Tuesday, April 2, 2013

New Interview

I received a very flattering interview request from an art student in Russia, with a number of unusual questions.

Dear Nicholas,

I decided to send you a letter because I’m really fascinated by your works and I’m dreaming one day to paint at least a bit as beautiful as you do. However at the moment I’m just a student at the Institute of Design, Applied Art and Humanitarian Education in Saint-Petersburg also I’m the participant of the editorial staff in our new student magazine, Про искусство. Now are working on the first issue which will be dedicated to watercolour painting. The subject of the article will be the technical aspects of watercolours which can be useful both for novices and more experienced artists.

My idea is to base the article on the review from the best and brightest watercolour artist which I know and whose works I sincerely admire. So without any hesitation I came up with your name in my head. To make the long story short here comes the request part of the letter. Could you please briefly answer the questions below basing on your experience and knowledge so we could quote your expert opinion in the article.

Thank you very much in advance for sharing your ideas and experience. I’m sure all your recommendations will be a great help and inspiration for many young artists in Russia!

Best regards from your passionate fan,
Vasilisa Sokolova

1. What are your key principles for better more consistent watercolour painting? 

That's a difficult question, and perhaps depends on the kind of artist one is, or the work one is doing. Certainly consistency will result from doing the same type of paintings in the same technique/style/handling, but I find this approach, after a while, rather boring. I'm more interested in art and artists that surprise me. I particularly like work that imparts a sense of danger, the feeling that the artist took a chance. This approach probably does not serve the interests of consistency with respect to the overall quality of the work. However, regular risk-taking is a type of consistency of its own.
2. What should the progression of exercises  look like to achieve the best results?

I don't know, I've never done exercises. I don't do value studies, or work out much of the painting in advance. Part of what I like about watercolor is its elusiveness and tendency to change quickly; plans don't always agree with that unpredictability, and rigidly sticking to a plan can make the work suffer. With regard to values, color, etc.,  I see all of that in my head. I know the painting will not be quite how I imagine it, but I have learned that the unexpected detours and adaptations might well be better than the original idea, anyway. 

3. What are the biggest mistakes novices make when practicing watercolours? What are the biggest misuses of time?

There are two that seem most devastating to me; one is physical, the other, mental. In my opinion, most beginners paint much too small. I think it is better to start large, as one learns to handle paint when there is a lot of paint to be handled. On a large scale the tolerances are greater, requiring less precision. More space allows the physics of the water, paint, and paper to do more interesting things. One can still learn about control and detail on a large scale. Another consideration is the option of cropping; if you crop the best section out of a small painting, you will likely have a tiny painting as a result. If you crop a large work, you can still come up with a decent-sized painting. I've noticed that starting small also builds fear in people of painting larger, a fear most never overcome in watercolor. That is unfortunate, and unnecessary. I always wanted to do paintings that could hang in big spaces with some impact. 

Size is the easy problem to fix. The more difficult problem for people in the beginning, and even for many  experienced painters, is letting go of preconceived ideas about how the work will progress and ultimately look. This is especially true in watercolor, as the medium is liable to do something unexpected. The saddest thing is when people cannot, or will not, let go of those ideas at the expense of something that might be better. There is an arrogance to this attitude that says "my idea is best." The medium has always been a better artist than I am, always doing something I wouldn't have thought of on my own.  "Listening" to the painting is crucial, and I have no aversion to changing direction. Instead of insisting on attaining what's in my head, I've come to accept what I get, and time after time that has been superior to the original intent. I think watercolor painting is like playing jazz, it's very improvisational. Over-planning a performance is not only the antithesis of improvisation, it is the death of it.
4. Even at the pro level, what mistakes are most common?

Expanding on this subject, that would depend on what one considers a "mistake." I see all kinds of work that I feel is a mistake before the paint ever hit the paper. Or to put it another way, something not worth doing is not worth doing well. Apart from the philosophical, actual technical or design mistakes usually announce themselves. Then, I often see work by accomplished technicians who appear to be trying to see through the eyes of another artist. That's a serious situation that cheats everyone involved -- the original, the perpetrator, and the viewer.
5. What are your favorite instructional books or resources on the subject? If people had to teach themselves what would you suggest they use?

There are so many good books and videos I hesitate to name any, as I'll no doubt omit something important. I suppose the best resource for teaching oneself is drawing on all of the things in one's personal experience. For me, a lot of that came from music, film, literature, photography, and, of course, studying the work of artists I admired.
6. If you were to train me for four weeks for a competition and had a million euros on the line, what would the training look like? What if I trained for eight weeks?

That's a fun question! Four weeks would involve rolls of huge paper, lots of paint, large brushes, and putting you through the entire range of emotions. Some people do their best work when at their at emotional extremes, others do better on an even, objective keel. Eight weeks would allow a lot more time to put the work away and take it out later to analyze with fresh eyes.
7. What are the biggest mistakes and myths you see in watercolour painting? What are the biggest wastes of time?

Learning too much about the materials is a mistake, in my opinion. I've noticed the people who become preoccupied with all of that are often not very good artists. I see an over-reliance on value studies and planning as largely a waste of time. Worrying about what others will think is very bad. The idea of "purist" watercolor has nothing whatsoever to do with art, so obsession with that is obviously a mistake. There is the notion that painting everyday has some inherent value, but I don't agree. I'm not saying it's bad, but painting for the sake of painting does nothing for me.
8. Do you know somebody who is good in watercolour painting despite being poorly gifted for it? Who is good at this who shouldn’t be?

The first question is strange. I'll just say that I see many people who have great technical skill, but in my opinion are not artists in the way that I think of artists; that is, exercising the imagination and creativity, exploring uncharted (if only for themselves) territory. Related to this might be the people who can draw but can't paint, and the reverse - those who can paint but can't draw. A curious situation that raises questions about their assumed interdependence. There are many analogies that can be drawn there, such as the example of musicians who don't really know theory and harmony, but produce great music anyway. I'm not really sure what the second question means! 

9. Who is the most unorthodox watercolourist or watercolour teacher? Why? What do you think of them?

Oh my, what a difficult question. I have been described as unorthodox, but then I see all kinds of other artists who do things that seem quite unusual to me, things I would never think about painting. Regarding teachers, I probably haven't been exposed to enough of them to be able to make comparisons. 

10. What makes you different from other artists? Who trained you or influenced you?

I was influenced early by many well-known watercolorists, most notably Valfred Thelin and Barbara Nechis, and of course people such as Sargent, Sorolla, Wyeth, Mauricio Lasansky, etc. My favorite contemporary painter is Alex Kanevksy, but I also admire Lita Cabellut, Jose Parla, and too many others to mention. If I'm different from other watermedia artists, perhaps it is my music background and general aversion to authority that somehow emerges in a way that has a certain vibe. And while I have tremendous respect for many historically great artists of the past, I have no special respect for tradition or the politics of art. Many artistic institutions are weighed down by things that address artists collectively, and I see art as purely an individual endeavor. I don't care much for team sports, I prefer to see one person out there winning or losing on his or her own abilities.

Thank you very much for your time and most of all for sharing your ideas and experience. Your letter was like a breath of fresh air for me and I'm sure my fellow students would feel the similar effect :). In fact you've managed to ruin a couple of ideas I sacredly believed in for years...
Thank you again and best regards from Vasilisa.


Myrna Wacknov said...

What an interesting interview!! Your answers are very insightful and I agree with much of what you have expressed. Thanks for sharing. It should open up some great dialogue among some artist friends of mine.

Claire Bull said...

I enjoyed this, Nicholas...interesting questions and excellent answers - good for you for taking the time to do this - very FUN

Nancy Lee said...

This interview is so interesting from the questions that were asked to your answers which are consistent with what you have been saying for years. And painting large is one of the best pieces of advice one can get. It does open you up and frees you from the tight feeling that can develop when trying to be just a bit too precise or accurate..When learning watercolor the only drawback to painting large is perhaps financial!! :) :) Nice mentoring interview, Nick! And just a word about proving one is not a robot in order to post ...Who makes those squiggly, fuzzy letters? They are impossible..I have to get a magnifying glass and even then I'm not absolutely sure...LOL Hope that isn't saying anything about my eyesight. :)

Nick said...

Myrna - nice to see you. As I just mentioned on FB, some will think I'm being provocative, but it's truly the way I see things. For better or worse!

Claire - there aren't many artist interviews that really grab my attention. The best I've seen are from Alex Kanevsky, you might google those.

Nancy - yes, at least I'm consistent in my views, if not with the paintings! I was lucky when starting out, Thelin had me painting on 30 x 40 watercolor board from the beginning, I'm sure that was a great way to start. Re the posting verification: that was one of the first things that soured me on the blog scene, just don't have the time or patience. I finally had to do that to keep the spam down. Google has ruined much of the internet for me, especially Youtube, which is almost impossible to enjoy now.

Kwegyir said...

Very fascinating interview Nick. Aye-koo!

Rajeev Mohan said...

Fascinating questions and great answers. Enjoyed it thoroughly.
Painting big is like standing at the edge of a deep pool and hesitating... Hope to have the courage to dive in one day Nick :)

Nick said...

Jonathan - not the usual questions, not the usual answers! I look forward to reading an interview about your methods and views sometime.

Rajeev - that's where I really do hesitate - standing at the edge of a deep pool! If can obtain rolls of paper over there, I hope you'll try. Or just get any kind of paper in a large size, and start in. Even if it's not quality watercolor paper, you'll still get a lot of the experience and benefit.

Kim Minichiello said...

Loved these questions and your answers are very thought provoking. The one of many things I took away from your workshop was painting big. I bought the roll and dove in. It has given me the freedom to express what I want to say in my painting, and I am loving and feeling more in tune with the painting process. The last large work I did seemed to paint itself!

Lisa Argentieri said...

very interesting and informative, thank you!

Nick said...

Kim - I'm happy to hear that. :) It's a relief getting away from the "one size fits all" mentality that is so prevalent in watercolor. And those who think that a full sheet is "big" need to visit a museum sometime!

Lisa - if there is one little thing that might make you think or view things differently, it was worth the read! Check Alex Kanevsky's interviews online for some really inspiring thoughts.

Vandy said...

Great questions. And wonderfully fresh honest answers. I love the direct, unrestricted approach you take to your painting. There's a fearlessness about diving in and giving it everything on every painting.

On top of that, some artists I've not encountered mentioned in your answers - I have some exploring to do.

Nick said...

Vandy - thanks for the nice message. I could have named lots more artists, but just those three will keep you busy for awhile!


i read your post earlier this week nick ... i wanted to come back to re read it and thankyou for sharing it ...very inspiring interview...taking a chance "listening" improvisation + scale + space ... to try no 6 suggestion.

Nick said...

Jane -thanks for the good words. In a nutshell, it's how I've been working all along. Won't work for everyone, but suits me fine. :)

Deborah Bollman said...

What a wonderful interview with one of my favorite artists! Thanks for sharing!

thomas w schaller said...

great interviw nick - reminds me that as artists - generally working with a few similar 'tools' we can all produce wildy different - and very personal - results.

Nick said...

Deborah - that's very kind, thanks for stopping by!

Tom - yes, and as you know, this is just my own recipe for personal "success" - could be poison for anyone else! A more by-the-book approach would doubtless be the safer course for most. Then again, Wes Montgomery said he never practiced, just opened the case once in a while and threw in a steak. lol

Jean Burman said...

Great interview Nick... I enjoyed the read. You were of course at your radical and most unorthodox best... that's what we love about you [that and your consistent shunning of the banal and the ordinary along with your down to earth commonsensical handling of... not only the medium... but also the hoopla that so often surrounds it... the dos and don'ts that don't always make a whole lot of sense. Thanks again :)

Nick said...

Jean - someone has to throw a wrench into the works. I see watercolor as potentially the most exciting painting medium, but there seem to be a lot of traditions and methodology associated with it that put a damper on that potential...creating the perhaps-deserved reputation as a medium for wishy washy, unambitious dabblers. This is analogous to the reputation the classical guitar suffered, in comparison to other instruments and the music written for them. That is, until certain people came along raising the level of performance and interpretation, and inspiring composers to write serious works for it. Maybe watercolor can undergo, or is undergoing, a similar evolution.

Jean Burman said...

I hope so Nick... I do believe you've started something :)

Anonymous said...

A friend of mine asked me to take a look at this article on your blog and comment. You may be a good painter, but on the other hand, your statement: "...rather boring." is pomposity at it's best. And the comment: "I see an over-reliance on value studies and planning as largely a waste of time." is absurdly myopic. Studies and planning have just as much place in art as spontaneity. That studying a subject such as the human form will lead to better paintings is a given. The great masters spent hours studying their subjects and planning their pieces. To trivialize them is pompous yet again. I can read no more.

Nick said...

Anonymous - I agree with much of what you say, so perhaps you've read more into my responses than is actually there. Sorry my boredom strikes you as pompous. Do you like going to an exhibition and seeing 20 or 30 versions of the same painting? I don't. Re planning and value studies, I guess you ignored the qualifier: OVER-reliance. It's been my experience that a lot of work suffers from determined attempts to adhere to a rigid plan, something that is often at odds with an ephemeral medium (as I most like to see it handled). At the same time, there is all kinds of work I admire that is the result of careful planning - I've done it myself. I see you're in Dallas, OR -- I'm doing a workshop in Bend this summer, and I welcome you to stop by (anonymously) if you would like to discuss it further. :)

Paul S said...

Mr Anonymous doesn't even use the word "pompous" correctly. One of those who can't do and feels the sting of truth from one who can and does. Get used to it my friend, and do not be dissuaded by wannabes who miss the point and resurrect dead masters to do their bidding. Weak tea, very weak. Great interview by the way!

Nick said...

Paul S- Thanks very much. It's not uncommon for people to jump to unfounded conclusions over issues dear to them. For example, I've given many lectures and mentioned plein air painting is irrelevant to my work. Some have gotten quite huffy over that, and always forget that I'm talking about MY work, MY methods - not theirs. No big deal. The only really unequivocal opinion I state in this interview is re the purist mindset, and I'm happy to stand by that statement anytime, anywhere.

Anonymous said...

thank you Nick

for being independent
for being honest
for being inspirational
for being a voice

all this and more from a respected watercolorist!

Nick said...

Anonymous (#2) - thanks for your nice post, I didn't see it before.