Two very different practice paintings

After so many weeks of painting nothing but flowers and plants, I wanted to change it up — in more ways than one. On Wednesday, when it was very hot, standing up to paint sounded better than sitting in my usual spots. I taped a piece of paper to the door of our bedroom closet, and set up my paints next to it (on top of the piano, in fact). I had an idea to do something freeform, involving a lot of color (perhaps a reaction to those red and pink roses?), but I didn’t know what. So I started at the top left of the paper, with a rectangle, and went from there. Eventually I painted four separate sections (from left to right, below): a grid of rectangles and circles, a series of connected organic teardrop/leaf shapes, some overlapping vertical lines, and finally some splotches. When I got to the splotches I did them with different paintbrushes, and then, after a moment’s consideration, also dipped my fingertips into the paint. Feeling the cool, thicker-than-water pigments on my skin had a feeling of inevitability and yet surprise, like kissing someone I’ve known for a long time, but never touched.

Free-form watercolor painting by Lisa Hsia

I always love and yet am dissatisfied with doodles like this. They’re so free, and yet I feel like they don’t look as “nice” as my more deliberate paintings, and that makes me wonder what the point is. I always tell myself I do them in order to learn the properties of watercolor, but frankly I’m not sure I ever remember anything about that, afterwards. So really I think they’re just for fun — which, I chide my killjoy inner critic, is a perfectly worthy goal! — and to remind myself, I suppose, what looseness feels like. And I do need reminding of that, after weeks and weeks of precise floral renderings. You can see that, looking at the sections of the painting from left to right: even with the intention of working loose, I started pretty organized, and only achieved something truly organic by the end.

The next day, however, I returned to the small and meticulous, with a collection of practice portraits done from magazine photos. Why not stick with the looseness of the previous painting? I don’t know. Maybe my natural creative home base just is the detailed and small-scale (this would explain my love of miniatures). Maybe I simply hate to do the same thing twice in a row. Or maybe my inner critic convinced me that fun alone was not sufficient for “real” practice. Anyway, I pulled out some saved reference photos (from mainstream magazines as well as a college alumni publication), made pencil sketches, and then painted. I did the top row first (31 minutes for the drawing, 1 hour 40 minutes for painting), then — against the warnings of my wrists — started the bottom row (26 minutes for the drawings, 1 hour 47 minutes for painting, spread over two days). By the way, this piece of paper is roughly the same size as the one for the freeform doodle.

Click to enlarge image.

A baker's dozen of tiny watercolor portraits by Lisa Hsia

There are some famous (or famous-ish) people in this picture, by the way: the poet WS Merwin, activist Mukhtar Mai, singer Irma Thomas, Oakland jam-maker Rachel Saunders of Blue Chair, and fashion designer Kate Mulleavy of Rodarte. I don’t set out to collect photos of people whose work I admire — I choose faces, expressions, poses, or figures I think would be interesting or challenging to draw — but if I happen to be a fan as well, that’s fine… although if I am a fan, it’s kind of embarrassing, because I’m not very picky about capturing exact likeness in these practice paintings!

When I showed Erik this painting, he remarked that watercolor seems to lend itself to posterization — where one can see clearly the changes in tone — and I said yes, I rather like it for these little portraits because it makes everyone look so sun-kissed, but it isn’t because of the medium. I get the posterized look from working dry-on-dry, that is, letting each layer of color dry before I apply the next one. But I can achieve more subtle color and tone changes wet-on-wet, which is what I did with the most recent rose painting. It occurs to me that I tend not to use that technique as much with portraits, and I’m not sure why that is, so that will be my next practice attempt!*

I like these little portraits, but I always get a little frustrated when I do them, because I’m just not sure how well this practice translates into drawing from life, or even from imagination. I was looking over past attempts at painting from reference photos, and there’s shockingly little improvement from the earlier ones: I think my worst ones now are way better than my worst ones then, but I don’t think the best ones are substantially better. I mean, I feel like these are three different skills, honestly — drawing from life, drawing from photos, and making stuff up. There is some overlap, of course, and the basics of watercolor technique carry through all three, but whereas drawing from life makes me better at both photo-drawing and making stuff up, I’m not convinced that drawing from reference photos helps me make things up or draw from life any better than I would without the practice. And so much of what’s good about this painting comes from the talent of the original photographers — they’re the ones who found interesting compositions, brought out the right balance of light and shadow, etc.

Well, anyway, I still think practice has to be a good thing (at least when the alternative is not-practice). But I guess I get frustrated because I have this feeling that I ought to be doing something different than this. Only I don’t know what that is, so I can’t go looking for it, and I end up doing this because it’s better to do it than to do nothing.


*Actually, it’s just dawned on me that it might be a by-product of my color-mixing habits. I’m never sure I can reproduce the same colors twice, so I tend to apply all areas of one color at once. I don’t think I can do that with wet-on-wet, unless maybe I’m using two brushes? Or perhaps I just need to get better at gauging how much water I apply at any given moment, so I’m not constantly turning colors into stronger or weaker versions of themselves. Hmmmmmm.


14 responses to “Two very different practice paintings

    • Thank you, my dear! I’ve been playing with the idea of asking friends to send me photos of themselves so I can practice with people I know (and maybe create some fun avatars?).

  1. Dear Lisa, those portraits are fantastic. I absolutely love them. You captured so nicely faces and used lovely colours. Well done! Very inspiring piece of work!

  2. Oh my lord, Lisa, these paintings are STUNNING! I can understand your feelings of dissatisfaction with more free-form pieces, but your first painting makes my soul happy, for lack of a better description. 🙂 The colors, the shapes–I love it! And WOW. Those portraits are just astounding.

    I am so impressed at your progress as an artist, and you have me soooooo longing to try watercolors. Would you recommend getting a book to learn basics or just diving right in and experimenting with the paints?

    Beautiful, beautiful work!

    • Oh thank you, Mo!!! You know, that painting makes my soul happy too. I guess it’s the part of me that’s like, “soul schmoul, what about artistic merit?” that’s dissatisfied with it. 😉 And I’m feeling much better about the little portraits these days, because I’ve realized that my practice with those has helped with painting other things — so yay. 🙂

      Hmmm, recommendations for getting started… Watercolor is both super responsive to experimentation, and very rigid about what it will and won’t do; that is to say, if you experiment in certain directions you can achieve all kinds of amazing things, but if you happen to be on a less-fruitful experimentation path, you could drive yourself up the wall trying to make something that looks good. But at least for me, I find that tons of experimentation is necessary, regardless of what kind of instruction you’re getting. ;b So I guess my answer is both! Play around a lot, but also seek out some guidance wherever it seems most useful to you: classes, books, YouTube, blogs, whatever. I think I’ve learned as much from looking at beautiful watercolor paintings as I have from books or teachers, since so much of my learning process is just discovering what the medium is capable of producing. 🙂

      • Oh, and I do have one major piece of advice: buy good paper and paints. It’s frustrating but true: student-grade papers and paints just will not yield such good results, and in some cases, actually can’t generate certain effects. I like Arches paper (loose sheets are usually the best value), but you could use anything of equivalent quality, and with paints there are lots of different brands (each with its own strengths and weaknesses — I’ve seen crazy-detailed forums devoted to, say, whose Ultramarine has the best coloration and staying power), but just get good ones, not the little random-brand sets geared at students.

        • Mmmm…thank you for all of this, Lisa–very helpful! I’ve decided to get a few basic watercoloring books at the library (as soon as I’m done with this Italian foods book and have more space in my brain for other things) and follow your advice of part instruction, part inspiration. 🙂 And thanks for the tip on buying quality stuff. At the moment, all I have are the cheap crappy kinds of both paper and paints, so those might be getting an upgrade… 😉

          • Yeah, it’s hard to take the plunge on good materials right away, especially since you’re thinking, “But I don’t know what I’m doing!” But after I compared the Arches paper to the student paper I was using, I never wanted to go back. 🙂

            I’m so behind on your blog (yours less than other people’s, to be frank) but those Italian-food photos have been teasing me. Time to check it out after I reply to your other comment. 🙂

            I can’t wait to see what you do with the watercolors!

            • Even in my few attempts at painting, I did notice that the paper was crappy–it pilled up and flaked off super easy, so I think I need to take your advice, if anything, just to make my newbie experiments less frustrating so I actually stick with it!

              P.S. I found another painting book that looks so inspiring!

              • Yeah, that’s the thing about the lower-quality supplies — they provide more frustration than insight!

                Who knew there were so many guides to botanical illustration?! Speaking of which, have I ever shown you my friend Kirsten’s work? She started out in fine art, but now does scientific illustration, and her drawings/paintings are amaaaazing.

                • I remember seeing a course series in the Chicago Botanic Garden’s catalog designed for people who wanted to learn how to do botanical illustrations. So cool!

                  And WOW, I love Kirsten’s work! The painting of the bird’s nest and geode makes me particularly happy. 🙂

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