Lately here in Kamloops, British Columbia, we’ve been treated to cloud Cirque du Soleil. Each time I step out on our deck, there’s another stunning performance in progress:

As a student of watercolour, the challenge of painting skies on location doesn’t come from the medium itself because all it amounts to is sloshing water-tinted pigment over paper.

It doesn’t get more immediate than that.

Clouds are suspended water vapours being moved about by the atmosphere and wind. So a marriage made in heaven–immediate subject matter matched with an immediate medium, yes?

Um, well, maybe for some…. It takes a lot of confidence, deftness and elan to nail a quickly changing sky, and those aren’t exactly my gifts.

What helps move my senior’s ass is panic-induced adrenaline, like the time I brought all my equipment down to Kitsilano Beach in Vancouver. Perched in my umbrella-shaded lawn chair, sipping iced tea, leisurely sketching the Vancouver skyline, I noticed the sky dramatically changing from a fluffy blue to an angry charcoal.

After lugging everything from the parking lot to the shore, I wasn’t about to give up my precious spot for a little weather. Prudence did step in, however, and whisper in my aging ear that I had only minutes to accomplish what I’d been taking hours dallying over.

And then the rains came down, bruising the top of my umbrella, the beach crowd scattering, wind whipping the waves. As the saying goes, ‘in for a penny, in for a pound’, I finally found my spine and went for it, drops pelting my paper, gusts throwing up sand.

‘Summer Storm Study’, Vancouver, watercolour on Bockingford, 5″ x 7″, by Lance Weisser

Just as choosing to place one’s subject matter in front of bright sky produces remarkable effects as in the work of Joseph Zbukvic, so also can equally-remarkable effects be achieved when making the sky itself the subject.

An almost unparalleled master is a lesser known watercolourist than the celebrated J. Zbukvic, but a truly exquisite painter of both sea and sky, the Russian Sergey Temerev:

‘The Salty Wind, the Flowing Light’, Sergey Temerev
Sea and Sky watercolour by Sergey Temerev
‘Under the Vault of Shining Heavens’ by Sergey Temerev

Here is a video of him at work:

A Sergey Temerev workshop

Now, those are clouds.

If one were to try and name the No. 1 watercolourist on the planet–or at least the most popular and followed–it would be safe to claim it is the Australian, Joseph Zbukvic:

A Joseph Zbukvic watercolour demo in progress…..

The word ‘master’ understates the enormous talent and skill Joseph Zbukvic exudes from his artistic fingertips as he transforms a sheet of white paper into whatever his mind fancies.

Taking a moment to view these examples of his prodigious output, one thing might stand out to us when it comes to focusing in on, and studying Mr. Zbukvic’s skies:

Joseph Zbukvic’s signature artistic decision is at odds with a great many of his colleagues, because he takes the daring approach of nearly always rendering his subject matter facing directly into the sun.

This has the effect of placing everything of interest–whether it be buildings, people, horses, boats, vehicles–more or less in silhouette, backlit and often somewhat mysterious. Making this choice provides any artist with a great deal of painterly latitude simply because, whatever we might be trying to view while looking directly into the sun, is going to be greatly lacking in detail. Looking into the sun, we see general shapes, outlines of things, and blurred, obscured objects and people.

Placing everything in front of direct sunlight means one doesn’t have to attend to minute detail. It means there will automatically be contrast, exaggerated shadow, enormous differences between light and dark, and all the drama a watercolourist needs to make a painting ‘pop’.

If one does a search of YouTube watercolour instruction these days, you will find a great many Zbukvic devotees, with their subject matter silhouetted against a bright sky. It has now become almost the de rigueur approach for aspiring watercolourists.

What is sacrificed by placing all subject matter in front of direct sunlight?

Skies.

All the luscious drama of cloud formations and subtlety of light which plays in, around and between the loveliness of clouds is the price one pays. Viewing Zbukvic’s work makes that seem worth it, at least for him.

However, as influential as some artists are, and deserve to be–for those bettering their skills, it is always important to remember that variety still remains the spice of life. All painters have their own unique painterly story to tell, in their own unique manner–and not all paintings need to be looking directly into the sun. I suspect Mr. Zbukvic would be the first to agree.

The Finnish composer, Jean Sibelius ” . . . is widely recognized as his country’s greatest composer and, through his music, is often credited with having helped Finland to develop a national identity during its struggle for independence from Russia. . . “

Quite probably, his most recognizable contribution and gift to us was ‘Finlandia’, the tune from which many of us have come to know as the melody for the well known hymn, ‘Be Still My Soul’:

Arranged & recorded by 3b4joy

Music is, for me, like a beautiful mosaic which God has put together. He takes all the pieces in his hand, throws them into the world, and we have to recreate the picture from the pieces.
~ Jean Sibelius 

The visual objective in this commissioned project, was to infuse the painting with the mood and the tenor of those 1970s years when I and my dear friend, Doug Todd, were living near The Jean Sibelius Square Park in The Annex of Toronto.

Those were challenging years, when we were actors in the ensemble known as Creation II, living communally in a large Victorian red brick Annex house. The experience permanently altered our lives, as what began as an altruistic experiment in communal living and performing, gradually descended into becoming a cult.

Therefore, this painting is meant to embrace the feelings of those times, and bring back the memory of a one acre oasis in the midst of spiritual confusion and personal ambivalence.

The completed work depicting a drizzly November morning, includes the emblematic red brick Victorian homes which surround the square, and a pair of Toronto’s ever-present pigeons to help bring animation to the solid silence of the memorable and remembered Jean Sibelius:

‘Sibelius Park November’

watercolour on treated art board

commissioned by Douglas Todd

by Lance Weisser June, 2020

[note: the rectangular size of this painting, 7″ x 13″, is preventing it being inserted here without undergoing distortion.]

When one reads about the long life of Jean Sibelius and how he had such a strong affinity for nature, for Autumn and Winter in particular, and was, after all, a Finn, whose country embraces the colder months, it seemed fitting to depict Sibelius Square in November.  His biographer wrote this:


“. . . Even by Nordic standards, Sibelius responded with exceptional intensity to the moods of nature and the changes in the seasons: he scanned the skies with his binoculars for the geese flying over the lake ice, listened to the screech of the cranes, and heard the cries of the curlew echo over the marshy grounds just below Ainola [his home, named after his wife]. He savoured the spring blossoms every bit as much as he did autumnal scents and colours. . . “

The distinctive, late 19th c. Toronto architecture of the area known as The Annex is unabashedly Victorian, boasting ‘some of the largest collection of Victorian houses in North America.’

‘During this period Toronto also developed some unique styles of housing. The bay-and-gable house was a simple and cost effective design that also aped the elegance of Victorian mansions. Built of the abundant red brick, the design was also well suited to the narrow lots of Toronto.’ [wikipedia: The Architecture of Toronto]

In The Annex, however, there was an elegance reserved only for those who could afford it. ‘Built by the city’s wealthy and mostly found in the neighbourhood they are named after, these houses contain diverse and eclectic elements borrowed from dozens of different styles. These houses are built of a mix of brick and sandstone, turrets, domes, and other ornamentation abound.’ [ibid.]

In this painting, some decisions had to be made as to whether it was going to be about the houses surrounding The Jean Sibelius Square Park, or about the monument dedicated to the composer, or about the overall mood of late Autumn and how it informs the architecture, the park and what Sibelius himself loved about November.

This neighbourhood-emersed, one square acre oasis in the middle of Toronto [pop. 6,129,000], was originally known as Kendal Square due to being beside Kendal Avenue…

In 1959, in recognition of the diligence and passion of Toronto’s Finnish community, the little square was officially renamed Jean Sibelius Square and featured a striking monument with the Finish composer’s likeness crowning it.

My encounter with this petite and charming park was during the socially-disruptive 70s, when The Annex was transformed from a neighbourhood of red-brick mansion propriety, to one of red-brick mansion rooming houses populated by hippies and university students.

I lived in the former red brick Victorian home of a Toronto physician with fifteen other actors–including Doug Todd, who has commissioned this painting of Jean Sibelius Square. We were members of the theatre ensemble called Creation 2 (I for seven years, he for two), which was both commune and theatre ensemble:

Life for Doug Todd and I, and others within the group, was a mixture of great bonding, high demands, internal turmoil and personal confusion. What had started out as a dynamic experiment combining the best of ensemble acting with the ideals of a close-knit communal living, began taking on the telling characteristics of a cult.

The Jean Sibelius Square Park, being a block away from our living situation, provided us with a treed, quiet, people-free place of calm and restoration. The watercolour depicting that 1970s’ oasis-like feeling is now finding its expression as it goes from outlined sketch to the initial wash stage:

The Finnish composer (seven symphonies, including ‘Finlandia’) is memorialized in a tidy little one acre park in The Annex area of Toronto, Canada, nestled on four sides by its red brick house neighbourhood.

The Vancouver Sun’s long-serving investigative reporter and author, Douglas Todd, [https://vancouversun.com/author/douglastodd2/page/2], commissioned a watercolour of this familiar setting he and I knew well when living nearby while in a theatre company commune in the mid-1970s.

A striking memorial was donated by Toronto’s Finnish community in 1959 and the park–originally known as Kendal Square–was renamed Jean Sibelius Square Park. In 2010, the park was officially reopened after a major redesign equipped it with an extensive playground and enhanced outdoor skating rink.

Approaching this watercolour commission, it seemed most appropriate to laden it with a 1970s feel–visually allowing Doug and my memories of Sibelius Park to surface and suffuse the painting with an autumnal feel.

A decision has been made to sacrifice accuracy to the bringing up from deep memories a vision of what we both recall and felt about this little space–this oasis from the complicated goings-on within our nearby commune. And we both remembered it being nearly always empty of people, strewn with fallen leaves, lit by street lamps, smelling slightly of wood smoke from the chimneys of the surrounding substantial, Victorian brick homes of the established Annex community.

Therefore, the end result will disappoint anyone currently familiar with Jean Sibelius Square, and its revitalized, playground-dominated landscape, as well as those who may live around it. None of the actual homes will be depicted, rather homes springing from our memory of those homes are being brought to the surface.

Rock and Sky

May 1, 2018

We live in a very rocky place.  Our house is situated just below a mountain ridge that is home to native varieties of cactus, sagebrush, tumbleweed, and the domain of Chukar Partridges, mule deer, black bear, a variety of hawks and owls, and the occasional Cougar.

Painting rocky scenes is something particularly satisfying due to the artistically-geometric shapes which become something of a foil for the full-blown and free-flowing movement of cloud and sky.

This was simply an experiment–discovering where shapes and natural design and configuration would lead–a painting begun without knowing where it might end.

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‘The Home Place’, watercolour by Lance Weisser, 14″ x 16″, Arches Hot Press Paper

 

 

‘School’s Out’

April 9, 2018

Not far from our Kamloops, B. C., home is the village of Pritchard which used to have an original one room school occupying a corner of a farmer’s pasture–a school he himself reputedly attended as a boy–that no amount of seeking to have it lovingly restored bore any fruit with historical groups or municipalities.

Fearing its derelict floors and frame would be responsible for causing trespassing children accidental injury, he reluctantly tore it all down some five years or so ago.  But fortunately I managed to capture its classic image with my camera while it was still part of this farmer’s horse paddock, and I’ve painted a series of watercolours using it as a focal point.

Since it no longer exists, I choose to place this old school in settings that depart rather dramatically from where it actually had been (on a rather non-descript flat field right beside Duck Range Rd).

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‘School’s Out’, watercolour by Lance Weisser, 14″ x 16″

Arches Hot Press 140 lb. Paper, Sold

Stage Two: ‘Raven Winter’

February 14, 2018

The painting for my friend Patricia Kellogg is taking shape.  The treated surface of the mat board I’m using to paint on was/is achieved by applying a product by Daniel Smith called ‘watercolor ground’.  It comes in a jar and is painted onto any surface one desires, instantly turning it–once allowed to thoroughly dry–into one which can be painted on using transparent watercolour.  So, glass, metal, wood, masonite, anything of the kind can basically become a surface with the characteristics of watercolour paper.

stage two of raven morn

 

Stage One: ‘Raven Winter’

February 13, 2018

My watercolourist friend Patricia Kellogg [https://www.facebook.com/Patricia-A-Kellogg-357357001050096/] and I are doing a painting exchange.  I acquired one of hers of an artichoke plant in late autumn–that expressive form plants take when frost renders them lifeless, yet beautiful even so.  And because she has a couple of mine with ravens in them, she wanted one more and so here’s the first stage of it.

stage 1 of Raven morn

The surface for this painting is treated mat board and the medium is transparent watercolour.  It is a 9″ x 12″ piece.  Once it is finished I will enjoy taking it over to The Red Beard Cafe where we have our monthly coffee and seeing if she likes it.  I’ll also bring a couple of others with me to provide a choice.

Results of ‘composition exercise 1’: dividing a landscape into thirds, placing visual interest at each intersectional  point….

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Results of ‘composition exercise 2’:

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and 3:

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bringing us to 4:

It has taken a long spell of waffling over what to do about being less than pleased with the finished piece.  The snowy fields seemed to extend themselves too far down, without enough visual interest to hold a viewer’s attention.  And then I gave into the temptation/artistic trap I almost always seem to fall into, which is going one step too far by defining open field with regimented rows of corn which wind up being so monotonous, the fence posts going the opposite direction only add yet more visual predictability  and kill whatever freshness the piece had going for it.

….so the only satisfactory outcome was to crop the painting and salvage what could be salvaged.

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It is a very small painting, about 6″ x 12″, and has at least enough mood still going on to make it only just worth framing.

As an exercise, however, it was more than useful, and confirmed satisfactorily that placing interest at intersectional points within a composition divided into thirds works (sans rows of corn, that is), does hold one’s attention, and lends a feeling of balance.

 

….composition exercise 2

January 17, 2016

Continuing on with an attempt to test out the compositional dictum known as ‘the rule of thirds’, which was conceived and named by John Thomas Smith in 1797 :

“. . .  Analogous to this “Rule of thirds”, (if I may be allowed so to call it) I have presumed to think that, in connecting or in breaking the various lines of a picture, it would likewise be a good rule to do it, in general, by a similar scheme of proportion; for example, in a design of landscape, to determine the sky at about two-thirds ; or else at about one-third, so that the material objects might occupy the other two : Again, two thirds of one element, (as of water) to one third of another element (as of land); and then both together to make but one third of the picture, of which the two other thirds should go for the sky and aerial perspectives. . . “

To illustrate its basics…..

ruke of thirds

Once again, this is the drawing I did initially, to put this into practice….

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And this is the first go at painting the scene….

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And now today, here is the progress so far, attempting to locate some visual interest at each of the four intersections within the piece, the barn being the first and the pine being the second and the creekbed being the third…..

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The darkest darks and greatest contrast will remain with the barn, for that is the intended focus for the picture, when completed.

The ‘rule of thirds’, as stated above, holds that generally two-thirds of a landscape be devoted to the sky, with one-third given to the land below (the sky being such a vast and dominant feature).  In this case two-thirds is dedicated to the land and a very high horizon means that the one third is devoted to the sky area.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

…..downtown, phase 2

November 9, 2015

The Plaza Hotel (completed in 1928) is a five story Spanish Colonial Revival building in downtown Kamloops BC, Canada. It is listed as a cultural heritage site in the Canadian Register of Historic Places.

ThePlaza

As is so often the case when seeking out subjects for painting, the postcard view isn’t usually very interesting.

The photo used for reference for this watercolour was taken from the rear alley of The Plaza.

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In view is the old Fire Hall tower, with belfry, 73 ft, built in 1935 at a cost of $24,500, when Kamloops had a population of approximately 6,000 (population today is about 100,000).  It remains a distinctive landmark.

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The decision to cast the subject in Winter has to do with wanting to bring some drama to the scene due to there being an overly abundant amount of sky.  Pigeons have also been added to give more visual interest.

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Because the hotel is a very light orange, (which gives off a bit of a pink cast in late afternoon), the sky is a wash of quin red, quin yellow and ultramarine blue in order to help incorporate the tones of the building into the rest of the painting.  So quin red and quin yellow will be used as the shade of the hotel as the painting progresses.

STAN07  In his own words…

“I remember, when I must have been quite young, watching my older brother Greg draw. He was good. In the third grade our teacher taught us perspective, how to make a road go back and disappear into the mountains. I never forgot how to do that. When I was seven or eight years old, our family took a trip to Wisconsin to visit a friend of my Dads. He was a professional watercolorist. I remember the drive through the woods, walking up to his front door, through the entry, looking up at the walls as soon as I entered the house. I wanted to see his paintings. Randy Penner. I’ll never forget that name or that trip and the influence it had on me.

“In Junior High I took some art, mechanical drawing and enjoyed it. I wrote a career paper on becoming an artist but never really thought that it was possible. In college I decided to major in physical education since I considered an art major unrealistic. The second year I switched to a commercial art major since the community college had a good graphics program. It was during the three years of training to become a commercial artist that I took watercolor. My first watercolor class I got a “C”. The worst grade I had ever received in any art class. I was required to take it again the following year and it went much better. Not only did I get an “A”, but I fell in love with it. I started selling my paintings before I graduated for as little as $2. In the fall of 1973 I had made a decision to try to make a living as a full time, professional watercolorist and have managed to do that now for more than thirty years.”

Stan Miller

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“Venice Calm”, watercolour, Stan Miller, AWS (sold)

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“Sunday Morning Snow” , Stan Miller
watercolour 18″ x 24″  (sold)

I have learned some important fundamentals by watching Stan Miller’s presentations on YouTube.  There are a cartload of painters offering ‘tips’ and ‘tricks’ on how to ‘do’ watercolours on YouTube, and while I do not always wish to pursue instruction beyond what the medium itself teaches me through trial and error, there are areas where I absolutely require help.

Searching for help regarding composition can be frustrating and fruitless.  That is because not every painter’s views on the subject resonate.  Gut feeling is something I have come to trust when it comes to watercolour, and many instructional videos on YouTube don’t ring true to my own personal approach.  That is not to say these videos won’t ring true to someone else’s taste and fulfil their ‘gut feeling’.

Stan Miller is plain spoken, down to earth and sensible about how he goes about painting.  There’s very little ‘artiness’ about the man.  Yet, what he accomplishes on paper is, to my eyes, lovely and true and a delight to the senses.

Here is his helpful short video on how to logically and sensibly approach the difficult area of composition–something I forever struggle with–which you might find helpful also.

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