Thursday, December 15, 2011

Watercolor Road Warriors...

In addition to my fascination with the medium of watercolor, I have always found the social dynamics of watercolorists unique and interesting. Especially, the origins of the watercolor workshop, plein air expeditions, and the energetic and creative atmosphere found in many of the workshops I have participated in and taught. I don't mean to imply that the creative and social energy in these settings is the sole property of watercolorists, but since that is where my personal experiences lie, it is all I have as a frame of reference. I sometimes read and think about what it might be like to study painting formally at a reknowned atelier with a master instructor, but following the thought eventually makes my throat tighten up and my legs jittery.

In the watercolor workshops I have been involved with, the participants seem to vacillate between moments of intense focus on the instruction, round-robin vocalizations regarding their struggles with the medium, and fortunately, numerous episodes of humorous asides. Of course, there have been exceptions, but over the years, the majority of my experiences have been fun and fulfilling.

Ed Whitney never discounted the social aspect of what he did. He was admittedly an entertainer in addition to doling out solid information and challenging his students, often in a dramatic manner. Personally, I feel that instructors who do offer a bit of the entertainer flair and are also willing to support the growth of a light-hearted group dynamic, often succeed in reducing many of the tensions and inhibitions that impede the creative process. Anyone who has taught a week-long workshop understands the challenges present amidst the fun.

In a class of twenty participants, there are twenty individual agendas and accompanying levels of anxiety. At one end we have the very serious student who expects to make every minute count, up to the point of their final critique. At the other, we have the socialite who attends primarily to have fun, and if a painting results, so be it. I find it interesting that our modern watercolor workshops accommodate both extremes with relative success most of the time (just ensure that their work stations are as far apart as possible). Advertising preferred skill levels can certainly help, but rarely have I had a homogenous group with regards to experience. I have noticed that my teacher and friend, Cheng Khee Chee, apologizes in advance to participants during the opening session should they feel short-changed from receiving the expected amount of individualized attention they hope for. Something tells me he knows that is bound to occur with at least a few persons.

While I have done my share of instruction over the years, I consider myself unqualified as a road warrior. Being an academic and somewhat of a homebody, the majority of my experiences have taken place within the luxurious confines of the Cheap Joe's teaching facility, with every painting supply imaginable ten feet away in the adjoining retail space. Most of us are very familiar with the first generation of Whitney followers and the instructors that followed in his footsteps: Webb, Nechis, Rudman, Lawrence, Van Hasselt, and many others, all paving further pathways for us to travel down with their workshops, books, and demos. I do vicariously enjoy the stories of travel via friends like Sterling Edwards, whose continental drifts into Canada and workshopping schedule has at times made my head spin. No one has more successfully chronicled the life of the traveling instructor like Don Andrews, in his enjoyable and humorous book, Rough Sketches. I also enjoy following the travels of Facebook friends like Nicholas Simmons and Mark Mehaffy as they gain recognition globally, push the boundaries of watercolor, and build relationships and followings in places like Nanjing, China, and beyond.

I think about all of these current dynamics in contrast to the early years of O'Hara's Goose Rocks school on the incredible coast of Maine. Based on O'Hara's books, instruction was clearly more formalized then and included numerous time-consuming color drills and brush handling practice sessions (64 of them actually!). I cringe to think of the reaction of most participants today should such instructional methods infringe upon their workshops. Yet, in the thoughtful, methodical, and technical approach to teaching watercolor that was Elliot O'Hara, nothing at that time could seem more valid or helpful to a budding artist's development. What if we could return to that point, slow down, lower our expectations and actually do several days of color and brush drills? We would all likely need to be medicated, but some small part of that approach is still appealing to me.

I also imagine the intensity with which Ed Whitney studied the work of O'Hara and countless others during his own artistic development. A few years back, Whitney's personal O'Hara book was on the rare book market, complete with scribbled side-notes on almost all of the pages. I am interested but clueless as to where it may have ended up. Then, there proceeded the long string of years where Ed Whitney taught at Pratt, followed by hundreds of workshops and thousands of miles all over the country. He traveled and taught through declining health well into his eighties. In Ron Ranson's book Watercolor the Ed Whitney Way, we clearly see the impact he had upon the great watercolorists and instructors of the following era. But, think also of the countless others over a fifty-year career that participated in some form of the Ed Whitney watercolor energy, focusing on "the most beautiful thing that exists, light."

I don't think it is a major stretch to think that his efforts (and their domino effect) provided significant fuel to a movement that has resulted in a global community of passionate watercolor painters. Of course, there were many other instructors out there crusading in the Whitney era, and he would likely be the first to call them out as equal contributors. However, I do think that his laser-focused passion for watercolor and teaching his design tools and rules during this period would be hard to trump. An interesting question now that we are all globally connected might be: "Who were the Ukrainian, Chinese, Thai, Malaysian, South American, Indian, (and other) Ed Whitneys?" Clearly, from the excellent watercolors posted on a daily basis all over the world, others like Whitney were hard at work proselytizing the medium in other countries. It would be great to someday read about them as well.

We focus on making art, capturing the essence of the subject, learning techniques, demonstrating and teaching. Open to the back of any one of your art magazines and for a few minutes, focus only on the workshops offered. Think of the countless hosts, the travel, the facilities, the logistics, the seasoned instructors and the thousands of diverse participants. One of my favorite professors in graduate school, Dr. Jack Mulgrew, taught Gestalt therapy and reminded our class: "Every group that comes together for a distinct period of time has a beginning and an end, a life and a death. Upon departure, that specific and unique energy will never exist again." I always think of that every time I do a final critique, and folks begin to pack up their ArtBin Totes for the Friday afternoon journey back from whence they came. It is quite a legacy to be a tiny part of.

(1966 Whitney Station-wagon photo and 1969 Newspaper Ad courtesy of Naomi Brotherton)

Monday, November 7, 2011

Tribute to Dr. Faber McMullen, an Ed Whitney student and watercolor benefactor...

It came to my attention today that Dr. Faber McMullen, a past contributor to this blog and Baylor University benefactor had passed away in a tragic farm accident not long after the dedication of the Faculty Center and Art Museum that bears his name. I corresponded with Dr. McMullen, a former Ed Whitney student, regarding his experiences with Whitney and the dedication of the Baylor University McMullen-Connelly Faculty Center which housed Dr. McMullen's extensive collection of original watercolors including many Ed Whitney pieces.

(Dr. Faber McMullen and his wife Roxanna Connally McMullen, 2008)

A memorial article about Dr. McMullen can be found here.

The previous blog post on this site regarding Dr. McMullen can be found here.

Though highly successful in the medical field and in many other endeavors, Dr. McMullen held his experience as a student of Ed Whitney in the highest regard. His contribution to watercolorists via the Baylor University Faculty Center / Art Museum is one of grand scale, and one by which he will long be remembered.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Still alive and well...

(above: Booming Surf, Edgar A. Whitney) This blog title stems from a song by veteran blues-rocker Johnny Winter. Johnny performed recently in Asheville, NC, but after many hard years on the road does so sitting down now. Though Johnny has gone through some hard times and many changes, he still maintains an intense passion for his art, playing blues and rock and roll. Several folks have inquired about the status of the Whitney blog which has been inactive for too long. In relation to the blog, I suppose a better title could be Still Alive...But Changing. I have allowed the effort to falter due to number of personal demands over the past year that I won't go in to, but also felt the need to re-evaluate the current and future approach to the site.

(Ed's Palette 1966) While I disagree that the blog role in social media is dead as some claim these days, it has a different role than it did a few years back. From my Facebook window I can view and comment on fresh off the board watercolors posted by friends in Malaysia, India, China, Macedonia and Seattle. Facebook has certainly confirmed for me that watercolor as a medium has never been more alive and vibrant. Social media then is primary, but filters participants (who want more on a topic) down to a blog. So, in a sense, the blog has become the root folder in technological terms. When combined with the conduits of Facebook and Twitter, a blog still offers great possibilities to expose watermedia painters worldwide to the importance of Whitney as a teacher and watercolor icon.

But, in my view, it is now time for this blog to go beyond collecting memorabilia from the Whitney era and reflections on his colorful teaching career. We must also move toward developing the site as an Ed Whitney focused instructional resource for watercolorists of all levels. Allowing those new to Whitney teachings the ability to see his many quotes and maxims in action and demonstrated via wonderful watercolors from around the world is one of the ways I envision this occurring.

We also shouldn't forget that there are still many former Whitney students, now instructors, out there in action still turning watercolor newcomers on to Whitney philosophy and design principles. A good friend taking up watercolor recently sat in on a Frank Webb workshop and afterwards came up to me gushing over this amazing painter and watercolor teacher that he was just exposed to. Thanks to Frank for helping me get this effort to this point, and for continuing to promote Ed's teachings as vividly as ever!

I don't plan for instructional posts to completely replace the original purposes stated for this blog. With help from others, I will continue to track down and post as much information about Whitney the artist, the character, and one of the founding fathers of the watercolor workshop as possible. I also don't perceive that this will evolve in to a major w/c teaching site. There are hundreds of great demos and teaching clips posted daily. In fact, there is so much instruction at our disposal that I sometimes fear it eclipses the very act of simply painting, and, painting simply.

My vision for moving to an instructional realm will also be simple and I have recruited a few new friends to help out on this front. This is likely to be a slow evolution, as I find that I have no more hours to work with today than I have had over the past year. All I can say is that with a little help, I am excited about getting the blog re-established and continuing to promote Ed Whitney's ideas and principles. His message and specific teachings are as relevant today as during his era, perhaps more so. I'm not sure how you feel, but I find it increasingly challenging to cut through the chaff to find wheat in almost every respect these days. In my view, there is still no better resource than The Complete Guide To Watercolor Painting. I find it to be all wheat. Cheers!

Thanks once again to our wonderful Naomi Brotherton (Texan Ed Whitney student and historian) for the photos of Ed's dirty water palette, and him at the punchbowl, circa1966

Whitney Demo on the Rocks, Kennebunkport 1979

Whitney Demo on the Rocks, Kennebunkport 1979
photo courtesy Shirley Langraf