Monday, November 7, 2011

Water Brush and Brush Pen Sketching

The little painting above is my homework for "Essentials of Painting Trees" by Johannes Vloothuis, current in a series of fine art courses presented by WetCanvas Live! You can join the course late and still get the benefit of the classes by viewing the streaming video on a password-locked page for paid students. Previous courses are available for download from North Light Books.

I've been taking Johannes Vloothuis classes ever since he did his first Free Trial test of the GoToMeeting webinar software in December 2010. The master literally used his free trial to the max, for thirty days an increasing number of students spent four to six hours every day watching and participating in his lectures on all aspects of landscape painting. He redid the course and presented it again from December to April. All the downloads are available at North Light Books.

Now he's started doing classes on specific topics in depth. We had Buildings and Mountains, now it's Trees, next time I think it'll be Water. Because he had short "Trees" segments in his two general courses and I took notes, I have hundreds of little brush pen sketches of evergreen or deciduous trees in my notes. Some were copies of examples Johannes sketched on the screen with the webinar program. Others were my brush pen sketches as examples of what he was talking about.

So when he assigned "Group five evergreens together in a single mass, don't use color, just do them as a shape," I played with it. I got out my Winsor & Newton Field Box, where I've substituted Paynes Grey for Ivory Black and a Niji Waterbrush.

The brush is a nylon watercolor round, about size 6 or 7, with a water receptacle in the handle. Fill it at the sink or if you're out in the field, from your water bottle. Tap the little black regulator cap back into the receptacle and screw the brush tip back on. You can now paint with watercolors without keeping a water cup handy.

This is handier than anything else for quick watercolor sketching in your art journal when you're out. There's no need to juggle anything but the watercolor pans or palette and what you're painting on. You can even handle both while standing up, it helps if your pocket pan set has a thumb ring on it to hook a finger through.

So I did a couple of versions of the homework assignment, striving for graceful abstract shapes and a melodic line at the base of the mass. Then on this third painting in a 3" x 5" wirebound all-media sketchbook, I did something different.

I laid the water brush down at a steep angle, maybe only about ten or fifteen degrees up from the surface of the paper while I painted the tree silhouettes. I swished the tip in the pan to pick up color and didn't try to bring the color all the way up the hairs. So the tip had the strongest color and the base of the brush head was just clear water.

I got a dramatic result by accident on my first go - a soft gradation of color at the bottom of the grouping that looked like ground hugging fog below a hillside. I quickly added more details and areas to the top of the trees with the tip but I kept the brush at an angle as I progressed across the page. I worked fast, not letting the paint dry till I was done.

You can see some of the places where value varies from my additions to the trees. But the base came out with that smooth, gorgeous gradation.

So try this at home with a water brush. Tip the brush with color and then lay it down at an angle. Establish a hard-edged form above and a soft-edged gradated wash at the bottom. It's not that hard when you get the knack.

You can also use this from side to side on rounded objects. Just tip the brush with color and lay the brush nearly flat to the side, then move along the contours of the shape. While it's still wet, you can charge other colors into the wash.

Water brushes were developed in Japan. The first one I ever encountered was from Sakura, included in the 12 color Sakura Koi Pocket Box watercolor set. The pocket brush version is very short but will last through one to three post card sized paintings without refilling depending on how much water you use. Later on they put a full length water brush in the 24 color Sakura Koi Pocket Box, which has a lid designed to hold a postcard sized sheet or block.

I tried other brands. My favorites are Niji and Derwent. You can also use the same "tipping" technique with watercolor pencils and a water brush. Just run the tip of the brush over the tip of the pencil and then apply at an angle to the paper. The color will shade out beautifully to bare paper in a perfect soft edge.

Back when I got my first Sakura Koi 12 color Pocket Box, I was also exploring Japanese sumi-e painting - ink sticks ground with water on a suzuri stone, painting with natural hair Chinese or Japanese traditional brushes. Many of those are rounds that come to a good point. The tipping technique showed up in two instruction books I got from my local library as a sumi-e technique.

You might consider getting a library book on Sumi-E - Yolanda Mayhall's "The Sumi-E Book" is an excellent source if your library has it. Any technique in sumi-e can be duplicated with watercolor and a round brush, the mediums work well together. The biggest difference is that sumi-e ink does not rewet after being painted.

What I found was that using a water brush to practice the sumi-e strokes gave me instant results. It was so easy that I kept on doing sumi-e inspired sketches like the pines above as almost watercolor doodles. I thought I was just playing with it, goofing around. After all, it wasn't the classical medium with the correct brushes and stone and ink sticks.

What practicing in watercolor with a water brush did was to bring some of the principles of Sumi-E into my other art. I internalized some of the conciseness, some of the compositional ideas, most of all the understanding that I could convey a lot with only one calligraphic stroke.

I don't mean calligraphy as in Western calligraphy, like German black letter, Old English or Irish Half-Uncial. I do that too and it's fun. When I say "Calligraphic stroke," I mean the types of strokes used in Chinese and Japanese calligraphy, kanji and Chinese ideograms. Expressive brush strokes where the pressure and direction change constantly.

I also took out a book on Japanese kanji and practiced some letter forms in my journal at that time with the water brush.

I highly recommend this practice. Get to the library, get some books, get a water brush and start doodling in watercolor. Lately I've been hearing critique from master artists about my pastels or pen drawings that I have an Asian feeling to them, or I have conciseness. This even affected my pastel painting!

What works with a brush in wet mediums can sometimes work with a stick or a pencil in dry mediums. The idea of getting across more information in each stroke, of painting as if it was poetry rather than the novelist approach of describing every detail will affect all of your art.

So practice it the easy way. Water brushes were invented in a country where brush lettering is the calligraphy. Like brush pens, they were designed for quick fancy writing as much as for painting pictures. So give it a go!

Doodling with brush pens like the Pitt Artist Pens or Tombow dual tip brush pens is another way to practice calligraphic strokes. Tombow sets now include a colorless blender that's essentially a water brush with a foam point instead of a hairs point. You can blend out soft edges after the fact with the Tombow pens if you use the colorless blender pen. I haven't tried it by dipping it in paint, though I should since I've got four of the ten-color sets and thus four colorless blenders. I can afford to wreck one or stain it by using it in a watercolor pan.

Brush sketching isn't the same thing physically as pen sketching. You'll develop a different "hand" and set of motor skills with the water brush doodling and brush pens. I specifically recommend the brush pens because they make painting fast and easy. With zero setup, you can try to paint-sketch something in two to five minutes instead of having to go find your watercolors, get out water bottle, set up something to hold your stuff and then get started painting. By that time your dog or cat has moved, or the sun changed.

You might not even have it with you when you go to the supermarket. But if you put a small art journal or multimedia pad in your pocket along with any pocket set of half pans and a water brush, you'll always be prepared to capture a sunset, an interesting tree branch, a gesture of a teenager sitting on the curb.

Try to depict your subject as fast as possible in as few strokes as possible. With short practices on impulse scattered throughout the day, your painting will improve as fast as your drawing skills do with fast pen or pencil sketching.

Have a go! It doesn't matter if a few doodles come out badly - what matters are the ones that come out striking, far better than you expected. Date everything you do so that you can see your progress. Within weeks you'll find your paintings in all mediums start to improve from this practice.

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