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Brushstrokes - watercolor painting
Sierra, Sept-Oct, 1994 by Hannah Hinchman

Twenty brushes are fanned out on my canvas brush-carrier, and I'm holding two between the fingers of my right hand and one between my teeth. In my mind I hear the frenetic Slavic music that accompanied the troupe on the Ed Sullivan Show that kept dozens of plates spinning on top of long sticks. I'm experiencing the panic of painting with watercolors.

This morning, before setting out into the badlands with a dozen little sheets of heavy watercolor paper, I opened a book to study Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, and Edward Hopper, three of America's master watercolorists. Both Homer and Sargent seem to have constructed their transparent seas and sunlit surfaces out of random slashes of paint, a still I regard with envious annoyance. The speed of the brushstrokes is obvious; they couldn't possibly have had time to think and plan and mix each color carefully. But there are the palm fronds in a very specific wind and light, there is the ripple on the lake surface catching the last of the Adirondack sunset, correctly amplifying the light that is fading from the sky.

I can at least feel some deliberation in Hopper. The pencil drawing is visible underneath the paint. It's clear that he's worried. He flows the color into an area carefully, trying to maintain control. And once it's down, he wants to keep doing things to it, as an oil painter would typically stroke, smooth, and blend colors. Watercolor often resents that kind of treatment, but Hopper pulls it off.

Now, in the heat, I want to paint too fast for thinking, buit I can't. I need the songs of the rock wrens to help me handle the tension. I'm interested in a group of twisted junipers on a hillside. My mind chatters: "It's the bright edges you want, so create little lakes of water and pigment that will dry crisply. How blue is that shadow? Don't be afraid of strong colors. Don't get opaque. Think about freedom. This isn't a coloring book."

The painting is taking shape. Though I long to slow down, draw the exact outline of each twisting juniper branch, get lost in the crenellations of the juniper foliage and the sagebrush's feathery fans, this is about larger unities. Textures and patterns are not the theme--this kind of painting is about light, how it strikes shapes and changes colors. It's also about the act of translation: turning nature into patches of paint that contain the grace and liveliness of the reality.

In the thicket of junipers on the hillside before me is a maelstrom of visual information; my mind goes to work to select and translate it. It's not the same kind of thinking that I use for a botanical illustration, which requires far more planning and control. It's analogous to musical improvisation at its best: skills and knowledge have become second nature, they don't need to be lead by a musical score or, in this case, a careful drawing.

The flaw in this scenario is that I'm a novice; I haven't gained the skills of a Sargent or a Homer. So I succumb to fear, or retreat to safe repetition, or just simply blow a series of sour notes. But what does it matter? The junipers are still there, and the colors in my palette just as brilliant. The act of translation itself, no matter how terror-filled, still carries its primal thrill.

COPYRIGHT 1994 Sierra Magazine
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

Bibliography for "Brushstrokes - watercolor painting"
Hannah Hinchman "Brushstrokes - watercolor painting". Sierra. Sept-Oct 1994. FindArticles.com. 23 Sep. 2006.

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