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Eye and Hand

Monochrome Monologue: The Color of Water Blue Light Special

By Tamia Nelson

January 1, 2013

Few paddlers are painters. But a lot of painters also paddle, and I wouldn't be surprised if their numbers were increasing. While digital cameras are convenient tools for recording where you went and what you saw, painting — like sketching — forces you to observe, closely and carefully. To borrow Colin Fletcher's wonderfully apt phrase yet again, there's simply no better way to fix images on the "emulsion of memory." Painting also has history. The intrepid surveyors and scientists who first explored North America's great waterways didn't have cameras in their packs. Ink and paint were the only tools available to them. You can see the results in many old journals (and modern reprints). Some of their sketches and paintings are simply workmanlike records of shorelines and portages, intended to guide later travelers though landscapes devoid of signposts. But others — like the sensitive portraits and wildlife paintings done by Robert Hood, a midshipman who accompanied John Franklin on the Coppermine Expedition — are works of art in their own right.

The medium of choice for these artist‑explorers? Watercolor. After all, the vehicle in which the pigments are suspended — water — isn't hard to come by in Canoe Country. But — you knew there was a "but" coming, didn't you? — watercolor isn't without its problems, especially in the field. Space constraints loom large in any small boat. The paddling artist won't want to cumber herself with a collection of brushes, papers, and pigments, just on the off chance that the opportunity to make a striking painting might come her way on a day when there's no need to hurry.

And make no mistake, while we don't like to admit it, many paddling trips are governed by time constraints almost as rigid as those operating in our working lives. Each day on the water has its quota of miles, and the vagaries of wind and weather add further uncertainties. It's a lucky painter who can find the time (and the opportunity) to marshal a studio assortment of paints and brushes, let alone employ them.

The answer? There are two. The first is a camera — the default choice for quick and easy imaging. And the second? Let's call it the Thoreau approach, after his famous advice in Walden:

Simplify, Simplify

If a tray of tubes — I have no fewer than 27 different colors, though any "serious" painter will doubtless own more — is too many, just reduce their number. The same goes for brushes. This needn't represent a great artistic sacrifice. While each color has its place on a studio palette, it's a rare day when I use more than four or five colors in a painting.

The Colors of Water


Nor is that the irreducible minimum. If your goal is to execute a closely observed portrait of a backcountry scene, a single color can be enough. (After all, photographers got along pretty well with just black and white for nearly two centuries. Ansel Adams didn't find this to be much of a handicap, and neither did Cartier‑Bresson.) It's an idea I've flirted with for many years.

Mostly Monochrome

The painting of the spruces (top left, above) used two colors, but all the others were executed with just one. The advantages of this radically reduced palette are obvious. It takes up less space in your pack, and it requires less time to lay out in the field. Since I seldom bring more than two brushes, and I almost always use small sheets of paper, my entire kit can fit in a big pocket. Need convincing? Then check this out:

Compare and Contrast

The picture contrasts my studio kit with my traveling kit. The traveling kit is the colorful bit in the corner. The largest and least tractable item is a polypro cutting board that doubles as my easel, but even it slips easily into the internal pocket of my getaway pack with room to spare.

Now let's take a closer look at what's …

In the Bag

After a short period of experimentation I pared my watercolor kit to the following items:

Paint   It's not a long list. Just one color, in fact: blue. This is a natural for water, sky, and snow, not to mention any landscape rendered in the half‑light of dusk or dawn. I picked a favorite shade, Prussian blue. (Unfortunately, Prussian blue isn't accurately reproduced on computer displays, so you'll have to make allowances. If you've ever seen a high‑quality print of Hokusai's The Great Wave off Kanagawa, you've seen Prussian blue at its best. It's also the blue of blueprints.)

Brushes  Two in all. One is a large synthetic‑bristle flat brush with a relatively short plastic handle that sports a bevel end (for scraping paint). It was a much‑appreciated gift from a valued friend. The other is a medium‑round synthetic‑bristle brush with a gossamer bamboo handle.

Paper  I buy Arches (that's a brand name) cold‑pressed 140‑pound paper, in 7 inch by 10 inch blocks, then cut individual sheets in half. A stack of these half‑sheets travels in a quart‑sized freezer bag. The number I pack depends on (1) the length of the trip and (2) how much painting I think I'll be doing.

Palette  A small, white plastic saucer I had lying around. It's lightweight and only six inches in diameter, with a shallow central well. (It's a saucer, right?) That and the gently sloping sides make it a fine palette for a monochrome painting kit.

Plastic Lid  Another high‑end item, this was once the lid of a 15‑ounce container of ricotta. I use it as a clean resting place for a sponge and some cotton swabs (see below), and it also serves to catch the drips from the …

Plastic Cup  I prefer a wide‑mouth jar to hold the water in which I dip my brushes, but I mislaid the one I'd used for years. Until I find a suitable — unbreakable and leak‑proof — replacement, I'll make do with a small plastic cup that once held an individual serving of peaches. (It was a store promotional giveaway.) The cup lacks a cap, but at least it holds enough water to wet and clean a brush. And it's light.

Cotton Rag  I use a piece torn from an old tee‑shirt, though a swatch from a cotton diaper would work just as well. Wash the diaper first, though.

Synthetic Sponge  An end trimmed from a household sponge. It makes painting texture almost painless.

Cotton Swabs  For creating highlights and adding texture. Good for cleaning your ears, too, though your doctor probably wouldn't agree.

Pencil and Eraser  Used to outline complex scenes before painting. Since both can be found in my sketching kit, anyway, they don't add to the burden in my pack.

Freezer Bags  These keep everything together. Everything, that is, but the …

Watercolor Easel and Binder Clip  The bulkiest item in my kit, this travels separately. It started out in life as a cutting board, but I retasked it as a drawing board and watercolor easel. The binder clip keeps the paper from taking flight in a breeze.

As you can see, even a minimalist watercolor kit comprises a surprisingly long list of items, but the resulting inventory is nothing like the joyful clutter in my studio assemblage, with its multiple tubes of paint and arsenal of brushes. And the field kit takes up no more space than an iPad — much less if you don't count the easel. You can see it packed for the trail in the photo on the left, below, while on the right, it's set up and ready:

Field Kit

This was shot on a table at home. On the trail, I place the water cup and other paraphernalia within easy reach, on any handy and more‑or‑less level surface, with the easel and paper resting on my knees, on my rucksack, or on the hull of my inverted canoe.


Now the real work begins. At first, the notion of painting a scene with just one color seems barking mad. But it isn't. And a little practice will show you how it can be done. Of course, …

You Will Make Mistakes

But while you can't eat your mistakes — this privilege is reserved for the camp cook — you can certainly learn from them. I know I have. Here are four instructive examples:

Lessons Learned

The signal flaw in each? Overpainting. It's easy to do, especially when working in one color. "It takes two men to paint an outdoor picture," opined artist and engineer F. Hopkinson Smith in the course of his 1914 Scammon Lectures before the Art Institute of Chicago, "one to do the work and the other to kill him when he has done enough." That's not a strategy I'm tempted to adopt, but it certainly makes the point.

And just what is the point? Simple. Include only what is necessary in your painting. Avoid gratuitous embellishments, and be cautious of unusual techniques that you haven't already made your own by dint of hard work and long practice. I broke this rule in the painting on the lower right in the panel above. It's a nighttime scene in winter, with a full moon illuminating both water and snowy shore. So far, so good. But I also wanted to evoke the effect that a furious little squall had on the landscape. So I sprinkled salt onto the wet paint, a well‑established wheeze for producing the semblance of falling snow in watercolor paintings. I was too impatient, however. I should have waited for the paper to dry until it was barely moist. I didn't. The result? Each grain of salt produced a diffuse, fuzzy blob rather than the image of a small flake, suggesting something more like a barrage of star shells than a snow squall.

No matter. Blunders are a necessary part of learning. You didn't give up paddling the first time you swamped or capsized, did you? Of course not. You simply added the experience to your personal treasure trove of lessons learned and moved on.


And you'll want to do just that whenever a painting disappoints. But don't make the mistake of thinking that working in only one color dooms you to a succession of disappointments. Apart from the obvious logistical advantages — who wants to keep track of 27 tubes of paint and a dozen different brushes in a canoe? — there's a lot to be learned from visualizing …

Your World in One Color

Like black‑and‑white photography and pen‑and‑ink drawing, monochrome painting demands that you concentrate on light, form, and composition. This is not a bad thing, and you'll probably find that your studio painting improves as a consequence. In the meantime, you won't have to lug your entire studio outfit around in your pack. (Though you will need a bigger tube or larger pan than usual of whatever color you decide on.)

The greatest advantage lies elsewhere, however. The monochrome kit is so easy to set up, and requires so little care and attention, that you're almost certain to find yourself painting more. And since that's the only way you'll ever become a better painter, this is a very good thing, indeed. You may even decide to use your field kit in your studio at home, whenever you have a few minutes of time free from other obligations. I do, and while I'm occasionally frustrated by its limitations, I'm pretty happy with my progress to date. I first turned to painting because I wanted to sharpen my powers of observation. I kept at it because I liked having a way to record the passing scene that didn't depend on batteries and microchips. Now I've come to see painting as an enjoyable activity in itself, exercising both hand and eye and representing a tangible link to the lives (and works) of the artist‑explorers who put so much of North America on the map.

Come to think of it, that sounds a lot like paddling, doesn't it?

Four in One (Water)

Do you like the idea of carrying a palette in your duffle, but are you afraid you won't have the time to paint? Or maybe you just don't want to add dozens of tubes and brushes to an already crowded (and cluttered) pack. If so, you have another option: Limit your palette of colors to a single favorite, and see what it can do. You just might be pleasantly surprised. And even if you're not, you'll have gained something in the attempt. When spring returns, and you're threading the needle down a tricky drop, with a clean run depending on flawless coordination between eye and hand, you'll realize that the hours you spent at your easel yielded far more than blobs of color on paper. They taught you to see — to look beneath the surface of things. Whether you're a paddler or a painter or both, there is nothing more important.

Do you have a better idea for making the most of your painting time? A field watercolor kit that combines light weight and small size, but offers more versatility than a single color can offer? Then don't keep the secret to yourself. Tell me about it, and (with your permission) I'll pass the word along.



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