seeing watercolors

i first saw watercolors driving to work, sitting in morning traffic, when i looked up at the sky.

it was a sky i could paint. a paintable sky, a sky that asked to be touched with a brush and bathed in a wash. i'd never seen a watercolor sky before.

in the next few weeks i had the experience often. sitting in a chicago airport business class lounge, a colleague talking on his cell phone, his shadow fell across the wood paneling by a small indoor tree, and i sat for a while painting it in my mind's eye.

i begain to see cobalt and phthalo and cadmium and quinacridone colors in things — mixable colors, paintable shadows and contours, delicious grainy paint textures.

like an afterimage, like a foot shaping a shoe, painting created an energy in my life where the painting fit in. this energy settled on the look of things when i wasn't painting, made them look like something i'd want to paint.

painting had divided my seeing into distinct layers: the physical appearance of things, the appearance of things in a painted image, the how-it-gets-done technical elements of the image that fit with it like the cheekbones under a face.

all in the same view: that's a tall mountain, the view up there will be hazy and far, the way to go up is along that ridge on the left.

the intention to paint got more effortless ... i would want to practice, or try a new paper, or see something i wanted to paint, and in a few moments i was ready in front of a white sheet, palette and brushes at hand.

i learned to work small, 9" by 12" blocks or so, to get the idea down, test out the mixtures, not worry too much how it turned out. i liked the act of painting more than the painting.

i copied photos collected from newspapers and magazines, which was a terrific way to get a variety of subjects and paint on my own schedule.

if i had no pictures or subjects, i painted small fantasies, imaginary landscapes that were excuses to test colors and dream with paints.

the technical exercises and paint wheels were a way to get painting separated from direct looking at a subject to paint. and in itself that was useful. but fantasy and imagination were other ways of seeing watercolors without trying to copy the appearance of physical objects.

and i discovered to my surprise that some of the most important painting skills are habits of attitude: for me the two big ones were i have time enough to do a painting, and just a quick sketch is enough.

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