Artist to Artist: Mel Stabin

Lobsterman, Maine
2007, watercolor, 15 x 22.
All artwork this article collection
the artist unless otherwise indicated.

This artist and teacher recommends painting loosely and boldly, an approach that has defined his career.

Watercolor: How did you get started in watercolor? 
Mel Stabin: It all began with Edgar Whitney who was my professor and mentor at Pratt Institute, where I painted the figure in watercolor. He lit the fire. I also studied with Ed for six years painting landscapes on location.

WC: What was it like to study with Edgar Whitney? What was the most important thing he taught you? 
MS: Ed had an amazing personality. He had strong convictions about art and life, which he presented in a powerful and dramatic fashion to his students. Searching for the essence of a subject before painting it was one of the most memorable things I learned from Ed.

WC: What is your criteria for choosing a subject?  
MS: I first respond to my immediate reaction to the subject. I either feel it or I don’t. Then I consider the painting opportunities in terms of the design principles of composition, color, value, and so on. Subjects can vary from figures to landscapes to still lifes.

WC: For your figure paintings, how do you decide on a pose? 
MS: If the model is qualified, then she or he will create the pose. If the model is not very experienced, I will design a pose. I make small adjustments to the gestures and lighting. For clothed models, I suggest a couple of changes of wardrobe that are interesting in shape, color, and texture.

2005, watercolor, 15 x 22.

WC: Describe how you design a composition. 
MS: The challenge is translating a three-dimensional subject onto a two-dimensional surface. Deciding where the large shapes of the subject reside on the paper and their relationship to each other is the first consideration. I can then establish the dynamics of the composition with dominant shapes and rhythms.

WC: Briefly describe your painting process. 
MS: I begin with a casual approach, allowing colors to mingle with one another in an abstract way. I create the large shapes of color and value first. When the relationships of shapes, color, and value are established, I attend to the details.

WC: In your books you advocate a spontaneous but focused approach. What are the benefits to working this way? 
MS: There is a tendency for artists to tighten up at the beginning of a painting. To exploit the unique beauty of the watercolor medium, being spontaneous in one’s approach to a painting and very focused on the essence of the subject will result in a credible piece of work. Watercolor is at its best when it is set free.

WC: What is your advice to artists on working with color? 
MS: Of all the elements involved in the painting process, color is the most expressive, and the choice is personal. Be true to your own feelings about color, but base your choices on knowledge. Be familiar with the color wheel. Experiment with variations of color, such as complementary colors, analogous colors, and tertiary colors. After a while choosing colors and how you use them will become intuitive.

Wash Day in San Miguel
2005, watercolor, 15 x 22.
Collection Eli Neuberger.

WC: The white of the paper seems to play an especially critical role in your paintings. What is your technique for preserving the whites, and why do you think it is important to make the surface of the paper work for the artist in this way? 
MS: Of the three major values in painting—white, midtone, and black—white is the most aggressive. Therefore, relationships and rhythms of white shapes should be planned ahead to create a dynamic painting. In transparent watercolor painting, white often adds sparkle to the surface. My preference for creating white shapes is to cut around them with a brush so that the edges of the shapes can be controlled. There are times when a shape should have a soft edge, a drybrush edge, or a hard edge. If an artist develops dexterity with a brush, the smallest white shapes can be created with ease.

WC: How important is it that an artist develop a distinctive style? 
MS: One’s own personal style will develop with production. A style is a reflection of the artist as an individual. I would encourage familiarity with schools of art that are of interest, but beware of imitating another artist’s style. Be yourself.

WC: What would you say have been the pivotal experiences and events in your life as an artist? 
MS: Discovering the sheer joy of drawing and painting at an early age by attending Pratt Institute and having the good fortune of Edgar Whitney acting as my mentor
and friend.

WC: What has contributed the most to establishing your career? 
MS: Hard work and the love of watercolor.


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About BrianRiley

Brian Riley is the managing editor for the American Artist family of titles (American Artist, Watercolor, Drawing & Workshop) and has been part of the AA team since 2003. He first became interested in art as a child, specifically drawing, but drifted away from the visual arts as he grew older, gravitating towards writing while in college. His position at AA has offered him the opportunity to reinvigorate his early passion and continue his education.  

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