Make Every Brushstroke Powerful

30 Jun 2013

As The Sun Rises
by Freda Lee-McCann,
15 x 21, watercolor painting on arches.
Have you ever approached a watercolor painting as if each stroke would be your last? Practitioners of calligraphy approach their art something like this, and the results are fresh and spontaneous, not overworked. Calligraphy has a long and rich history in Asia, and it has made a powerful impact abroad, with its ability to create a feeling of movement on paper. For Katherine Chang Liu, former president of the National Watercolor Society, the most lasting impact of practicing calligraphy as a child in Taiwan was her relationship with the brush itself. "The brush becomes an extension of your finger," she says. "It becomes something you don't have to learn how to use; you just naturally work with it and write with it."

Great Wall II by Freda Lee-McCann, 15 x 22, ink and watercolor on rice paper.

Great Wall II
by Freda Lee-McCann,
15 x 22, ink and watercolor
on rice paper.

Written on Stone by Freda Lee-McCann, 23 x 30, mixed media on rice paper.
Written on Stone
by Freda Lee-McCann,
23 x 30, mixed media
on rice paper.
For calligraphy artists, the line is supreme. Its weight and how it flows over the paper surface are most important. Some schools of thought believe the line should be orderly and uniform; others take an expressive approach—it becomes like a dance, and there is a strong gesture from the writer or artist that is more emphasized than the form itself.

"The traditional Chinese saying is, 'You control the brush—you don't let the brush control you,'" says artist Freda Lee-McCann. As a child, McCann practiced calligraphy every day, and she still devotes an hour to the form before every watercolor painting session. Since moving to the United States in the 1960s, she has created artwork that combines Eastern and Western styles. "A piano player does scales first to warm up his or her fingers, to gain control," the artist explains. "It is the same for me. I start out doing calligraphy, making sure my hand and brush are one. Once I have more control, I can start painting."

For Liu, who works abstractly, her background in calligraphy is evident in the prominence of the brushstroke in her work. "It informs the spirit of the painting," she says. "Whether it is quiet or there is some kind of momentum--the brushstroke needs to do something for me." McCann applies her calligraphy experience to traditional Chinese paintings, contemporary mixed-media work, and watercolor painting landscapes built on lines of varying widths and color. "I'm more comfortable with line," she says. "It is what I have been doing all my life. Layering colored lines underneath each other instead of putting down flat areas of color is a different kind of mark making. It creates a texture that makes the work interesting."

Paper Window #1 by Katherline Chang Liu, 2008, 20 x 20, acrylic. Courtesy Jenkins Johnson Gallery, San Francisco and New York.
Paper Window #1
by Katherline Chang Liu, 2008, 20 x 20,
acrylic. Courtesy Jenkins Johnson Gallery,
San Francisco and New York.
A brushstroke can communicate powerfully in any medium. Even without an understanding of the characters, marks made with a calligrapher's ink resonate with the viewer. "Good calligraphy makes you feel comfortable just to look at it," says McCann. "How it flows, the spacing, where it is not too uneven, and flows without being frantic, balanced without being stiff. You've probably seen paintings like that—with just a few strokes it beautifully tells a story without a lot of details. It gets the feeling across. It takes years of practice."

McCann is right—painting a composition that comes together in a balanced, compelling way doesn't happen overnight. Luckily, Soon Warren is here with Painting Vibrant Watercolors to provide guidance along the way. Featured artists, instructors, and authors share their knowledge in the various resources you'll find so that you can improve your practice—and make every stroke count! Enjoy!


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Comments

Margo5 wrote
on 8 Aug 2010 9:28 PM

Great article. Thank you for your work.

brown1006 wrote
on 30 Aug 2010 4:37 PM

thanks, this was really inspiring.