Watercolor: Sondra Freckelton: Planning for Expression

4 Oct 2006

0609frec1_573x600_1Sondra Freckelton is widely recognized for her well-planned, thoughtful, and expertly crafted watercolors she develops using principles that expand artistic expression; and she is appreciated for helping others learn those principles while gaining a concrete understanding of watercolor painting.   

by M. Stephen Doherty

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Dutch Palette
1998, watercolor, 28 x 27.
Collection the artist.

When New York artist Sondra Freckelton takes students through a series of exercises designed to help them understand how to make their paintings more dynamic and inviting for viewers, they are astonished. And when she demonstrates how to work with transparent watercolor to get the maximum benefit from the medium, they are surprised at how logical and appropriate her methods are, especially if they have taken other workshops during which they were taught how to paint, but not why. At the end of the workshop students often remark that they have learned how to compose and execute watercolor paintings for the very first time.

Some of the exercises Freckelton’s students undertake are designed to help them understand how to select and apply colors, while others are aimed at getting them to recognize the ways materials can be used to convey the reason they selected a certain subject. For example, she demonstrates how to paint a simple apple or plum by layering tones of the three primary colors to achieve the color on the paper rather than mixing the color on the palette. Freckelton explains that because this is a transparent medium, artists can get a richer hue for painting luminous or live objects with achieved color where all colors used are evident; and later perhaps contrasting that by mixing the colors on the palette for nonlight-releasing subjects, such as cloth or wood. Students then make their own attempts at layering transparent color over an oval shape drawn on a piece of stark-white paper, always mindful of how the colors are interacting and building toward the illusion of a three-dimensional object.

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Summer’s End
1995, watercolor, 39½ x 36.
Private collection.

Helping students understand how to convey the reasons they have selected a subject is a bigger challenge because most watercolorists are taught to simply paint what they observe, not to focus on the reasons they were attracted to a subject. In one exercise, Freckelton asks students to devise abstract shapes that convey strong emotions such as fear, peace, anger, or joy. Once they select a subject, she then recommends that the students write a postcard to themselves with a message they would want a viewer of their painting to receive. After completing the painting, the students compare the two forms of communication to determine if they correspond.

“Beginning watercolorists have to make themselves think about choosing a subject, realizing why they chose it, and determining the most important and interesting factors; later that process becomes natural,” Freckelton says in summarizing her advice. “Making art is more than merely recording facts. The painter must exaggerate important issues and diminish or leave out unimportant or obscure details. The selective eye must be developed.

“After years of making art, I realized that the more economical I could be when painting a subject, the closer I would come to the essence of it,” Freckelton continues. “I also understood that by exaggerating the important features and minimizing factors that didn’t enhance the form, light, rhythm, or movement, I would emphasize the major concept that motivated me to paint the picture. At the same time, I could arrive at an image that had more life.

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Cornflowers & Zinnias
1979, watercolor, 28½ x 29.
Private collection.

“The next step is the hardest yet most useful,” the artist explains. “That step is using elements of composition to reinforce your ideas and convey your vision to an audience. There are standard elements of design—line, shape, volume, tone—but there are other issues to consider in presenting a particular point of view. Those include the format of the painting (square, horizontal, vertical); the vantage point of the artist (above, below, or even with the subject); proportion of spaces and colors; and the shapes that lead viewers into, around, and out of the pictorial space. These are the considerations that can elevate a painting from being a pedestrian daub to an exciting work of art.”

Freckelton often recommends that artists make quick thumbnail sketches of their intended paintings so they can evaluate some of these compositional considerations before beginning to paint. “The mind should start working long before the brush hits the paper,” she recommends. One of the key considerations is the location of the center of interest, and another is the establishment of an entry point from which the viewer is lead into the picture. “There is a reason the geographic middle of the paper is called ‘dead center,’” she comments. “It’s because a painting in which the subject is located at that spot will be lifeless. You will always have a more engaging picture when the center of interest is located to one side or another in accordance with the intentions of the artist.

“Similarly, if a picture lacks an entry point—often a diagonal shape rising from the bottom of the page—the viewers will sense they are intruding on a private scene rather than being invited into the picture,” Freckelton adds. “And if there is a place of entry, there also needs to be a point of exit, usually a diagonal taking the viewer across and out of the picture.”

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Autumn’s End
1996, watercolor,
37 x 38. Collection
the artist.

Freckelton and her husband, the artist Jack Beal, often amuse their students by referring to this use of entry and exit planes as the invention of a “clamshell composition.” By that they mean the plane of space on which the viewer enters a painting can be thought of as a trapezoid that is hinged to similarly shaped trapezoids of space through which they will exit. In simplest terms, it’s like a field of grass meeting the sky along the horizon, with the field appearing as the lower half of the clamshell, the horizon being the hinge, and the sky being the upper half of the shell. “As silly as this may seem—and our former students send us real clams and paintings of clams all the time—thinking of a clamshell reminds artists to consider the space within their paintings,” Beal explains. “Too many artists paint a straight-on view of objects sitting on a flat shelf, or they pose models in a narrow stagelike setting. The result is that the paintings have none of the depth that could be imagined by painting the same subjects from a different angle or height.”

In addition to these considerations, Freckelton uses a thumbnail sketch to determine if the objects in a still life will extend beyond the boundaries of the paper or be confined by them, if elements in a picture can act as secondary or tertiary areas of interest, if shapes and patterns can be repeated to lend rhythm to the composition, and whether elements can be exaggerated in scale or direction to add anticipation and energy to the picture. For example, in many of her still-life paintings, Freckelton will tilt
a table forward so the objects resting on it are poised to roll off and into the lap of the viewer; or she will enlarge the scale of one blossom to make it more important than the others or to reinforce the illusion of space and distance.

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Peonies in Iridescent Bowl
2000, watercolor,
23¾ x 30. Collection
the artist.

Open or negative space is just as important to Freckelton’s plan as the positive space. She believes the shape and value of a background wall can be just as important to the success of a painting as the details painted in the objects in front of it. “Just as a great piece of music offers a variety of loud and soft sounds, and a great dance performance blends the athletic with the graceful, so a great painting must offer areas of excitement and rest. It’s a question of proportion—of patterns, shapes, and colors.”

Some watercolorists believe that all this preparatory work stifles creativity because it turns painting into a process of executing an established plan rather than one of exploring the evolving picture. “It’s just the opposite,” Freckelton responds. “The plan also evolves and changes as you look and discover more elements that enhance your original concept. Once you know why you are painting a subject, how you are going to compose a picture, and have a general idea of the sequence of paint application you will use, you are free from false starts and frustrating corrections and can then respond to the way the paint kisses the paper. Without some kind of plan you will struggle with every aspect of the painting process.”

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Ball & Pitcher
1989, watercolor, 54 x 45.
Collection the artist.

About the Artist
Sondra Freckelton studied at The School of The Art Institute of Chicago and began her art career as a sculptor working in wood and plastic. She switched her interest to watercolor in the 1970s and quickly established herself as one of the most important artists working with the medium. Her paintings have been exhibited in galleries and museums throughout the United States, they have been acquired for important public and private collections, and they have been reproduced in dozens of magazines, books, and catalogues. Her paintings were on display at The Art Gallery at SUNY Oneonta (on the campus of the State University of New York College) August 28 through September 14, 2006, and reproduced in a catalogue for that exhibition. For more information on the Art Gallery at SUNY Oneonta, contact Timothy Sheesley at SUNY Oneonta, 222 Fine Arts Building, Oneonta, NY 13820; (607) 436-2445.

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


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