I haven’t interviewed many watercolorists. I’m an oil painter so I’ve naturally gravitated to fellow oil painters, but this guy, Andy Evansen, is a fantastic painter and you need to hear from him. Despite his use of water instead of oil (ha,ha), he has plenty to offer. He is straightforward and honest, a real professional; you’ll learn from and appreciate what he has to say.
His work is influenced and inspired by several brilliant British watercolor artists, some of whom are also very good oil painters: Trevor Chamberlain, David Curtis, Ed Seago, and Edward Wesson, to name a few. Evansen admires their wonderful economy of brushstrokes, which he says he personally struggles to achieve. “They manage to convey such mood and atmosphere so simply, with nice clean washes and brilliantly indicated shapes. I’m a big believer in trying to complete a watercolor with as little fuss as possible.” He says, “Even though their landscape is quite different than mine, I’ve learned a lot about introducing more grays and neutrals in my work by studying theirs.”
I can relate with Andy when he says he has a tough time not being a slave to the scene in front of him. “I can change the size of an object somewhat, or add and remove smaller things for the sake of a better composition, but I’m amazed at artists who use the scene as a jumping off point and can change the entire mood, sometimes even creating a nocturne while painting in broad daylight! I tend to get a little caught up in accuracy, especially when painting plein air, not sure why. Maybe that’s the medical illustrator rearing his ugly head.”
Yes, that’s something we touch on in this interview; how can a guy with medical illustrator ability, also, at the same time, create such wonderful, loose, suggestive, watercolor paintings? I’m truly puzzled by this ability.
Evansen is a former president of Plein Air Painters of America and also, twice, a featured presenter at the Plein Air Convention. I love his work, I love his subjects and I love how he presents them. I’m really honored to present this insightful interview with a great painter. (Click images to enlarge)
Why are you an artist? The short, and perhaps most honest, answer is that I don’t think I’d be good at much else. But diving deeper, I believe we all have a calling, something we’re talented at and passionate about. Unfortunately for most, their passion is reserved for the time they have to pursue a hobby. Many of the things we find most enjoyable in life, be it music, reading, painting, sports, woodworking, fishing, etc. are not considered as viable ‘careers’. And for those of us who do manage to make a living at these pursuits, it’s usually the result of a lot of lean years, hard work, sacrifice, support and patience from loved ones and friends, and even a bit of luck. I simply looked in the mirror a long time ago and realized this is what I wanted to do with my life; that if I had been blessed with a gift it would be a shame to waste it.
What do you hope to communicate and accomplish as an artist? I tell my students often, when choosing a subject, that I much prefer to paint something that most would simply pass by without a second glance. I want to help people see the beauty that’s around us every day. I know that might seem simplistic, and I understand those who would argue the artist’s role should be deeper, taking on and making people aware of society’s problems, but I think we’ve all been bombarded with that enough these days with 24/7 news. It’s difficult to not get weighed down by it all, and I hope my paintings can bring a little peace and joy to the viewers’ lives. That’s not to say I don’t try to sneak in a metaphor into my work once in a while, but I have a feeling not many notice unless I point it out in a title.
Why did you gravitate to landscape painting; what is its appeal? That’s always an interesting question, as one of my earliest idols was the late great Charles Reid. I was enthralled with his book Figure Painting in Watercolor and often credit it for my interest in watercolor. I grew up in rural Wisconsin, and my childhood is full of memories of camping, fishing, tree forts, playing on the neighbors’ farm, sports with my brothers and friends; and I was one of 8 kids growing up in a 3 bedroom rambler so being outside was such a release. I never made a conscious choice to be a ‘landscape painter’, it just felt right. It may be a result of the other options not holding much appeal for me personally. While I can certainly appreciate a wonderful portrait or still life, the prospect of trying to capture someone’s likeness always felt like too much pressure, and I don’t have much interest sitting in front of assorted objects that I’ve arranged and trying to copy it. Nature is awesome and powerful and ancient and moving and changing, and I will never tire of it.
Can art be defined, if so, how would you define it? Oof, I think that one’s above my pay grade. I honestly don’t know if it can be defined, because it encompasses so much and any attempt to put limitations on it usually rings hollow, but I’ll give it a shot. I would say when someone uses their preferred medium to express their feelings about the world around them in a very personal way, and the result touches people in a very universal way due to our shared human condition, it would qualify as art. That encompasses not only creations that are ‘beautiful’ but those that can be disturbing, thought provoking, gut wrenching, even horrifying.
Where does creativity come from; can it be taught? I don’t think creativity can be taught. I think the skills needed to express one’s creative impulses can be taught, but that urge needs to come from someplace deep.
I really enjoy painting something that may not have an obvious beauty. I love it when a subject grabs me not necessarily because of the subject itself, but because of the way the light is hitting it, or the atmosphere, or the arrangement of shapes. That makes it a bit more personal, in that I’m motivated by my emotional response to it, and then I try to paint it in a way that conveys to all why it moved me.
When viewing a subject, do you let the subject determine the concept of the work or do you decide on the concept beforehand? I find that the concept or narrative develops oftentimes while I’m working on it. Maybe it develops during the sketching stage, maybe it happens upon completion while I’m searching for a title, but it usually comes about during the course of actually painting. A side note; I get asked about the difference between fine art and illustration, and for me when I have a concept in mind beforehand and then search for a subject that fits it, that’s when my work tends to be a little more illustrative.
Coming from a medical illustrator background, your loose and free handling of the paint and interpretation of nature is incredibly appealing. How were you able to transition from such tight, super detailed work to what you’re doing today? It wasn’t easy. I started painting because I wanted a release from working on tight illustrations on the computer, so I suppose it was natural that I wanted to be loose with my watercolors. But as I tell my students, painting loosely only comes when you’ve acquired enough experience with the medium and your tools to have the confidence to paint fast. Until then, there’s a hesitancy that infringes on those attempts, and it can be incredibly frustrating. I’m still working on loosening up a bit after 25 years of painting.
I am very interested in this confluence of personalities…that is, the very detailed, precise, need for absolute accuracy person merged with the guy that is content with less detail, less preciseness, and more individual expression. What’s going on here? Considering how different the approaches are you’d think it would be easier if I just honed in on one or the other, but I actually enjoy both. Painting is definitely my passion, but the medical work has been extremely interesting as well and the financial security of it allowed me to take my time honing my craft in watercolor. I didn’t feel the need to get my watercolors into galleries and shows before I was ready, which was a huge blessing because those rejections can lead to throwing in the towel for many. Also, it’s difficult to be creative and ‘on’ when painting day after day, much more difficult than people realize I think. This way, when I take a little break from watercolor, I’m still creating some sort of art and getting paid to do it. Then when I get back to the drawing board, it’s full steam ahead.
How much of your work is done en plein air; what part does photography play in your work? Photos have always played a big part in my work. While learning I painted from photos for a few years. I understand the importance of getting outdoors and working from life, but watercolor presents a unique set of challenges and for me it was nice to work out the kinks in the comfort of the studio. Once I felt ready and had grasped the basics, I headed outdoors and became confronted with a whole new set of issues, but it wasn’t as overwhelming as it could have been. These days, I head outside to paint whenever I can but Minnesota weather is not exactly conducive to plein air watercolor so I still spend a great deal of time working off reference photos. However, the time I’ve spent outside informs these paintings greatly and even though I’m in the studio, I don’t approach it much differently than if I was working plein air.
How thorough is your preliminary drawing? My preliminary drawing is mostly a contour drawing to place the large shapes accurately. I try to leave a lot of the smaller marks for the brush. If you overdraw, your work becomes a coloring book where you’re more likely to try to ‘stay in the lines’.
How much preliminary work do you do before actually beginning a painting? I like to do a small 3-value study before I begin the color painting, just to clarify in my mind the three main washes, light/ mid/ darks. Other than that and a quick pencil sketch to place the shapes, I dive in. I will spend a fair amount of time studying the subject if I’m on location, trying to envision how I’ll tackle it and where I need to focus in case the light or an object moves.
Please explain your painting process. I draw the scene on the paper, focusing on large shapes only. Then I wet the surface entirely (if working on a loose sheet I’ll wet both sides) and begin laying in the sky and light local color throughout. I don’t like to wait until this is completely dry before I start putting in some mid value shapes, as the softness of working wet into wet helps convey atmosphere and distance. I’ll typically work on this second stage as the paper is drying, leaving hard edged objects for last. Sometimes I need to step away from the painting to allow for a little more drying time if I need real crisp edges. I pay particular attention to lost edges at this stage too, connecting shapes as often as I can. Once this middle value wash has dried, I begin defining details with darks, making sure my area of interest is well developed and clear first. This is a dangerous time as the temptation is to put too many details in, so I step away and squint often and when I feel the painting reads well without being overworked, I’ll stop.
How do you determine the moods and color schemes for your paintings? I actually let Mother Nature do the work on that, preferring to use the colors I see in the scene. The mood is created with the intensity of light and shadow, or crispness/softness of edges, and of course color. Overall I try to stay as true to the subject as I can.
What colors are typically on your palette, and why? I have 5 ‘cool’ colors; Paynes Gray, Ultramarine Blue, Cobalt Blue, Cerulean Blue and Cobalt Turquoise Light. Paynes Gray is wonderful for mixing more subdued greens and violets, versus the much more intense Ultramarine. Cobalt and Cerulean are seen together in many skies, and I really like the granular quality of Cerulean. Cobalt Turquoise is necessary when I’m painting along the ocean and makes nice spring greens. Then I have Burnt Sienna, Raw Sienna, Quinacridone Gold and Neutral Tint. Burnt Sienna is pretty standard on most artists’ palettes, a nice orange brown very useful for skin tone too. Raw Sienna is preferable over Yellow Ochre for me, as Ochre is a little more opaque and I use Raw Sienna in a lot of my mixtures. Quinacridone Gold is necessary when the sunlight is more intense and for mixing nice rich greens. Neutral Tint is a warm dark that I use to darken Burnt Sienna if I need a rich brown. All my other darks are cool so if I use them to darken Burnt Sienna they can gray it, whereas Neutral Tint keeps it nice and warm. I have Alizarin Crimson for mixing violets and neutralizing greens, and then a few warm accent colors like Cadmium Red, Cadmium Lemon, and Opera. The red and yellow are both opaque and add nice bright touches at the end of the painting if needed, and Opera is a pink that can’t really be mixed that you’ll see in clothing, umbrellas, buildings, etc. It’s a little fugitive so I use it sparingly, but it’s a beautiful color. Lastly I keep a tube of white gouache for small light details I may have lost.
What type of painting substrates do you use, why are those of particular importance to you? My preferred paper is Saunders Waterford, 140 lb. rough. It’s a nice soft paper conducive to working wet-in-wet, and allows for a bit of lifting as well. I also use Arches blocks when painting in the field a lot because of their convenience and the fact that loose sheets blow around a bit if the wind is strong. Winsor and Newton began making watercolor paper again after a brief hiatus and that’s a nice paper as well, although a bit too ‘white’ for my taste. And for my value studies, I like to use 9×12 pads of Kiliminjaro paper.
Are there certain brushes you feel you must have? I have to have a large squirrel hair mop for the initial light wash; a size 16 or 14 sable type brush for the middle value wash; my Chinese brush is wonderful for trees; and Escoda makes a great synthetic brush size 10 that I use for darker details. I also need a rigger type brush for branches and wires and so on.
What compositional principles do you tend to always adhere to? I do try to stick to the ‘Rule of Thirds’ when placing my area of interest. I pay quite a lot of attention to the variety and size of the main shapes in the painting, and my limited palette enhances unity with colors. I’m no expert on composition by any means, usually going with a ‘that feels right’ approach. And once in while it’s nice to break the rules.
Please put these words in order: drawing, technique, composition, concept, framing, color, and value. Drawing; Value; Composition; Color; Concept; Technique; Framing
You create wonderful atmosphere in your paintings; what are the key points one needs to know when creating a true sense of atmosphere? I think what’s made a big difference in my work, particularly lately, is how much I work on wet paper when the painting calls for it. Obviously not all scenes are created equal, and sometimes you want a lot of nice crisp edges, but much of the landscape is alive and moving, and too often watercolor artists treat everything with hard edges which makes it look photographic and stiff. It’s why I can’t stand masking fluid; everything is sharp and just right, and nature isn’t like that. Then there are things like understanding that morning light is usually a little cooler, coming on the heels of night, whereas sunset light is a little warmer. Just paying attention and learning to see, which is why it’s so important to paint from life when you can.
How do you photograph your paintings? I have a couple nice Promaster Cool lights that I indirectly light the painting with from both sides, and I literally just use my smart phone now, the cameras on those things are incredible. I then email the image to myself, and open it in Photoshop in case I need to do just a little tweaking of colors or saturation to match the actual painting.
I notice you include a short narrative with each painting posted on your website; have you found that to be important to the sale of a painting? I started doing that not too long ago actually. It came about after an exhibition I was in, and the venue asked that we include a short description of each painting with the label. I noticed visitors really paying attention to those and enjoying them. It does help give a little insight into what I was thinking at the time, or what inspired the work. Sometimes it can be a detriment however, because I’m sure there are instances where someone thought the painting was of a scene they knew and then read my description only to find out it was painted someplace else entirely. But people do enjoy the narrative I think.
You teach workshops; what is the most important thing you want to impart to your students? The importance of practice. I have several short little lessons that I like to incorporate in my workshops, and I make sure to let them know that if all they have is 15 minutes to paint, then do one of those lessons. Far too often I hear from students that they haven’t painted in months because they’re too busy. Well, everyone’s too busy, especially if painting isn’t your profession. And I think if they don’t have a 4 hour block in their day to do “a painting”, they don’t do anything. That’s going to stunt your growth immensely. It’s so important to practice the basics, so that when you DO have time to actually work on a painting, you’re not so rusty or hesitant because it’s been a while. Have some little scraps of watercolor paper, or backs of old paintings, lying around and just spend a little time painting trees, or cars, or figures; whatever you feel you need to practice.
If you were beginning your fine art career today, how would you go about it? I’m not exactly the world’s best businessman, so my advice should be heeded accordingly. Obviously the effects of social media have vastly changed the art marketplace, so I would probably take a seminar on how to effectively use that to my advantage. Take part in art crawls, group exhibitions, join a critique group, whatever you can do to meet other artists—my artist friends have really helped me along the way, providing feedback, moral support and advice. Try to think about ways to separate yourself from ‘the herd’; by that I mean it’s important to develop a style that will be recognizable as your own. That’s one of the pitfalls of social media, we have the work of literally thousands of artists at our fingertips to study, we see the ‘likes’ and comments and soon we’re trying to find how our work can be more like theirs. That’s a quick fix at best and will stunt your true artistic growth. Gather bits of those styles and then use them to create work that’s more personal to you, reflecting your world. That’s easier said than done, and takes time, but be patient and allow yourself to discover and grow. Don’t try to be an overnight success.
As an artist, what would you like to do that you haven’t done? I’ve got a really talented friend here in St Paul who does wonderful copperplate etchings, I own several and I’d like to take him up on his offer to show me how to do that one day. I’ve always been drawn to black and white work, which is part of the reason I have so much fun with my value studies, and I think etching would be a nice way to get back to that. Then if I wanted to I could always use a little watercolor on them as well.
What is your view of art competitions? They’re a double edged sword. It’s a great way to get your work out there, but rejection is tough and it’s important to remind yourself that any rejection, or award for that matter, is the result of one person’s opinion usually. You can’t get too down if your work doesn’t get accepted or win, and on the flip side you can’t think you’ve arrived simply because you win a couple awards. It also brings me back to what I was alluding to previously about style; whenever someone wins a few awards for their work in art competitions, miraculously the next year there are a handful of artists doing very similar work. There’s a great observation Skip Lawrence makes in his book Painting Light and Shadow in Watercolor, referring to conformity; “there will always be those who are considered by majority consent to be ‘the best’. Once the best has been established, then a model is made clear, and individual potentials are lost.” I’ve seen many examples of this over the years.
If you were stranded on an island, what three books would you want with you? Undaunted Courage (the Lewis and Clark story); Trevor Chamberlain: Light and Atmosphere in Watercolour; The Alienist, by Caleb Carr.
To see more of Andy Evansen’s work…www.evansenartstudio.com
Next week…”The elephant in the room.”
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I’m pleased to announce the release of my latest teaching video and book. The video and accompanying book, shown here, along with my first video, “Limited Palette Landscape”, include everything I’ve taught in my workshops. You can now take my oil painting workshop right in the comfort of your home, and for a lot less money than physically being present. (Click image to learn more)
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