Born and raised in Cebu City, Philippines, Richie N. Vios ("Confident Watercolor") hails from an artistic family where even his father, brothers, and sister also paint. Studying architecture, in 1995 he graduated with a bachelor's degree and started immediately as a faculty member, teaching architectural design and presentation for the next seven years while also establishing himself as a newly-licensed architect. Since then he has worked on both architecture and painting in the Phillipines and the United States. Today Richie lives in Texas and teaches nationally.
What is that you love about watercolor?
I'm absolutely under the spell of watercolor’s mystique and I don't want to wake-up!
The watercolor medium is the most unique among the media to choose from in the art world. The elusiveness and the unpredictability of the medium continually fascinates me. There are so many things to think about in advance in the watercolor process and you have to visualize the end result. Even doing that though, there are so many surprises along the way. The painting process is always full of excitement.
The best attributes of watercolor are the transparency of the medium and it’s portability. It’s so easy to bring when you paint plein air (outdoors).
Could you walk us through your process? What do you need to have figured out at each stage?
For me as a plein air artist, looking for a subject to paint is one of the most thrilling parts. It's like a box of chocolates that you don’t know what you get until it’s time to open it.
When I do a find a subject to paint that interests me I get incredibly excited but I have to remember to be smart. I can’t paint it all. I have to choose a single focal point of the subject. If I can’t make a decision, I decide on the title of the painting in advance so that I can zero in on the focal point or what’s my intention in doing this painting.
Before I start to draw specific shapes I always apply the rule of thirds principle on my paper to help me decide where to place my focal point. Once I have my focal point decided, I now can start the drawing in shapes. I start with big and work to small shapes. I use a 4B pencil.
Color: Once I’m satisfied with the drawing, it’s time to turn to color. First I will decide what color scheme will maximize the impact on the focal point. Remember watercolor is a transparent medium, so whatever you apply on the first wash will influence the top glazed layer color.
I will apply undertone colors starting at the sky and working down to the mid-ground and then the foreground to set the mode of the painting with the exemption of the highlights.
While painting, I have to keep the source of light in mind. Shadows shift very fast when painting outside, so I have to lock-in the source of light in my design. I can take pictures for reference or I can design my light source by creating a thumbnail sketch to study. This is the best option to come up with the best possible painting.
One all is addressed, it’s time to rock in roll. In watercolor you have to visualize the finished painting and then make a plan or roadmap on how to execute the process. Why? Because as soon as you start applying the watercolor, it’s so fast that you must act on intuition and not a paint by numbers approach.
Ideally work big to small, light to dark and farthest to closest. I use three types of brushes from a very soft squirrel brush to start with on the big plains (sky & foreground), Red Sable or Taklon brush for different shapes, and finish my work with Nylon Synthetic Brush for French polishing or details.
What are the four pillars of watercolor and why are they important to understand?
Shape, Values, Edges, and Color.
Being an artist you have to acquire skills and have solid understanding in so many principles and the visual language of shapes, linear perspective etc. Tonal values and edges to generate an illusion of depth of field or distance on a flat two-dimensional surface into three dimensions looking view. “You have to know the rules before you break the principle of the rules” per se.
What is the importance of tonal values? Why is working through them important for a later, successful painting?
I consider myself as a Tonalist Painter, meaning I give more importance to the tonal values in my paintings than the color. Color for me is just the icing of the cake. There’s a saying that goes “Tonal values do the hard work but color gets all the credit” meaning when you see a strong painting most likely the tonal values are on point, not the color.
You can strengthen your understanding of value by thoroughly understanding the value scale and by working through black and white studies.
What do you mean when you say gravity and timing? Why are gravity and timing important to understand in watercolor?
This is the most underrated skill to understand in watercolor.
Gravity plays a vital role especially when applying a watercolor wash. As watercolorists, we are dealing with a very delicate wet paper. So proper slopping helps facilitate natural flows of water through gravity. This helps our pigments to run naturally without disturbing the paper fiber. If you avoid unnecessary brush strokes, you’ll get a pristine, clean color that floats on the top of the paper like a thin colored film. Light can then pass through, hit the paper, and then bounce back. This is how you get the sense of illuminated color in watercolor.
Timing is everything in watercolor. You have to know when to keep going or when to stop and let it dry before making your next move. Again, watercolor color is very unpredictable in terms of color and value. When your paper is still wet, it will keep evolving and doing its watercolor magic on its own.
Just accept the fact that watercolor has a mind of its own. So it's up to you to act at the right time to get the best result. Learning that timing takes a bit of trial and error. But go in with confidence.
What is the importance of learning to draw? What does an artist miss when they don’t have that skill?
It’s very common to hear that “drawing is the backbone in every good painting” because that’s absolutely true. Artists must have good skills in drawing. Drawing is the tool artists have to translate the visual language from their mind and emotion. I always remind my students to put a good amount of mileage in drawing before exploring tonal values and colors.
If you ask me how to define a good artist? It’s a person who has a sketch pad attached to him.
What do you get from working from life that you don’t get from reference photos?
It’s an absolutely night and day difference.
In reference photos, you only get half baked information, which is only good for a reference. There’s no substitute from working from life. There are millions of vital pieces of information that vanish when you only work from photos and the artistic impression is limited.
For me, working from life is the soul behind the painting. My plein air works have many more faceted stories behind them than my studio works. But if you combine reference photos to onsite experience then the magic happens.
How do you suggest setting up a still life?
Normally I simplify the composition in terms of grouping the object. I’m a firm believer in the “Power of Three” which means three different heights, three different groupings and three limited pallet color schemes.
Since life is normally limited in terms of distance, the background becomes a vital decision to make. Should it be high key or low key? Dark or light? Whatever your choice, the background should complement the local color of the object or the center of interest.
How do you compose a scene? What are your goals for your composition and what do you need to have figured out for that to happen?
In composing a scene, I start almost every time with the basic, Rule of Thirds or Golden Means principle. Once I have figured out the four intersections, I have a good spot where I can put my focal point. Everything I do revolves around the center of interest. The rest of the painting is a gradient interest complimenting the focal point.
I'm a low key style artist and what I mean by that is that I have more darks in my works to contrast the lights. The lights are more important than the darks in leading the viewer's eye to the focal point. Because of this, I have to establish or identify the highlights soundly before I start my watercolor process.
How do you approach the colors in your work? Do you go in with a scheme or use local color as a jumping-off point?
I’m more of a Tonalist artist than Colorist, so I value the tonal values more than color. The human eye is very attracted to color, and so I use color to strategically guide the viewer's eye to the center of interest.
Often I will use contrasting or complementary color next to each other at the focal point. A saturated color next to a neutral is also very powerful. I believed that color will sing when surrounded by more than 50 shades of greys.
I use the local color as my springboard in choosing color schemes. Then I play with the color wheel to generate a color composition that creates the best possible painting.
Learn more about Richie Vios' NEW watercolor video here.