Monday, May 7, 2012

What's the What and So What?

I recently attended a painting workshop given by Catherine Gill, a wonderful artist and teacher from Seattle. You may be familiar with her recent book, Powerful Watercolor Landscapes, which is one of the very best books of its kind that I've ever read, and simply loaded with jewels of wisdom based on Cathe's 30 years as painting instructor.

Cathe Gill demonstrating
If you've read her book, or even heard her talk, you'll know that one of Cathe's signature expressions is "What's the what?" Before this workshop, I'd never taken a class with Cathe, but I'd certainly heard this phrase plenty from my studio mate, Mara Bohman, who's taken more than one. Mara would look at my work and exclaim, "What's the what? What IS the what??!"

Simply stated, the "what" in a painting is the thing that draws the viewer's eye first -- the most important thing in the picture. Without a clear "what" the viewer is likely to skim over the painting and move on. As I often didn't have an answer to Mara's question, I decided to really focus on this "what" business during the workshop and learn more about how it can help improve my artwork. It turns out there are various methods artists use to draw the viewer's eye, including:
  • Value contrast-- The lightest light and the darkest dark placed next to each other, or at least near each other, draw the eye. The less the value contrast in an area, the less the eye is attracted to it.
  • Shape - A big or complex shape can help define the "what."
  • Color contrast -- Complementary colors placed near each other attract the eye. Complementary colors are those on opposite sides of the color wheel, for example red and green, blue and orange, purple and yellow.
  • Edges -- Rough edges. These attract the most attention in a watercolor, so should be placed where you want the most attention. Next are the hard edges, and finally the blurry edges, which should be placed in the parts of the painting that are less important.
  • Details -- Small marks also draw attention, so details should be reserved for the "what" part of the painting.
Cathe says that using just two or three of these elements is plenty to define the painting's what. The artist can reserve the others for the parts of the painting where the viewer's eye can travel after it visits the "what."
Cathe's reference photo
Here's Cathe's demo painting. Where is her "what"? Can you tell which of the methods listed above she used to attract your eye to it?


Anonymous said...

Great job posting on Cathe's demo lesson, Meg! :) ~JoAnn

Megan Seagren said...

Thanks, JoAnn. That was certainly a fun workshop, and I really enjoyed getting to know you, too!