The newest addition to our family was born in fall 2017. I was sent a picture of the little bundle on his birthday. It gave me pause. Such a look of wonderment and innocence was captured in his expression! I did a detailed pencil sketch, recomposing the picture and enhancing the shadows. I planned to later render the image as an oil painting. Never would I dare to recreate the subtle facial tones of that expression in the hard-to-control and unforgiving medium of watercolor.
Thanksgiving in Seattle. Taking the grandkids out on a jaunt using public transit, which they consider a real adventure, I noticed an ad on the side of the bus announcing an Andrew Wyeth exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum. It was a touring exhibit of the bulk of his body of work in recognition of the 100th anniversary of his birth date. I was excited and determined to see the exhibit during my stay.
I was familiar with his work: the famous Christina’s World and the provocative Helga series of paintings. His work has a haunting, stark realism that leaves the viewer feeling disturbed and unsure of what once may have been beyond doubt.
My enthrallment with Andrew Wyeth was enhanced by the fact that his father, N.C. Wyeth, was the No. 1 American illustrator for many years in the early 20th century. His paintings of scenes and characters from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and the stories of Robin Hood and King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table are presented in an epic fashion with dramatic lighting. Very effective. To think that in one family, father and son would achieve national renown as artists ― and each with such different styles, mediums, and subject matter!
Before I viewed the Andrew Wyeth exhibit, I did a little research. I had always been impressed with how he achieved the texture in his paintings. If you view one of his paintings you’ll understand what I mean. His images have a tight, grainy aspect to them.
In reviewing these images closely during my research, I came to the startling realization that many were done in watercolor! I was astounded. Think of watercolor and one thinks of diffuse and loose imagery and the bleeding effects of wet-on-wet application. One does not think of fine detail such as achieved with pen-and-ink or sharp colored pencil.
I discovered that the technique he used was drybrush watercolor. He brought this technique to such a high level of effectiveness that his name became synonymous with the technique itself.
Now here is the irony: I have always been somewhat frustrated with my watercolor because I could not seem to ever master the traditional wet-on-wet bleeding technique that lends itself to that medium. To be able to put down a quick, one-shot wash of color is a skill I have not mastered.
So I found myself avoiding wetting the paper and applying the colors on dry paper with a barely moist brush in a method that I referred to as “dry brush.” Once again, being self-taught, I had to stumble upon and discover for myself a technique that was widely known in the art world.
But now I was inspired. I had just discovered that a technique that I had used to compensate for a lack of skill was an accepted and commonly used technique by renowned artists.
I always travel with my watercolor kit, and I had with me the pencil sketch I had done of our newborn grandson. So I decided to render it in watercolor, not oil, right then and there. Which is what I did, and I am pretty satisfied with the results. Except that the only honest art critic I can turn to, my wife, has determined that there is no innocence in the expression. She’s right, of course. Maybe next time.
(Editor’s note: Leroy LeFlore is a member of the nonprofit Galveston Art League, which has galleries in Texas City and Galveston. LeFlore, who paints in oil and watercolor, won Best of Show in the Art League’s Winter 2018 juried competition in Galveston for his watercolor Pelicans on Parade. Below he shares his epiphany about painting with watercolors.)