Watercolor: Charles Reid: Natural and Authentic Watercolors

Watercolor: Charles Reid: Natural and Authentic Watercolors

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Renowned for his watercolor paintings of the figure, this artist reminds others to simplify, merge the subject with the background, and respond in a way that is natural and authentic.

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Watercolor: What is your training in your art? How did you acquire your skills in drawing and painting?

Big M
1998, watercolor, 30 x 21.
Collection the artist.

Charles Reid: When I was 16 I took the Famous Artists School correspondence course, and I learned a great deal from the “painted criticisms.” I sent in my work and then made corrections based on the critique I got back. It was a terrific experience. I also had an intensive two and a half years in Frank Reilly’s class at the Art Students League of New York. It was very formal and academic, and it was the only academic class at the league at the time, in the early 1960s, because it was a strong Abstract Expressionist period. We drew from the figure every morning and painted in the afternoon or vice versa. We worked with values and not much with color. Later I taught at the Famous Artists School for 10 years. All this time spent painting and drawing really helped me.

W: You are especially well known for your figurative paintings. What attracts you to this subject?

CR: My early training was in figure painting. Capturing the personality and gesture of a model fascinates me.

How do you decide on a pose?

Deck Chair, Baccaro, Nova Scotia
2005, watercolor, 24 x 20.
Private collection.

CR: The model takes a pose that is natural and comfortable, and I adjust it if necessary to make it pleasing.

What is your general approach for painting the figure in watercolor?

I believe in contour drawing, and I always connect the figure to the background. Drawing is critical for the figure in watercolor. People can get away with poor drawing with bold and free work, but the drawing has to be right for the figure and portraits. I started contour drawing in the late 1970s and 1980s, when I was traveling a lot. I drew people in airports and found that drawing on the spot is the easiest way to learn to draw the figure. It’s not contour drawing in the traditional sense of not looking at the drawing, but to look and draw on the spot is very helpful. I’ve had good success in class with people learning the figure in this way.

I learned to paint in oil, working from the mid-darks to the lights, and I paint in watercolor the same way, rather than starting light and going dark. I never had watercolor lessons other than a brief introduction to the medium, so I basically taught myself. I don’t use glazing, and I work directly. Sometimes I apply a light wash for skin tones, and then I lay in the middle to dark values and work to the lighter values, softening edges as I go. I always add at least the mid-darks early on. I use the same palette of colors in oil and watercolor, and I’ve never worried about transparent or opaque pigments, since I’m not glazing.

2002, watercolor, 24 x 17.
Collection the artist.

W: How do you prevent yourself from becoming too detailed and specific in your depiction of the figure?

Painting, like other forms of art such as jazz, is a “happening.” The more you know, the better it is. In other words, the more you know, the more you can improvise. You do have to know what you are doing, but once you have the skills, you can make it up as you go along. I don’t plan pictures per se. I just start drawing and painting. I find that small preliminary sketches don’t work. They don’t translate well to a larger format. And it’s more fun not to have a plan. I try to pretend I don’t know how to paint, so the experience is new each time. I don’t want my paintings to look too practiced or repetitive. I’m not happy with mistakes, but they are essential to retain a sense of freshness. I want to paint things that are alive. I find that some watercolorists can get so technically good that the work looks dead. I’ve painted so long that I don’t want to keep painting the same old things.

W: How do you strike a balance between controlling the watercolor medium and working in a way that makes the most of its inherent qualities of spontaneity and luminosity?

Trinidad Friend
2002, watercolor, 15 x 18.
Private collection.

CR: The paint has to consist of the right ratio of paint to water, and knowing where to have lost and found edges is very important. I work very slowly, which may come as a surprise because most people think I paint loosely. That’s an illusion. Each stroke counts. Fewer strokes with more thought is better. When I look at my subject, if I squint and lose an edge, I lose it in the painting immediately. I also lose the edges in the shadows or those that are receding. I keep the harder edges, those in the light. You want a half-and-half rule, where half of the boundaries are lost and half are found. But all of these are done carefully and with great thought. People think I’m spontaneous, but I’m not.

Why is watercolor your primary medium?

I love painting in oil and watercolor equally, but I am better known as a watercolorist. Ten of my 11 books have been on watercolor painting.

Natural Arch, Bermuda
1990, watercolor, 15 x 20.
Private collection.

W: What do you consider the most important pieces of advice that you offer the artists you teach?

CR: Simplify, know what you want to say, stand back once in a while, and look at your picture upside down and see if it works.

Your career as a teacher includes workshops and many instructional books. How have these ventures benefited your own artwork and your life as an artist?

My wife and I have a very interesting life as we travel to wonderful places and meet delightful people. I paint a great deal on the 15 workshops I do each year, and I love writing the books. It’s problem solving: How do I express myself more succinctly? I don’t think the books have affected my painting, but they do show me how important brevity is. Brevity is important in writing and in painting. The two cross over, and I try to keep them both as simple as possible.

Skiff and Lobster Trap, Nova Scotia
1998, watercolor,
15 x 20. Collection Judy Reid.

About the Artist
Charles Reid, of Westport, Connecticut, is the author of 11 instructional books on painting, including Painting What You Want to See, The Natural Way to Paint (both Watson-Guptill Publications, New York, New York), and most recently, Charles Reid’s Watercolor Solutions: Learn to Solve the Most Common Painting Problems (North Light Books, Cincinnati, Ohio). Among the numerous awards for his work are the Childe Hassam Purchase Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the First Altman Prize for the figure from the National Academy of Design. His work is widely collected and hangs in such collections as Smith College, the Yellowstone Art Center, and the Century Association. He has completed illustration assignments for Harper’s and L.L. Bean. Reid is represented by the Munson Gallery, in Chatham, Massachusetts and the Stremmel Gallery, in Reno, Nevada.

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Watch the video: Watercolour Secrets with Charles Reid (July 2022).


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