Watercolor: Painting Loose and Free

15 Sep 2006

0608evan1_450x300"My goal," says Andy Evansen, "is to finish a painting in only three washes." Through simplification, bold brushstrokes, a bit of planning, and confidence, the Minnesota watercolorist capitalizes on the medium's ability to render a scene in a manner that's both believable and spontaneous. "In the first stage, I put in the light values and a few middle tones, wet-in-wet. In the second, I connect unrelated midtone objects into larger shapes. This helps the design and allows for a nice variety of color within the same value. In the third, I hit the darks and shadows, usually with a dry brush, defining some areas, making others pop. Occasionally I'll use a damp brush to soften an edge for the sake of variety. Most of my paintings are completed in one day." "Painting loosely is hard," he says, admitting that one of his other goals is to keep loosening up his style. "Beginners are obsessed with details. They want to make a painting look like something immediately. But you've got to stay loose and free and get the big shapes down first-the shapes people can see from across the room. When they get closer, then they can enjoy the details."

by Linda S. Price

"My goal," says Andy Evansen, "is to finish a painting in only three washes." Through simplification, bold brushstrokes, a bit of planning, and confidence, the Minnesota watercolorist capitalizes on the medium's ability to render a scene in a manner that's both believable and spontaneous. "In the first stage, I put in the light values and a few middle tones, wet-in-wet. In the second, I connect unrelated midtone objects into larger shapes. This helps the design and allows for a nice variety of color within the same value. In the third, I hit the darks and shadows, usually with a dry brush, defining some areas, making others pop. Occasionally I'll use a damp brush to soften an edge for the sake of variety. Most of my paintings are completed in one day."

"Painting loosely is hard," he says, admitting that one of his other goals is to keep loosening up his style. "Beginners are obsessed with details. They want to make a painting look like something immediately. But you've got to stay loose and free and get the big shapes down first-the shapes people can see from across the room. When they get closer, then they can enjoy the details."

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Tuileries Sailboat
2004, watercolor, 9 x 12.
Collection Tom Misfeldt
and Lisa Stark.

Evansen is intent upon staying loose and free as a watercolorist, in part because he sees it as a rebellion against the highly detailed medical illustration he does for a living. Starting a watercolor is, to him, "a freeing experience-a breath of fresh air." He talks often of the immediacy of watercolor and relishes clean, confident, and convincing brushwork. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that he discards about every other painting. "If there are things, even little things, I don't like in a painting, I'll toss it out and paint the scene again. You've got to nail a watercolor right the first time. I don't like to fool around trying to fix things. I have to paint some scenes several times to get them right."

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Lawn Bowlers
2005, watercolor, 13 x 18.
Collection the artist.

Another one of Evansen's goals is to paint outdoors more frequently, although in Minnesota this can be "a bear," he says. "When I work from photos, it's too easy to fall back on the illustrative look. Working from life you don't have that much time for details." But even if artists aren't painting outdoors they can learn to observe nature-especially lighting conditions-and use this knowledge in conjunction with photographs. Evansen always carries a digital camera and prints out 8"-x-10" reference photos, occasionally enlarging a detail on the computer. The detail is strictly for reference; this artist focuses on the bigger picture.

"The main things I look for are interesting shapes," he says. "I love to paint the industrial landscape along the Mississippi in St. Paul, Minnesota, because the barges and old warehouses have neat shapes. Because so much of a landscape is horizontal, I rely on such verticals as silos and telephone poles to break up these areas and jazz up the design. If you have strong, simple shapes and a good value structure or pattern, half of your job is already done."

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Morning Glare
2004, watercolor, 12 x 17.
Collection Pleasant Hill
Library, Hastings, Minnesota.

Light is also on his mind. Not surprisingly, the artist tries to avoid the flood of midday sunlight. "Early-morning or late-afternoon light is better-the longer, more interesting shadows help connect shapes," Evansen explains. "Backlit scenes are also good because that light helps to simplify and strengthen shapes; I squint to simplify shapes further."

And he also squints to work out the values in his head. Evansen considers himself a value painter, calling it "the trump card" in a painting. If he has painted a particular subject several times, and this time it's not turning out as he wishes, he'll do a value sketch to find out why. "Sometimes I find that the small, black-and-white studies I do in preparation turn out to be stronger than the actual painting," he says.

Painting Figures
One look at Evansen's scenes shows they are usually well populated. He says he's not interested in painting ghost towns, that people make paintings come alive. Convincing as they look, his figures are actually very impressionistic. "Good gesture drawing comes from a lot of practice," he explains. In his case, this came from doing a lot of life drawing in college. He still practices life drawing as often as he can fit it into his busy schedule. The skill also comes from years of painting small figures on the hundreds of business cards he handed out at art fairs. "Treat figures as a shape," he advises. "Don't think, I'm going to paint the head, the shirt, then the pants. Figures should be strong, simple shapes with the parts merging, just like the rest of the painting.

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Woke Up in a Fog
2005, watercolor, 13 x 18.
Collection the artist.

"I build up the figures in all stages of the painting," Evansen continues. "In the first wet wash they can be just dabs of color that fuzz into their surroundings. In the second wash I connect the parts of the figures and integrate them." This technique helps the artist avoid stiff-looking figures, or ones that look as if they've been cut out and pasted in. Evansen defines them in the last drybrush stages. Painting figures from memory or imagination is helpful to Evansen because then, as he says, he's not trying to paint them perfectly. For more dominant figures he does use reference photos.

Cityscapes
Perhaps it is in Evansen's cityscapes that his technique for suggesting complicated scenes with a minimum of strokes is best shown. "They look more complex than they really are," he asserts. "Actually, they are very impressionistic. I spend almost as much time on the drawing-done without the aid of a ruler-as I do on the painting. I get the perspective and relative size worked out and decide where to keep the lights. If all this is done correctly, then the brushwork can be confident."

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Fountain Shadows
2005, watercolor, 20 x 16.
Collection the artist.

Skies
"Skies are really tough," Evansen admits. "You don't want to paint them according to any formula because every sky is different. The sky sets the tone of the painting: You have to tie its colors into the foreground. Because I'm more interested in the foreground, I make sure the sky is not in competition.

Water and Reflections
When painting water, Evansen is careful to paint from observation, not formula. He generally uses a slightly darker version of the sky color for the whole body of water. (Water tends to be lighter at the horizon and darker in the foreground, but conditions can vary.) "When the wash is still damp, I use a small brush and a darker version of the same color to create the shadow of the waves," the artist explains. "Because the paper is slightly damp, the edges will be soft." Once it's dry, he paints in the crisp reflections. "The trick with painting water-and skies, too-is to nail it with a few quick, confident washes, then let it sit," says Evansen. "Don't keep working into it thinking you can fix it."

Trees
He has two pieces of advice for artists depicting trees: Simplify the shapes, and treat each tree as the unique specimen that it is. "With trees I simplify the shapes, treating the leaf mass as a big wash, then I come in with shadow colors while it's still wet to give it form," says Evansen. "I use warm greens in the foreground and cooler, grayer greens farther back." Sap green is the only tube green on his palette; he either cools it with ultramarine blue or warms it with burnt sienna or yellow. He urges painters to observe each tree carefully. "Students often paint formula trees-they don't really study the individual shapes-and even draw big, chunky branches at the top," he says.

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Music in the Air
2005, watercolor, 16 x 13.
Collection the artist.

Evansen is looking both backward-into the past-and forward to new lands for future subject matter. "I'd love to do a series of paintings of the rolling hills and the old, falling-down barns of eastern Wisconsin, where I grew up, and then incorporate them into a book," he says. "I'd also like to travel more. A few years ago we went to Paris. England is next because English landscape painters, such as Trevor Chamberlain and Edward Seago, influenced me a great deal. The Far East would be exciting because it would be so drastically different. Whenever I'm somewhere foreign, it inspires me."

About the Artist

Andy Evansen comes from a large family with a strong artistic bent. He is essentially a self-taught watercolorist-except for the few workshops he has taken with painters he admires, such as Skip Lawrence, Eric Wiegardt, and Alvaro Castagnet. Evansen is the president of the Minnesota Watercolor Society and teaches watercolor workshops in the Twin Cities. He lives in Minnesota with his wife, son, and daughters. His children are artistically inclined and have their own workstations set up in his studio. To view his work and see demonstrations of his technique, visit the artist's website at www.andyevansen.com.


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