In Asia, the serpent or dragon, has mythic power. The dragon shape invests paintings with that power and, with the unifying effect a serpentine shape brings to a picture. The dragon can be alluded to by its shadow, by its negative shape, or by its positive presence when camouflaged as a river or tree. If you set two parallel lines or edges along side each other they will float apart in opposite directions. They need a way to interact, to interpenetrate, to interconnect. The dragon or serpentine shape creates this interconnection. Consider this Japanese woodblock from 1903 by Kamisaka Sekka of Pine Islands (example 1). I will use this design in my following step-by-step watercolor demonstration. The design is used pan-historically and pan-culturally as you can see in this unfinished watercolor study by Albrecht Durer in 1495 (example 2). J.M.W. Turner uses an even simpler form of this design as shown in example 4, a small oil sketch. Example 3 is small oil by Achille-Etna Michallon (who instructed Corot) which shows a more complex zig zag with a strong sense of linear perspective. Note how each level of the waterfall gets progressively thinner as it recedes in space. Example 5 offers a set of diagrams of the use of the serpent/dragon shape as seen in the respective examples.
I want to present two types of watercolor, one more abstract than the other. Both are on a prepared 140 lb hot press paper. I prepared the paper by wiping in a polymer gloss varnish which prevents the watercolor pigments from sinking in, from losing any color saturation as they dry. The prepared paper also makes lifting out lights remarkably easy. Just add water and you’re back to white paper. The first image begins with a palette of carmine, ultramarine blue, cyan blue, opaque white (not used until final atmospheric effects are applied) and gamboge yellow. Notice that the design borrows from the Japanese woodblock.
Here in the first step I freely apply the paint with a damp two inch synthetic sable wash brush. I am using a mixture of carmine and ultramarine and cyan blue, mostly carmine. Observe that I am loosely creating the dragon shape.
example 7. step 2. I apply more dark blue to the dark areas.
In step 4 I use an inexpensive (Home Depot) 1″ bristle brush to dry brush in atmospheric effects with tinted opaque white. I have also deepened the blue in the lower left using glazes of ultramarine. I spot inside those glazes to give the impression of reflecting matter below the surface
In step 5 I began to consolidate the dark areas because, I saw that they were too spotty with too many highlights. I again added more dark glazes of ultramarine blue to the bottom. The lower portion of the picture now becomes a dark threshold to cross over into the space behind. I added more atmospheric perspective to the back and, I extended the thin light blue line of the top edge of water further toward the left to further enhance the feeling of receding space.
The next example is another but, more abstract approach to the same motif. The palette here is constrained to burnt Siena, ultramarine blue and opaque white. The image area blends freely without a concern for legible edges. The brush is the same two inch flat synthetic sable wash brush.
Example 11. step one.
Now the image is further simplified. The framing dark areas on the sides follow the historical precedents I presented in my initial examples. The minimalist shape and vague atmosphere bring me back to the idea of Kamisaka Sekka’s woodblock.