Barbara Nechis ("Watercolor From Within" and "Tools for Transforming Troubled Watercolors") is an artist who has developed a style known for its masterful balance of spontaneity and control of the watercolor brush. She holds a BA in History and Fine Arts from the University of Rochester and an MS from Alfred University. She was a faculty member of Parsons School of Design for many years and has taught seminars at Pratt Institute, throughout North America, Europe, and Asia . She has also served as a juror and director of the American Watercolor Society. She resides in Napa Valley in northern California.
Why do you think watercolor has a reputation for being difficult? Why (or why not) is it deserved?
Watercolor has a false reputation promoting the idea that unlike oil paint, each stroke impermanent and unfixable. Nothing could be further from the truth. Most errors can be easily scrubbed out and/or painted over when quality paper is used. Watercolor can also be intimidating because so much watercolor instruction focuses on difficult and unnecessary techniques. For example, most of us were taught by someone proficient in demonstrating how to produce a graded sky wash by leaving a bead of liquid at the base of each stroke and picking it up with the next stroke and moving down the paper. I still can’t do it but I can wet the paper, throw some paint on it, tip it to let it run, spray some more water on it if it doesn’t run enough and rinse it all off before it dries and try again as many times as necessary. I have never heard a child say “I want to work in oils because watercolor is too difficult.”
What is it that watercolor gives you as an artist?
Watercolor does some of the work for you unlike many other mediums. It can give you unexpected effects that can’t be repeated so that each painting becomes unique. When it is done well and water used properly, watercolor can create an illusion that the paint arrived magically.
Could you walk us through your process?
My approach and subject matter differs from that of my teachers. I start with no vision at all. I begin without a specific image in mind and work through as one would work out a doodle which is never planned and where one thing leads to another. Sometimes I wet the whole paper and execute a wet-into-wet underpainting which will give subsequent layers depth and color variations. When I work on large paper I usually begin by making a large shape with as much water as the paper will hold, extending it to at least one edge of the paper. Then I pour off the excess water, add paint, dry it and then repeat with subsequent shapes layering over each other to create complex compositions. I am drawn to shapes in nature.
Where do you do your thinking? What does that look like?
I do not think about making a painting when I am observing shapes in nature. When driving or walking I am absorbing what I see. I photograph a great deal but I never use these photos. I think the process of framing an image helps to imprint the essence of it in my brain, although not the specifics. When I begin a painting I do not have an image of what it will be. I am not transferring thoughts to paper. My objective is to allow my feelings about a subject to come out naturally, then guide them into shapes and value patterns. Although the feeling of rock, trees, mountains, flowers or water is there because I have used their basic shapes, I haven’t actually painted these objects. Each painting is new and by allowing the water and paint to flow, letting the paper itself suggest the subject matter and the technique as well, ideas begin to arise. I invent images as I go along. I try to convey the essence of a subject not just describe its visual facts. I am watching each stroke as I put it down, adjusting it to fit with the previous stroke.
What are the major design elements or principles at play in your work? Could you talk to us about some of them?
For far too long I tried to follow design rules emphasized by my teachers. I have tried to forget most of them because most of the work I see in Museums makes the rules irrelevant. There is no center of interest in an enormous Monet water lily painting. Leonardo’s center of interest in The Last Supper is smack in the middle and Matisse, our color hero, rarely repeated colors for balance. Much of my approach to design is intuitive but most of my paintings have a predominant pattern of curvilinear or angular shapes that link from one to another. The questions I ask myself when I critique my own work are: Can the shapes be distinguished because values in adjoining shapes are varied? Have I chosen values to emphasize or diminish interest where appropriate? Have I filled the space? Are there areas of interest to stop and look at and keep the viewer interested? Do they flow together? Is there a connection between the parts of the painting? Does it have an unexpected element such as a color chord or intriguing shape? Have I already made a similar painting or is this one redundant?
Design can feel like an overwhelming topic in the beginning. Where does someone start when it comes to design?
When you are painting, thinking too much about rules can interfere with the creative process. I think most who are interested in painting know more about design than they are aware of. When you look at a painting, usually if something doesn’t work it speaks to you. (Sometimes it yells at you.) The problem is how to fix it. I suggest before tackling it, find 3 solutions and discard the first one which usually involves scrubbing it out or throwing it away. Design comes from seeing and spending time with books of the art genre that interest you. Landscape artists need to study Sargent, Turner and Winslow Homer. Shape painters need to pay attention to Milton Avery.
How do you use color in your work? Do you go in with a plan or scheme or does color evolve organically while you work through a piece?
My sense of color and experimentation has expanded over the years. Picasso and I had our Blue Periods. Lately I have been working both with dominantly black ink and with increased color - polar opposites. The ink happened because I found some beautiful old papers that were not receptive to watercolor washes. Then I had to figure out how to use it. Ink and gouache with small amounts of watercolor seemed to be the answer.
Pigments: Do you use transparent, semi-transparent or opaque paints? Why?
I use both transparent and opaque paint, sometimes adding gouache. Transparent pigments give luminance and opaques add body. I often combine both on my brush. When a painting isn’t working (this happens daily, frequently, and sometimes it happens every few strokes) I either slow down or speed up. I get scared when I don’t get stuck. If there is nothing to fix, how will I know what to do next. When I’m seriously stuck I put the piece aside and look through my ever growing stacks of “stuck” paintings. One will jump out with a solution and I will proceed. Most of these are continually in process and I finish many paintings that I began years earlier and knew that I needed to wait for the right solution. Sometimes the solution is so obvious I wonder why it had eluded me. My process is different when teaching and it pushes me to make quicker decisions. Some paintings benefit from just taking the plunge while others benefit from waiting until more experience gives you the answer.
How important, in watercolor, is it to understand your materials?
It is very important to know your materials. Paper can be your friend or enemy depending on its surface and what you want to do with it. Paper sizing varies which accounts for variations in absorbency. This is what allows scrubbing out as well as graded washes to work on some papers and prevent the same techniques from working on others. When experimenting with unfamiliar papers with unpredictable absorbency I often work with India Ink and gouache. Large flat brushes with good edges enhance my work while other artists prefer round brushes. Much trial and error is needed to find the best materials for each purpose.
What’s the biggest challenge you see with your students? What advice do you give them?
I am a fairly non-directive teacher because I think it important to develop one’s own path. Personal style comes with personal growth and evolves necessarily slowly, but with the joy of occasional breakthroughs. Many students are impatient with the process. I do think it is important to make deliberate choices of teachers. Some whose work I admire greatly would have taught me many techniques that would not be needed in the direction I wanted to go. It is also important to question everything when the answers are unsatisfying and to use mostly the information that is relevant to your journey. Author Umberto Eco, musing on the meaning of penmanship said “First you have the writing style your teachers drill into you. Then you try to imitate the prevailing style of the times. And finally you settle into a style that is your own and no one else’s.”