Instruction: Wash Painting- In Praise Of Happy Accidents

Wash Painting

Animation Resources supporter, Mike Fontanelli brought by a stack of mid-1930s Colliers magazines for us to digitize. Colliers was the "Rolls Royce" of weekly magazines for many years, employing some of the greatest illustrators in the business. In browsing through page after page of beautiful wash paintings, I was struck by how rare it is to see illustrations like this any more. That’s just plain wrong.

Wash Painting

In our digital age, programs like Photoshop have replaced brush and pen. But Photoshop doesn’t come close to the flexibility and variety of natural textures that water painting can provide. And in the hands of an experienced artist, a brush can knock out a finished painting much faster than with a computer. It just takes advance planning, concentration and an experienced hand.

Wash Painting

Look at the beautiful compositions in these examples. The artists were working from a carefully constructed drawing, and they worked out every detail before paint touched paper. The light source and the value scale are precisely controlled to make the image "mesh" in your eye. There’s no wasted effort or extraneous detail. The paintings themselves were executed very quickly.

Wash Painting

That’s the exact opposite of the way that a digital image is created. Instead of making all the creative decisions up front, the digital artist makes those decisions as he paints. In Photoshop, it’s typical to build up the illustration in layers, stacking up planes that can be shifted around as needed. The composition evolves, created in sections and joined with blurred seams to connect them. This evolutionary process may result in an image that is acceptably complex, but it doesn’t lend itself to creating a strong or unified statement.

Wash PaintingWash PaintingRecently, I saw a cityscape background from an animated feature that had been created by cutting and pasting pieces of images together. The light came from six different directions. The perspective changed from one part of the image to another. If you looked at any one small section, it looked OK, but the whole didn’t work together. The overall impression was cacophony. Worse yet, the image looked terrible if it was reduced in size or resolution. The scale of the overall composition and the degree of detail was uniform across the entire image. When you resized or reduced the resolution, it all turned to mush.

Contrast that with these beautiful wash paintings… The overall composition reads no matter how small you make it, and there’s a lot of variety between sharp details (in the faces and hands) and loose brushwork (in the fabric and backgrounds). This keeps your eye focused on the important part of the composition. But there’s an even bigger difference… Even when enlarged many times, these paintings still look good because of what watercolor painters refer to as the "happy accidents". Any digital anomaly or seam between layers in a Photoshop image will stand out like a sore thumb, but a loose brush stroke, a bit of paper peeking through the dry brush, or a bleeding bit of pigment can look beautiful. The accidents are natural looking.

Wash Painting
Wash Painting
Wash Painting
Wash Painting

All of the images you see here come from two issues of Colliers from 1934. Every week, the staff artists had to quickly produce striking images to accompany the articles. Speed was of the essence. Wash painting was a quick and beautiful solution.

Wash Painting

One week, an artist might be illustrating a romance…

Wash Painting

The next week a Western adventure…

Wash Painting

The technique lent itself to both realistic depiction and cartoony stylization.

Wash Painting

If you haven’t checked them out yet, make sure to take a look at our previous posts on 30s & 40s Colliers illustrations and Wartime Colliers. There’s a wealth of great images in old magazines like this.

Wash Painting

Many thanks to Mike Fontanelli for sharing these with us. He has a stack of Colliers with Earl Oliver Hurst covers that he will be bringing by soon. I can’t wait to see those.

Wash Painting
Wash Painting

If these amazing images have inspired you, and you’d like a project to sharpen your art skills, here’s a lesson from the fabulous Famous Artists Course. Pull out your brushes and some lamp black and give it a try. Have fun!

FAMOUS ARTISTS ON WASH PAINTING PART ONE: The Fundamentals Of Wash Painting

Wash Painting
Wash Painting
Wash Painting
Wash Painting
Wash Painting
Wash Painting

FAMOUS ARTISTS ON WASH PAINTING PART TWO: Step By Step Through Paintings By Dohanos and Whitcomb

Wash Painting
Wash Painting
Wash Painting
Wash Painting
Wash Painting
Wash Painting
Wash Painting
Wash Painting

Let me see what you come up with.

Stephen Worth
Director
Animation Resources

INSTRUCTIONINSTRUCTION

This posting is part of an online series of articles dealing with Instruction.

IllustrationIllustration

This posting is part of a series of articles comprising an online exhibit spotlighting Illustration.

8 Responses to “Instruction: Wash Painting- In Praise Of Happy Accidents”

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  2. Patricia says:

    I find the article’s bias against digital art to be quite unfair. A talented artist is a talented artist, no matter if the medium is paint, pixels, or pee splattered on canvas. You act as if those who paint on the computer don’t have respect for traditional painters. Digital artists (if they are using an illustration program such as Corel or Photoshop, and not simply cutting and pasting from Google Images) still learn and utilize the principles of art, and it still requires a great amount of skill and effort to create a digital painting. While I greatly admire these beautiful paintings, I’ve seen many pieces of computer art that are equally beautiful. We live in a post-Toy Story world where computer artists and animators have produced works as breathtaking as those created by their traditional-artist counterparts, yet this post seems like it was written back when John Lasseter was booted off ‘The Brave Little Toaster’.

    I find this bizarre antipathy to computer art not only close-minded but archaic as well- I thought the fear of the “evil” computer died out in the 1980s. In the future, I sincerely hope you are more respectful of artists who work outside of traditional media.

    • I have nothing against digital art at all. My objection is to the concept that a technical medium should be overseen by technicians and not artists. I want CGI to reach the level of animation that was the standard in the golden age, but it just hasn’t gotten there yet. Hand drawn animation has slid backwards too. This isn’t the fault of the artists. It’s the result of the artists’ input being marginalized within the production system.

  3. Rory Walker says:

    Hello,

    I was very interested in this post, and figured it high time that I tried doing this for myself, so I’ve spent a very enjoyable evening going through all the tutorials and done my own versions. What fun! Here they are in all their monochromatic glory –

    http://roryroryrory.blogspot.com/2011/02/famous-artists-on-wash-painting.html

    Thanks for this, I always wondered how Chas Addams did his drawings, and now I think I’m a little closer to knowing.

    Cheers – Rory

  4. Jim says:

    I agree with Patricia. Your not fair in this article. You grab one example of bad digital work then insinuate that is how it is everywhere. You are doing a dis-service to digital artists.

    The computer isn’t ink paper or canvas; nor is ink paper and canvas a computer. You are comparing apples to oranges, oils to acrylics, drawing to painting, painting to photography. Not appropriate.

    Sounds to me, someone is yearning for pre-comp days. And fine art days they were too. But there is still a bunch fine art going on out there today both on paper and canvas, and on computer.

    See my article, “Who’ll Stop The Train”, it’s on my site, you have the link.

  5. Shawn Luke says:

    This is a great, amazing article. Thanks a tonne, Steve and Mike. I love the illustrations and the insights. I book marked and am going to follow the lesson when I have a chance. As far as digital painting is concerned, perhaps too many artists lean on the technical side of the digital attributes and not enough on the artistic ones. It’s easy to do when you have a deadline looming, but I think as artists get more experience and comfortable, the art improves and the reliance on program techniques diminishes, or gets integrated towards making better art.

  6. jock123 says:

    Sorry, can’t agree with your premise – there are talented, quick and well-prepared artists working digitally, just as there are painters in traditional media who work spontaneously on the canvas or paper…
    The medium chosen doesn’t dictate the approach taken, and it’s pointless to pretend like this that it does; any of the exercises in the wash “how to” manual could be applied to digital media, especially if using the correct applications to do it – Canvas or Manga Studio mimic all the attributes of traditional paints and papers, pens and canvasses, and yes, Photoshop can be made to work that way too, if you take the time to learn (just as one must learn to use water colours, for example).
    Likewise there are beautiful animations made with computers just as there are examples of hideous and inept cartoon done in “traditional” ways.

    What is good id good… the medium *isn’t* the message… :-)

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