Friday, October 17, 2014

My Bjorn Bernstrom Watercolor Workshop, pt. 3

Painting with Water

In this final post, I wanted to share Bjorn's process for painting wetter.  I know, is that even possible?  Yep.  Bjorn sometimes paints his clouds, as well as his distant tree lines by deliberately creating back runs.  He also sometimes paints reflections and skies, even the shadowed masses of mountains, by painting very wet into wet—using that “brush pinching” technique I outlined in the previous post.  I’ll be going over both of these.

So, in these pics from the first demo, he’s leaning in and deliberately dabbing in lots of watery pigment to the horizon line.  He’s already painted the sky, which has dried a bit but is still damp.  He’s also already cut the shape of the buildings.  In this example, he’s also painted a simple wash over the foreground as well, which is separated from the sky.  He gets that water and pigment in there, bridging the two, and lets it push.  Looking at the pics in succession, you can see the time lapse element of the process, as the paint Bjorn is pushing in begins to expand into the sky and form the tree line.  I've made the photos extra large, to help you see in there better.

When you’re done, you can create fascinating treelines, with a distinctive crinkled look that you can’t get with a brush.  No two really come out the same.  Add in additional color to the tree area, as the water begins to bloom; do more water here and less there to create perspective; paint your background lighter or darker to create a different kind of rim, etc. 

Sometimes he paints over the bottom portion of the painting with a darker color, blending the treeline into the horizontal foreground, as in these.

Sometimes he lets the boom play at the horizon line and works with it, as in this pic, on the right.

Additionally, he uses this technique sometimes for clouds banks on the horizon.  This was done by adding nothing but a single swipe of water from a loaded brush across a mostly dry sky.  It really painted itself, once he had waited long enough for the reactions to work out properly.

Sometimes, he used it for clouds too.  This technique was very delicate, and required a great deal of patience.  The paper has to be almost dry, and Bjorn spent a lot of time just gently touching the paper with the side of palm, to assess just how wet/cool it was.   Too wet, and the water you lay in just explodes everywhere.  Wait too long, and it does almost nothing.  

His quote that “The hardest thing for a watercolor artists to do is to be patient.  You must learn to have patience, even when it’s boring” was dead on.  I tried this some during the workshop.  My results were less than satisfactory.  Hahaha!  Eventually, I stopped trying to paint “pictures”, and just worked on technique.

 The other thing I wanted to show a bit of was how he would pour, super wet into wet, also using the “pinching” technique, with more diluted solutions in his brush.  He deliberately did this when painting these mountains, which were from another demo he did for us.

He put in the first light washes, to mold the mountains' surfaces.  Then he dried it with a hair drier.  He came back in and cut the shape out the mountains with a wash for the sky, pulling the wash down to the valley between the two peaks. While it was still wet, he poured the purple streaks across the sky, keeping them very horizontal by aggressively tilting the board from one side while applying the paint (“painting with gravity”), and then “pinched” in the darker color between the peak.  The he titled the whole thing vertically and let it soften, as the paint dropped vertically.

Similarly, for the reflections and disturbances in the water, he painted the water after the mountains were done and (I believe) dry.  Then he dripped in pure water with his brush while the blue-green was still very wet, and let the water push down the page.  He did similar stuff for stripes on roads and what not too- rather than preserve the white, he would paint away, and then, when it was drying, he would swipe in it with a thin, wet brush, and let the water push the pigment away a little bit.

Wonderful stuff to watch.  It was so much fun to see someone really playing with pigment and water in such an abstract way, and yet have enough control and forethought to still be producing work that you can really read.  

Bjorn speaks English, and teaches workshops, some in Stockholm, some in Norway, one in Tuscany too, on an annual basis it seems.  I’m hoping we’ll eventually get him out to California, in the Bay Area.  That’s the kind of stuff the California Watercolor Society is all about, right?  I’d be game!  Can’t recommend the guy enough. 

Friday, October 10, 2014

My Bjorn Bernstrom Watercolor Workshop, pt 2

Painting with Pigment and Gravity-

In the first demo, Bjorn utilizes the technique you see in the painting above, where we have these very granular sedimentary drips pouring down the foreground.

First, in this demo, he paints the sky, foreground, and background, blocking in the buildings as he does so.  All pretty straight forward.

Then comes the crazy stuff!  ;)  This very very rich wash goes in- Burnt Sienna perhaps.  He mixes it wetly with some other darker pigments, to give it some visual texture.  Eventually, most of this won’t be seen much.

Quickly, while it’s still wet, he saturates his brush (its quite a big brush for this part) with a very heavy, very thick puddle of a granular pigment and either paints or “pinches” the pigment out of his brush down onto the canvas in very loaded dribbles and washes, but basically only over the already wet areas.  That wash of Burnt Sienna you see up above is basically there as a chromatic vehicle for the new super-thick Raw Umber dribbles to move on.  Speaking of which, he used Raw Umber a lot, but we experimented in class, and stuff like Ultramarine Blue worked well too, so I would assume the primary goal is to use a heavily granular pigment.  The tricky part is figuring out how long to let the first wash sit.  If you do it too fast, everything just disperses.  If you wait too long the Raw Umber won’t really “move” much, because the first wash of Burnt Sienna will no longer be wet enough to let it slide.   That’s where experience, and understanding the properties of water, really counts!

Tilt the board and you get this!

But wait, there’s more! ;P  Load a thin brush, like a rigger, with just water and do a quick swipe across the horizon line.  The water pushes down through that drippy, granular wash of Raw Umber you just “pinched” onto the painting.  I come back to that Bjorn quote from the first post, that “The best thing is to make one stroke and leave it alone.”  That couldn’t be truer with this technique.  It works best when you let the dripping pigment and water paint itself as much as possible.  You only need to deposit the proper tool in the proper place at the proper time!  Ha!  Easier said than done, but when you do, you can get an absolutely gorgeous foreground that looks like this one-

In the painting we were working on, I didn’t get in there fast enough to get a pic of his process, but you can see the way it works out here-

What’s cool is that you can lay a darker color into a lighter color, like in the previous pics, or a lighter more chromatic color into a darker wash, like in this example, where he’s using Mars or Lunar Black.  You can stretch the technique in a number of different ways.

By the way, in that earlier pic from the demo, if you’re paying attention, you can see that Bjorn has a tube of watercolor paint in his hand.  Why?  Because he’s painting with the thin, threaded edge of it.  In that pic, he’s using it to paint the super thin, highly chromatic stripes onto the side of the brown/orange barn.  You can see the results if you look closely.  In this pic, he uses it to paint telephone wires.

In this close up, you can see the stripes too—he’s painting the wires between distant telephone poles.  He used a rigger a few times for this in other painting, but in this one the double wires come from the metal threads of the tubes.  

In the next post, I’ll be showing some of Bjorn’s techniques with making clouds and tree lines using backruns, as well as some of the pouring/ "pinching" he does.  Beautiful stuff.  :)

Sunday, October 5, 2014

My Bjorn Bernstrom Watercolor Workshop, pt. 1

Spotlight on Bjorn-

This last spring, I found a watercolor artist online, Bjorn Bernstrom (from the Stockholm area of Sweden) and instantly fell in love with his work.  His paintings are rich in color but simple in composition, full of landscapes, marvelous skies, and remote buildings, with a loose and expressive style easily identified by  the drips, runs, and intentional blooms he often uses.  It was this element of his paintings that attracted me to him in particular-- how he was painting using the natural properties of water and pigment, and not just “with the brush”.  

Well, at the beginning of my trip to Europe this summer, I had the pleasure of taking a 2-day workshop from Bjorn, and what a fantastic experience it was!  Bjorn, it turns out, is not only one helluva painter, but he’s also an all-around cool guy, is in a country/rock band, loves Neil Young (!), and works in a cute little studio in a beautifully rural area about an hour outside of Stockholm.  

This is Bjorn.  A serious looking artist in some pics, but actually a mellow, friendly guy with an honest laugh.

These are some of his paintings, to give you a taste of what I’m talking about.  Back runs are used on purpose to make distant tree lines and clouds; skies and lakes are, I found out, often “poured” in with heavily loaded brushes; heavy, granular affects are explored as he lets paints drip and expand with judicious strokes of water, etc.  Many of his affects border on the abstract, but the composition always remains representational at the same time.

As for the workshop, he rented out a space a mile or so from his studio, where the 10 or so of us set up.  He was the type of instructor who’s pretty “hands off”.  He painted for us, talking and answering any and all questions we had about his process while he was at work.  He was very friendly and mellow about that.  Then we would start to paint, and he’d go around and check in on us individually, giving us pointers.  He wasn’t the type to assign a task or assignment.  Each of us set about painting and attempting to apply his techniques in our own way.  Some tried to duplicate his work, others of us just made stuff up.  

We didn’t paint plein air at all, everything was done in studio.  I think he does paint plein air sometimes, but not as a regular part of his practice.  He often painted flat,  and sometimes without taping his paper down at all, to be allow him to tilt and manipulate the paper.  I've applied a number of the techniques he modeled while having my paper taped to gatorboard, which is very light, and that has worked well too.  He did set up a tripod easel at one point though, and painted with a bit of an angle for a few paintings.  So, he wasn’t particularly religious about his methods.  My memory is that he did 3 paintings for us each day, and that even included breaking for lunch.  He layers and uses the blow dryer, but his process is still pretty spontaneous and quick.   Much like Alvaro, his seemed more iterative and exploratory, and less about laboring over a painting for a long time.

In the next few posts, I’ll be sharing photos from the workshop, detailing some of his process, my own (failed) attempts from exploring them, and any pointers and advice I picked up.

Three Bjornisms from the workshop-
“The best thing is to make one stroke and leave it alone.”
“The hardest thing for a watercolor artists to do is to be patient.  You must learn to have patience, even when it’s boring.”
“Squint your eyes and see the big patterns.”