Gary Akers: Drawing in Watercolor From Start to Finish
by Lynne Moss Perricelli
|The White Pail
12¼ x 18¼. Courtesy Hammer Galleries,
New York, New York.
Gary Akers begins every watercolor painting with a drawing, which is a common practice among the medium’s practitioners. What sets Akers apart is his involvement in this stage, as he sometimes makes nearly a dozen sketches for a large painting. Other works don’t require as much planning, but nearly all of them begin with a graphite and watercolor study as a sort of trial run for the final piece. “There’s no real reasoning to any of it,” the artist says. “I just do what is necessary to figure out how to compose the final painting.” He does believe, however, that drawing is fundamental to his process. “You must be able to draw in order to paint, and I love drawing. It’s what I do in my painting.”
By this the artist means that drawing is critical not only during the early stages of a painting but also at the end, when he often incorporates drybrush to define the focal point or sharpen important details. Drybrush is a technique by which the artist uses a loaded brush with mostly dry, splayed bristles to apply fine details to small areas. Akers’ interest in the technique stems from his work with egg tempera, in which he uses a brush with a needlelike point to develop a painting with hatched lines. “The linear quality of egg tempera is like drawing with graphite,” he describes. “The use of drybrush in the watercolors is an extension of drawing in the same way, but I don’t go into as much detail.”
13¾ x 9¼. Private collection.
Akers lives in midcoast Maine five months out of the year, and in rural Kentucky for the remainder, providing him plenty of diverse subject matter. Most of his subjects he finds “by accident,” he says. “They come to me unexpectedly. I see the way the light is hitting an object, and I like the sense of depth or texture that is created.” In this way he looks for what he describes as a “decisive moment” in the play of light across the forms and records ideas in sketches and photographs, as well as in his memory. Equally important, however, is the emotional connection the artist feels to the subject. Cellar Light, for instance, the artist descended a staircase in an old cellar house and found several baskets of apples, potatoes, and turnips bathed in the soft glow from the light above. “The small room had no windows,” the artist recalls. “The only light came from the open door in the floor. When the sun hit the whitewashed plaster wall, the room would light up as if a lightbulb had been turned on. I could not believe it. Every afternoon for a short period this beautiful triangle of brilliant light would appear. It was like magic, and the place really fascinated me. It reminded me of my grandparents’ farm and brought back memories of my childhood days.”
Akers begins every new painting back in the studio, where he first makes several graphite sketches to finalize the value structure and composition. He then makes a full-scale drawing in graphite—which can take up to 10 hours—on the final surface, which is usually Strathmore 500 series Bristol board. The smooth, hard surface does not absorb the pigment and water but rather allows the washes to float on top, creating richer, deeper colors. “What you put on the board at the beginning is the same intensity at the end,” the artist describes. “With cold-pressed paper, you put down washes and you lose a value or two as the paint disappears into the paper.” Another advantage to the board is that the slick surface is similar to the gessoed board he is accustomed to using for egg tempera.
10¼ x 15¼. Private collection.
The artist uses basic materials, showing no preferences for paints and brushes. His palette, arranged from cool to warm on a John Pike Palette he bought in college in the 1970s, consists of cerulean blue, cobalt blue, ultramarine blue, sap green, olive green, cadmium red light, cadmium yellow light and deep, yellow ochre, raw sienna, raw umber, and burnt sienna. His brushes are mostly rounds in sable and blends, as well as a housepainter’s brush and a 3" hake, both of which he uses for laying in large areas. “I abuse my brushes and usually get one painting or less out of them,” the artist says. “I get into the paper, into the movements, and do a lot of scrubbing and scumbling.” He only rarely employs masking fluid, preferring instead to simply paint around the whites.
Akers begins by laying in the broad washes, developing the darkest darks first, and being careful to preserve the whites. He then builds the colors and forms with more layers, remaining constantly aware of the value structure he planned in the initial sketches. If he decides the piece needs more texture and detail, he incorporates drybrush, employing one of two techniques. To enhance the sense of texture, such as in skin, bark, or grass, he uses an old synthetic brush to press into the paint on his palette, then lifts out the brush with its bristles splayed in different directions and applies it to the board. “This approach retains some sense of spontaneity because I can’t control the paint’s application,” Akers says. In the other approach, the artist dips a sable brush into the paint, wrings it out with his fingers to make a sharp point, then lays in fine lines, which he controls for the tightest details. “When I’ve created too much detail,” he says, “I go over areas with a wash to make them blend with surrounding areas.” He admits drybrush is not for everyone, mostly because it requires more planning and patience, but he urges artists to try it in areas they intend as a focal point. “I personally feel that the combination of loose washes and tight detail makes a strong painting,” he says.
10¼ x 15¼. Private collection.
When Akers first began working in watercolor, after finishing college in the 1970s, he studied the paintings and techniques of many artists, feeling especially attracted to Andrew Wyeth, Winslow Homer, and Edward Hopper. All these artists influenced him significantly, although now Akers feels less pulled by other artists. “In the beginning, like many artists, I was looking at everything. Now I want to do my own thing, and I don’t pursue other artists’ work like I used to.”
Following his own course has led to the artist’s considerable success and acclaim, with many awards and prominent collectors to his credit. Akers attributes his good fortune to his practice of setting goals, building upon each preceding accomplishment. “When I was first starting out,” he recalls, “I set a goal to become a signature member of the American Watercolor Society. Another goal was to be featured in American Artist. Lately my goals have centered on getting New York gallery representation.” Akers’ recent solo show at New York’s Hammer Galleries attests to his achievement in that regard. “Having my work in regional and then national exhibitions gave it exposure to gallery owners and to magazines, which led to more galleries and exhibitions,” he notes. “Of course all this brings more deadlines and more stress, because I don’t take any of the shows lightly, but they’ve built on top of each other.”
1999, watercolor, 19 x 29. Private collection.
In all his accomplishments as a painter, Akers is primarily a draftsman, with the act of drawing informing every step of his creative process. Encouraging other artists to draw as much as they can, he suggests “drawing what you know and can relate to,” just as he has done. It’s advice one hears again and again—and yet it always bears repeating.
About the Artist
Gary Akers holds a master’s degree in fine art from Morehead State University, in Morehead, Kentucky, and studied egg-tempera technique on an Elizabeth T. Greenshields Foundation grant. His work in both watercolor and egg tempera has been widely exhibited at numerous institutions, including the Speed Art Museum, in Louisville, Kentucky; the Frye Art Museum, in Seattle; and the National Academy of Design, in New York City. He has won major awards from the American Watercolor Society, of which he is a signature member; the Southern Watercolor Society; and the Kentucky Watercolor Society. The Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, in Kansas City, recently purchased his watercolor Mrs. Lean Arthur. His work appears in many magazines and books. He maintains studios in Kentucky and Maine. For more information on the artist, visit www.garyakers.com.