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Technique: George James: Innovations With Transparent Watercolor

Technique: George James: Innovations With Transparent Watercolor

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Known for his innovative method of using transparent watercolor on a nonabsorbent surface, this California artist employs an open-ended approach.

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by Lynne Moss Perricelli

Sunday Morning Nougat
2003, watercolor on Yupo, 26 x 36.
All artwork this article collection
the artist unless otherwise indicated.

George James loves the spontaneity of watercolor so much that he works exclusively on a surface that repels the water, allowing him to rework the paint and allow the imagery to evolve for as long as he pleases. “My whole philosophy is to work spontaneously, and with traditional watercolor the artist gets about one and a half chances at it,” he says. “With the materials I use, I can keep honing a painting for weeks.”

In a departure from the traditional surface of paper, James prefers to paint on a sheet of plastic called Yupo. He first encountered the product in 1982 while teaching at California State University, Fullerton, where one of his students was drawing on a new surface her husband had given her from his work in the printing industry. Intrigued, James began experimenting with the material, which was originally named Kimdura, continually trying new materials and techniques to achieve the effects of traditional watercolor on this new nonabsorbent surface. “I can take paint back as well as put it on,” he describes. “This allows me to work expeditiously on all kinds of variations on that idea. I can build layers and a complicated orchestration of color and texture and patterns, and yet the transparency remains.” This method fits James’ overall approach, which is the “push-and-pull idea,” he says, “and trial and error.”

The Path of the Melody
2006, watercolor on Yupo, 26 x 36.

When he first began experimenting with Yupo, the artist simply applied his extensive knowledge of traditional watercolor—at the time almost 15 years as a full-time artist and teacher—and adapted the materials and techniques to suit the new surface. When laying in a broad wash, for instance, he learned to use a roller or squeegee to make the color smooth after he had applied it with a brush. He learned how to use drybrush and work wet-in-wet, and he began employing spatulas and other tools to create patterns and texture. At the same time, he learned how to blot paint with a tissue or paper towel to lighten areas and adjust the values. “I still used all the traditional tools,” James adds. “I just had to learn to use them differently. And there’s a lot more freedom and possible solutions to problems that arise. I find it a much more creative way to work.”

James’ paintings today are primarily figurative, which reflects his career teaching life drawing and other studio-art classes as much as his own attraction to the subject. Less concerned with anatomy than he would be while teaching, the artist focuses instead on using the figure metaphorically, often grouping figures or situating them within interiors. “I’m interested in the way people sit and talk,” he says, “and how they communicate with the body.” The interiors have become another rich area of exploration, creating an opportunity to experiment with space, objects, and decorative elements.

Cherries, Tea, and Pips
2002, watercolor on Yupo, 26 x 36.

The artist’s subject matter originates from firsthand observation, memories, and his imagination, as well as photos and sketches. “For the most part I build images from sketches,” he explains. “I might take photos at a street party, and from there I make a sketch in which I combine imagery from several different photos. I might like the way someone is sitting or is dressed, holding something. I piece the image together from shapes, patterns, colorations. The whole thing is a big montage.” Although he may take numerous photos and study them carefully, he relies on them only for the information they provide, not for compositional ideas or content. “I’m just recording friends, people, stuff,” he says, adding that the ideas and drawings in the sketchbook are his primary resource. On a recent trip to Maui, for instance, he returned home with a sketchbook full of many new ideas. “I just drew, drew, drew,” he says.

Lady in the Blue Glove
2006, watercolor on Yupo, 26 x 36.

In beginning a new painting, James first makes a series of sketches of possible compositions, gradually finalizing the design. “I basically start with the locations of things,” he describes. “With a Derwent watercolor pencil, I lay down a linear pattern. I’m conscious of the dynamics and the pattern of lights and darks. As I’m composing I’m thinking design, and I’m trying to achieve clarity.” The artist prefers Derwent because it is water-soluble and, unlike a graphite pencil, can be corrected or eliminated without marring the Yupo surface.

The lights and darks are critical to James’ work, but he does not think of them in terms of a value pattern. “Imagine a checkerboard,” he explains. “The darks describe the lights and the lights describe the darks. I just apply that to my composition. I have to sort that out in the drawing, and once I have that I can decide the colors.”

Pressing My Haircut
2000, watercolor on Yupo, 35 x 25.

Rather than relying on local color, James looks to his emotional response to a subject to determine a palette for a painting. For instance, The Music Lesson [not shown] focuses on the memories and emotions evoked when James opened his old violin case for his granddaughter, who had decided to take lessons. “When I opened the case, all my memories popped out,” he says. “The violin was old and varnishy, and it triggered some colors in my mind—all those layers of varnish. And one thing led to another.” Managing color from an emotional viewpoint rather than an intellectual one, the artist has a strong sense of the content of the painting as he begins it. “I sit on it and have a sense of it,” he says. He then uses his knowledge of color mixing, split complements, tertiaries, and so forth to create the effects he desires.

The process of developing the painting centers on the gradual evolution of the imagery, combined with the refinement of the light and dark pattern. “I always look at the range of values,” James says, “from the brightest paper to the blacks. I mix a broad range of values and develop the painting to show that range. The work is not dainty. There’s a lot of strength in that regard.” Working on Yupo allows James the advantage of an immediate sense of the value structure, because the values do not become lighter as the paint is absorbed into the paper, as in traditional watercolor. “To make the values darker, I just take water out of the paint, and I’m constantly adjusting the amount of water as I paint,” the artist explains. “To lighten a value, I blot it with tissues or paper towels.”

Blue Fishing Crows
2004, watercolor on Yupo, 26 x 36.

As James continuously adds and removes paint, he manipulates it with whichever tools are appropriate for the effects he wants. Concentrating on the emotional content, he looks to the gesture of the figure, colors, forms, and patterns to develop the piece. In a portrait he completed several years ago, for instance, he was thinking of his father who had recently died, and although he wanted to capture his face, he couldn’t remember it. “I wanted his face specifically, but I just couldn’t do it,” he says. “I was grieving, and thinking of all my memories of my father, and I decided to take out his face and just capture his gesture.”

Many of James’ paintings incorporate geometric forms that serve both as decorative elements and flatten the pictorial space. “I’m interested in the flatness of the surface of a painting, and I am intentional in not making a work look dimensional.” The geometric forms contribute to this effect in the way in which they direct the viewer’s eye and interrupt the perspective, as does the Yupo surface itself. “Yupo is a surface-oriented material,” James notes. “Things lay flat, and I enhance that with the decorative elements. All this goes back to my undergraduate education, which had a lot to do with the integrity of the two-dimensional surface. In traditional watercolor, the paint disappears, but on Yupo I can do a lot more, and it’s a wonderful experience.”

In addition to the Yupo paper, the artist favors DaVinci watercolor paints, Jack Richeson Co. brushes, and Stephen Quiller palettes. He finds his tools for texture at any store and has an extensive supply of spatulas, squeegees, foam rollers, and craft brushes. His typical palette includes the following: aureolin, yellow ochre, Indian yellow, benzimida orange, cadmium red medium or light, alizarin crimson, opera, Hooker’s green light, emerald green, phthalo green, cobalt blue, ultramarine blue, cerulean blue, phthalo blue, cobalt turquoise, and dioxazine purple.

Although James’ works are widely acclaimed, many watercolor artists object to the use of nontraditional materials such as Yupo and believe that such artwork should be eliminated from society shows. “I try to keep my head above the fray,” James says of the controversy. “I like to think we live in a society that embraces new things. Why exactly would anyone want to protect an 18th-century paper anyway? All the materials have changed, and now there’s a synthetic paper that necessitates a different approach and changes the look. People get angry about it, but it’s just plain watercolor with a different way of working with it.”

To other artists interested in Yupo, James advises persistence. “Just stick with it, and eventually you will break out into the open,” he says. “With time you will be able to bring some sanity and control to the process, and that’s true in any medium.”

About the Artist

George James, of Costa Mesa, California, earned his M.A. degree at Long Beach State University, in California. A professor of fine art at California State University, Fullerton, since 1968, he is now professor emeritus at the university and conducts painting workshops across the country. He has received numerous awards for his work in regional and national shows, including the American Watercolor Society’s Gold Medal and the National Watercolor Society’s Silver Star. To learn more, visit

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Watch the video: Loose Transparent Watercolor Painting Demonstration Misty Lake (August 2022).