Watercolorist Frank Eber grew up in Europe. He took full advantage of his time on the continent including being mentored by Italian master painter Renato Casaro and living in the south of France for 3 years. For several decades he worked as a professional illustrator and commission portrait artist. Today he travels the globe teaching workshop, juroring, and painting.
What does a scene need to have for you to want to paint it? Is it more than just a pretty picture?
I look for pattern, lights and darks. That's a good start. Of course the subject matter is also important but really to a lesser degree. There is usually also something else there that attracts me, something more profound about the scene (or person, if it is a portrait). Often it is something I glimpse, out of the corner of my eyes. Something that lasts but a moment. A mood. I am trying to paint that. It can be beautiful or not. Definitely not 'pretty'.
Painting is about translation: What do you take from the reference and what do you know you’ll change?
Painting is a visual language. We are translating what we see into something paintable. Inward intuition is what will guide me in determining what I will put in and what I'll leave out or otherwise change.
I try limiting the reliance on the reference, at least to a certain degree, and interpret the scene instead. This process will create a personal version of whatever it is I am painting. It does take a lot of practice to learn that.
This doesn't mean I don't use the reference photo. References give vital information about a subject but at the same time, a reference can never give me what it was that excited me to paint the subject.
What are you hoping to evoke with your work? How do you approach that on a technical level? How do you approach that on an emotional level?
I am hoping to touch the viewer or buyer on an emotional level, even with landscapes. It is a big compliment to me when someone tells me the painting makes them feel like they're there or they can feel the emotion on the face of a portrait.
A painting can have great power. It can stop a person in their tracks and hold them there. If my art can stop someone and keep them in that present moment I feel I may have added positively to this person’s life experience. A painting is like a record of a moment in time, not unlike a photograph. But both a painting or a photograph can be more than that when it transcends the technical aspects and points to a deeper truth.
Robert Henri said in his book The Art Spirit': 'I don't care if you paint rocks, trees and mountains well. You have not succeeded if you can't make me 'feel' that there are rocks trees, mountains and air there'.
I am paraphrasing, but what he meant, and I agree, is that a technically perfect but otherwise lifeless painting won't make you feel anything.
During the painting process I try to refrain from naming, analyzing, evaluating, judging in any way. With a still mind I am hoping to be able to connect better with what I paint.
How important is planning to your process? What kind of planning do you do and why? What does planning give you as a painter?
Planning is very important before painting.
There is definitely a lot of left-brain work in representational painting. Maybe even more so in watercolor painting than working with oils. You need to pre-draw the scene. That means design and compositional decisions, figuring out pattern and make general color choices before we ever pick up a brush. Watercolor can be unforgiving, therefore a sound plan is in order first. I often also do a value sketch or notan to get a feel for the scene.
When painting portraits I always draw the person a few times first.
Planning will give me confidence to paint the scene. Having put work in beforehand can help to achieve a successful outcome.
When you’re finished with a painting, how do you think through it? What questions do you ask about it?
I honestly do not analyze my work much. I instinctively know when the painting is finished and working or when it's ready for the garbage bin or ready to be wiped off. If there's something there, it is deeply satisfying and makes me happy.
In the first few days, I never show it. It needs to stand the test of time, i.e. I put it up in my studio and let it hang for a week and keep looking at it. If I see something not working, I pull it down and change it. Another version of this is putting the painting away for awhile and pulling it out a few days later for a fresh look.
What is the brain space you need to be in to do your best work? In a world that’s so busy, how do you make mental space for your work? How important is that?
Good question. The right mental space, as you call it, is everything. I think I need stillness of the mind to do my best work. If I have a quiet mind, the 'world' doesn't matter. That is misleading by the way as I am part of the world too! There is no separation. The ego creates separation but it is an illusion. The world can be busy, that's ok. It is important to accept the moment as it is.
'You could be good today, but instead you choose tomorrow. Give yourself a gift: the present moment.' Marcus Aurelius said that 2000 years ago.
The quiet focus I refer to will take me into my own creative space. What happens around me is no longer of significance. I would say that is the most important aspect when painting. When I try to paint while I am distracted in some way or can't stop thinking, it shows right away.
Being fully in the moment is easier said than done, but we've all had it happen before. Artists are much closer to that state than ordinary people. They get into 'the zone' easier, even if they don't consciously realize that is what they're doing.
How does an artist learn to follow what inspires them and trust that? What does that look like and why is it so important?
I am not sure that artists need to learn how to be inspired. Intuition is an inner guide and should never be ignored. We may be born with the ability to be inspired.
If you're inspired you are halfway there. I think your enthusiasm about something will fuel your inspiration. You go with it, no question. When you paint what you love you are automatically inspired. It just happens.
Notice that both inspiration and enthusiasm are not thought forms. They go deeper. Naturally, the logical and analytical mind would ask why it is important to follow what inspires you. But the logical mind will never be able to create art!
It is important to follow what inspires you because you will be able to paint that best. Anything you love you paint well because you're invested in it. Again, this is all after you have gained the skills to do so first. You will have something more profound to say with your art than when just painting what others paint or what's 'fashionable' to paint right now.
How does a painter move beyond materials? Why is that so critical? Why do you think we get stuck in the material's phase?
The most often asked question is workshops: what colors are you using? The analytical mind tries to make sense of the process that is painting. It is looking for something to 'hold onto’’
The creative process is inexplicable. It follows no rigid order and that can be daunting for a beginning painter.
George Carlson in his book 'Carlson's guide to landscape painting' says on the first page: 'the art of painting cannot be taught, therefore it cannot be learned'. All we do is talk about painting principles that are applied.
I cannot teach you what you should see or feel.
Beginning painters need to go through the progression though. The fundamentals are learned first, they are the base. Composition, color mixing, value and edge!
It is critical to move on from materials and technique because only when you have those in your subconscious will you be able to be truly creative.
As you became more confident as an artist, how did your process or approach change? How have your goals as an artist changed?
Confidence and skill come with time. You are constantly changing, evolving, devolving and changing more. That also implies that methods change, some materials or approach change. For instance, when painting watercolor I used to only work at an angle. Now I work flat also.
In oils. I used to always do an underpainting. Now I often try to achieve final color and value with every brushstroke directly on white canvas.
It all depends on what I am trying to achieve. Often teachers cast long shadows and it is necessary to drop certain things we may have been taught early on. Every painting situation requires unique decisions that are made in the moment, made in the 'now'.
How do you continue to push yourself as an artist?
I paint in two very different mediums, oil and watercolor. Or at least they seem to be very different. They are actually also the same There is a different process for oil painting but it is also painting. Oil and watercolor demand different approaches and decisions while painting. I welcome that because it challenges and teaches me.
New subject matter is also something that can push you on. Traveling to a new place will help find new inspiration.
I think artists sometimes get stuck because they make money painting a certain thing and then they are known for that. When they all of a sudden no longer paint that, they may lose their audience and that means they may lose money also. But I think it is essential to keep growing and changing. Money is never a good reason for anything.
I will continue to try to record the very essence that is revealed in a landscape, or a passing face, a moment in time. I think that pursuit is what's pushing me on. Finding this moment of silent understanding and connection and then paint it before it's gone. It is those moments that I live for. There's so much to learn still!
It is all there if I can find a way to tune into it. That is the lifelong challenge!
To learn more about watercolorist Frank Eber, check out his website, blog and on Instagram.