Karlyn Holman, Watercolor without boundaries

October 27, 2012

Karlyn Holman, Watercolor without boundaries: exploring new ways to have fun with watercolor. Washburn WI: Karlyn’s Gallery Publishing, 2010.

I borrowed this book from my local library because the first third of the book features a lot of urban sketching, while the last third has a lot of mixed media techniques. Like the vast majority of urban sketchers, she starts with sketching in pen then adds painted colour.

The points that were most interesting to me were as follows:

* synthetic brushes, because natural fibres are unsuitable for losing edges (and Holman is big on applying then lifting off colour);

* most of her work involves a flat untextured paper surface – paper more akin to sketchbooks than rough watercolour paper paintings (even when glueing down Oriental papers, which she tones herself, she aims for as flat a surface as possible);

* because of her strong background in Abstract Expressionism, she’s big on Cobalt Blue, Permanent Magenta and Quinacridone Gold/Quinacridone Burnt Sienna and Burnt Orange – her work is “sunny” (think Arthur Streeton who used the same Purple-Yellow complementaries throughout his landscape oeuvre);

* she first produces very “flat”-looking realistic pen drawing, delineating shadow and tone only with paint (never pen); the outline of atmospheric distance and the horizon too is left to paint, never pen;

* she paints in shadows and darks, often very dry brushstrokes, added randomly to the linework, leaving a “path” of unpainted paper through the sketch (producing direction for the viewer) – the paint may or may not correspond to the linework – she’s big on “general”, large, diffused areas of contrasting colour, all in the name of mood – she’s very big on communicating Feeling;

* she will play with penwork that is not waterproof (something called an “Elegant Writer”(TM) pen) to which she will addwater and colour.

* she has examples of work done with water-soluble pen and Caran d’Ache watersoluble crayons (I reckon she must be using a set of at least 48 colours), confirming my suspicion that watersoluble crayons really requires large pieces of paper (min. A4) – she incorporates collage pieces of tissue paper painted with light washes of watercolor (really I think just to firm up the darks in the painting);

* she is very careful and wary, almost tentative when working watercolour on dry paper; she lets herself go a lot more with wet-in-wet;

* the final painting involves “re-touching”, aligning in small, particular places, the paint with the original linework – linking Reality to Abstraction.

She introduces the work and techniques of her colleagues.  For example, Paul Dermanis uses just three Pantone Tria markers (red, yellow, blue) on a simple black marker contour drawing. The strokes are all minute and fine. He creates oranges, purples and greens by carefully overlaying marks from the primary colour markers, all on A4 pages. Since Dermanis is an architect, he ends up with something reminiscent of the work of James Richards. For anyone working up paintings based on location sketches, there’s the work of Cindy Markovski using food colouring instead of pigment.

I’ve ignored the central third of the book which broaches abstraction; this section is useful to better understand her use of colour and media (including water-soluble crayons, creating depth using tissue paper overlays, etc.).

Lastly, in examples where alla prima painted colour almost totally overwhelms the sketch, she will add white acrylic paint to highlight contour, using a gutta bottle (creating a batik-like effect). I can’t say I’ve ever seen urban sketchers using this technique or another, gold leaf, which she uses (I must check how gold and silver leaf  works, or doesn’t work, with a scanner). For anyone familiar with the work of Gustav Klimt or Donald Friend, you’ll appreciate how dramatic this last effect can be and provided you’re not too fussy about its use in a sketch, it’s very easy to use.

The dozens of exercises in the book come with four or five photos each of the work in progress; one can very clearly see how she’s developed the painting from one pic to the next.

A thought-provoking book; I have to say I never sit down in front of an urban subject and think “What feeling do I want to evoke in the viewer?”. But of course, as in all things, nothing is ever Objective, it’s always Subjective, it’s always about the artist’s emotional response to something – which is why artists interpret the same subject differently. I suspect for a lot of urban sketchers, it’s an identification with the tumult of a busy streetscape, a joy when encountering a complex piece of architecture or the blessed relief of cool shadows in a hot or humid city environment.


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