Watercolor: Jamie Wyeth: Combining Water-Soluable Paints

30 Sep 2006

0609wyet1_600x449_1Like many artists accustomed to working with opaque paints, Jamie Wyeth prefers to use combinations of water-soluble materials rather than just transparent watercolor. He finds that layers of gouache, ink, graphite, acrylic, and watercolor allow him to develop images in much the same way he does with oil on canvas.    

by M. Stephen Doherty

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The Raven Girl
by Jamie Wyeth, 2001,
transparent and impasto
watercolor on toned board,
18 x 24. All artwork this
article private collection
unless otherwise indicated.
All artwork copyright
© Jamie Wyeth.

The first memory Jamie Wyeth has of painting with watercolor was as a boy of 8 or 9 when he helped his father, the celebrated artist Andrew Wyeth, create some of the hand-painted Christmas cards the family would mail to close friends and family. “If you can believe it, my father would draw and paint about a hundred cards every year and send them out for the holidays,” Jamie explains. “They now come up for auction for considerable amounts of money. I remember sitting on the floor with some of my father’s brushes and paints, creating cards myself.”

The Wyeth family encouraged young Jamie to pursue his talent far beyond the holiday cards, and both his father and his aunt, Carolyn Wyeth, offered him instruction. Afterward he quickly established himself as a professional artist, mounting a major retrospective exhibition of his work at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, in Philadelphia, in 1980 when he was just 34 years old. That exhibition was dominated by large oil paintings, but it also included a number of watercolors and mixed-media works on paper. Even then Wyeth was moving away from working with pure, transparent color and toward combinations of graphite, ink, watercolor, gouache, acrylic, and—occasionally—pastel.

“What I learned from my father was that watercolor offers an artist a great freedom to respond immediately to something of interest,” Wyeth explains. “I think he helped to change the prevailing attitude about watercolor by showing how it could be used as a serious, expressive medium. As he often says, it’s perfect for capturing a momentary vision or emotion without needing a lot of advance preparation. In that spirit of being free and unrestricted, I didn’t see any reason to be limited by a set of rules or restrictions or to confine myself to one set of materials and techniques.”

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Portrait of Nureyev
by Jamie Wyeth, 1977–2001,
mixed media, 32 x 40. Collection
Jim and Jocelyn Stewart.

It made sense for Jamie Wyeth to gravitate to more opaque painting materials since he was accustomed to working with oil paint that he applied in varying layers of thickness and that allowed him to revise shapes, colors, lines, and values. Instead of observing the traditional method of building up washes of transparent watercolor, many of which would permanently stain the fibers of the paper, he could add and remove objects, darken or lighten values, and build up thick and thin layers of paint.

“At first I had trouble applying thick paint due to the fact that it would crack and flake off the paper because the binder wasn’t adequate enough to hold it,” Wyeth remembers. “Then I bought some Old Holland watercolors that have more elasticity to them, and I was able to pile up layers of color. I also used white gouache, a paint that I was already using on the drawings I did on cardboard and tan-colored paper.” Large collections of those drawings were done in the 1970s and 1980s of Andy Warhol and Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev, and those continue to circulate in exhibitions around the world. Some of the Nureyev drawings were shown this summer at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, in Kansas City, Missouri (“Capturing Nureyev: James Wyeth Paints the Dancer,” June 2 through August 20; catalogue available), and some Warhol drawings are currently on view at the Brandywine River Museum, in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania (“Factory Work: Warhol, Wyeth, and Basquiat,” September 9 through November 19, 2006).

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Portrait of Andy Warhol
by Jamie Wyeth, 1976,
oil on panel, 30 x 24.
Collection Cheekwood Museum
of Art, Nashville, Tennessee.

Much to the dismay of conservators, many of the graphite, charcoal, and white-gouache drawings of Nureyev and Warhol were done on sheets of cardboard that, because of their high acid content, were apt to deteriorate quite rapidly. “I knew it was a terrible material, but I really liked the color, thickness, and absorption of the cardboard,” Wyeth explains. “Later I worked with Dieu Donné and Twinrocker to make archival papers that were similar in color, texture, and weight. Those are the papers I use now.”

Using those tan-colored papers, Wyeth now develops his paintings by first sketching the image lightly in graphite and then confirming it by adding India ink and washes of transparent watercolor. He then applies layers of gouache, pastel, or acrylic until he is satisfied with the painting and then seals the surface with layers of acrylic medium. “I use the acrylic medium in the same way I would an oil varnish,” Wyeth explains. “It brings out the richness in the colors and establishes a uniformity to the surface.”

When asked if he tended to paint in watercolor when he was isolated in his studios on Monhegan Island or Southern Island in Maine, Wyeth quickly responds by saying his choice of medium had nothing to do with portability or convenience. “The misconception that watercolor is only for sketching or for amusing oneself while on vacation is part of the reason the medium had such a bad reputation,” he says. “I don’t choose to paint in watercolor because of the subject, location, or time available. Nor do I think of it just as a way to sketch ideas for more important oil paintings. In fact, I am more apt to paint the watercolors after having created oils in the same series. If an idea holds enough interest to lead to other related pictures, I might expand on it by painting a watercolor or an oil. One medium is not less important than the other.”

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Andy’s Feet
by Jamie Wyeth, 1976,
mixed media on brown
cardboard, 26 x 19.
Collection the artist.

The ideas Wyeth refers to usually relate to landscapes, animals, structures, objects, or people near his homes in Pennsylvania and Maine. Like his father, he focuses on the people and places he knows well. For example, when Wyeth was interviewed for this article he was working on a series of paintings of a friend in Maine and on the skeleton of a 30-foot whale near his lighthouse home on Southern Island. He was also continuing to paint the seagulls and rams near his home on Monhegan Island, as well as the farm animals, landscape, and neighbors around his residence in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. A collection of his animal paintings was recently exhibited at the Farnsworth Art Museum & Wyeth Center, in Rockland, Maine (“Gulls, Ravens, and a Vulture: The Ornithological Paintings of James Wyeth,” June 26 through October 10, 2005), accompanied by a catalogue of his drawings and paintings.

Now 60 years old, Jamie Wyeth has clearly pursued a career path that is independent of his 89-year-old father or of other members of America’s first family of artists. He has done so by finding his own voice and speaking through materials that convey his ideas and personality. Among those materials are the water-soluble paints that combine to capture the energy, mystery, and spirit of the subjects that surround him.

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Raspberry House
by Jamie Wyeth, 1988,
watercolor, 22½ x 28½.
The Bones of a Whale
by Jamie Wyeth,
2006, oil, 60 x 72.

Read more features like this from the fall 2006 20th anniversary issue of Watercolor magazine.


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