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[ Home: Watercolors: Watercolor Life-Sized - Tarantella ]
"Watercolor Life-Sized - Tarantella"
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Author: Nicholas_Simmons, Contributing Editor

In the article "Painting Large in Watercolor: Faded Glory", I covered techniques and concerns faced by watercolorists trying to paint bigger pictures. However, there were aspects of the subject I did not get into, many of which were addressed in another Watercolor Gallery WIP, "Tarantella." As with Faded Glory, I have edited the original WIP into an article, maintaining the WIP point of view. Relevant questions and comments that arose in the thread have been integrated into the text. Several members remarked that this WIP was more instructive than Faded Glory; I don't know about that, but I do hope that each person reading it might gain something that will improve his or her painting.
I discussed in some detail the materials I use in the other article. A word about paper: pictured is a roll of watercolor paper - Arches 156 lb, which is 52" wide, by 10 yards long. It is shown here next to a 60" mat cutter. I also have a selection of standard 22x30 watercolor sheets, in Arches, Fabriano, and Yupo. I keep a stock of 40x60 8-ply museum mat board, 40x60 acid free foam core board, and 40x60 1/8" plexiglass on hand for framing.
This is where most of my pictures start, and of course it's the most crucial step in the process: deciding what to do. I have tons of ideas for paintings bouncing around in my head, but only by staring at a blank piece of paper do I start feeling which way to go; the shape and proportion are enough to suggest subject matter. For this painting, the tall vertical panel shape won out, and since Iíve been doing some of these dancers* anyway, I settled on a single dancer, and a "cross" composition.

* See "Zarzuela"
Some thoughts about large paintings:

One reason I do large paintings is because many of the spaces they end up in put some distance between the work and the viewer. Considering the distance a work is likely to be viewed from is very important. Small paintings can look ridiculous or even invisible from far away, and large ones can be disorienting up-close. The scale of a large work can also render its detail unfavorably at close range; Iím reminded of one great painter whose work astounds from fifty feet away, but the crudity of the work at three feet is almost shocking. I try my hardest to make mine look powerful and dramatic from afar, but with enough detail and nuance to make them interesting upon close inspection.

Another reason is that people generally don't expect to see large works executed in watercolor; traditionally, it had the reputation as a precursor to "real" paintings. As a result, watercolor has been relegated to a corner of the art world that is simply not taken as seriously as oil. Some of this is also due to the fact that many watercolorists select subject matter that highlights the qualities of the medium, but lacks the substance to be considered "serious" art.

Bigger is not always better, but when comparing works of comparable quality, the power and drama of larger work is undeniable.

A major problem - maybe the main problem - for watercolorists attempting larger paintings is that many watercolor effects that look wonderful on a small scale, look puny and insignificant on a large scale. For example, it's very difficult to load a brush fully enough to make large strokes across a huge piece of paper, and have them maintain the amount of pigment and intensity as oil; watercolor simply runs out of gas. You can go back into it, but then you begin to alter and possibly destroy the qualities that occurred in the initial stroke or wash - the very qualities that are for many, the essence of watercolor painting. It's not easy to paint large-scale with the conventional techniques that dominate the medium. This was a great disappointment to me when I first tried to make that jump beyond the 30x40 format. Things that looked amazing in a smaller context didnít even register on the Art-o-Meter at those larger sizes. Had to change the approach, and discard some of the traditional watercolor thinking. (Why donít I switch to oil? I love the transparency of watercolor, the natural and at times unpredictable properties of water, and the fact that lots of watercolor effects are virtually impossible to replicate in oil.)

Lastly, another point worth considering regarding size is this: a small mistake can ruin a small painting, but you've got to make big mistakes to ruin a big painting! I've never heard anybody else say this, but there is a lot of truth in it.

The tarantella is originally an Italian dance, popularly adopted by Spanish flamenco musicians and dancers.

I didnít photograph the drawing, because at this size, you canít see it - the white of the paper overpowers the camera. I worked from a photograph, but tried to reduce it to its barest essentials. I attempted to play smooth lines and shapes against what somebody once nicely characterized as ďnervous lines.Ē There is a frenetic energy to flamenco, but the grace of the dancers legato-izes what is a very percussive style of music.

I first brushed on a thin coat of gesso in the direction of the action I envisioned in the painting. Gesso has a resist that makes interesting things happen with the paint. A little bit like Yupo, but not nearly as slippery. (I explained at some length about gessoing watercolor paper in the Faded Glory article.) I didnít cover all of the paper, and I was mindful not to be too careful with it - a casual application looks best to me.

As you can see in the photograph, I began with the background. It probably looks as though I started with darks, but as this area will end up much darker than what you see, itís actually closer to the midtones.