“Alpha Stare,” by Crystal Beshara

by Bob Bahr

Although some wildlife artists depict animals in a loose fashion, the tradition calls for extreme attention to texture, use of fine detail, and a general concern for precision and accuracy. Watercolor may not seem like the obvious medium for such an endeavor. But Crystal Beshara, one of the featured instructors at the upcoming 2019 SKB Rendezvous and Workshop in Dubois, Wyoming, finds watercolor to be the ideal partner in the endeavor to depict the wild creatures of the world.

Beshara is in command of the medium of watercolor … as much as anyone can be. Watercolor is unpredictable. Its washes can run, pool, drip, puddle, mix with adjacent colors… So while Beshara takes care to plan her steps on a given painting, watercolor insists on a bit of spontaneity, and that spontaneity pairs well with the unpredictable nature of wild animals. Beshara says she particularly appreciates the way watercolor can depict “the fuzz of an owlet, or downy fur, or how a wolf has that double coat—a wooly undercoat and that wiry outer hair.”

“Great Blue Wonder,” by Crystal Beshara

“One of the benefits of working with watercolor is that you can manipulate it to achieve these spontaneous results,” Beshara says. “Other mediums are so dependent on your hand mechanics. But spontaneous colors and textures in animals happen naturally with watercolor. I work to create a lot of texture and depth by allowing layers to dry to just damp, and then, using clear water, I can re-open the paint to cut through or splatter to create soft light effects. You aren’t necessarily able to control everything with watercolor, and that is why it emulates nature so well.”

“These Boots,” by Crystal Beshara. Winner of Best Watercolor in the SKB Small Works show in 2018

The artist embraces the mercurial nature of the medium. “Having the opportunity to make some spontaneous decisions is a joyful part of watercolor,” says Beshara. “It has its own language and it will flow and do what it wants. Watercolor is not as predictable as other media, nor does it mimic exactly what your hand is doing. It’s about just letting the paint do its thing a little bit. That’s the undeniable magic of watercolor.”

Painting the Badlands outside of Dubois

Beshara says she hopes that she and her students will paint on a ranch at least one day toward the end of the workshop, with the rest of the week spent inside a studio at Headwaters Arts & Conference Center. She says she looks forward to teaching people very specific techniques. “I’m going to break it down into lessons for fur, feathers, teeth, eyes … all the micro steps you need to paint an animal in watercolor. I’ll not just be offering an overview of watercolor, but also how to put all these pieces together to create an image of a believable creature. I’ll also be demonstrating landscape techniques as well, with a focus on atmospheric perspective.”

by Crystal Beshara

She stresses that many of the lessons and techniques she’ll discuss are transferable to other media. Those working in watercolor will learn Beshara’s personal technique in her preferred medium as well. She strongly favors transparent and semi-transparent paints. “They let light pass through them which creates the feeling of more dimension,” she says. “I’m looking for a touchability and a depth that you can achieve through glazes. With opaque colors the light will bounce off the pigment, but transparent watercolor lets the light penetrate all the layers and reflect off of the white paper underneath. It creates more of a glow, and allows our gaze to also penetrate the color.”

“Embrace,” by Crystal Beshara

It may seem contradictory to seek control over a painting medium that insists on surprises, but Beshara has learned how to plan carefully so watercolor is steered in the direction she wishes. “Through the use of layers, I have more control,” Beshara says. “Other than that, my process is usually the same—I start with lightest, softest areas first, then go darker. I start with big shapes, then, through layers, move into the smaller, darker, harder-edged shapes. I make conscious decisions on which colors to lay down first, and how strong to make the colors. I achieve more of a sense of dimension in my paintings through laying down an initial wash, letting it saturate the paper, and dry. Then, I move to darker strokes and small details, building by layers. Interspersed, between layers, I will often use masking fluid to preserve certain lighter passages. Then at the end I remove all masking fluid and add finishing touches. That transparency in the end adds a little extra three-dimensionality to the work.”

by Crystal Beshara

The Ottawa artist is an experienced workshop instructor, but her week in Dubois with SKB will depart from her usual program. She says she usually has participants focus on one or perhaps two animals and bring a piece to completion over several days. In Dubois, Beshara will be demonstrating several specific techniques. “We may work on a 6″-x-6″ portion of a painting instead of a full-blown bison.”

The nature of SKB’s Dubois workshop is that instructors post on a dry-erase board where they will be painting on a given day in the morning or afternoon (or at another, special time such as a nocturne session). Workshop participants can drop in and paint with one instructor in the studio in one session, then head out to a remote location to paint outdoors with a different instructor in the afternoon or the next morning. But watercolorists wanting to learn Beshara’s painting approach may want to stay with her the whole time on the first day. “Get your footing,” she says. “On a day-to-day basis there will be techniques and demos that you could just drop in on and watch, or stay the whole time. It will be appropriate for both camps, for those who stay and for those who drop in. Afternoons, I will demonstrate.”

“Strike a Pose,” by Crystal Beshara

Beshara reiterates that while she will be working in watercolor, her information on color palettes and other aspects of her painting approach transfer across media. Her goal: For participants to “absorb what I hope are new ideas and get set up for a good week.”

“I’m very demonstration heavy, so for people who just like to take notes, this will work well,” she says. “The learning environment at SKB is so ripe and the teachers are so generous. To be on this side of this workshop is such a wonderful opportunity. I’ll be giving away every technique that I have in my toolbox. It’s not hard to say yes to an opportunity like this. Just 15 minutes outside of Headwaters, there are whole other worlds to paint. Dubois has so much to offer artists, it’s just crazy.” Ω

“Steadfast,” by Crystal Beshara