Charles Ritchie, (work in progress) Self-Portrait with Planets II [working title], watercolor and graphite on Fabriano paper, 4 x 6″. Note the scrubbed areas in lower foreground appearing as white patches at left and center on the of the dark desktop.
In my previous online journal entry I discussed scrubbing, a process I use to remove color from a watercolor. After further reviewing the corrected drawing, I realized I may not have gone far enough in subtracting from the image. I went back to my original sketchbook studies and found that elements in the foreground had been drawn in as an afterthought. These elements, two books (see image here), were flashes of brightness that kept the eye from resting in the horizontal band of light that runs through the lower part of the picture. Not that allowing a picture to grow differently than planned is a bad thing. I simply felt that these new elements were distracting from the whole.
The books are now removed. I dipped a ½ inch acrylic flat brush in water and rubbed the books out (see above), one at lower center and the one on the left. Although I really liked my drawing of these elements, I realized I couldn’t allow myself to be precious with them, so I gave them up to support the whole of the composition.
I once heard a story about the great American painter, Thomas Eakins. Perhaps the tale is apocryphal; I haven’t been able to find the reference in recent years. The story goes that when Eakins’ wife Susan saw a portrait that Thomas was working on, she marveled at one of the hands he had painted, exclaiming, “I believe this is the most beautiful hand you have done.” Eakins walked over and scrubbed the oil paint away, removing the hand completely. The painter then explained that the rest of the picture would never come up to the level of that portion. He would start again to try to make the composition work overall.
The message in the story for me is that it takes courage and ruthlessness to take an image to a higher level. My own picture might have taken a leap forward with this scrubbing action, or I may have destroyed the image, creating a picture I can’t resolve. What is important to me is that I am ready to sacrifice to grow. It’s also good to remember that I have many works in progress. This is just one of them. I’ll put this piece on the back of the pile for a while, and stumble on it later; let it surprise me.
There is a photograph of the Italian painter Giorgio Morandi’s easel that shows the massive pile of dried oil paint that had accumulated on the crossbar after years of scraping away in order to revise. “Here are most of my paintings”, Morandi reportedly said when he showed the scrapings.
Photograph of Charles Ritchie working by Matthew Gay.
It intrigues me that viewers assume that making small images is equal to scribing a paragraph on the head of a pin.
Photographs like the one above showing me drawing with a magnifying glass would seem to attest to a hold-your-breath-stiffness when I paint. However, I find the process of executing miniatures far more varied. To me, drawing in any size or format is much like the weather; sunny clarity transitioning to storms; delicacy alternating with destruction.
An upheaval has been growing in the work seen below. I’ve felt the need to recover luminosity; the drawing has grown too dark and opaque so I’ve scrubbed out areas to reinvigorate them. The upper and side sections of the drawing on the right have been scrubbed; erased in a particular way. The idea may seem strange since my medium, watercolor tends to primarily be an additive medium; in which colors are built up in layers from light to dark and where areas of white are usually the paper itself that have been reserved. Subtracting watercolor to make the page lighter can be tricky since the color saturates the support; to remove it can imperil the paper.
The subtraction is accomplished using a 1-inch wide flat head acrylic brush (see above).* The fine synthetic hair is just stiff enough to scrub the surface of the paper when damped. Watercolor can be released without digging too deep and destroying the integrity of the fibers. First I take fresh water and flood the areas that I am going to remove watercolor, then with a lightly dampened brush I rub those areas quickly and lightly. As I pull up color, I wipe the brush on a rag in my hand, frequently dipping the brush back into the fresh water bin to clean out the color. This is a delicate dance that takes lots of practice. It is very easy to scrub too hard and dig divots into the paper and see fragments of the paper pill up. It helps that I am using a very smooth hot press watercolor paper that doesn’t cause too much friction with the brush. Even though I can’t remove the all of the previously applied watercolor, I make it much lighter. After the paper dries over a day or two, I will be able to redraw and rethink the composition and its details by adding new washes or build up detail with a fine haired brush or pencil.
On another level, the scrubbing is a reaction to preciousness. Overprotecting passages of a work can stifle the organic growth of a composition. I feel I should be able to give up something to get something. To continue with the metaphor we began earlier; storms can be dangerous; there can be loss and devastation, but opportunity for renewal happens that can occur no other way. I can only control to a modest degree what the surface looks like after it is scrubbed. The upheaval that occurs during this process can be an opportunity to move forward that I can’t predict.
(Left) the drawing as it looked on 20 October 2008 and (right) its state after scrubbing on 14 December 2008.
*Other sizes of the synthetic hair, acrylic flat brush may be used for scubbing and can be particularly effective when chosen relative to the size of the area to be manipulated.