I recently announced here on my site that I was getting back into watercolor painting after a hiatus of nearly 25-years. When I initially posted that intent, I was just planning on doing my own thing and thought that I would likely share my finished work on an occasional basis.
However, as I’ve reacquainted myself with my tools and paints, and dug more and more into the subject again, I’ve come to realize that the art world as a whole is a completely different beast from when I last played in it so long ago. So I figured I’d share the joy, the pain, the fun, the frustration, the wonder, and the WTF moments of this old guy… whom is now the FNG (the Effing New Guy, in case you don’t know).
What follows is a little long-winded, so please bear with me.
I started watercolor painting seriously back in 1988. And yes, I painted the cherry blossom image at the top of the page, en plein air at the Tidal Basin on a morning that was so cold my paints were beginning to freeze (I didn’t know the trick about using grain alcohol to paint with at the time, but I certainly know it now!). However, I digress…
For you sarcastic youngsters out there, rolling your eyes, and texting emojis back and forth — yes — things DID exist before Google and the Internet. 1988 was the year of such classic meme material as Beetlejuice (which was almost too weird for general release), Die Hard (Bruce Willis as an action hero? — haha, no way!), Never Gonna Give You Up (yes, really), Doug Williams led the Redskins to victory in Super Bowl XXII (what?), Dell Computer became incorporated, and Ronald Reagan was dealing with the fallout of the Iran-Contra Affair from the White House. Stressful times, people… I’m telling you… stressful times.
But all that wasn’t what pushed me into watercolors. The tipping point for me was my work environment.
In March of 1988, at the fresh-faced age of 27 (yes, I too was once your age), I was newly hired at Corporate Visions, a small 50-person company with annual billings of $5+ million located in the 1800 block of K Street, NW, in Washington, DC. That part of the business district in DC is referred to as “K Street canyon” — because the buildings block out direct sunlight except for the noon hours — and most of the organizations around there either directly support the functions of the US Federal Government, try to influence Congress and/or the White House, or litigate everyone and everything in sight. So, lots of money (not that I ever got much of that), along with lots of pressure-cooker deadlines.
Corporate Visions was a 24×7 audio-visual presentation sweatshop; this was two years before Microsoft PowerPoint began to decimate the audio-visual industry, and when a real business graphics computer — a Genigraphics console — cost well north of $120,000 each. Our clients ranged from Fortune 500 companies based around the DC area (MCI, Media General, US Department of Defense, Signet Bank, Commonwealth of Virginia, PEPCO, etc. to name but a few) to small business owners that were making slide presentations for conferences. And it was a sweatshop because we never turned work away, no matter how crazy the demands or impossible the deadline.
As an example, my last year there was spent mostly dealing with 300-percent rush jobs that had a deadline of 60-minutes; the first 10-minutes was spent actually shooting the job, the next 40-minutes was spent with the film being developed in our high-volume E-6 film processor, and the remaining 10-minutes was spent mounting the film into finished slides, packaging everything into a cohesive whole, getting the final bill, and presenting the completed job to the satisfied client. The smallest error or problem at any point in the production line would jeopardize the delivery time (the client was usually cooling his heels in our waiting room) and cost us the customer, so the stress levels often reduced staff to tears or worse. I finally left the business — and the industry altogether — in 1992 when 80 percent of my daily work load consisted of these quick-turnaround jobs, simply because I couldn’t continue dealing with the never-ending grind… but I’m getting ahead of myself and that’s another story entirely.
At the time that I was hired in 1988, Corporate Visions had five Genigraphics consoles, but discovered that they had an urgent need to combine film photography with the electronic images they were creating (this was something they could deliver to the customer, but only by involving their direct competition, who would promptly steal their business; it was very cut-throat industry at the time).
This film-based photography process is called compositing, and I just so happened to be very good at it.
Corporate Visions had forged ahead with bringing compositing in-house, but didn’t have any staff with knowledge of the process, and were unable to match the results of their competition — namely, the rich blacks and true colors that their competitors produced. So I was the “fix-it” guy to make that happen.
The first day I showed up to my new job in DC, I was shown their tiny little “photo lab” — a room not much bigger than my oblong dinner table, filled with a Marron Carrel 1400 animation camera / slide duplicator / copy stand, along with a tiny black and white lithographic film developer. There was no ventilation. And the 300-watt xenon lights of the camera stand turned that tiny room into a literal sauna, where temperatures frequently exceeded 100°F (you have no idea how miserable summer in DC can be until your working conditions are 100 percent humidity and inside temperatures that are far higher than they are outside).
Below is the best video I’ve been able to find of the general process I’m talking about; the camera is a different brand, but the concepts and technology used are all the same.
The above video also shows the same problem that Corporate Visions had — can you guess what it is?
Ding, ding, ding — YES!!! You are correct! Pretty much everything in the room is white or wood-colored.
So… so what, you say? Well, when dealing with an optical process — especially one that is film-based — one must be able to identify color issues via light cross-contamination.
The fix in this instance was to paint everything — absolutely everything — matte black. And that’s what I did during the first few days of my new job; the walls, acoustical ceiling tiles and metal supports, the floor, the tables — everything was painted matte black. And after that, I tracked down all the light leaks by turning off the overhead lighting, letting my eyes adjust to the darkness, and proceeded to plug all the gaps that let in dim glimmers of illumination until that room was blacker than pitch black. And voilà… the problem was fixed almost overnight. If you have difficulty visualizing the end result, the image to the right comes close, but my solution was even darker.
When you work in a tiny room of that size (it became known to all the staff as the Black Hole of Calcutta), with no ventilation, in extreme heat (I dressed in running shorts and T-shirts, and was totally drenched with perspiration whenever I exited the photo lab), and utterly black conditions — long day after long day — you begin to go a little nuts.
In my case, I became color-starved.
I craved color. I dreamed in color. I fixated on color.
My solution? Watercolor painting.
And the whole reason for this post? I’ve still got the same original supplies from 30-years ago to compare against those of today, and boy… have things ever changed from back then!
You can read the next post in this series here…