Sunday, May 25, 2014

My Alvaro Castagnet Workshop Review, pt. 4- Painting Figures the Alvaro Way

As I mentioned in the last post, to Alvaro, getting the human figures right was an exceptionally important element of urban plein air painting, mostly because people were almost always at the focal point.  He had helpful criticisms about buildings or cars or trees, as well, of course, but if your people were terrible, it would, in his opinion, ruin the whole painting.  I agree.  I've ruined a few!!!  :D   He really did say something like "Go and paint 2000 figures-- then come back to me!"  It sounded absurd, but how else are you really going to learn, without doing?

He didn't just leave us hanging though.  He gave us tips, and did a demo!  It was fascinating to watch!  This pic is from that, very quickly done.

Of course, he sometimes did figures in greater detail, but for this demo, this is what he did.  He smooshed down a couple of messy brushstrokes, just scribbles really, then went about carving figures from them.  It was very important to him that you wed your figures to the image, and to each other-- so he was not particular about us needing to paint each figure separately.  What was most important was that the figures not feel "pasted on".  In fact, he painted the figure in the middle (which I quite liked) to show us something he felt was a bit too "illustrative".  Instead, he instructed that the figures should be painted together, as a unit, when possible.  He would often push this sort of broad structural brushstroke into his paintings while doing other dark shadows (on buildings and cars, etc) with his second wash.  Then he would leave it there, only to come back to it later and use that tonally connected "smudge" for the bodies of his people.

First, he would create the angles of the shoulders if need be, a head on top with orange for the face.  Down below, the suggestion of legs were added with dry brushstrokes, often with one shorter than the other, to suggest motion.  Then he'd drop shadows in to relate them to the ground and surroundings.  He would sometimes add a brightly colored tie, to signify a torso, or a scarf or handbag or dress, etc .  Other times, he would apply a thick opaque application of white or a rich, high chroma color for a shirt or hat as well.  The point was to let us know it was a human, and for us to relate to them, not for us to get caught up in "superficialities" that overstated the obvious.

On an ergonomic level, they were supposed to feel alive, walking, off balance.  In motion.  Most figures we painted "were too static", he suggested.  Interestingly, rather than spending a lot of time making them "just so", Alvaro expressed this being-alive feeling by doing the opposite, and not overworking the figures.  You need to have enough there to understand it's a human, you need to suggest movement and action through posture and titling, but his recommendation was to let watercolors do what they do best, be fluid and textural and expressive, and only suggest the specifics of the human form in motion.

We went out that afternoon, to Pier 1, and everyone atleast spent a little bit of time working on painting figures, direct from life.   I did these, which showed a mild improvement, then moved on to the whole scene.

He recommended doing rough charcoal sketches of people from life, to understand posture and weight, and only then to go about painting them.  In his opinion, we ought to be able to do at least a couple every minute.  So when he said "Paint 2000 figures!" I think it was more about getting acquainted with the human figure in watercolors, not somehow to spends months and months just painting figures.  So, well.... a week after the class ended, I went back to Union Square on my own and did some sketches.  I produced gestural figures like these--

Each one took about 10-20 seconds.  I filled about 4 or 5 pages in an hour, dawdling about.  I actually really enjoyed this, as there were kids there, families, business people, tourists, etc.  A lot of different subjects.  I actually wish Alvaro included a wider variety of people in his paintings-- there are very few figures in his paintings that are clearly children or families, for example.  They mostly seem to be businessmen and women, or often workers.

Anyways, later that week, I went home and painted my sketches one evening.  It was good to just explore a single aspect of a painting for a while, experimenting and practicing only figures (doodling really), without the weight of having to get them just right, in a proper painting, where I might be prone to being too careful.  It was a good way to mess up, practice, and learn, while being free of fear.  From that experience, I got this--

Not bad all in all, I felt.  Definitely better than before, at the very least.  ;)

Later on, in May, I was talking in my watercolor class about Alvaro's workshop, and how he did his figures.  What was neat was that without much effort, I scribbled out these little paintings.

They're not the Mona Lisa, but they expressed some of what Alvaro had been trying to teach us.  I feel like I'm beginning to get a handle on some of it.  Sadly, it's only now that I feel like I'm ready to take his workshop!  Hahahaha!  :D


  1. Your figures are wonderful...!

  2. Thanks so much Shannon. I really need more practice, but I'm getting better. I can sketch a figure out quickly, and can even render a rough figure ok, but it's often hard to really wed them to the picture so they don't feel pasted on!

  3. Thank you so much for your detailed posts on Alvaro Castagnet. The class sounds wonderful. I am also in the Bay Area and would love to study with him. I have been watching his videos and reading the information on his website. I am learning a ton as a new watercolor painter. Thank you again!!!

  4. Hi. I'm not sure where you are in the Bay Area, but I'm up in Vallejo. I've put together a group that is painting together down in Oakland. If you're interested in that kind of loose and expressive style/ close enough/ etc, go to my new website and contact me from there with your email. I'm glad the blog has been of use. ! I'm posting all my new stuff on the new website, so the blog is chugging along over there.

  5. Thanks Stephen, very interesting. I Googled for How to Draw Alvaro figures and your site came up on the 1st page! Your figures seem to have really improved as you drew more. Have you managed to maintain the improvement? Was in SF at Pier 11/2 a few years ago, we were holidaying from the UK, then went to Seattle for a week. I understand that Alvaro is doing some free 2 hour demos at an art shop in Seattle this year!