Watercolor paintings can be exciting, abstract, tight, mysterious, pretty — and divisive among some folks. Just ask Daniel Marshall.
Marshall is a well-known tattoo artist with an international clientele that has him flying around the United States to work with special customers. He is part of a wave of tattoo artists who appreciate and operate in a fine-arts state of mind. A quick look shows that many of his designs are monochromatic and finely rendered. It’s art. But it’s not all that Marshall has to say. That’s the biggest reason Marshall has embraced watercolor painting.
“Watercolor and plein air painting were a direct response to me getting burned out on tattoos,” says Marshall. “All the artwork I was producing was for sale as a tattoo or was tattoo-related, and I was feeling mercenary. It was not what I wanted to create, it was what I had to create to succeed in the tattoo world.”
His foray into plein air watercolor came at a price. “I lost some friends because of my watercolor painting,” he says. “The tattoo world is so scene-driven.” It’s possible that some in the plein air world would be skeptical of a tattoo artist in their scene as well, but the more you speak with Marshall, the more you realize how wonderfully interconnected Marshall’s two endeavors are. How?
First, Marshall is not the guy inking an anchor on someone’s bicep. He’s more the guy who is drawing an elaborate scene in charcoal that will eventually tell the story of “Moby-Dick” across someone’s entire back. Tattoo artists have become fine artists, at least in some circles. Yes, Marshall acknowledges, “The common thinking is it’s not normal for a tattoo artist to paint watercolors. It’s not the typical mold, but I have been teaching workshops, and there’s a huge push in the tattoo world to go more fine art. Most of the best tattoo artists are pursuing some sort of fine art. It’s not a boys’ club anymore, it’s not just motorcycle guys. We’re getting people of different skill levels.”
Second, there is an interesting push and pull between watercolor plein air painting and tattooing for Marshall. Watercolor gives him a chance to get away from the tight rendering required for tattoos, while watercolor gives him ideas on how to suggest washes of color in tattoos. And although tattoos are tightly rendered, Marshall’s designs are as much from his imagination as they are from representational objects. Plein air painting is to some extent reporting on what is there in the natural scene, and Marshall adds something new to that because of his mindset of manipulating reality. “I call my tattoo style ‘stylized romantic realism,’” Marshall says. “I may use some photo reference, but mostly I’m conjuring it up in my mind. It’s more like being a concept artist in the entertainment industry. It’s also a collaboration with the client, producing the concept for the tattoo.
“And when I am plein air painting I am really concerned with the painting, not just what I see. You can take a fairly boring scene and use your color palette and brushstrokes, use the application of paint to make it better. Having a history of using the imagination to alter the scene as I see fit works well for me in plein air. In the field I’m looking at light and the overall feel of the scene, yes, but capturing the personality and general feeling of the scene is much more important than the tight reality. I’m not trying to copy the exact color of the elements and the placement of objects. I think it’s important to remain creative while painting.”
Watercolor painting affects his tattoo designs in another way. “For me it’s inspiration; I have become much more atmospheric with my backgrounds and used certain elements from watercolor in my tattoo painting. In watercolor, for me it’s always a struggle to make it looser, because I’m used to tightening up with tattoos. I’m looking for an overall feeling of spontaneity in tattoo designs, though there’s really no real spontaneity — not like the feeling of a watercolor wash flowing down your paper, doing its own thing and moving around.”
But the bottom line is that plein air painting with watercolors offers Marshall an antidote to tattoo work. “It was really reaching a point of burnout and stagnation,” he says. “I’ve been aggressively plein air painting for five years and sacrificing parts of my tattoo career in the process, but they now feed into each other. The looseness of watercolor makes my brain have to switch, like playing music when your career is something different. It’s stimulating to develop distinctly different styles of art. It keeps both completely fresh and exciting. I’m now reaching a balance, splitting up my week between the two.
“I’m just trying to present myself to nature, and the joy of that, and look at everyday life … and get out of the studio.”