Since beginning to take my art more seriously in my late 20s, I’ve watched a lot of tutorials and read a lot of books about painting in various styles, particularly in watercolour. While there were a number of artists whose work I loved, I especially began to gravitate towards the style of artists like Joseph Zbukvic, Herman Pekel and Alvaro Castagnet. One day several years ago I received an email from Senior Art Supplies advertising that Alvaro Castagnet was running a workshop right here in Melbourne, and I eagerly rushed to the art supply shop’s website to register… only to find that the workshop was completely booked out. Every year or so, another email would go out, and every year I’d check my emails after a full day of teaching only to find I’d missed out yet again.
In January this year, when Alvaro posted on his Instagram page that he would be doing a workshop in Melbourne soon, I loaded the Senior Art Supplies page on all my devices and surreptitiously mashed the refresh button during summer semester classes, keeping one eye on my screen and the other eye on my students, who were working on their tutorial activities. It might sound ridiculous but it paid off, and I managed to get into one of the March 2019 workshops at long last. In November another workshop was advertised for December, and after the trainwreck that 2019 was for me in so many ways, I decided to go along again to give myself something fun to look forward to.
So, this post will be part review, part gushing/fan-girling and part talking about some of the things I learned during the workshops.
The workshop ran for both days of the weekend, from about 9.30am to about 3-4pm on both days. On the first morning, Alvaro introduced himself (though he didn’t need much of an introduction) and talked for a little about how the workshop would run, ie. He would do a demo for us and then while we were attempting it, he’d come around and give each person some brief feedback. There were about 16 people in the workshop, so it wouldn’t have been possible for him to sit with each of us and go through each aspect of our painting, but by looking at our work and pointing out issues or problems we needed to fix (and how we could fix them), it was still a good way to help us improve. Each day we would do one painting in the morning, have a break for lunch and then come back for the second painting in the afternoon. It was a pretty full-on weekend, but it was heaps of fun, and I feel like I learned a lot.
Some Valuable Lessons
As the students worked on their paintings, Alvaro walked around giving us advice, telling us things we needed to improve on. In addition to this feedback for each student, he also offered up some pearls of wisdom while he was painting his demonstration pieces. Some of the things he said were things I knew on an intellectual level but was still trying to put into my practice and incorporate them into my paintings, but there were also things I had previously not considered and which, once I thought about it, made a lot of sense.
Make a Mess with Elegance
This was more of a throwaway comment rather than advice, but it still resonated with me, and some of the other lessons I mention below tie into it in various ways. “Make a mess with elegance”. I think this sums up watercolour quite well; it can be a difficult medium to control, so often an artist has to put the paint on their paper and see what happens, and then work with whatever they’ve ended up with (yes, I know this is a generalisation and doesn’t apply to some painting styles). For me, painting with watercolours sometimes feels like trying to control chaos, and though I don’t always succeed, I still have fun trying.
Paint a Lion, Not a Pussy Cat
One of Alvaro’s comments from the workshops that stuck with me the most was, “Paint a lion, not a pussy cat”. I remember during the first workshop, I was horrified to see his dirty palette (I’m one of those anally retentive people who must keep each individual colour clean and pure) and how he just mixes all colours – even bright ones – in the same spots as muddy greys. But as he worked, I could see how the colours that looked muddy on the palette looked natural and organic once they were on the paper. A dirty yellow ochre transformed into a building with sunlight shining on it, while a mess of blues and browns became lively shadows. While ‘pretty’ colours like pure blues, pinks and purples might be useful for some subjects (like flowers) they tend to look unnatural and lifeless in landscapes and cityscapes. Alvaro said that a painting with pretty pinks and blues is like a ‘pussy cat’ and a painting with colours mixed has more impact and is like a lion’. Again, this might be a generalisation and not work as well for some subjects or painting styles, but I have noticed that my paintings look better when I mix some muted colours rather than using a bright colour straight from the pan or tube.
Don’t Draw with the Brush
During one of his demonstrations, Alvaro said a lot of students make the mistake of drawing with their brush, rather than painting with it. Much of this lies in how they hold the brush. When people hold their brush at or near the ferrule, close to the bristles, it mimics the way we’ve been taught to hold pens and pencils our whole lives. While this grip might be suited for fine control and detail – as required for writing or for photorealistic painting and drawing – it doesn’t lend itself well to the loose, expressive brushstrokes required for impressionist painting. When Alvaro paints, he tends to hold the brush near the end of the handle and often uses his whole arm to make his brushstrokes, rather than just his wrist. Even when he is adding detail, like highlights on figures or wires to telephone lines, he still uses this grip and makes fast, confident motions. This is probably something I most struggle with, as I tend to make small marks slowly (for fear of doing it ‘wrong’) and then end up with a stilted, lifeless stroke on the page. When it comes to larger marks, like filling in areas of sky or buildings, I tend to fiddle with it, going back over a spot to try to fix something I’m not happy with (which usually makes it worse) instead of doing it in one hit and then leaving it alone so it retains a fresher look.
Don’t Paint From a Photo Unless You Can Improve It
At one point during the workshop, one of the students asked Alvaro what he thought about realism as a painting style. The gist of his response was basically, “If you’re going to make a painting that looks like a photo, you might as well just take a photo.” And I can see where he’s coming from, even though I enjoy painting realistic art and am good at it (at least when it comes to some subjects, like still life and florals). But even though I like realism and can do it well, I want to be able to paint more loosely, more freely. Not necessarily in exactly the same style as Alvaro, but definitely with that impressionist feel.
He also talked about the importance of composition. While it’s often helpful to use a photo as a reference, copying it blindly will not result in a good painting. In addition to simplifying things for the sake of a stylistically appealing painting, you sometimes need to add or subtract things from the composition, or move something from one location to another.
Composition and simplifying details are both things I need to work on, which I’ve known for some time. But seeing such a skilled artist apply these things in practice – watching how he sketches his initial drawing and explains why he’s changing things from the photo, and seeing how he applies the paint to the paper – are so much more helpful than reading theory from a book.
Simplify Figures to Match the Setting
On the second morning of both workshops, Alvaro took some time to demonstrate how he paints figures, as he’d noticed that most of us were struggling to do them well. When a figure is part of a landscape or cityscape, it needs to be painted in the same ‘style’ as the background and objects around it. This means that in impressionist paintings, the figures are often not much more than squiggles and blobs with a few details and highlights in other colours. In fact, it seemed that this was how Alvaro painted his figures; by making rushed and seemingly random marks with his brush, and then refining them with smaller strokes.
He also showed us that the same principles and methods can be applied to other organic parts of a scene, like cafe tables full of people in a street scene, or animals on a farm.
One comment Alvaro made during the workshop was that if two artists entered a competition, and one painted perfect backgrounds but poor figures and the other painted average backgrounds but perfect figures, the latter would win. He also suggested that we should aim to spend some time practicing figures each day, which I have done with varied success; though I occasionally get a nice looking person or group of people, most of my attempts just look like a mess.
Paintings from the Workshop
The paintings completed during the workshop were all based on photos taken by Alvaro. I must admit I struggled to find my stride a bit. I had intended to spend the weeks leading up to the workshops doing a lot of practice watercolour paintings, but unfortunately life got in the way and I didn’t have a chance, so I went into the workshops having not painted for a couple of months. I resigned myself to the fact I would not be producing any grand works of art in the workshops, and it’s lucky I did, because I felt like a gorilla with a concussion trying to perform brain surgery with a spanner. These are the only two paintings (one from the March workshop and one from the December workshop) I did that weren’t completely terrible, though I still don’t know what the hell I was trying to achieve by scribbling a half-arsed bicycle in the foreground of the second one.
(on a side note, Alvaro painted the figure on the right in my second painting, after I had tried and mangled it horribly. My Dad thought that having a figure painted by a world famous artist might make it worth more, but I had to point out that since the rest of the painting around it was rubbish, he’d probably get more money from selling a roll of toilet paper)
If you’re a watercolour artist of any skill level and you have the opportunity to go to one of Alvaro’s workshops, I strongly recommend doing so. It was $300AUD, but when you consider it’s basically a full two day workshop, the price is quite reasonable. Not only will you learn a lot from him, but you’ll also have fun in the process.