Michigan artist Jim Johnson offers valuable hints for successful watercolor painting outdoors.
by Collin Fry
2000, watercolor, 9 x 12. All
artwork this article collection the
artist unless otherwise indicated.
Jim Johnson loves to paint outdoors. “There is such beauty to be seen in the random mixtures of light, color, texture, and pattern in nature,” he says. “For me, watercolor is the perfect medium for exploration of these wonders. Observe, paint, and have fun is my philosophy, in all kinds of weather. I sometimes feel that I am not painting things at all but rather the colors and qualities of the changing light as it touches various natural and man-made subjects.”
The study of light and its effects has a long history with painters, particularly the French and American Impressionists. Every artist encounters problems involving the ever-changing light when painting en plein air. Johnson has studied the subject throughout a long career as an illustrator and watercolorist, and as a result, his paintings display a masterful handling of light effects and value. Viewers often comment that his watercolor paintings “sparkle,” an effect he gets through his practice of leaving bits of white paper showing between large and small areas of color. The strong draftsmanship and crisp value contrasts create a fresh effect that does indeed seem to sparkle. To round out the overall effect of his paintings, Johnson varies the size and direction of his brushstrokes, adding texture and an impressionistic look to his artwork.
“For me, a plein air painting records an event, a treasured memory, and a particular moment in time with its unique light, mood, and color,” he says. “To achieve this, I always try to capture my very first impression of a scene. These first strokes can be the most exciting part of the painting process, and my goal is to have that excitement clearly visible in the finished piece.” Painting a detailed, photographic rendering of a subject is not important to Johnson. Rather, he feels that being creative—freely interpreting a scene with a personal view and style—should be the goal of plein air painting. “One shouldn’t be too safe or predictable or hesitate to overstate what one sees,” he urges. “Be spontaneous. Every painting should be an adventure.”
Most of the time Johnson uses a primary three-color palette. Alizarin crimson, cadmium yellow light, and cobalt blue are his favorite choices, and these basic colors can be intermixed to create almost any desired hue, warm or cool. He will on occasion add other colors if needed.
The Old Chris-Craft
2008, watercolor, 8 x 11.
The artist limits his compositions to the major elements of a scene, at times enhancing certain areas while omitting less important detail. From his years of experience Johnson has developed three preliminary steps for successful painting en plein air. First, he works up value sketches to set the light-dark pattern and investigate the basic shapes in the scene. Next, he develops the shapes into patterns that create a solid composition. Then he executes a color study, paying careful attention to color temperature.
Once the artist has completed these simple but important steps, he is ready to begin painting. Johnson usually uses 130-lb Strathmore 400 Series paper, which has just enough tooth for his style of painting. He continues to experiment with other papers but keeps coming back to the Strathmore. “It holds the color longer, giving me time to work the wet pigments without staining the paper,” Johnson says. The artist prefers modern synthetic brushes, feeling that they retain their original shape better than traditional sable brushes. He generally uses only the best tube watercolors because of their intense hues, but Johnson sometimes experiments with student-grade paints.
With preliminary sketches at hand, he begins by squeezing dabs of alizarin crimson, cobalt blue, and cadmium yellow light at equidistant points on his porcelain-coated butcher’s tray. In the middle of the tray Johnson makes a puddle of clear water and creates a “river” of water with his brush that connects the puddle to the red dab. He then makes two other rivers connecting the blue and yellow dabs to the puddle. The colors are allowed to swirl and run together randomly. He then mixes darker versions of the mixtures. “At that exciting moment one knows whether or not he or she is destined to be a watercolor painter,” he says. “As I see the endless variety of color possibilities forming on the tray, I am ready to paint.”
As a final suggestion, Johnson recommends the careful use of a combination of hard and soft edges. This will keep the various shapes from becoming too sharp and having the appearance of being cut out and pasted on a background. Soft edges will connect a large shape to a background, making it recede. Edges—hard and soft, lost and found—can control the viewer’s eye movement and give a painting a sense of mystery and mood.
South Haven Skiff
2000, watercolor, 11 x 14.
Three Preliminary Steps to Ensure a Good Start on a Painting
1. Analyze Values First
When painting en plein air, time becomes crucial. The light is constantly changing, so it’s important to quickly identify the light source, analyze shadows, and establish a value pattern. This becomes the basic structure of the piece. Shapes and values are the most important elements of a painting.
Translate the objects that you see into major areas of three gray values—light, medium, and dark. Squinting helps to simplify forms and eliminate extraneous detail, allowing you to visualize the scene reduced to simple patterns of shapes in these three values. Execute a small value study, using the white of the paper to represent a fourth value if desired.
2. Develop Shape Patterns Into a Composition
Connect the various shapes together to form both simple and complex patterns. Choose a center of interest. Then, direct the viewer’s eye through the painting as desired by grouping shapes. Remember, having a variety of shapes adds interest and balance to a composition. Don’t be afraid to change or eliminate objects or detail.
3. Work Up a Color Plan
2007, watercolor, 12 x 16.
A small color study can be very helpful, especially for complex subjects. Assign colors to the pattern of shapes, keeping in mind the value structure you established. Color choice can be true to the scene or interpreted more freely and creatively. Note the effect that warm and cool colors have on each other—remember that warm colors tend to come forward, whereas cool colors recede. Also, warm light creates cool shadows; cool light can result in warm shadows.
About the Artist
Jim Johnson studied at the Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris
State University, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and at The School of The
Art Institute of Chicago. After serving in the U.S. Navy, he enjoyed a
long career as an illustrator, winning many national juried
competitions, garnering awards from the Art Directors Club, in New York
City, and the Art Directors Club of Metropolitan Washington, among
others. He retired to paint full time in 2006. Johnson is active in the
Michigan Water Color Society and other art organizations. The artist
exhibits widely, has had several solo shows, and has won many painting
awards. For more information, e-mail the artist at