John Salminen earned his Bachelor’s Degree and Master’s Degree in art from the University of Minnesota. He lives and works in Duluth, Minnesota. John teaches workshops, makes presentations and participates in painting events around the world. He has two videos with Creative Catalyst Productions including “A Designed Approach to Abstraction” and “Urban Landscape in Watercolor.”
What does watercolor specifically allow you to do as a medium?
Watercolor distinguishes itself from other mediums through its transparency. It gains luminosity because the white of the paper is seen through thin washes of color and value. As a result watercolor can replicate effects of light and shadow in a way that opaque mediums cannot. Much of my work is meant to capture subtle nuances of mood and atmosphere associated with closely related values. Watercolor enables me to capture these evocative passages.
Could you walk us through your process? What do you need to have figured out at each step?
When I first started painting I worked solely from sketches done on location but as my paintings became more complex and I started painting cityscapes, photos became more expedient. I used my 35 mm camera with a 300 mm telephoto zoom lens for many years. Now I use my cell phone almost exclusively.
I look for composition first and foremost as I frame my shots, knowing that I can always change the composition by adding, moving or omitting objects and by changing the quality of the light or the time of the day. I use my photo references to do a detailed drawing on my d’Arches 140 lb. cold pressed paper, choosing this paper because it stands up to aggressive lifting, taping and scrubbing. At this point, I look closely at the drawing and come up with a plan, according to the demands of the subject. I determine the order that I need to apply washes, often working from the farthest to the closest areas. Before I begin to paint I mask anything I need to protect.
As the painting progresses, I frequently stop working and put the painting up to study the results from a distance. Sometimes the painting will indicate the need to rethink my game plan as images and patterns of value evolve. I feel it’s important to listen to what the painting has to say as it often makes helpful suggestions.
I paint with a range of brushes from 3” square to small pointed #4’s. I also employ hake brushes to blend and soften edges and passages. When I want to Iift specific shapes, I place 2” hardware or lumber yard masking tape on the painting and cut the shape out of the tape using an inexpensive snap-cutter. Next, I use Mr. Clean Magic Erasers (must be ‘original’ or double strong original) soaked in water and squeezed out to gently rub the area until the value I’m after is reached.
When the painting is nearly complete I again look at it from a distance, searching for final value adjustments to help prioritize the most to least important areas. I can then make subtle value changes using the Pat Dews mouth Atomizer.
What does the planning part of your process look like and why is planning important?
I enjoy the organizational challenge a painting presents. I try to use my composition to lead the viewer through the painting, directing their journey from the least important parts to the most significant. To do this, I must carefully determine which parts to emphasize, making sure I don’t confuse the viewer with too many side-trips and blind alleys. I arrange the placement of both value and detail. Higher contrast draws the eye while closely related values tend to recede. Sharper detail also gains importance and attracts the viewer. When I plan the arrangement of these elements it helps me determine how to proceed through the painting process.
You teach workshops on design. Where do you see students running into problems in their work from a design standpoint? What advice do you give them?
Many artists need to think more about using value carefully and we can all significantly improve our paintings by doing so. I also recommend regularly studying a painting in progress from a distance. We need to ask ourselves if the painting is telling the story we want it to tell. Careful observation opens a dialogue and this is the opportunity the painting has to suggest its preferred direction.
How do you design value in your work? What’s important to remember about value?
I am a value painter. It has been my experience as a judge, juror and workshop presenter that more paintings succeed or fail based on the artist’s understanding and application of value.
Artists sometimes avoid using very dark values and overwork the very light high key passages, creating middle value paintings. I try to use the full range of value in most of my paintings, from the white of the paper to lamp black or the darkest black I can mix, enabling me to fully explore all of the potential of light and shadow. Mood and atmosphere are in large part determined by the arrangement of values on the page. The importance of a value study cannot be overstated.
What is happening from a color standpoint in your work? How much do you use local color as a starting point or how much do you ignore it completely.
I use color subtly in my paintings, combining complementary colors to create mixes of rich warm and cool grays. I then drop in some intense local color as an accent. By limiting this local color and carefully staging its placement within a sea of neutral complementary passages, it has great impact and can lend drama and emphasis to important areas.
How important are warms and cools in your paintings? How do you use them and what does that achieve?
Color temperature changes can be an effective tool in creating interest in various parts of the painting and in helping to move the viewer's eye through the composition. A dominantly cool painting benefits from warm accents and vice-versa. As I design a painting, value decisions take precedence over temperature but they can be combined to make an effective statement.
Your work has a lot of hard edges. How do you use hard-edged shapes (big or small) as a cohesive and unified aspect of your paintings?
Hard-edged shapes can add high contrast and need to be used carefully. Many artists who are capable of painting great detail understand that too much detail can lead to chaos, giving equal emphasis to all parts of the painting. By using closely related values in less important areas and reserving sharper contrasting values for the center of interest, I can prioritize how the viewer reads the piece.
What does a painting need to have from a shape standpoint to make it work? How are you thinking through shapes?
I often refer to Ed Whitney’s teaching. He says shapes should be irregular and unpredictable. Frank Webb says “paint shapes, not things”. This is very helpful advice as we often focus on the object we are seeing and neglect the need to build a design of interesting irregular and unpredictable shapes.
Your paintings have a real sense of light. What is happening in the painting to create that sense of light? Is it pigment characteristics such as transparency, color or value? How?
I try to create mood and atmosphere in my work. I have found that value is the design element that best replicates the effects of light and shadow. A glow is established by gradually shifting the value in the area from light to dark. As the lightest values subtly shift to increasingly darker values luminosity is created. This can be enhanced by temperature shifts as well but color and temperature alone do not create a luminous glow. Even black and white value studies can ‘glow’.
We perceive our world through our awareness of the subtleties of light and shadow. As artists, we recreate those subtle relationships with value. I believe I still have a lot to learn about value and this is one of the challenges that keeps me excited about the medium of watercolor.
Learn more about his Creative Catalyst Production videos here: “A Designed Approach to Abstraction” and “Urban Landscape in Watercolor.”