Watercolor: Joyce Washor: Still Lifes on a Small Scale

7 Mar 2008

0712wash7_600x445Combining close observation with an intuitive approach, Joyce Washor creates tiny paintings with big impact.


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by Tina Tammaro

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My Cup Runneth Over III
2007, watercolor, 4¾ x 3¾.
All artwork this article
collection the artist.
Still Life With Onion
2007, watercolor, 4½ x 3.

New York artist Joyce Washor has taken the saying “Good things come in small packages” to heart, at least as far as her work is concerned. Primarily an oil painter, she began painting on a small scale about 10 years ago and recently began experimenting with the miniature format—most of the paintings measure about
3" x 4"—in watercolor. “Working small feels freer to me since I don’t need to use large sheets of paper and I know it’s not costing me so much,” she says.

When asked why she has made still life her primary subject, she quickly replies, “Why not? Cezanne said he would stun all of Paris with only an apple! Plus, I enjoy making multiple attempts at the same setup, and I don’t have to worry about the changing light in a landscape.” Employing an approach that calls upon both her intuition and her skills in observation, Washor searches for the most immediate ways to suggest her emotional response to the subject, flooding her tiny images with personality.

Washor’s creative process centers on making good choices. Sometimes these choices are based on the basic rules of painting, such as using complementary colors to achieve particular effects. At other times she bases her decisions on her intuitive response to the subject or to what is already happening in the painting. Constantly evaluating the image she is constructing, she strives to think ahead, anticipating how her present paint applications will lead to later layers. At the same time, however, she can make subtle shifts in direction when necessary.

In My Cup Runneth Over III Washor beautifully balances thoughtful technical paint application with more playful experimentations. “I was feeling very free when I did this, as you might guess from the title, since it’s the third version of the same setup,” the artist explains. “I did get some ‘washbacks’ when I was charging the background shape, but I think it works with the loose look I was after, so I didn’t do anything to correct them. I did try and correct a washback on the left-hand side of the background, using my finger to brush it upward, and I think it worked. It was one of those watercolor mistakes that turned into a gift.” The dark splatters in the foreground were “mistakes” as well, and they prove the point that chance happenings can not only delight artist and viewer but also help direct the viewer’s eye throughout the composition.

Also evident in this painting is Washor’s technique of applying the frisket or masking fluid like a brushstroke or drawing mark. She dips the back tip of her brush into the fluid and makes a mark where she anticipates she might leave the white of the paper exposed. Instead of carefully filling in a previously drawn shape, Washor applies the masking fluid with a confident stroke. Later as the watercolor develops, she removes this touch of masking fluid, leaving a bold dash of white.

To achieve a fresh look, careful planning and experience are key. To this end Washor often does a number of preliminary studies. In Still Life With Onion, for instance, she made a few paintings of the setup so that she could “warm up,” as she puts it. She could then approach what would be the final painting with more decisiveness, which is critical to the fresh, spontaneous look she desires. To further assist her in this process, she tested the colors in advance of painting on scrap pieces of watercolor paper.

Another way in which Washor plans her paintings is to make several quick graphite sketches of the composition. Drawing several 3"-x-4" rectangles in graphite, she makes quick sketches of the setup on tracing paper, considering how each of the shapes relates to one another and varying the viewpoints and the sizes of different objects. At this point she is only interested in the dominant shapes. “I can’t paint a setup unless I get the geometric forms first,” she says, “and I always start with the simplest form.”

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Bubble Glass Composition
2007, watercolor, 3½ x 4.
Daisies in a Clear Vase
2007, watercolor, 3 x 4.

After transferring the sketch to the painting surface (Canson Aquarelle paper, Winsor & Newton 140-lb paper, or Reeves Water Colour Board), the artist chooses a palette from among the three complementary palettes she normally uses. For Three Onions, she selected an orange/blue palette and elected not to use masking fluid to save the whites. “I laid in a wash of the highlight color,” she explains. “This was instead of saving the whites. I wanted to use the complementary color of the body color for the highlights. So, for the orangey onion color I used cobalt blue with a lot of water because this color is very transparent and clean. I used aureolin with a small amount of cadmium orange for the green grapes. A light pink would be the complement of green, which I may try next time, but I used a very warm yellowish color this time. It was just an intuitive decision.”

Next, Washor typically covers the entire pictorial space with color. “I like to work this way because it covers a lot of area, and I can start comparing my values and color temperatures sooner,” she explains. In Three Onions she laid in the background, tabletop, and downward plane at this point, and saved a few whites. “I used a lot of water and kept the colors as clean and transparent as possible,” the artist adds. In the middle onion Washor glazed a transparent orange over a blue wash.

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Floral in Orange-Tinted Vase
2007, watercolor, 6 x 5.
Silver Pot and Sunflowers
2007, watercolor, 4½ x 3¼.

When layering hues, especially when glazing a complement over another color, Washor chooses transparent pigments whenever possible. She often tests this layering on separate scraps of paper as she develops her painting. Some of her favorite transparent colors are Winsor blue, cobalt blue, viridian, aureolin, rose madder genuine, and Winsor green.

Gradually Washor begins to develop the forms by creating stronger value contrasts. “I painted the cast shadows of the stems, onions, and grapes and started modeling the grapes, separating them from the initial block-in of just one color,” the artist describes of Three Onions.“I glazed the onion on the right, knowing that it has the darkest shadow since it is farthest from the light source.” She also glazed a shadow color over the onions in a number of areas, establishing unexpected shapes that add interest and drama to the scene.

Next, Washor often layers brightly colored pigments to achieve the rich grays that lend atmospheric richness. “I used cadmium orange as a glaze on the onions and in the background,” she says of Three Onions. “I deliberately overlapped the edge of the onion to simulate a lost edge, and I was careful to save the initial wash as the highlight color.” To make her grays, Washor does not use colors in the gray family, such as Payne’s gray or ivory black, but rather adds either a complement or another color in the same family as the original color.

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Three Onions
2007, watercolor, 3 x 3¾.
White Onions and Metal Cup
2006, watercolor, 3 x 3½.

As a painting develops, Washor focuses on the similarities in color and value throughout the painting and joins these tonal areas to create interesting shapes and patterns. In Three Onions a warm green in the foreground established a color path that leads the viewer’s eye through the painting, for instance. She also adds accents, such as a cool purple in the background of Three Onions and a warmer version in the grapes. A warm-toned glaze over the grapes modeled the forms, and cadmium red and Winsor violet created a dark, warm tone under the onion and between the two grapes on the right to unify the composition. These bright or dark strokes also defined the focal point. “I drybrushed some cadmium orange, with just a smidgen of Winsor violet to tone it down a bit, on the onions,” the artist adds. “I used a quick stroke to give the painting a loose and free feeling.”

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White Vase and Yellow Heirloom Tomato
2007, watercolor, 4 x 3.

In these miniature still lifes, Washor says a lot with a little. Observing the setup carefully, she seeks the truth about form, color, line, and value, and at the same time relies upon her intuition and emotional responses to create a satisfying work of art. With a small format and a minimal amount of paint, she offers only enough information to recognize the objects sitting on her table—only the absolute essentials offered to us like a gift.

About the Artist

Joyce Washor graduated from Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and also studied at the Woodstock School of Art, in Woodstock, New York. The author of Big Art, Small Canvas (North Light Books, Cincinnati, Ohio), Washor teaches at the Scottsdale Artists’ School, in Arizona, and the Woodstock School of Art. She is represented by Horizon Fine Art, in Jackson Hole, Wyoming; The Crane Collection, in Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts; The Lawrence Gallery, in Scottsdale, Arizona; and The Brigham Galleries, on Nantucket, Massachusetts. For more information, visit www.joycewashor.com.

Read about another watercolorist's still life technique in "Yachiyo Beck: Not Just Another Still Life."

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