think of myself as fairly adept at drawing, but doing a street scene like this is an exercise in perspective, and mine is woefully inadequate! So the walk-through was really useful--we found the horizon line, then we found the vanishing point, and then everything was directed towards that. She showed us how to anchor our cars to the ground by starting with the tires and placing them properly on the road, then drawing a box for the approximate size of the car and refining from there. Cars are surprisingly difficult! I think my exercise for the next few weeks is to go sit in the parking lot of the library on my lunch hour and draw them from every angle until you can distinguish in my drawings a Prius from an SUV from a Fiat. Size and scale is particularly difficult to calculate, but Keiko also showed us how to know how big to make things--if they are on the same plane, they are the same size, but if they are forward or backward in the photo, then they increase or decrease accordingly. Sounds simple. It's not. And knowing how big to make people is similarly challenging.

After the drawing, we went back to the demo station, and she painted the first wash. Her audacity when painting is truly amazing--she put in the light sky and road, and then jumped in behind the main elements with something I would have considered about five shades too dark. Then she started on the buildings and again I was blown away by the speed and confidence with which she does everything. Here is the first wash:

Then some of us went to lunch. There are always those die-hard students who skip lunch or down a quick sandwich while madly painting, but I personally need a break from all the stimulation!

After lunch, Keiko finished the painting in about 40 minutes while we watched, and then we went back to our desks and attempted our own versions. Here is hers:

You can see how much she alters from the original photo--she places the cars differently, she adds people for interest, plus the guy on the bicycle and the flags flying from the building on the right, and what seemed like a snapshot of a not-very-remarkable city scene suddenly became something special!

I have to say that I have never worked as hard and been less satisfied with my results. The cars look like toys, the people are weird-looking, the buildings are overworked and have little of the light-and-dark pizzazz of Keiko's--finesse is missing. But I am proud of myself for putting in the time on this (three hours at the workshop and another hour when I got home!), and I know that if I just do this about 300 times more, I will have something I'm really pleased to show! For now…here's my best effort:

Tomorrow is the last day, and we are choosing our own pictures from which to paint. Hmmm. What to do, what to do. You'll see tomorrow night…

20 February 2015

Weekend workshop

I once met a woman who had just moved to Los Angeles and who was puzzled by something: She said, "Every time I ask someone how far it is from A to B, instead of telling me 'It's 15 miles,' they say 'Oh, it will take you about 45 minutes.' Why does everyone give travel in time instead of distance?" Well, you have to live here to get it.

I'm taking a watercolor workshop this weekend with the awesome Keiko Tanabe, and it's in Westminster, which is somewhere inland a bit from Long Beach. I'm a little vague on the exact locale because when you are driving from Van Nuys to Westminster on a weekday, you don't just jump on the 405 (like I plan on doing for Saturday's and Sunday's sessions), you have to plot out the route that will take the least amount of time in traffic, regardless of the mileage. My route this morning involved six freeways, and it took me just about two hours. Tomorrow it will take an hour and 10, maybe. That's the reality of driving in L.A.

But, it's all worth it to study with Keiko. What a mastery she has of light, water, tone, and pigment! What a pleasure it is to watch her work! One of my co-workshoppers compared her method to that of a hummingbird--she moves swiftly, her brush jumps between wells of color, grabbing and mixing just the right ones to get what she wants, and she flits back and forth across the page, letting her attention move organically as it sees the next thing and the next and the next…

It's also a bit intimidating, for that very reason. This is a person who has been painting for little more than a decade, which is exactly how long I have been painting--but this is a person who paints every single day of the year. And she doesn't mess around--she teaches, from what I can see, about 45 out of 52 weeks a year, and paints two demo paintings per day at each of those workshops! (in addition to painting for herself--i.e., for shows and clients--during her "down time"). She travels all over the world--Europe, Japan, Mexico, China--which sounds amazing until you realize that she sometimes teaches a week-long workshop, gets on a plane, spends that day getting from one place to another, and teaches for another week starting the next. I don't know how she does it. The jet lag would kill me.

So today, she painted one painting between 9:30 and 10:30, and then we attempted to imitate it until lunch; then she painted a second painting, which we were also supposed to accomplish today. I spent the afternoon finishing the morning painting, as did three quarters of the class, so now we have homework--to draw the second painting in preparation--because tomorrow we will have two new demos! Wow. So much for my DVR!

Here is a photo of her painting from which we worked:

And here is my pale imitation:

It's not a horrible painting…but I see so many flaws. I utterly failed to save whites in the ocean, my washes are choppy and brushy, I had to give up and turn the parked cars on the right into shrubbery, and my tones and values are all over the place. I found it frustrating and unsatisfactory, but by the end, I was just pleased to finish something!

Here is the photo from which we are working for painting #2:

And here is her value sketch and her demo painting:

I came to a realization today as I watched Keiko work and listened to the questions, comments, and issues of the others around me: I can still learn a lot from anyone with whom I study; but ultimately it's not about watching what they do and imitating it, or using the exact color mixes and brands of brushes and paper (and parenthetically, I'm so tired of those who go to workshops and ask incessantly, "Now, what did you mix there?" Knowing what color she used won't make you able to paint like her!). It's about practice. Practice, practice, practice. At some point, you find your style, and you go with it, and then you practice it until you are the best you can be at whatever style that is.

I'm not ready to give up studying with others yet, but the realization here is that unless I am willing to commit to painting on a regular, consistent, repetitive basis, I'm never going to have the mastery I so admire in people like Keiko!

I'm off to make my drawing…

17 February 2015

New assignment: Birds

This week's Sketchbook Skool teacher is Cathy Johnson, renowned for her sketches of wildlife and nature. So our first assignment was to observe birds in our yard or in our neighborhood, and try doing some sketches from life, or from original photos we took. Here is my first, a Great Blue Heron from Lake Balboa. These guys sit patiently by the water and wait…for a fish to swim by, or for a fisherman to carelessly leave his bait bucket uncovered and unattended!