Watercolor Artist John Salminen: Art & Advice
Every time I look at John Salminen’s work I simply get happy. I spend minutes studying each painting–taking in the colors, the compositions, the narratives, the forms–and this visual absorption just buoys up my spirits. Thanks to our guest blogger Paul Sullivan for this exclusive interview with John.
For more instruction from this beloved watercolor artist, be sure to get your copy of John’s painting guide collection: Master the Urban Landscape in Watercolor with John Salminen. Enjoy!
The Third in an Artist Daily Exclusive Series:
Masters of American Watercolor—John Salminen
How did you become interested in watercolor?
My interest in watercolor began in the early 1980s when I had an opportunity to study with Cheng Khee Chee. He was teaching extension classes at the University of Minnesota Duluth campus and a fellow art teacher and I signed up for several classes, spanning about a two-year time frame. This was not my first experience with watercolor but it was the impetus needed for me to make a serious commitment to the medium.
I learned many useful techniques but most importantly I found the design-driven approach to watercolor intriguing and I became increasingly aware of the importance of a solidly developed design-based foundation. The more I painted the more I realized how much I had to learn. I feel that I am still building on information and skills I acquired during those classes.
Who were the watercolor artists who inspired you the most?
I began as an abstract expressionist painter and the concepts and approaches of DeKooning and Franz Kline are still central in my mind when I begin a new painting. When I began to paint in watercolor, representationally, Mr. Cheng Khee Chee was a strong influence and at first I wanted to paint just like him. At the same time I was learning from the California painters— the great fast and loose plein air painters that were driving the medium forward. Robert E. Wood and Morris Shubin provided me with another way to incorporate design into my pieces. Frank Webb wrote eloquently on the subject and I carefully studied his approach. As I became more skilled, I began to assume my own style and my influences became more finely tuned.
While I don’t try to emulate the work or style of other painters, I continually take inspiration from many artists. Dean Mitchell’s current use of rich grays, Joseph Zbukvic’s glowing middle-value passages and Mary Whyte’s ability to engage the viewer on an emotional level are all intriguing to me. As I teach, judge, visit exhibitions and look at work in books or on Facebook I see bits and pieces of paintings that cause me to think about how a particular effect or even a type of brush stroke could impact my own work. Everything I see has the potential to modify my thinking and subtly influence my work. I will always be a student and careful observation of works by painters I admire helps me on my journey toward improvement.
What do you look for—what attracts you the most—when looking for potential subject matter?
I work from photos that I take on location, using the camera viewfinder as my sketchbook. I look for value changes and an interesting composition when I determine when to click the shutter. These same elements help me to determine which of my many photo-references to choose for a painting. Once I select a subject with a strong composition, it becomes my job to infuse it with additional content that will speak to the viewers. To this end, I often add figures and change the mood and atmosphere by adjusting the value structure to impart a sense of time and place. Some subjects lend themselves more readily to a “story” than others and that is part of the challenge in creating a painting that people can relate to.
Many of your paintings feature well known locations. Do you think this helps you in establishing a mood or link with the viewer?
By using subjects that viewers can relate to, I’m inviting them to interact with the work. One of my objectives is to show the viewer a slightly different look at a familiar icon.
Your work is noted for its strong design of complex subjects. Do you make small preliminary roughs or value studies?
For many years I filled sketchbook after sketchbook with detailed drawings done on location. I then returned to my studio and redid the sketches with an eye toward design, composition and value. The second drawing became my blueprint for the painting while my on-location sketch provided convincing detail. After so much practice with this design-based approach creating patterns of value, dynamic arrangements of shape and interesting compositions, I now feel that I’ve internalized these principles. I can identify a strong subject both as I take the photos and as I scan them looking for painting references. However, I do still doodle while talking on the phone. When I have a little extra time I like to spend it making abstract arrangements of dark, medium and light values—composition at its most essential level. As accomplished musicians continue to practice scales, I continue to compose.
Once the composition and direction of the painting is established, do you proceed without much more preliminary work?
Once I see what I want to paint I do an extensive drawing, rearranging and redesigning just as I used to do in my sketchbook. The value of a solid drawing is that it frees me up during the painting process to concentrate on mood and feeling. Because my paintings are often quite large, the drawing keeps me in touch with my original intention and time spent creating the drawing is regained during the painting process. I have found that it’s important for me to frequently put the painting up and look at it carefully and critically. The painting often develops its own voice and sometimes suggests a new direction.
What can you tell us regarding your effective use of neutrals and limited color? You use dark values and deep shadows so well. Do you ever use black – if only for extra punch?
My use of neutralized color is based on the concept of staging. By creating a carefully orchestrated painting utilizing complementary blends and a rich mix of grays, I can use small amounts of pure, bright color to create a dramatic accent. I use lamp black as a dramatic accent as well, placing the pure black in a part of the painting that is already devoted to very dark mixed blacks (alizarin crimson and pthalo green or ultramarine blue and burnt umber for example). The lamp black gives luminosity to the surrounding dark passages and provides the extra snap needed to create a dark accent.
You use photo reference for your studio paintings. Have you experienced any real drawbacks in working from photos?
There is a potential risk in working from photos. Artists sometimes simply copy what the camera recorded or work from photos taken by other people and this could limit the artists’ abilities to express their individual creative visions. I taught photography for many years and I believe that the aesthetic standards by which we judge a photo are different than those we use to judge a painting. To simply enlarge a photo using paint seems foolish. A photocopy store can do it quicker and cheaper. My challenge when using photo reference is to create a work that relies on painterly handling of the medium and takes advantage of my options to improve and enhance the reality of the scene. I often have an emotional reaction to my subjects and what I see is colored by the sum total of my own experiences. For example, at times my view of a scene has been influenced by beautiful descriptive passages by authors like Saul Bellows. Or I remember how I felt when I stood on location looking through my viewfinder. I recall the rumble of the elevated train or the smell of roasting cashews from a nearby vendor. All of those contributing factors add elements to my painting that weren’t included in the initial photo reference.
A photo faithfully records detail and I need to prioritize that detail, interpreting it and hopefully enhancing it. These things, combined with the quality of the mark on the page, distinguish a painting from a photograph.
At times do you work with several different photos of the same subject?
I often combine images to improve the composition or enhance the story being told.
What paper do you generally prefer—brand, cold press, hot press, etc.?
The best paper for my painting process is d’Arches 140 lb cold press, in full sheets, elephant size or larger pieces cut from rolls. It serves my needs completely.
Do you prepare your paper in any way—wetting it, stretching it, etc.?
I simply tape the paper to a piece of foam core, bringing the tape in about 1/2” from the edge of the paper. I use foam core that I’ve precut to the same exterior dimensions of my mat and piece of plexiglass, allowing me to easily slip the painting behind the mat. The plexiglass restores luster to the surface and this simple system promotes frequent periods of reflection as the painting emerges.
Do you have some colors you rely on and some you try to avoid – for any reason?
My favorite colors are very traditional and my palette hasn’t changed much in many years. Alizarin Crimson and Pthalo Green sit side by side, as do Ultramarine Blue, Burnt Sienna and Burnt Umber. These are the workhorse combinations of my neutral color schemes. Another combination I like is Cerulean Blue and Cadmium Orange to create some rich hard-to-define colors. My only recent addition is everyone’s favorite – Quin Gold. I use it with caution, however, as it wants to be the star of the show whether I want that or not. My favorite mixtures occur after a couple of days of painting when the slurry in the middle of my unwashed palette begins to get interesting.
I personally avoid all of the yellow-greens. The only green on my palette is Pthalo because it’s cool and mixes well with other colors.
Your plein air paintings present a delightful but totally different style. Have they contributed to the evolution of your studio painting style?
My studio paintings take 40-60 hours to complete. Because I thoroughly enjoy the act of painting, that’s not a problem for me. I become so immersed in the small abstractions that emerge as I apply internal details that I could continue to paint forever.
However, I’ve recently been invited to participate in plein air painting trips in China and elsewhere and my studio style would not be workable so I have revisited my roots—the California fast and loose style. It’s comfortable for me and is a good fit for the underlying design concepts I have developed over the years. I enjoy being able to complete a painting in an hour or two and I’ve been increasingly pleased with the results. I think these experiences strengthen my studio work because they put me back in touch with the wonderful luminous aspect of quickly applied washes—something that sometimes gets lost in the studio.
When I’m out on the streets with my camera I’m creating images in much the same mindset as when I’m painting outside, experiencing the scene firsthand. There is not as much disconnect as it might seem. The biggest difference is that when I paint plein air I’m using almost exclusively square brushes instead of my studio favorite, the #4 pointed brush.
What is the best advice you can offer a young, aspiring watercolor artist?
I hear the question a lot… “What can I do to be a better painter?” Whether it is asked by a beginner or an experienced artist hoping to improve, the answer is always the same—PAINT MORE! The more we paint the better we become and the more we enjoy it.
I would also suggest that aspiring young watercolor artists try to find a place to paint where it’s not necessary to break down and set-up again for each painting session. It’s not important to have a fancy studio—just a spot where paints and paper can be left out, undisturbed.
Artists who wait for the muse to speak can sometimes have a long wait and that time can be spent practicing, honing painting skills. Once a serious commitment is made, and priority is given to finding time to paint regularly, the rest will follow. Like everything else we endeavor to master in our lives, practice is the answer.
It’s also important not to allow setbacks or rejections to become upsetting or frustrating. I gauge my progress in five-year increments rather than from one painting to the next. I do not show the same painting in more than one competitive exhibition and I would suggest that other painters do the same. I think that viewers will be less interested in a painting the second time they see it and even less the third time. Instead of relying on one very successful painting, I would encourage painters to go back to the studio, working to make an even better one. Both personal growth as an artist and the development of a viewing audience will come to those artists who are committed to moving forward towards the goal we all share—doing our best!
John Salminen lives and works in Minnesota. However, John teaches, makes presentations and participates in painting events around the world. He is a signature member of the American Watercolor Society, the National Watercolor Society and the Transparent Watercolor Society of America, winning more than 220 awards in national and international exhibitions. John has been an invited artist in international watercolor exhibitions in China, Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand, Turkey, Russia, Mexico, Italy, Belgium and Australia.