Back Pain

Today (meaning yesterday – I write my posts the day before and post schedule for 12 midnight) we drove to Burbank.  It is a 5 – 6 hour drive, but a straight shot down Interstate 5 (called ‘The 5′ by locals).

In anticipation of this occasion, I painted my rendition of back pain. Actually, I did have a back ache the other day. Joy told me that I overdid my exercising, but I don’t agree. The drive is what did it today.

At any rate, this is a visual rendition of how my back pain feels to me:

Watercolor: Abstract - painting a feeling: Back Pain

Back Pain
9″x12″ 140# Cold Pressed Watercolor Block


It is hard to draw a feeling, so I thought about this a lot. I think the discontinuity between the block of cobalt blue and the Winsor red, pointed out by the yellow arrow (should anyone miss the obvious) is a literal and metaphorical description of how my back felt. Literally, I think the pain in my back is due to the muscles straining to keep my vertebrates aligned. The metaphor requires another element:   the Van Dyke brown, upon which the blue and red body parts are seated. The curve of the red area of paint juxtaposed with the flat, unyielding brown surface. So the metaphor would be, “my pain is the space between the red and brown.”

Ok, not the usual metaphor. I’ll have to think about this a bit – later. Now, I need a tylenol.


Today’s watercolor experiment:

I had several different ideas for today’s study.  Perhaps ‘false starts’ would be a better way to characterize the beginning of this composition.

First idea:

Upon close inspection of some of the ‘christmas trees’ in yesterday’s post, I was struck by the vermilion-inked razor cuts surrounded by the peacock blue that represented the tree branches.

The red and blue combination prompted the thought of arteries and veins. I looked at the back of my hand and thought that it would be the perfect background for an artery and vein study.

I traced an outline of my hand (palm down), drew in some details and carved others with my razor. I inked the cuts with vermilion.

Second idea:

While I thinking of what to do next, I put on the movie Kwaidan, just to have something on in the background. For future reference, when working on a painting, it is probably not the best idea to have a subtitled movie in the background.  But the movie gave me idea number two. Actually, the idea came from the opening title sequence.

The Japanese characters announced the credits on the white background, which must have been a view through a tank of water. Black ink or pigment fell from the top of the screen. The dispersions became upside down mushroom clouds, swirls and smoke. I wanted to replicate this on my paper.

I soaked the paper and dropped in my most recent favorite color, peacock blue. I tilted the paper to a nearly vertical position. The color dripped as I hoped it would, but it was nothing like ink in water.

Even though I didn’t get the effect I wanted, the juxtaposition of the blue streaks and the hand seemed to work. Unfortunately, most of the texture seen on the wet paper evaporated when it dried.

Third idea:

Actually the third ‘idea’ was a series of reactions to what I had just put on the paper. I began to paint my flesh color formula (cadmium red deep, yellow ochre and lots of titanium white) on my hand outline. Painting this pigment in the region where the blue wash and the outline of my hand intersect gave the impression that the hand is behind a veil.

Since quinacridone purple seems to play well together with peacock blue, I dabbed it into the regions next to and overlapping some of the blue areas (on the re-wet paper).

Finally, I introduced cadmium yellow pale. This pigment coaxed a green tint from the underlying blue and an orange tint from the underlying quinacridone purple. (Note: the fact that the quinacridone purple mixed with the yellow resulted in an orange hue indicates that the former pigment is more toward the red side of the spectrum than purple.)

Watercolor: Abstract - Hand outline with peacock blue, quinacridone purple and cadmium yellow pale

9″x12″ 140# Cold Pressed Watercolor Block


I like the fact that I was able to combine several different ideas in one study. They seem to hold together. The hand and the splotches of blue interact well. The hand symbolizes several things to me: the earliest means of painting – finger painting; the hand as protector (a shield from the paint); it is also a bit of a self portrait – my hand bit.

I think this study needs a bit more work, however. It seems, on the average, too much on the pink side. Perhaps it needs to be balanced by more dark values.

I do like the anomalous blue dot on the back of the hand.

Bass Habitat

Today’s watercolor experiment:

Surface preparation:

I used my straight razor today. Not on my face, on my watercolor paper. I used the paper as a strop, dragging it back and forth with the sharp end dragging. There was no chance of cutting the surface if I did it right. I did cut the paper with shallow strokes of my double edged razor.

With the vermilion ink at my disposal, I found some of the razor cuts and quilled them in. I also penned in a surface design in low center with a fine nib.

First painting:

I quickly washed the top half of the paper with Winsor red and the bottom with yellow ochre. I kept the two pigments separate. I squeegeed the excess paint and just left the red and yellow stains.


After drying, I soaked the paper with Winsor red and got my scrapes in, most of them left-to-right, upward diagonal strokes.  Although the red glaze was uniform across the whole surface, the underlying yellow tint at the bottom gave the appearance of a graded wash.

During the drying time I experimented with different pigments. I liked the way the quinacridone purple interacted with the background red. I tried to keep it away from the yellow, to avoid a muddy color. I spattered some cadmium yellow pale as well as clear water on the paper in an attempt to get some interesting blooms.

The most interesting effect:

I don’t use Peacock (phthalo) blue that much, but I tried it today. It seemed to work very well not only in the red area but also in the yellow.

Bass habitat?

I drew the Peacock blue brush along the lines that I etched in with my razor. The blooms that I was hoping for with my spattering of the yellow and the water happened here. As I drew my brush across the indented line, the blue spread out. I regulated the speed to give a triangular, spider webby shape.  The first one reminded me of a christmas tree. I did another and another, just like they do at the lake to make a habitat for the bass.

Watercolor: Abstract - reds, yellow ochre and phthalo blue

Bass Habitat
9″x12″ 140# Cold Pressed Watercolor Block


I tried a variety of surface modifying techniques, mainly with flat edges and sharp edges.  Jules, one of my twitter friends, suggested the idea of painting on sandpaper. Intriguing idea that I will have to try (with brushes I don’t need). I might also try using sandpaper to sand the watercolor paper.

All this is fine, but it is just technique.  The question is: What do I want to express with my painting?  I could be literal, for example, and roughen up the surface to express my ‘rough day’. I could link a texture with a pigment (i.e., rough equals red). But this is painting, not sculpture… Hmmm… I suppose it could be both, depending on what I want to express.

I haven’t come close to exhausting the limits of the watercolor medium. Perhaps my foray into surface manipulation is just a distraction. I should get back to basics.

Abstract with Scrapes

Today’s watercolor experiment:

Stage 1:

I like the way yellow disperses over the paper. I started today’s study with a lemon yellow wash, followed by an application of several greens in the center of the paper with one of my wide brushes. Prussian blue graces the right edge and top of the frame. As an intermediary between the yellow and the green fields, I installed the beginnings of a mote of Winsor red. By doing this, I was hoping to set up contrasting looks between the harmonious matching of the yellow and red edges and the jarring look at the red-green interface.

Finally, I squeezed some paint out of the tubes onto the dried surface: chromium green, turquoise, and indanthrone blue. I planned to manipulate them in the next step.

Watercolor: Abstract - yellow and red on left side replaced by green on right.... blobs of dark blue, turquoise and green

Abstract 102714 Stage 1

Stage 2:

I am still learning about how to introduce texture into my watercolor studies by manipulating the physical substrate. After I soaked the paper again after Stage 1, I used my razor blade to move pigment and scrape the surface of the paper. I moved most of the paint around with a wide brush; the razor blade acted mostly as a squeegee only. However, if a window washer were to use a squeegee like this, your window would have that scrapy, frosty look.

Watercolor: Abstract - yellow and red on left side replaced by green on right.... scraped paper; smeared blobs of dark blue, turquoise and green

Abstract 102714 Stage 2

Final stage:

I painted over the Winsor red to make it stand out, and took a step back to see if it led me in any particular direction. Probably like most people, I tend to anthropomorphize. At the bottom center, the series of vertical scrapes reminded me of a clenched hand.  I tried to replicate them a little bit higher in the composition.  After the composition dried, I painted them a flesh color. I couldn’t visualize them as hands attached to a body, but together, they appear to be carrying something…

Watercolor: Abstract - yellow and red on left side replaced by green on right.... painted scraped paper; smeared blobs of dark blue, turquoise and green

Abstract 102714
9″x12″ 140# Cold Pressed Watercolor Block

Terra Verte and the Earth Tone Sunset

Today’s watercolor experiment:

I have always wanted to pay more attention to the Terre Verte pigment. Thus far I have found it to be…. um… to put it kindly…. anemic. No matter how much Terre Verte I put on my brush, it seemed to disappear as soon as I applied it to the paper.  Today would be different. I had a whole tube of it at my disposal.

I applied it directly to my 3 inch brush this time. Again, I stroked and stroked it on, and it looked like a grainy, greenish, ghostly shadow.

Bright idea:

I allayed my disappointment with the promise of an idea that occurred to me. Since I was using a rough paper, I thought, “What if I could spackle what little pigment there was into the valleys of the texture?”  That’s what I did. I started by dis-assembling my razor. I used the double-edged razor on its own (with no safety net), to scrape the pigment off the paper, while wedging the pigment into the cracks.  It seemed to work, but I needed something wider. My straight razor was also too narrow. Finally, I used the edge of one of my drafting triangles for the task.

The end result of this phase of my experiment was an outline of a landscape at the bottom quarter of the paper, terraced by the short strokes of the safety razor. The remainder was a pale greenish color.

After all this I’m still not sure how to use Terra Verte. Is it supposed to be mixed with other tints? Does it require layer upon layer? I guess I need to do more work with it to find out.

The rest of the painting:

Since I already had a head start on a landscape study, I figured I would finish the job. The area above the horizon was such a light green that it would not be a problem to paint over it. I have been using earth tones lately (Earth Tone Abstract, Close Shave, On Target), so I decided to use them for the finale. My contrary nature also took delight with the prospect of painting a sky with earth tones.

Watercolor: Abstract - Sunset colors using earth tones; foreground Van Dyke Brown/Yellow Ochre

Earthtone Sunset
9″x12″ 140# Rough Watercolor Block


The colors I used for the sky, from bottom to top were: burnt sienna, quinacridone orange, and gamboge. I squeezed out the gamboge directly on the paper and spread it around a bit with the razor before using my brush.

I overpainted the green at the bottom with Van Dyke brown and yellow ochre, leaving only the horizon line and the top of the closer hills the concentrated color of Terra Verte.

One of the unintended results of the spackling at the beginning of this study was to flatten out the peaks of the texture, thereby emphasizing the roughness. It was surprising that the color at the peaks rather than the valley’s of the rough surface contributed to the overall look of the painting.

I am not sure if this piece is finished yet. I might try adding more Terra Verte to see if it has anything else to contribute to this study. Or any future studies.

On Target

Today’s watercolor experiment:

I like texture. The other day I added texture by mechanical means: my safety razor. I thought I could give my rough-textured paper a clean shave, but the edge just kept skipping around, creating parallel gouges.

Today I started my study using a dry brush. I’m back to my old habit of arced brush strokes. Prussian and cobalt blue were adjacent to each other on my palette, in reach of the wide brush. I drew my double-loaded brush in a partial semi circle until the pigments ran out. The roughness of the paper made remaining pigment sparse, accentuating its texture.

Watercolor: Abstract - earth tones and red triplet of arrow

On Target
9″x12″ 140# Rough Watercolor Block

The first, double colored stroke was not color saturated – the upper half less so than the cobalt lower part.  I washed the entire surface with lemon yellow and let it dry partially.

I outlined the top and sides of the partial arc with shadow green, another unsaturated color. Toward the center of this construction, I used by beloved earth tones: the yellow ochre surrounding the Van Dyke brown.

In the moment:

In yesterday’s watercolor/photograph comparison, I realized that painting could depict a moment as well as photography.

From time to time, my method of painting becomes subverted by what is going on around me.  I had an in-the-moment moment today. It must have been frustration, because I took my brush laden with Winsor red and made three rapid strokes originating from the center of the arc.  The wet paper dispersed the color fairly rapidly.  After drying, I overlaid the rapid strokes with more deliberate, slower strokes of Winsor red.

Final touch:

I echoed the V shape of the red arrows with yellow ochre arcs on either side and reinforced the Van Dyke brown between the rays of red.


This study was fairly successful, in my estimation. The textured appearance comes from the roughness of the paper, the sputtering of the pigments at the periphery of the arc and the blotting of the red at the vertex of the three red lines.

The title, ‘On Target’ belies the fact that I started my red-arrow strokes from the bull’s eye center instead of aiming for, and hitting the bull’s eye. I claim this right under the extended aegis of ‘poetic license’.

Head Wind

Today’s watercolor study:

I used the same earth-tone schema as yesterday. It was fun to scrape up the rough-surfaced paper to see what would happen when I painted it. But today I just used cold pressed paper without making any changes to the surface.

I started with dry paper and drew my Van Dyke brown-laden brush across it. I like  to see the blank spots just after the brush gives up its pigment to the paper. The stroke underneath the first was yellow ochre. I continued with the orange-yellow gamboge. I overpainted this with shadow green. The space in to the left of the earth tones displays the Prussian blue tint put there as contrast.

Watercolor: Abstract - earth colors with prussian blue and shadow green on dry paper

Head Wind
9″x12″ 140# Cold Pressed Watercolor Block

I had no preconceived ideas about the subject of this study. But after I finished the strokes on the dry paper, I got the distinct impression that I had the profile of a human head. Not just a human head, but one in motion.

Portrait of my brother:

When I was taking pictures of my brother Michael, I caught him in motion as well. I just thought of the parallels between today’s painting and the photo below, which I took many years ago. My brother Mike is low functioning, nonverbal and autistic. He spent many years at Willowbrook, a State Mental Institution on New York’s Staten Island. Although it is no longer there, it once housed 6,ooo people like Mike, but that’s another story.

Blurry picture of Mike in action on dance floor

Mike photography:

Before I go any further, I should explain that during the time I lived closer to Michael, I spent a significant amount of time photographing him (see posts about that time in the archives: January through November 2013). This my was my way of trying to connect with my brother who I didn’t understand at all and who didn’t seem to understand anyone else. To this day, I don’t know if he knows that I am his brother.  I followed him around at his group home and, as you can see above, at some of the parties the staff gave for the residents.

In the picture above, Mike is on the dance floor. Whether he was dancing is not the issue. That he was there in motion was what I wanted to record. The photo captured bit of the grotesque. Although I did not intend for this to happen, its presence in the blur illustrated an aspect of the truth – the truth of my relationship with Mike the ‘other’, instead of Mike the brother. This picture is an example of the adage that says a photograph reveals the relationship between the subject and the photographer.

Is there a basis to compare today’s watercolor with the photo of Mike?

The studies in each medium both portray motion. The painting shows motion directly: the motion of my arm, as I swiped the brush across the paper. It was not an intentional portrayal of anything.

On the other hand, the photograph was intentional. I did know that there would be blurring because of the low light and the slow shutter speed. I wasn’t sure that I had captured anything however, until I developed the film and printed the print.

The common denominator of these two studies is that they were done in the moment. I made the moment with my paints, and I captured the moment with my camera.


At the start of this blog post, I didn’t realize that the arc of its narrative would take the direction it did.  Although my watercolor study began as something purely abstract – no intentional portrayal of anything, I assigned a meaning to it based on the suggestion of the profile of a human head.  During the process of writing this post, something sparked a connection to an almost-forgotten photograph of made with the intent to capture something – anything – in the moment.  Sometimes my mind works in strange ways.


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