Discover a Powerful Painting Method

Half Dome, Yosemite 1920, 15 1/4 x 13 1/4, watercolor and pencil on paper. All works by William Zorach. Images courtesy Michael Rosenfeld Gallery.
Half Dome, Yosemite
1920, 15 1/4 x 13 1/4, watercolor and pencil on paper.
All works by William Zorach.
Images courtesy Michael Rosenfeld Gallery.

William Zorach is a well-known 20th-century sculptor who participated in the Armory Show of 1913 and whose work is held in numerous public collections. But as his career unfolded and he found his way as a sculptor, watercolor painting was always part of his practice.

“I have continued to paint watercolors all my life,” Zorach wrote in his 1967 autobiography, Art Is My Life. “Their spontaneity gives me a certain release and satisfies my love of color. After all, painting was my training and my world for all my early years, and I will always see the world in color as well as form. … All art is correlated; all stems from the great creative impulse. There is no reason why sculptors shouldn’t paint and painters sculpt.”

Zorach’s watercolor paintings bear no resemblance to his sculptural subject matter or style. Instead, the paintings allowed him to explore an entirely separate avenue of expression. During the summer the artist spent in Yosemite National Park, in California, the cliffs and peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountains were his subject matter, and his watercolor art show how just a few strokes of paint on paper can create a sense of atmosphere and place.

The painting Half Dome, Yosemite, for example, comes together in what looks to be less than a few dozen strokes. There’s a spontaneous sense of movement and a seeming understanding that the pigment itself can do a lot without much fussing and force from the artist’s brush. The bright yellow that glints off the edges of the mountains gives a sense of the sun hitting the form, but it doesn’t appear everywhere the sun would reflect. By applying the pigment in just a few places, the artist creates more impact and infuses the painting with warmth and shine.

Yosemite Trees, c.1920, 15 1/2 x 13 1/4, watercolor on paper.
Yosemite Trees,
c.1920, 15 1/2 x 13 1/4, watercolor on paper.

The darkest shadow in the center of the painting—created using what looks like a drybrush technique—establishes the mass of the form and gives a sense of texture and depth. That, plus the blots and washes of purple and dusky pink, give an indication of the mountains’ profile in a way that seems loose and free, a celebration of the moment, much as the artist intended.

“I spent five months in the Yosemite Valley sketching, drawing, painting, and doing watercolors,” wrote Zorach. “Every now and then in life we have an experience that moves us so deeply, that holds us with such sheer, transcendent beauty, that it takes us completely out of this world. It is this feeling that only an artist can convey in his art. It is a journey into infinity.”

The artist likened watercolor painting to writing poetry because there is fluidity and looseness that comes when artists allow the medium to guide them as opposed to steering it along at every step in a composition. To better understand the movement and freedom of watercolors, and to see how masters explore this medium both in and of itself and as a gateway to work with other tools and materials, Watercolor Masters and Legends is available and full of resources that practicing artists will be immediately inspired by and definitely shouldn’t do without.

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Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.   

4 thoughts on “Discover a Powerful Painting Method

  1. With all respect to Mr. Zorach, I’ve cilimbed Half Dome and viewed it over 50 times and his sense of capturing Half Dome with a spontaneous sense of movement with fewer than a dozen strokes fails to display in watercolor the beauty and immensemess of this intenational landmark.

  2. With all due respect, this is a frightfully rendered view of Half Dome. I just do not understand why someone would even consider this a ‘work of art’. Yes ‘beauty (and art) is in the eye of the beholder, but sometimes one just needs to call it as it is: crap! And that’s being nice. I enjoy impressionism, even like to paint in that style often, but ‘comes together in what looks to be less than a few dozen strokes’ it truly does not. What is it that Mr. Zorach is trying to state here in this piece? It’s not clear, nor moving, nor motivating, nor intriguing to the eye to venture in and meander around. You see ‘novice artist’ and your eye has seen this piece in its entirety. Mr. Zorach, there is no poetry in this piece.

  3. Mr Zorach was a tremendous talent and his watercolor reveals that. If Phil and Starla lack the artistic sophistication to appreciate that, I would suggest that “all due respect” would be silence from them.

  4. …oh, and by the way, I was struck by this powerful piece at first glimpse, without having any idea whose work it was.
    Contrary to Starla’s “nice” comments, it IS clear, moving, motivating, intriguing, and hardly the work of a novice. Such small-minded and ignorant views should be kept to yourselves, you are revealing way too much about your lack of understanding and vision.