Day Five of the White House Painting: Georges Simenon and an Experiment Concluded


A man walking. One man, on a stretch of road three miles long cut slantwise every ten yards by the shadow of a tree trunk, striding unhurriedly from one shadow to the next.
– Opening Description from The Widow by Georges Simenon

As I dragged the shadows across the road–the last major step in finishing this painting last night–I was reminded of the opening description from Georges Simenon’s novel, The Widow. Simenon had an interesting approach to writing. He would start with little more than character studies. His idea was that if you take three people with their own motivations and force them into a situation together the novel will write itself. For him this turned out well. He wrote each novel in about twelve days, some of which were spent cutting out anything literary sounding so he would have a sharp efficient style. In watercolor things are a little different. There is only so much editing that can be done before the paper is ruined, and paint can’t be lifted as easily as words can be deleted. I learned this the hard way when I had to crop out a few inches on the right because my failed scraping attempt damaged the paper too much for me to fix that part of the composition.

This was the first watercolor of this size (12×18) that I have attempted, and working large is a very different experience than working small. It wasn’t just the size of the paper, but the size of the apparent focal object, the house, in the composition. It was too big to be loose with, and I was afraid mistakes in layout at this size would be magnified. I was intimidated by this and a few other aspects of the painting, particularly the foliage masses. When I realized that the focal point wasn’t the house, but the shadows on the house, and I could look at things as shapes rather than objects, I became more comfortable.

I learned a lot from this painting about planning even when trying to be loose. I am reminded of the Oulipo writers who wrote very inventive books while setting strict rules for themselves. I might like to take this idea into a new painting. I know now for my plan for subsequent paintings like this that there are a few techniques I would use that I didn’t use or use as well as I could have this time. For example, I applied masking fluid up front, but not after initial washes were laid down. This could have allowed more compelling value variation and pop in the foliage, which might have helped bring it forward more and frame the house better. I think there isn’t enough sense of space in the foliage. It seems a little fuzzy and distant to my eye now, though that might have something to do with another discovery: the Mister Clean Magic Eraser is as great for removing paint from watercolor paper as it is at removing my kids’ errant crayon marks from walls. I went too dark with the sky, and the Magic Eraser helped remove a lot to lighten It. It’s not so crisp, but I see how to get a better sky into a painting like this next time.

I am happy to be done with this and encouraged by both the results and what I learned. It occurred to me as I wrote this post that I didn’t closely study any of Hopper’s Gloucester paintings in preparation, despite the immediate New England connection drawn at the outset. I think I might turn there next.

Thanks for reading.

Day Four of the White House Painting: Can Winslow Homer Help?

A few things were bothering me about this painting after last night, so before working on it again tonight, I spent some time after work rethinking my approach to the trees given the way things were turning out. I looked more closely at Winslow Homer’s Adirondack watercolors, which have a lot of large foliage masses in the background. He varies his foliage colors a lot, even when they’re generally in loosely defined shapes. This helped me get comfortable with moving forward based on what I had in place. I looked again at my reference photo and my painting, and I realized what had been troubling me. My painting was looking a little radioactive, so I decided to tone it down. In the trees I did this by darkening with a bias towards browns, reds and warmer greens to work with the cooler greens I had in place.

I have maybe two sessions left on this. I need to decide on the tree on the right (I tried to make it a forsythia bush, and darken the right side behind it, but it wasn’t working out tonight with the paints I was using–I will have to pull out my cadmium yellow I think), finish off the other trees, lay in the final shadows, and see what needs to be done when I remove the mask. I also want to try sanding to bring out some light in the background foliage because I have never done that before. This has been a very instructive effort so far.

Thanks for following along.


Day Three of the White House Painting

Tonight I tried to move this painting forward, get some more foliage background in, and start putting in the big tree and some shadows and roof washes. I also wanted to put in a few of the darkest spots as a test to establish the darkest values in contrast with the white of the house. It’s been good to see some depth entering the painting.

Unfortunately, something went wrong with the tree on the right. I tried to scrape out the trunks and branches, and instead of light as I expected, all the scraped lines turned dark. I have tried this before and it never seems to work out for me. I am not sure how to fix this. Maybe I will have to turn it into a different kind of tree. I also tried to salt more of the trees, but the salt didn’t take everywhere I wanted it to.

I will leave it for now so I don’t overdo it. I have a few decisions to make, and it’s too late at night to make them now.

Thanks for reading.