Sunday, July 17, 2011

Prior Incantato

Watercolor in moleskine, approx. 5" x 7"
I introduced my new possession with a slight trace of embarrassment and an abundance of barely suppressed pride.  "It's my only frivolous purchase," I said.

This is almost true. I rarely give in to buying whims. Even though I  had bought  it a week before, I  had no regrets, and I have no regrets now.  I am still thrilled with the purchase.

"What is it?" my friend asked.

I gestured with flourish to the spot on my shelf where the object has been displayed like a museum piece.

"A chopstick?" my friend asked.

I was horrified.

"Of course not," I said. "It's a wand!" A thin foot-long slightly tapered charcoal-colored wand, with intricate runes carved on the sides. Certainly not a chopstick; if anything, a fine baton.

I bought it at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando. It is Sirius Black's wand which means it is a symbol of loyalty and sacrifice for all that is good.  But mostly, for me, it represents imagination, master storytelling, and unbridled creativity.  And magic, of course.

My friend doesn't have to understand.

I am lucky. I create a little magic every day. And each day it takes a new form.  I begin with a blank sheet of paper.

Sometimes I am amazed at what a sheet of paper or canvas can display.  Other times not so much.  To have the ability to wield a pen or a brush and create an image that wasn't there before:  that, I could tell my friend,  is magic.  I don't need a wand.  But it is nice to have the reminder on my shelf of so much that I admire, and of so much that inspires me.

The truth, of course, is that no wave of a wand will do. To imagine effectively we must exercise the mind. To create we must exercise the hand.

I have been nearly obsessed lately with the Helga watercolors by Andrew Wyeth.  Andrew Wyeth employed drybrush in many of his pictures, in which most of the moisture is squeezed out of the brush, to create his emotion-laden images.  I have read forums online in which watercolorists have been both baffled and amazed by his results.  [Wyeth's wand:  Stupefy! (You can see a list of Harry Potter spells here.)] 

At least a year ago I found an article about his technique which you can read here.  I revisited it recently.  According to the article, part of how Andrew Wyeth described his process was this: "You weave the layers of dry brush over and within the broad washes of watercolor."

I hadn't caught it the first few times I read the article, but it made sense - he employed both washes and drybrush.  So as a study in my moleskine above, I started the face of the woman above as a wash, almost as I always would.  Only then did I employ the drybrush technique.  For me it was a very slow process - a gradual build up of transparent layers, almost like sculpting, and I was amazed at how the areas in the face began to acquire depth.  This was very different than using the other watercolor methods.

I reached a point where I felt the entire face needed more color, and again thought of the above quote.  Andrew Wyeth did not simply lay a wash and then apply drybrush, but employed a weaving of the two.  So I laid a wash over what I had done, unsure whether that would unsettle everything.  And it worked!  And then resumed the drybrush.  So this was a successful experiment I think.

I don't know that I have done anything like what Andrew Wyeth has done in technique in that I have never been able to examine an original Wyeth piece (I am a mere fledgling artist, self-taught/self-teaching, and even were I to stumble somewhere close, I am nowhere approaching the quality of his work, of course.) One great thing about Andrew Wyeth was that he did not feel limited by any one watercolor technique and felt that he could use several in one piece.  So I tried to do the same.

Except for some initial trials, I used the watercolor medium, gum arabic, for the first time in this picture - and only in the hair.  The description on the bottle says gum arabic "increases brilliance, glosses and transparency of water colours.  Controls spread of wet on wet.  Reduces staining."  I bought the gum arabic because I have not always been satisfied with the vibrancy of the colors.  I do not see that the colors are especially more vibrant than elsewhere on the page.  The texture of the paint did seem to change, and I did note that if water was placed on the hair after it dried, then the hair would vanish [Evanesco!], so staining was definitely reduced. 

It is interesting that in drawing any person, problems can result, sometimes in the most surprising places.  In this one I had a problem with the shape of the shoulders of all things - I mean who ever thinks about the shoulders?  (Except perhaps Henry Raleigh whom you can see in this post of the excellent "Illustration Art" blog, and whose work so impressed me that I could not draw for two days).  It just shows that you can't ignore any part of the body, and must learn - eventually - to control each and every part.  [Imperio!]

There is no substitute for practice. Only then will I learn.

So join me, won't you? Pick up your brush, your pencil, your pen, or whatever it is that you use, and repeat after me:  Wingardium Leviosa! (Make sure your emphasis is on the "o".)  And may all of your creative efforts hereafter rise to new heights.


  1. Great post Dan. I need to go read the link you provided re: Andrew Wyeth's technique so I more fully understand your method. Love the portrait.

  2. Great portrait. I like the unusual composition - it grabs the eye.

    I have to confess I only read a little past the wand type (because it's late here & I need to go to bed)but I'm sure the rest of the post was interesting too.

  3. I'd say that wand--along with a lot of research and practice--is working. This is wonderful. I read the article about "Wood Stove;" now, I'll check out Mr. Raleigh. You realize you're teaching?

  4. p.s. You carry the handsome burden well.

  5. When I first brought up the post and looked at the portrait, I thought, "Wow, this reminds me of Andrew Wyeth." I kid you not. I decided to read the story about the wand which I found well written, but then you actually started talking about this Wyeth technique, my eyebrows went up. You are more successful in trying this technique than you think. There is something real and haunting about this face that is also very much like Wyeth. Great piece. You are on to something.

  6. Hear, hear!
    Lovely job on the watercolor.

  7. Awesome post Dan, and that's a very nice portrait. =)
    I can't believe you actually bought a wand ^^ I gotta tell my wife that, and she'd probably want to have Dumbledore's wand too...hahahaha
    It's interesting to know that your son's going to be an engineer soon... and as for video games, I guess it's a new generation thingy, and sadly I play more video games than most people younger than me =) I guess part of me don't want to grow up that's why.

  8. Your portrait DOES have similarities with Andrew Wyeth's Helga pictures ! You definitely succeeded there and the result is really good !
    As for the wand, I wonder what it'll bring up next !!

  9. Your portrait is well done. Your blog post is hugely entertaining - thank you!

  10. I agree, you shouldn't be limited by one technique or medium. I love the excitement of starting something and not knowing where it will end, that is the magic for me!
    P.S I honestly thought you were going to admit to buying a costly set of paints or brushes:)

  11. Dan what a great post! I love your sense of humor, I can't wait to see the new movie! I also love Andrew Wyeth and have a really nice book on his work (The Helga Paintings or Pictures, I forget). You really did a great job on this experiment, isn't it great when your practice actually teaches you something AND looks good!?

  12. being fortunate enough to see Wyeth's work secveral times in the past I was most interested in your entire blog---and what memories it brings back ! Hope you keep in touch with your learnings...winna

  13. Wow! Dan, you are certainly wielding a wand here! It just has a little flourish of fibers at the tip! Magical portrait! Really and trulywell done!

  14. Hi Dan. I have had the good fortune to see Wyeth's work in the flesh so to speak and you sir have done a fantastic job of capturing his technique. The subject too, the framing of the portrait, is very Wyeth like but in your own style. It's a rare artist who can work such a signature technique of another artist and make it his own. I know your modesty will down play what I've said but Bravo sir.

  15. What a a great post, and thank you so much for the links! Your painting is strikingly Wyeth-like. Even the colors remind me of his work, but as Peter said, it's your own. Well done!! nancy

  16. You did it again. You combined, humor, information and talent into this article. This time, however, we also got magic! Well done.

  17. Dan, Thank you for an entertaining, informative and well written post. I found your advice to practice, and 'do' (draw, paint etc.)very timely in my case as I have only recently been drawing and painting after a two year absence. The portrait is so well done and very Wyeth-like, thanks for sharing your insight of the work process and for sharing the finished work, brilliant!

  18. yessss I can see a Wyeth quality to this painting for sure. It is beautiful! You painted her with that Wyeth "clarity"....bravo! This is 5 stars!!

  19. Getting yourself a wand is an extraordinary symbol, I think. It's great. I'm very jealous of the wand and the Harry Potter shop, I didn't even know such a thing existed.
    Your portrait is awesome. The technique you used gives it incredible depth, and the light seems to come from the inside. I can see it's painted, but the person looks real, if you see what I mean!
    Loved all the little Harry Potter magical injonctions throughout your post, made me laugh!
    Thanks for a very interesting art post and the laugh!

  20. Dan, you were very successful in applying the Wyeth approach. I am amazed, actually, and have learned something new from your post. I have had the pleasure of viewing many originals by Andrew Wyeth in Rockland, Me, at the museum that features the works of the three generations of Wyeth men: NC, Andrew, and Jamie. I have marveled at the depth of Andrew's surfaces. You are onto something, here. I hasten to add that your painting of the woman is powerful and the technique simply helps you convey her emotions.

    You are a hugely entertaining writer, I might add, and I always enjoy your blog. I was so disappointed to learn that yet another of my favorite art bloggers has left the blog world while I was away (that's three that I followed to date). I am hopeful you will continue to blog as your blog is one of my favorites.

  21. That is a seriously impressive portrait! I was really interested in the technique - thanks for posting that link. I was amused to read how Andrew Wyth would get so worked up doing his paintins - and then, at the other extreme, would use a brush with only one hair!

  22. Great post and a wonderful portrait! Enjoy your magic with painting :-)

  23. I believe this is the absolute best painting of yours I have seen!!! It is yours and yours alone, but with the soul of Andrew Wyeth coming to stand behind you cheering you on. Wonderfully done and I think you have found a niche...maybe not the only one, but a wonderful one!

  24. Great post and great work Dan. I agree that the real magic is actually beginning ... and you proved it with your lovely portrait.

  25. Dan - thank you so much for your kind comment on my blog. Nice to 'meet' you.

    I've been enjoying your own blog and I'm so impessed by this portrait - especially as its in a moleskine - paper I would struggle with! I haven't tried gum arabic but have read that you can use it a bit like masking fluid.

    Carry on conjuring your magic. x

  26. Dan.....what are you going to do next?? I am ready to see what new experience you are having!! :)

  27. I cannot overstate how much I appreciate your reaction to this piece. Thank you so much, all of you. I am sorry it has taken so long to thank you. Addressing a few of your comments (the other comments being no less important):

    Hallie - Yes, in fact, I do - I always fancied myself to be a teacher. It is more like sharing, though. I might have held it all to my vest had I not experienced the vast generosity of the online artist community over and over again.

    William - This is great to hear. Thank you.

    Cathy - That's what I was hoping you'd think!

    Mary - It sure is. Thanks.

    Peter - I am blushing. Really. Neat to see that you have seen his work in person. You sometimes wonder when you see prints in a book. I wonder if you'd feel the same way if you saw mine in person as compared to his.

    Trish -, do, do. You will be surprised at your progress. Mine was approximately a quarter of a century absence, before I started. Welcome back.

    Celeste - I was holding my breath waiting for your reaction. Thank you - glad you liked it. Thanks also for the coaxing - in fact I've been busy, yes, but so involved in my next "experience" in my spare moments that I haven't given myself time to post.

    Kazumiwannabe- Hah! Glad you liked the spells! I've waved my wand now a whole bunch of times. Nothing. Nothing at all. Must be pronouncing the words wrong..

    Mary - Wow. What a comment! Thank you so much. I am sticking around - don't you worry. I get too much from all of you. I did think of announcing a break (summers are tough), but then I realized that that's what I am doing when there is a significant gap between posts, and that's enough I guess.

    marancat - Thanks. I too am a bit amazed by the "one hair" bit. Have you ever tried it? I did. Couldn't get the hair to do a thing. lol.

    Ellen - Wow - thank you. What an image. It is wonderful to imagine him standing behind me, guiding me. It is a nice thought to be an heir of Andrew Wyeth. We will see. I will explore this some more, but am pulled this direction and that, and I am interested to see where this will all end.

    Sue - I feel it too - the real magic is just beginning. I am tired of ink and watercolor in small moleskines, and am trying to up the ante. Thank you.

    Gillian - Thanks. Like masking fluid..interesting. Wonder what that means in terms of its use?

    Again, thank you so much everyone!!

  28. Really interesting and I so have to give this is a try (did many, many moons ago in art school and kind of forgot about and kept my own style and ways going... Im due for change : ) Your painting is lovely Dan, I love the texture to the whole painting, and the part I really like (the texture) is her left hand side shoulder, neck and hair. And your story of the wand just cracked me up and I just have to ask, do you write for living? I always enjoy what you write and your art too of course.

    As you can see Im still catching up to blogs, posts and emails... I just wanted to let you know, that the post strike is over here and now with being back, I can finally send you the mail, sorry for the delay.
    Any hooo, great post, wonderful painting and Im going to read the whole article of the painter when I can finally sit down and relax (Im also in due for a good read).