Watercolor: A Bold Approach

12 Sep 2008

0809krup1_450x600When Chris Krupinski made the transition from oil to watercolor painting, she refused to sacrifice her love of detail and bold, rich color.    


A Glass of Cherries
2004, watercolor, 30 x 22.
All artwork this article
collection the artist.

by Naomi Ekperigin

Virginia artist Chris Krupinski didn’t plan on becoming a watercolorist. She had tried several media, but preferred oil for the rich color and detail she could create. “I stayed away from watercolor because I didn’t like that wishy-washy look,” the artist recalls. “But after my children were born, I needed to work in a medium that was easy to clean up and safe. Watercolor fit the criteria, so I decided to give it a try.” The artist’s early paintings were “unsuccessful,” she says, but she soon learned by trial and error to alter her approach to fit her new medium. “When I started, I was painting with watercolor as I would with oil, and my colors ended up so muddy,” Krupinski explains. “My father-in-law was a watercolorist, and he showed me how to build up layers to create rich colors.”

From then on, the artist began honing her skills in the medium. Although she recognized the importance of attending workshops, Krupinski preferred to teach herself. “About 20 years ago I made a commitment to growing and evolving as an artist, and I wanted to reach a professional level,” she says. “But I knew I couldn’t reach that level if I only painted sporadically. I vowed to paint for at least two hours every day, and I still do. Even on Christmas and Easter, I take out my paints and make sure to work. I really do believe the best teacher you can have is yourself.”

When she felt she’d reached a skill level she was proud of, Krupinski began doing commissioned work for local businesses and found that her dream of making a living as an artist wasn’t all she’d hoped. “I was doing landscapes, old-town buildings, and some figures,” she says. “I got a lot of work, but I was painting out of someone else’s head, doing what they wanted. I didn’t have time to make any of my own art, and I started to burn out.” With a background in graphic design, Krupinski decided to go back to school, and she opened her own graphic-design company shortly thereafter. As a freelance graphic designer, she found she was able to support her family and have the flexibility to create her own paintings.


Apples & Jefferson Cups on a Quilt
2008, watercolor, 22 x 30.

During this time she also discovered a passion for painting still lifes, which she nurtures to this day. As with her career choice as a designer, still life allows her the flexibility to make her own decisions. “When painting an old building or a landscape, I would paint each brick and each leaf. I had to stick with what was in front of me,” she explains. “With a still life it doesn’t matter if the fruit I paint is a little bit smaller or larger than what is actually in front of me—the fruit is an element that I’m adding to the overall design. When I look at a still life, I see shapes and colors and design. I don’t think about the individual pieces of fruit.”

Krupinski’s preference for flexibility extends to her process of setting up and arranging her still lifes. “I just drop the things on the table or quilt. I avoid a meticulous arrangement,” she says. She then walks around the subject, looking at it from different angles and taking digital photos. “If you’re patient enough and look at your subject long enough, you’ll be able to find a nice composition,” she asserts. “It just takes patience.” She prefers to set up her still life when it can catch the warm early-morning or early-evening light that pours in through the windows, because it creates long shadows. The artist estimates that she takes upward of 50 photos of a setup, but she does not choose her composition until many days later. “After looking at a subject for so long, I need a break,” she confesses. “Maybe a week after taking the pictures I’ll pull them out again and sort through them until I find one that really speaks to me.”


Apples, Stripes, and Jar
2008, watercolor, 30 x 22.

She begins with a light sketch of her subject on 300-lb rough Arches watercolor paper, which she favors for its ability to withstand heavy pressure. “When I started painting on rough paper I fell in love with it immediately,” Krupinski recalls. “Because I love painting details, it can be tempting to render everything exactly, and risk it looking almost plastic, but the roughness of the paper forced me to go with the paint. It’s also great for creating drybrush effects, and it gives me room for rubbing, scratching, and other textures.” The artist paints wet on dry paper, which allows her the control to paint the details she enjoys so much. She applies a lot of paint, using tissues to blot as necessary. “Not only does blotting excess or highlights control the value but it also gives the painting a nice texture,” she explains.

After drawing a light outline, the artist begins with her focal point—usually the pieces of fruit or vegetables and the fabric surrounding it. “I paint this area to completion. I don’t paint all over,” she says. “Maybe it’s because my thought process doesn’t allow it. I focus on one area at a time and move outward, totally completing each area as I move around the paper.” If her focal point is a piece of fruit, she always begins with a layer of yellow (often new gamboge), and blots it to create the highlight. She does this because in all of her paintings, she uses violet (a mixture of French ultramarine and permanent alizarin crimson) for her shadows. “By putting a layer of yellow on the fruit, I’m adding warmth and creating a complement to the violet,” Krupinski explains. “I tend to use bold colors, and by creating a yellow underlayer, I can pick out my highlights without showing the stark-white of the paper.” The artist then works to soften the edges of the fruits and fabric by adding water to the hard edges, or by pulling dark color over a hard edge and blending it into the background. This ensures that the painting is cohesive and elements don’t look like they’ve been cut and pasted onto the paper.


Apples, Jar, and Quilt
2005, watercolor, 30 x 22.

After her focal point is completed, the artist moves on to her fabric, often quilts she has in her home. “I first go in and position the mass areas of shadow using my violet mixture,” she says. “I don’t block them in as dark as they actually are, but I just position them.” The pattern of the cloth is painted last so that the colors stay vibrant and aren’t disturbed by the addition of a layer of shadow. Although she paints from photographs, Krupinski keeps the quilts on hand as she works so that she can have a sense of the true color.

Throughout the painting process the artist adheres to the abstract design elements that initially attracted her to the subject and does not let herself become confined by color choices. “Nothing has to be the real color,” she asserts. “If my grapes are a bit bluer or more yellow than normal, the viewer will still know what they are if all the colors go well together.” For this reason Krupinski uses a limited palette, a collection of seven colors that she developed over years. Working with a limited palette ensures that there is a consistency to the painting, and even when she places her fruit on a patchwork quilt, she makes sure the few colors she adds to paint the quilt do not detract from her focal point. The artist works on each square separately, treating it as though it were an individual painting. “I want there to be hard edges on the quilt because I want to give that appearance of the fabric being sewn together,” she describes. “If I work on the area as a whole I won’t be able to accurately render the seams. As I work on each section, I paint in the small shadows that indicate tucks and seams in the fabric so that I can capture the softness and puffiness of the quilt.” The artist prefers to work with a small brush (size 1 or 2) because she feels it gives her “ultimate control.” After painting her quilt, she then adds a black background (a mixture of Winsor green and alizarin crimson), which she feels allows her rich layers of color to really pop. “The black background is the most exciting part,” Krupinski adds. “It’s amazing how the contrast makes the colors sing.”


Cooking With Wine
2007, watercolor, 30 x 22.

Krupinski’s still lifes can take anywhere from several days to several weeks to complete, depending on her schedule. She often paints at the end of the workday, making sure to get in those two hours she’s promised herself. “Painting is my therapy,” she says. “If it’s been a tough day, or I’ve been dealing with difficult clients, I can take out my watercolors and forget about my problems. I can’t paint when I am not motivated. But often, once I start going, I can’t stop.”

Krupinski firmly believes that the key to her improvement as a watercolorist was her diligence when it came to making time for her art each day. “The idea of talent is really kind of vague,” she muses. “My hand doesn’t move any differently than anyone else’s—what separates me from other artists is my vision. The rest of it is all hard work. I don’t think you can really pick up another person’s style—you just create and enhance your own by painting all the time. You have to be disciplined and motivated to ensure self-improvement.” The artist also stresses the importance of experimentation, especially for those who are coming to watercolor from another medium. Although she never attended workshops, exploring all the possibilities of watercolor helped her find the tools and techniques that best fit her style. “When you attend a workshop, you often get a list of colors and tools to use, and sometimes even a list of books to read,” she notes. “That would have fenced me in, and it would have taken a lot longer for me to find the palette and materials that suited me.”

Early in her career as a watercolorist Krupinski entered her work in juried shows, and she advises other artists to do the same, even if they may be intimidated. “Entering shows is a good way to judge your progress,” she says. “If you’re accepted more often than you are denied entry, then you can assume your work is up to the caliber you want it to be. If it’s not, it forces you to look at your work and see what you should change, if anything at all.” With her full-time work as a graphic designer, Krupinski does not have much time to promote her work, but entering national shows allows her to share her work with a large audience, and when her pieces sell, the sponsoring organization often takes a much lower commission than would the typical art gallery.


Limes and Stripes
2008, watercolor, 22 x 30.

With each still life, Krupinski combines an attention to detail with a love of abstract design, drawing the viewer into and around the painting as they take in the image on multiple levels. The dynamic use of light and shadow lends an expressive quality to her work, and the artist stretches the limits of her palette to create layers of rich, bold color that read easily to the viewer. “The key to successful paintings is consistency,” the artist explains. “Use your colors boldly; don’t be timid. The great thing about transparent watercolor is that if you make a mistake, you can blot it, or add water and lift the paint up. Even if you make a mistake, you have still made a decisive step toward being bold in your painting, which is what makes it your own.”

About the Artist
Chris Krupinski has won nearly 100 national awards and honors for her watercolor paintings and is a signature member of the American Watercolor Society, the National Watercolor Society, and the American Artists Professional League, among other organizations. Her work hangs in many private and corporate collections, and she was selected for the Invitational Exhibition of Contemporary International Watermedia Masters, held in Nanjing, China. She is the owner of CK Art and Design Studio, in Fairfax, Virginia. For more on Krupinski, visit her website at www.chriskrupinski.com.

Naomi Ekperigin is the associate editor of Watercolor.

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Rene wrote
on 18 Sep 2008 4:52 AM
Great paintings and very good and helpful article. I started to learn to paint in watercolors two weeks ago. I hope I can get as good as her. :D