Watercolor Tutorial from California Artist Florence Strauss
It is how Florence Strauss gradually builds layers of relatively dry watercolor paint on rough paper with a stiff bristle brush, starting with colors that define the background and moving to the objects in the foreground space, that have made her one of the most beloved contemporary watercolorists of our time.
The term drybrush is a bit difficult to define with watercolor because it’s hard to determine exactly how much or how little water can be mixed with the paints to establish them as being “dry.” Museum curators will identify an Andrew Wyeth painting as being a drybrush picture when it is finished off with strokes of thick, barely diluted paint; yet he usually reached that point after splashing highly diluted colors on rough watercolor paper and gradually reducing the amount of water he combines with the successive layers of paint.
Don’t Think On It
Florence Strauss’ answer to the drybrush question is that she just doesn’t give it much thought. “I guess you could say I use a drybrush technique because I add very little water to my paints,” she confesses. “But I just say I’m a watercolor painter, and that’s enough for me.”
But it is clear that Strauss’ materials and techniques would lead to disastrous results if she ever mixed generous amounts of water with her watercolors. The multiple layers of strong pigments would work against one another and combine to create a dense, dull, and stained surface. Whether she recognizes it or not, the beauty of her work is completely dependent on keeping the paints dry and semi-opaque.
Working from her own photographs, Strauss first makes a detailed graphite drawing of a subject on Arches 400-lb rough watercolor paper. “I work eight days a week, but I’m very slow,” she says with a laugh. “It takes me a couple of days to complete the drawing because I’m very particular. I erase extraneous lines and lighten those that are too dark, and I make sure everything is accurate and complete. The drawing has to be just what I want it to be before I consider starting the painting process. I go through bushels of pencils and erasers that get worn down as I’m working.”
Strauss prepares herself for painting by laying out an extensive palette of colors:
- Payne’s gray
- Titanium white
- Cerulean blue
- French ultramarine
- Prussian blue
- Cobalt blue
- Manganese blue
- Cobalt turquoise
- Olive green
- Hooker’s green
- Permanent green
- Winsor green
- Lemon yellow
- Winsor yellow
- New gamboge
- Cadmium orange
- Burnt sienna
- Alizarin crimson
- Winsor red
- Permanent rose
“I’m partial to the warm colors because they are more appealing to me,” explains the artist. “I don’t look at the names of the colors on the tubes when I pick up one or the other. I just grab the one that looks appropriate for what I am painting.”
Layer by Layer
- Strauss starts building up layers of dark color in the background areas of the picture using a stiff bristle brush and relatively dry paint. “The bristle brush punctuates, whereas a sable brush would glide,” the artist points out.
- “I paint one small area at a time, not expecting the brush to hold a lot of paint or to make a long, extended mark. By keeping the paint relatively dry, I can build up four or five layers of color without them mixing to the point that the colors become dense or dull. For example, I recently developed a background by painting a brilliant red, then a black, and then more red to establish a pulsating interplay of the two strong colors. If I had done that with fluid mixtures of paint using a sable brush, the results would have been quite different. I think the dry technique I use creates a much more exciting background.”
- Progressing logically, Strauss moves forward in space to paint the flowers, landscape elements, or objects in the middle space of her photograph using the same painting techniques.
- Finally, she reaches the foreground elements and develops them with four or five layers of dry paint. The entire process can take as long as three or four weeks to complete, with the music of Haydn, Strauss, and Mozart playing in her studio.
Drybrush for Landscape & Floral Alike
Strauss has recently been using this drybrush technique on a series of floral images, but she has found the process just as effective in developing landscapes from the photographs taken while traveling with her husband. “We love to travel, and I take photographs everywhere we go,” she explains. “I’ve done lots of paintings from those photographs and will continue to do so in the future.”
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