Sunday, February 19, 2012

Painting loosely in watercolor--a brief study of Charles Reid

In our first two classes we focused on painting a single object and depicting the surface characteristics of that object in a tight, realistic manner.  In our third class from my course, Still Life with a Difference, we are going to take a different approach.  We are going to attempt to paint a full still life in a loose and free style.  And to get started, we are going to study the style of Charles Reid a little bit.

What watercolor still life course would be complete without introducing Charles Reid?  Many of you are probably already familiar with the work of this well-known, highly revered, and much imitated artist!  If you have any books by Charles Reid, please bring them to share with the class!

Here is an example of one of Charles Reid's still lifes:
Black Coot with Paint Brushes and Tubes by Charles Reid

Although in the watercolor world, Charles Reid's paintings are probably known best for their loose and apparently spontaneous style, the fact is that many other things are at work to make this painting a success.  In his book, Painting What You Want to See, Reid discusses extensively how he uses the local color of his objects to dominate the painting even more than their value.  He actually uses local color to represent value.  For example, the local color of the lemon above, is a light value by definition.  Yellow is really never a dark value!  Whereas blue can be a dark value, and red tends to be a medium value.  He may even change a certain color in a painting in order to get a darker or lighter value in that area.  The blue background in this picture (above) appears dark to us, even though it is a medium value of blue.  If he had made the background yellow, it would have appeared too light, thus affecting the division of space.

Here is another example of this emphasis on local value rather than local color:
Charles Reid     Half Moons    watercolor     22x25"
 Above is the final painting, where Reid altered the scene to reflect its real impression on him, and what he wanted to see, as opposed to the more realistic sketch below that emphasizes the tremendous value contrasts present in this back-lighted scene:

What differences do you see between these two interpretations?  Reid comments that both are valid, but that his style and personal preferences are for the warmer, more light and airy version on the top.  Local color of objects is established first, and then shadow put on that is not drastically darker than the local value.  The shadow on a white object is not darker than the light part of a dark object.  Think about that for a minute.  The shadow side of the white flower jug above (in the first of the two pictures) is lighter than the part of the blue chair that is in sunlight.  That is how we know that the jug is white!  So when we look at Reid's loose, painterly style, we must keep in mind his preference of color statements over value statements.

Now for the question of that loose, free, colorful style!  I have heard Reid comment that his paintings are really not as spontaneous as they appear, and are painted more slowly than you might expect.  Contour lines are first drawn in freely but accurately, in Reid's quirky, somewhat distorted, style.  Local colors and values are painted in loosely, allowing color to blend on the paper and bleed outside of lines.  A combination of hard and soft edges is used.  The paint is allowed to puddle and dry in odd ways.  Often drips and splashes are incorporated.  Reid often paints watercolor on an easel and allows drips to run down the painting.  He paints broad areas first, and doesn't focus on finicky little details.  He doesn't really "refine" the painting except for making compositional alternations if needed.   Color, shapes, and value are really his main subjects.  If you look carefully at his paintings, they really embody the essence of "loose" painting!

Here are a few more examples, to whet your appetite for loose painting:

 Folk Seagull

Pintail View

 Maple Syrup and Spring Flowers

Wild Roses
cover of book, Painting What You Want to See by Charles Reid

You can see all of the above pictures in a larger version just by clicking on one of them!  So, we are going to try a loose painting style in class this week, using existing photos as a reference or a still life that you might set up at home.  Make it a "casual" still life because that will lend itself much more readily to this loose, spontaneous style!


  1. I'm so excited to study and try my hand at painting loosely :) I love Charles Reid's work and watch his tutorials online whenever I need some inspiration to "loosen up". Can't wait for class !!

  2. Super! Thanks for your comment, Sue. I can't wait to try this way of painting again--it has been a long time! It is harder than it looks...

  3. Hi Sue-- Just to confirm our current assignment, we are to paint a table-scape in Charles Reid style showing lots of light and shadow. Is this correct or is there more to the assignment?

  4. Hi Sally and everyone else! Yes, the Session 3 assignment is to paint a still life loosely, a la Charles Reid if you would like to find inspiration in his style. I would suggest a casual set-up, bright and colorful. You can use my photo if you wish. I will post my step-by-step results on Friday. In the previous classes, while it is true I demonstrated a single object, I like to encourage people to make up their own still life arrangements so the painting will be more their own!

  5. Hi Sue,
    Anyway, I would assume that you will do a demo of painting loosely tonight and also critique our "shiny object" exercise for show and tell? I am not familiar with Charles Reid work so I checked him online to see more of his paintings. I like his style especially his nude watercolor. I challenged myself to do one. It was a challenge indeed. I will bring it tonight.