SKB workshops have been a great place to learn how to paint flowers using loose watercolor washes, depict nostalgic barn scenes, and make arresting images of wild creatures. Carl Purcell, a watercolor instructor teaching at the 2013 SKB workshop in Dubois, Wyoming, will be focusing on another aspect of watercolor painting. Purcell would like to help artists learn to see better.
“We grow up and go through all these days of school but we never get ‘Seeing 101,'” says Purcell. “It’s assumed that we know it. So then we start painting and we get frustrated. We are busy interpreting the world around us instead of seeing.
“We plant flowers around our house because of their colors, not because of their Latin names,” he continues. “The golden mean is nature based, not math based. Geology and such give foundational, intellectual understanding of rocks, but it’s looking at the cracks in rocks–the faceting and planes and structure of rocks, the lights and the darks and the patterns of it–that we need to do. And I never copy it. I take what I like out of a rock in a scene and go from there. I study the patterns, and I put back into a painting every bit of knowledge that I’ve gained from rocks.”
Purcell talks low and steady, with moderate inflection, and his words roll through your mind like sentences from a book written by a sage. SKB is an organization of characters, and Purcell is going to add another unique flavor to the mix this September, starting on the first day. Purcell will paint indoors the entire week, but on the first day of the workshop, he will take interested participants outside to study the patterns of nature. “Painting becomes a whole lot easier if we paint the patterns that we see instead of what we know about the subject,” he says. “We live in two worlds, one we see everyday and one we interpret. We know two different realities about a tree, one we see, and one we know all about. We think in symbols, and that’s how we end up with lollipop trees with branches coming off the trunk at 45 degree angles. It’s the actual patterns of nature, of life, of color, of value, that really make the visual world look the way it looks.”
The Utah artist says there are obvious patterns in specific elements, and underlying patterns that unify the whole scene. It is a significant variation on the idea that we should look at shapes, not identifiable things. One way asks us to see everything abstractly, while Purcell asks us to recognize and learn from the patterns that are in things and underlying things.
“Light and dark patterns in a pine tree are completely different than in an elm,” Purcell says. “You can’t paint a certain expression on a face, but if you paint the shapes that you see, then the result is a face that has that expression on it.
Look for patterns in the grasses, or you will be in for a long trip. At first, this way of thinking and seeing doesn’t seem to make sense. It’s not logical. It is instead responding to what we actually see. Not what is it, but what does it look like? What are the edges doing? What is happening to these things I am seeing?”
Purcell does move elements around in a painting, especially in dark-light patterns. He invents values and connects them. The difference is in what Purcell has learned from nature, what has informed his inventions. “Seeing the pattern helps me understand what I’m seeing,” he says. “But I can alter that. I look at the color sequences that are in it. There are myriad colors in grass. I look past the grass or whatever and see the value pattern and use that pattern to build the painting. It’s the shifting of values that makes us see the objects.”
“We exaggerate whatever moves us. Rhythm is one of the main principles of the appreciation of what’s around me. In school they never discussed rhythm. It was at the bottom of the list. It’s moved up to near the top for me. And this isn’t just for representational painting–patterns of rock can spur an abstract painting.
“We learn about techniques in painting, but it’s odd that we haven’t been taught how to see,” says Purcell. “It amazes me what has been hidden right in front of my eyes for most of my life.”