Ask the Expert…Iain Stewart

Question: What are the daily practices you incorporate to make you a better artist?

Answer:

This is typically one of the first questions asked in all of my workshops.
13Regulier
13Regulier 6” x 6” a quick watercolor done on Stillman & Birn (noted as SB from now on) Beta paper with Daniel Smith paints.

For one, I don’t like to describe myself as an artist, I am a watercolor painter and believe that if others choose to use that particular label when describing my work then they are welcome to do so. That is not a title I bestow upon myself. I do know what I do to become a better painter, and within that process begin to look at the world with an artist’s eye, which I think is the more important distinction of the two.

spain15
Barcelona,Spain. A typical sketchbook double page in my SB Alpha series sketchbook.
So how do I become a better painter?
This is the question that I am driving at and have been giving thought to for years. My belief is that my painting is grounded heavily in my sketchbook work, and in particular, my drawing habits. At times, the simplest of solutions provide the most promising results and drawing and painting from life, with regularity, is my one and only rule of thumb. Before heading off to read about the latest “world’s worst tattoos” on buzzfeed or other such gripping subjects please hear me out. You can be a workshop junky, self taught, or just starting your journey to put your thoughts and dreams on paper or canvas, but this one habit will deliver results from the start and which will only become more pronounced the more you practice them. Let’s also dispel the entire ideology of 10,000 hours of practice make you a master in your field of study. It’s 10,000 hours of the right kind of practice. You could easily waste 9,999 of those hours on habits that point you in the wrong direction.
2013DowntownLA- a plein air piece I did while painting with my friends Tom Schaller and William Hook down by the LA river. Very gritty, dirty, big machines, loud noises. All the things I love.
2013DowntownLA- a plein air piece I did while painting with my friends Tom Schaller and William Hook down by the LA river. Very gritty, dirty, big machines, loud noises. All the things I love.
A favorite book of mine on drawing that my friend Richard Scott recently wrote is Sketching from Square One to Trafalgar Square and I recommend it to all of my students. With the lessons in hand from this book, and the will to better your drawing skills, you will certainly improve. I also offer the following advice. Do not skip a step from lesson one on. Square one is not a metaphor. The big ideas are realized through the understanding that drawing is mainly an understanding of shapes and relationships. By breaking down seemingly complex scenes in to their basic forms before you start to think of detail you will begin the important steps in understanding how to teach yourself and start to feel the great freedom from the want of an instructor standing at your side. Most importantly you will begin to learn how to critique your own work.

So what is daily drawing?

Instanbul Rooftops Another sketchbook page in the SB. Our view from the rooftop of our hotel toward the Bosphorus in Istanbul.
Instanbul Rooftops.  Another sketchbook page in the SB. Our view from the rooftop of our hotel toward the Bosphorus in Istanbul.

Simply put it is the practice of observation and recording your surroundings on a daily basis. In a deeper sense it is you beginning to train yourself to “see” the heart of your subject and how to ignore all of the unimportant elements within the view that steal its purity and those that lend power to the composition. It teaches editing, organization, composition, and will power. It is not an easy task to fail at something you want desperately to do well, but fail you must, if you are going to get better. All of my successes are built upon failures and the solutions to them more than any decent painting I have ever done. Good paintings do not teach. They are like drinking buddies they just slap you on the back and say “atta boy.” A failed attempt makes you look inside yourself for where you went wrong and why. It hurts and you remember the sting. You begin to find ways to avoid that by beginning again and taking a different route or you give up. For me giving up is not an option and neither should it be for you. Another piece of advice I would give to those starting out is do not look at other artists work and remember, at some point, they were just where you are. It may have been at a younger age, it may have been a quicker and seemingly easier accent to where they find themselves now, but I can guarantee that everyone of them has struggled with the same things you find yourself struggling with now. As a friend of mine, David Rankin, said so eloquently. “Everyone has a great painting in their mind. They just lack the technical proficiency to put those ideas on paper.”

So far we’re off to a very light hearted article.
13Westvillagenyc another typical sketchbook page done on the street. I love painting in New York. No one cares. They just walk on by.
13West Village, NYC,  another typical sketchbook page done on the street. I love painting in New York. No one cares. They just walk on by.

Let’s look at the plus side of things for a moment. If I were to win the lottery tomorrow you would not see me for a very long time. That is not to say I would not be working. I would just be doing so in a way that pleases me for my own sake and as I traveled from place to place I would have my sketchbook, paints, and family with me. The practice of recording my surroundings is no longer something I can physically choose to do or not. I am a junky. I live for sketching and painting in different locations and the joy that brings. How so you say? I began keeping a sketchbook in earnest when I was an architecture student and have kept up with that on and off for the last 26 years. In the last 5 or so I have redoubled that effort and record and sketch everywhere I go. That record and practice in your life will become incredibly precious to you. As my wife will attest, when I am in a new place I get twitchy and uncomfortable until I am able to get out and begin working. I often rise quite early and to sketch on location and bring back coffee and breakfast long before the real day has started. I also tend to go to bed early when on vacation so that I can repeat that process. To be completely honest you have to understand that this way of living is in many respects selfish behavior. I carve my day up in to the parts that are mine (sketching and painting) and those that I will spend with my wife sightseeing and taking pictures. It’s a good sort of selfishness though in the same way exercise is “you time” sketching is my time and I can become quite petulant without enough of it. I might add that it takes an understanding partner and I’ve put that one to the test more than a few times to her credit.

bistratmazarin
Bistratmazarin. A little challenge sketch my wife gave me. She asked what can I draw in the time it takes her to drink a glass of sparkling white wine in Paris on a hot June day. One of my favorite sketches as it’s so loose and free- only the necessary information. A good bit of editing and all done in 7 minutes.

I have 3 rules regarding the use of a sketchbook. Number one- never tear a page out of it regardless of how well you think your efforts were rewarded. Number Two- review rule one and apply it again. Rule Three- review both rules one and two and don’t disappoint me. The beauty of a sketchbook is in it’s importance to its owner and the record of your journey. As a favorite writer of mine, P.G. Wodehouse, puts it “you must learn to take a few smooths with the rough.” The other, more important aspect, is a sketch need not have any other aspirations than itself no matter it’s worth to yourself or others. If you apply the three rules it cannot be framed, be rejected or accepted to an exhibition, and your sketchbook survives to be a place of refuge for your innermost thoughts and ideas.  In short a sketch can not become precious or something more than itself. A page in a sketchbook.

Bluemosque a quick sketch done from a rooftop bar in Istanbul. Whenever I get the chance to have a cold beer on a hot day and sketch in the shade I take it.
Blue Mosque, a quick sketch done from a rooftop bar in Istanbul. Whenever I get the chance to have a cold beer on a hot day and sketch in the shade I take it.

Maybe it’s a good one maybe not. You also get to choose to whom and what pages you share. If you don’t want anyone to see then simply don’t show them. I find that the most intimate qualities of artists that I admire are so clearly defined in their sketchbooks and they fascinate me. I can see the glimmers of ideas and how they become more solid and mature leading up to the finished pieces we all see on display in exhibitions and shows. There is a truthfulness to a sketch that is rarely seen in studio work. The little mistakes, the construction lines, the notation. All of these combine to create the first attempts to bring a vision to life and they are so very wonderful to observe.

14PierreLoti2 A studio piece done from a photograph- The study is lost to the netherworld of my studio but survives there somewhere. This received 2nd Place in last years Mississippi Grand National Exhibition.
14PierreLoti2.  A studio piece done from a photograph- The study is lost to the netherworld of my studio but survives there somewhere. This received 2nd Place in last years Mississippi Grand National Exhibition.
15Venasquedwg a little study sketch done prior to a larger watercolor. I do these value studies with all my paintings.
15Venasquedwg,  a little study sketch done prior to a larger watercolor. I do these value studies with all my paintings.

My goal as a painter is to  bring the immediacy and vibrancy of the sketchbook in to my studio work. It is an ongoing struggle and one that I am determined to see through to the end. I take energy and joy from the act of drawing and that is transferred to the painting. A good drawing can carry a poor painting and the opposite is never the case.

Naval Arch Brooklyn A sketchbook painting done right after I saw the Sargent Exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum. The essence of what I try and achieve in my painting. Editing down to it’s bare bones, simplifying shape, suggested detail, et al.
Naval Arch Brooklyn, a sketchbook painting done right after I saw the Sargent Exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum. The essence of what I try and achieve in my painting. Editing down to it’s bare bones, simplifying shape, suggested detail, et al.

To sum up my goals in writing this I dearly want you to understand that there are many other factors that will improve your painting and there are plenty of books and DVDs out there that will indeed introduce you to different techniques. Workshops and hearing differing points of view are also extremely useful. Allow me to most shamelessly promote my own DVDs and workshops here as well. I have taught and traveled extensively over the last few years and I have seen students struggle or be intimidated by what they perceive their skill level will be put up against the rest of the group. I always say a workshop is not the place where masterpieces will be done. They are the first step in a long journey of understanding the ideas and techniques presented by the instructor. I ask that they free themselves of this worry and embrace the void. We are all here for the same reason. To learn and enjoy ourselves, and by doing so, create without fear of failure. If you are going fail do so spectacularly. Never go down with a whimper. Embrace those failures, learn to love them, and they will serve you better than any lesson I can give.

Draw. The tools are simple to find and easily transportable. I carry a Stillman & Birn Alpha Series sketchbook, a Palomino Blackwing pencil, a sharpener, and little else. If I am painting in the sketchbook I carry a small travel palette and my Escoda travel brushes. There are few pleasures greater to me in life than that moment when I press pause on my day and begin a drawing on a new street or in the landscape. Everything slows down, I can hear ambient sounds, I take time to notice the light and shadow, the people, the tourists, the place, the smells. When I review my work I remember all of those things so much clearer than any photograph can replicate.
In the words of a dear mentor of mine, the late Samuel Mockbee, “Proceed and be Bold.”

Iain Stewart is an award winning watercolorist and a signature member of the American Watercolor Society and the National Watercolor Society.

Selected Awards, Exhibitions, and Publications.

  • In to the Quarter, New Orleans- 3rd Place overall. International Watercolor Society 2012
  • From Pierre Loti Hill, Istanbul- 2nd Place Mississippi Grand National Exhibition 2015
  • The Chestnut Vendor, Istanbul- Dorothy Brown Award 2014 National Watercolor Society Members Exhibition.
  • From Thurlow Dam Tallassee, Alabama- The Cheap Joe’s Purchase Award 2012 National Watercolor Society International Exhibition
  • Apse End Notre Dame- selected for inclusion in the First NWS / China small works Exchange 2015.
  • Works selected for the Shanghai Zhujiajiao International Watercolour Biennial Exhibition in 2012 and 2015
  • Splash 15 and 16
  • The Art of Watercolour- Feature article Issue No.10 “Art in Constant Evolution” Watercolor Artist March 2012- Feature Article and Cover Artwork
    Pratique des Arts- feature 2011
    3 DVD Instructional Set- Northlight books.
    Masters of Watercolor No.2- by Konstantin Sterkoff

Iain maintains a studio in Opelika, Alabama, and in addition to being a sought after workshop instructor and juror, is an Architectural Illustrator with an international clientele, and an adjunct professor at the Auburn University School of Architecture.

Find out more by visiting his website, www.stewartwatercolors.com

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4 thoughts on “Ask the Expert…Iain Stewart

  1. Pingback: Drawing: Still Life with Egg Cup & Egg Shells

  2. This was an awesome tutorial on how to behave as a painter! I plan to exercise Iain’s suggestions (and get Richard Scott’s book as well) effective immediately and in earnest preparation for an autumn trip to France. Thank you for sharing!

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