Help us congratulate Angus McEwan, a recent winner of the bi-monthly PleinAir Salon, and enjoy this exclusive Q&A with the artist, who shares his biggest challenges, his advice for others, and the answer to a common question he hears about his watercolor paintings.
Cherie Dawn Haas: Do you use watercolor en plein air? If so, what are some things you’ve learned about painting outdoors with watercolor?
Angus McEwan: I am very much a studio painter, as I do take quite some time to develop my work. As such, my plein air pieces are very much about capturing a mood or impression of a topic which will help inform my work back in the studio.
There is very much a distinct difference between my careful drawing, layer building, and thoughtful process which I have developed back in the comfort of the studio. To me, working outside is the antithesis of that. I work at speed trying to head off the movement of the sun. I battle with insects, passers-by, and traffic, conditions that are too damp, too hot, or too cold. My work is a rushed impression of my topic, created in a frenzied and energetic way in response to my subject.
So why do I do it?
Well, there is nothing quite like trying to distill a very complex environment in a simple but meaningful way. You must do this within an hour or hour and a half as the sun will have moved to pastures new and your scene will become something else. You pick up on lots of information that stays with you for quite some time in a way that doesn’t quite happen in the studio. That’s why I think working outside, where applicable, helps me back in the studio. I’m not necessarily copying the image but using the experience of working outside to help me understand what is needed while working in the studio.
The biggest issue for me, especially working in damp Scotland, is the drying aspect. I prefer to work wet on dry but when the humidity is high, and the ambient temperature is cool, then nothing will make that piece of paper dry quickly (I’ve looked at cordless hair dryers but the batteries are big and heavy). This forces me to work in a different way and one I’m never entirely comfortable with. That’s why most of my outdoor work is consigned to the plan chest or sketchbook, as it is part of the development of a painting for me. Not an end in itself but the beginning of the process.
CDH: What’s a common question you hear (and the answer you give) about painting in general, or about your style or media?
AM: Is that watercolor? That’s not how watercolor should look. More often than not my work is often considered to be produced with acrylic or oil rather than watercolor, as it is either too strong tonally, too strong color-wise, or too thick. I break a few rules when working, but I like that. I love experimenting, and that is where I get the most enjoyment from, so I don’t follow the “rules” as they are applied to watercolor. If it is archivally sound, anything goes, and I will combine many things together to create my work. Enjoyment is paramount when producing artwork and that reigns supreme for me. Who cares if you use white? Some of the best watercolorists that ever used the medium did, and so do I.
CDH: What’s a common artistic challenge you face, and how do you overcome it?
AM: Not enough time to do everything that needs my attention. Being an artist, for me, involves many different aspects which need tending to, like a garden (you can’t focus on cutting just the grass all the time). Unfortunately, I can’t concentrate on painting all the time, as I also commit part of my week to teaching in college. I have articles to write, emails to answer, PR to deal with, preparation for workshops, judging competitions, selecting work for shows, preparing work for exhibitions, arranging work to be collected or sent abroad, making boxes for sending work away, curating and arranging other artists’ work for exhibitions, and so on. The list is endless, and I am sure every artist is the same; you just don’t get enough time to paint.
CDH: Please tell us about your winning watercolor, “Contemplation.”
AM: “Contemplation” is based on a subject I have painted many times over the years although not in this particular place. On this occasion, it is a gallery space in the botanic gardens in Edinburgh, Scotland. I love painting contre jour (against the light) and I particularly like how this creates a lot of soft unresolved areas within the painting juxtaposed with the harsh silhouette of an object against bright light. It was the softness that caused me the most problems but dry brushing and continual spraying helped me find an appropriate solution.
The painting was originally a small sketch in a sketchbook and a series of photographs were taken as an aid memoir. It was a familiar concept and therefore not much time was taken sketching out the idea. The challenge was to balance a large area where not a lot was happening against an area at the top of the painting which contained most of the largest range of colour, tone and subject. I had to repeatedly wet and soften most of the edges in the painting to create the illusion of atmosphere, this also meant my focal point was largely out of focus and suggestive. I enjoyed making this painting as it challenged me in a slightly different way to my normal subject matter.
The painting is about absent friends. An empty seat, waiting to be filled. That moment when you are alone with your thoughts wishing your friend or loved ones were present to share the experience with you.
CDH: How did you feel when you discovered that you won first place in the August/September PleinAir Salon?
AM: I was incredibly happy and grateful to receive first place. Recognition is an important part of life but being recognized as having produced a work of art of significance is incredibly satisfying and humbling. I never take anything for granted and as such winning a prize with my work is always a fantastic moment to be celebrated.
CDH: What advice do you have for other artists who are considering entering their work?
AM: You must be in it to win it. I know a lot of artists don’t take part in competitions or juried shows because it creates a lot of angst for them. I’m of the opinion that you should try, you just don’t know what the selector will enjoy seeing. It may well be your subject matter and style of work just hits the nail on the head. I’m certainly glad I took the opportunity to take part.
CDH: Anything else you’d like to add?
AM: I would like to thank the PleinAir Salon for supporting artists across the world. By investing in artists through competitions and through articles in art magazines and in online blogs such as yours we would have an art world much diminished by a lack of backing. Without your support and recognition our work has less exposure and therefore less impact on people’s lives. Thank you!