A little experiment.

(Warning–Big long post about painting ahead!) 

For the past few days, I’ve been working out the wording for a want ad. It goes something like this:

Freelance artist seeking part-time style for a permanent position. Style must have experience with a variety of media (pencil, pen, watercolor, gouache) and be willing to work 4-12 hours per week. Pay dependant upon experience. If interested, please submit resume, references, and portfolio to Paula Gibbs at blah blah blah.

Perhaps it’s not quite that bad, but I’ve been having some problems with consistency lately. As I begin each new piece, I think, This is it! This painting/drawing will finally coalesce everything I’ve done so far into one really awesome style that I can use consistently from here on out! And then the book illustration deals will start pouring in! (*cough*)

I manage to sustain this enthusiasm until I put some paint or ink on the paper and it doesn’t do exactly what I want. And from there on out it’s more about trying to fix what I’ve already done than creating something new with each stroke. The thought process then becomes something like, Wait, did I say I’d finish this by Tuesday? Oh yes, I did. Phooey–I guess there’s not enough time to scrap the whole thing and start over. But maybe if I just make the corner a little brighter and fix the face…And where on earth did that big streak come from? Aaaargh!

Obviously, this leaves a lot to be desired.

Since I think that some (= a lot?) of my frustration comes from technical issues, I decided to do a little experiment last weekend with ink + gouache. I think I’ve talked about gouache before, but in case you’re not familiar with it, it’s basically an opaque form of watercolor. I like watercolor too but am more attracted by the creamy color and matte finish of properly-applied goauche.  

One of the goals of the experiment was to find a way to successfully combine ink and gouache, since I’ve been doing a lot of ink doodles lately and want to find a nice way to put some color into them. So I took the same still life made from some of my little beach treasures and did two versions, one with the ink on top of the gouache and the other with the ink underneath. This tested my patience a bit since I never paint the same piece twice, but in the end the results were worth it because I discovered that…

…I don’t really like either of them!

Beachy Treasures Still Life (version 1)

I’ve heard a number of scientists describe how the process of discovering that every answer is wrong is actually quite productive. While I’m sure this is true, I have a lot of sympathy for the poor grad student who had to run the same tests over and over again without good results. (Hear that, Tim?)

Okay, this wasn’t a total flop–there are things about both paintings that are kinda fun. The colors don’t look that great in the scans, but the paint in the image above looks about like I wanted it to. It looked good enough that I had this long moment of hesitation when I brought out the ink pen and hovered the nib over the paper, waiting to make the first stroke. Don’t mess this up, I thought.  

And then I made a line, and it looked really funny. Somehow I always forget that ink pens really don’t like drawing on top of gouache–the tips get clogged, big blobs come out, it’s impossible to get a thin line…I think I’ve made this “discovery” about three times now, so I guess I need to write it down on my pen case or something.

Ink over gouache = technical failure.

Beachy Treasures Still Life (version 2)

The second piece is more painterly and three-dimensional (although a real 3-D representation wasn’t what I was going for), but I had a lot of trouble figuring out the ink vs. paint ratio. Should I do a complicated ink drawing with a light wash on top? Or just a few lines with more paint?

In the end I settled for about a 30/70 mix and then found that the gouache significantly greys out or covers the nice black lines of the ink, so it doesn’t really matter.  Oh yah, that’s why people usually use watercolor on top of ink. Duh.

Gouache over ink = technical failure.

I’m out of time (thanks for reading this gigantic post!), but I don’t want to end on a down note. In the end, it really is nice to know that two options really are knocked off the list so I can move on to others. I have a goal of finishing four beach-themed paintings in the next two weeks and plan to keep trying until I find something that works…though at the moment, I think that ink + watercolor or just gouache are my best options, rather than ink + gouache.  

I almost titled this post “Dear Lauren” since I’m hoping that she might have some helpful tips, but if anyone else wants to chime in about technique I am definitely interested to hear what you have to say. :)

5 thoughts on “A little experiment.

  1. Wow! Gouache! I have not used the medium much, but I am amazed at what many forms the medium can take on. It is so versatile, but difficult to control.

    You have fantastic draftsmanship. Your drawings are right on.

    The painting with ink over gouache reminds me of Anime. I like the browns in the background. Overall the values and colors are working well, and the ink lines give me some hints of texture.

    The second one, after looking at the first one, looks like it is not finished. I do not like the browns in the background as much. I think the biggest problem may be the lack of edge variety (ie, soft edges, lost edges, hard edges). Edges give the viewer a path to follow, but no path means nowhere to rest the eye. No center of interest. This composition may be better as a photograph which showcased all the textures of the shells, but the painting is almost abstract in a bad way. The first painting has more color variety than the second.

    I just like the first one better. However, you have to ask yourself if you want an animated style. Then you have the question of who will want to hang an animated-looking still life of shells on their wall. I think the style can be nice, but the subject matter is not right.

    Paula, I am sure some of your other readers will disagree with my critique. I would love to hear more thoughts.

  2. Lauren,

    You’re spot-on about the colors…the second version got rather muddy-looking both in color and texture.

    Regarding the first one, the anime comparison is interesting. No, I didn’t mean to make a cartoon! There have been a couple of times now when I began a painting with the goal of making flat panels of color and adding all the details in ink. But every time, I get too carried away and end up with a shell that’s half shaded in gouache and half shaded in ink, a sort of bastard child of the two that’s neither here nor there.

    I think the problem might be with the gouache, in this scenario–gouache can be so much darker than watercolor, and I think the dark tones make my eye want the ink to blend in seamlessly instead of coming in lines.

    Back to the painting board…

  3. I agree with Lauren, she said a lot of what I was coming down here to say. : ) The only thing that I would add is that the backgrounds are also different. The blocks of lighter brown in the first one add some visual interest aside from the subjects. The lack of those spaces in the bottom one makes the background boring, which means your eyes tend to leave the painting instead of lingering to see the detail in the colors in the subjects.

    I think Lauren hit it on the head when she said “I just like the first one better. However, you have to ask yourself if you want an animated style. Then you have the question of who will want to hang an animated-looking still life of shells on their wall. I think the style can be nice, but the subject matter is not right.”

    Also, fwiw, the more animated style of those shells reminds me of your birds and such. I would just think that the background is too dark.

    Have you considering doing ink AND guache AND watercolor? For instance, with this painting, do the background in water color, the subjects in guache, and the outlines in ink? I’ve never worked much with watercolor or guache myself so this could be a straight shot to disappointment, but I figured I would throw it out there.

  4. ok- well, i don’t have any artsy lingo to throw at you, but i read A LOT of illustrated books, and if i saw a book with pictures in the style of the first one, i would snatch it up! Then I would find any other books you illustrated on amazon and snatch them up too! I like them both, but i LOVE the first one. nice work- you’re far too hard on yourself! :)

  5. Well, I finally got out of the lab repeating experiments that rarely work over and over again to read your post heh heh. I tried making a xiangqi board doing ink over watercolor and I still had problems, even with plain old watercolor. The ink in the resevoir (or however you spell that) would just sort of blob out and ruin everything, it was really irritating. I eventually got something, but only with big straight lines, I couldn’t do curves or anything with detail. So I can’t figure out how you got it to work at all with gouche

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