Barbara Tapp is a watercolorist who was born in Australia and graduated in interior design. She worked as an architectural illustrator for over 35 years and today lives near Berkeley California where she pains primarily en plein air. She is a signature member of the California Watercolor Association.
What is it that you love about watercolor? What does the medium give you as an artist?
I love water play. As a kid I learned about watercolor while using magic paint books, drawing and coloring making patterns and filling them in .
In 2008 I began using watercolors as washes on my pen and ink house sketches for the Bay Area real estate market.
In 2011 I began painting large watercolor landscapes from my imagination and a door was opened.
I am now primarily a Plein Air painter and love the transparency of watercolor. It gives me endless possibilities for achieving depth and form. It’s a gentle paint force that flows off the brush and then with each expressive stroke or wash combines with the gravity, paper absorbency, fluidity, and pigment granulation and you get an explosive medium that constantly surprises me. Plus, I enjoy mixing my own colors too.
Could you walk us through your process? What do you need to have figured out at each stage?
My process is changing all the time .
Sometimes I sketch my concept in a sketchbook. I paint along in my mind as I draw, editing as I go. I’ll either sketch in very rough areas or draw a detailed 1 hr sketch. I will erase the whole lot if it’s not working.
Once I start painting, I cradle my watercolor block in my left hand as I apply vague wet into wet washes highlighting the colors of my piece but not the shapes. I work from top to bottom using gravity to draw the pigment down the page. This allows for random bleeding of colors into each other and gives me a color key for later on.
My watercolors can take up to four hours as I allow each wash to dry.
Over the initial wash I draw more accurately defining my shapes and composition.
The layering of washes and sketching goes back and forth and the final coat uses a small round size 8 brush or rigger loaded with a dark concentrated pigment mixture of Van Dyke Brown and Ultramarine Blue.
What do you need to have figured out before you begin a painting? Why?
Choosing a subject is paramount in my paintings.
I see a title in a scene.
My works are moments in time.
It can be any topic but it has to speak to me.
Light and contrast are essential features when choosing a scene.
I edit to support my argument.
Why is planning important? What does it give you in the painting process that you wouldn’t have without it?
I use the sketchbook to help me plan and resolve design issues ahead of time. This is the place where I freeze shadows for later reference, establish values and write my thoughts. Sometimes during the painting process I lose track of my original intention and words like startling, serene, dappled, and worn help me to refocus.
What does a painting need to have from a value standpoint to make it a strong painting?
I think of values as contrast. I ask, where are my darkest darks and lightest lights? Mid tones are everything that happens after the start and before the finish. I will paint around my whites and will put the darkest shadows in after the first initial washes. These dark shadows bring out the forms. I then work backwards.
Watercolor dries lighter so at the end I strengthen all my darks bringing valuable contrast to the paintings. This makes them sing.
What do you more or less take from what you see and what do you translate? Why?
I love to record life and objects as they randomly appear, presented in combinations in front of me. I have a sense of humor and often see a harmony of subject, pattern, color and light that amuses me.
I do edit non important or unnecessary stuff that does not support my conversation but do this as I draw through each stage. I omit things at the end if it is going to clutter my painting. Squinting at this stage helps see what is needed. I omitted the barbwire that was between me and the ship as an obstruction even though it was there.
What are you thinking through when you’re composing a scene? What does a painting need to have on a compositional level to be a strong painting?
When choosing a composition painting outdoors I will take many hours to find the exact scene or subject to paint. It can be very frustrating to not be able to settle.
I must have a gut reaction. I don’t paint anything just because I’m there. I have to feel it and have a reaction or desire and want to paint what I see.
I say I am painting Barbara’s world.
How do you approach color? Do you use only local color or do you change the color for the painting’s sake? How?
Color is a melody. Over the years I have reduced the amount of water I dip into and the intensity of my pigments have increased. That was a self discovery.
I respond to the colors I see but I like to experiment too. Sometimes I paint shadows purple, blue or grey for example. I love painting the blues of the sea and I gravitate to water locations because it makes me very happy puddling in blues.
Generally the subject dictates a real interpretation so my colors tend to be natural for the outdoors however my indoor still life work is a time to experiment.
During Covid 19 lockdown I changed my palette introducing warm yellows, oranges and contrasting purples. It has opened a new exciting door for my recent paintings.
How important is simplification? Or is it enough to just paint everything you see? Why or why not?
I am crazy about perspective and complicated views lure me in. I often look at a scene and ask myself if it is possible to paint what is in front of me. I love a good challenge. There is sport in this for me.
I love to edit carefully if it will prove my point. When I first began painting plein air I did record everything I saw. Now 7 years later and with more experience and miles of painting, I have better confidence editing. I learn as I go like most of us.
You paint across various subjects. How much does a new subject change how you approach the painting (either in the composition or the planning, etc) and what doesn’t change between subject matter?
I have an endless curiosity and was one of those kids. I love to explore subjects in series.
Each new subject opens doors for experimentation.
I saw a demonstration by Quang Ho at the Monterey Plein Air Convention on variations of light. So when I painted the WW 11 munitions ship I focused on reflected light.
In my dirty dishes series I focused on painting without any pencil and used a one 1/2 inch synthetic flat brush for the entire 14 paintings.
In my 31 days in Berkeley, I walked the streets searching for a story about change. I painted and completed each painting entirely on location and was heavily impacted by what I observed in the daily routines and patterns of the locals, the recycle people and the homeless. I observed the new housing impacting the quiet old neighborhoods. I became accepted and my paintings began to reflect their stories today and in the past.
I became much better at painting movable objects like cars and laid them in first because they were apt to drive off. This was a total emergence into the environment in which I was painting.
Learn more about watercolorist Barbara Tapp by visiting her at her website, on Facebookand on Instagram.