WATERCOLOUR FOR DESIGNERS by Felix Scheinberger
“There’s always something anarchistic about watercolor. It has a mind of its own.”
The new book by Felix Scheinberger celebrates color and watercolor technique in a way that would make the fingers of even hard-boiled digital designers itch
Felix Scheinberger speaks the way he writes books: The illustrator jumps from Chinese legends to song lyrics by the eastern German band Fehlfarben, links phenomena of cultural history with those of the natural sciences and analyzes the history of design using personal childhood memories. Together, they result in a nonfiction book about colors, which will be released by Hermann Schmidt Mainz in time for the book fair under the title Wasserfarbe für Gestalter (Watercolor for Designers). Based on the approximately 4,000 year old painting technique, it demonstrates to creative artists how they can use color to illustrate every perspective in the world in a way that is just as contemporary as it is individual.
In compact chapters, Felix Scheinberger combines excursions into the physical, historical and socio-cultural backgrounds of watercolors with an overview of the primary theories and color concepts, whereby the theoretical aspects always serve as a springboard to the practical: for tips on using colors as well as for the watercolor technique. In doing so, he precisely depicts their advantages and perils and how they can be employed creatively by designers. Scheinberger considers the entire design process, asks when a work is finished and how the value of a drawing can be measured.
No one has ever been able to write an introduction to the world of color in such an entertaining, condensed way and focused on practical design. The very subjective and yet diversified work can be opened to any page to reveal new perspectives on the subject of watercolors. Felix Scheinberger hands designers of all disciplines – and those who would like to be – a flexible set of tools that are a good starting point for their personal dealings with color. And, just as in his last publication, Mut zum Skizzenbuch, the illustrator manages better than any motivational coach to fire up his readers for a supposed shopworn subject and to charmingly defuse any uncertainties or failures of the inexpert artist or painter. wl
Shortly before completion of the publication, we met Felix Scheinberger in his Berlin studio where, between paint-boxes and sketchbooks, he introduced us to the world of watercolors over coffee and cookies.
Does the world need yet another book about color?
FELIX SCHEINBERGER: So far, there are mainly instruction books of the type “Watercolor Sky in Four Steps.” That generates superficial learning, but I doubt very much that the reader learns more in the long run than how to paint exactly this sky. What happens if the sky is suddenly overcast? It’s very different when they learn to see and know how the basic principles of color work: then the artist can generate new solutions from a secure feel for the medium. Moreover, the color theories are primarily one-sided points of view: on the one hand, the grandiloquently flowery, overemotional version – red stands for love, yellow for envy – and on the other hand the dry, rational versions. The first point of view, represented for instance by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s color theory, is simply nonsense as a pure theory since the understanding of color moves within a cultural or even historical context. The second perspective, such as that purported by the Bauhaus movement, attempts to force the matter into a strictly scientific universal system, which also does not do justice to the quite emotional subject. For me as an artist, it was therefore important to develop a book that goes beyond this and makes knowledge practically useable.
But isn’t there enough theoretical literature that goes beyond Goethe and Itten?
Many books were written by natural scientists and psychologists with a narrow focus and not aligned to the needs of designers. I also spoke a great deal with colleagues to find out how they handle color – for instance how they generate mixing ratios. Since there is no universal perception of color, I attempt to create a framework for each artist’s personal use of color.
Are there really any meaningful rules for using color?
Yes, simplified color classification systems are basically correct. That is why I also present them in my book – in the paint box the colors are also not arranged arbitrarily. In the past, too much differentiation hasn’t been of much help: if you thought too long about whether the lion might be dangerous or not, you’d be eaten. Nonetheless, we should consider whether we shouldn’t further develop in the complexity of the present. If, when handling colors, we leave the familiar classification systems, we are pretty much left alone. Eva Heller’s Wie Farben wirken, for instance, deals with the interplay of colors and their effects. If we see an orange or pink tone next to red, we associate it with love, but if red is next to black it has an aggressive effect. Yet that only applies to our culture: here, white stands for innocence, in Japan it symbolizes mourning. Black means mourning here, but for native North Americans it is the color of balance; in our globalized world that’s not exactly helpful.
Why do you write specifically about watercolors?
Because this really very nice technique needs to be taken off the back shelf. It is one of the oldest painting techniques of all, yet it is still considered unsexy. It is often seen as synonymous with the proverbial housewives’ hobby. This is primarily a problem of our generation: we in our late thirties grew up with hippie-like lifestyles and at some point found this macramé attitude terribly old fashioned. We became socialized in the 1980s, when everything became neon – for us graphic artists, there were great new markers that smelled like acetone and had impressive fluorescent colors. Then, computer technology developed and the bright colors with their smooth aesthetic that could be generated digitally pushed watercolors even further back into the dark ages. In addition, watercolors were difficult to reproduce using the printing techniques of the 1990s. There was always that complicated white balance. That has been overcome now by technological developments. An additional impediment was that watercolor is not that easy to master – you can hardly undo mistakes, unlike at the computer. Yet that’s what also makes this technique so exciting.
Many watercolor paintings are still rather mediocre, though.
That’s because we’ve left this genre to the hobby artists painting Tuscan landscapes. Although the technique offers so much: all of the colors in the glaze, the ones through which the background or underlying colors shine, benefit the drawing. Photoshop with its layers basically functions very similarly. Watercolors are therefore a good basis for conveying image editing. Furthermore, watercolors are inexpensive, natural and non-toxic and you can conveniently carry the palm-sized paint boxes around along with your notebook. Unlike markers, the colors can be mixed to a variety of intermediate shades. In my work for creative agencies, I often color with watercolors while developing the ideas, just because it’s simple and fast and, by the way, it always goes down well.
Maybe also because watercolor can be employed very casually. The areas never have to be accurately filled in.
Yes, watercolor has always been a supplemental design technique. As early as 1800 people carried their watercolors with them to be able to sketch on location. Today it is still advisable to make colored sketches on paper for clients in the design stage. Incidentally, the attitude towards watercolors is changing right now: in my drawing course at the college in Münster many students work with watercolors. They use them in a far more easy-going and unreserved way than my generation. Though I have never stopped working with watercolor – but I’ve often been looked at like an oddball for it.
Currently, everything is allowed again in visual communications, isn’t that right?
By all means. The strong yearning for authenticity is striking, for hand-made, personal things. When I walk through my neighborhood in Berlin, I see folding bicycles, sunglasses and clothing that could have been taken straight out of Super-S movies from our family vacations in the 1970s. The difference is that although the families in my neighborhood look like 30 or 40 years ago, to me it seems that the easiness of those days – if there ever was such as thing – has been lost. Perhaps the retro look is also an expression of the yearning for those untroubled, manageable days.
However, this retro aesthetic – including the use of watercolors – has developed further.
Sure. If we look at the use of watercolors in Art Nouveau, for example in the illustrations by the British artist Arthur Rackham for Alice in Wonderland or Grimm’s Fairy Tales, we recognize an entirely different approach than that used today. Back then, watercolors were employed very precisely, very detailed and perfectionist. The images are caught in a fantasy world, and, like the fairy and elf worlds of the 1970s captured in watercolors, the creator is not as strongly perceptible – it’s all about the illusion. I think that digital drawing tools are better suited for this kind of portrayal. Today, in our calibrated, anonymous environment, the creator stands in the foreground when working with watercolors, who is demonstrating ‘I am alive, notice me!’ Watercolors work very directly and whether a picture will be good is decided during the making. So, the drawing is charged with the moment and thus pinpointed both chronologically and personally. That’s what makes illustration relevant today.
Do you have favorite colors?
Yes, everyone has their favorites. You just have to look in their paint box and see which colors are empty first. In my case, it’s Naples yellow, mountain blue and indigo, but I also like a lot of red tones. Still, I think it’s important to be aware of that occasionally and steer against it – otherwise the work will get dull one day.
Can fashionable colors be observed in illustration?
There are always fashionable colors. For example, for a long time it was popular to use a black and white aesthetic combined with a special color, like magenta or neon green. This 1960s silkscreen look probably had something to do with trying to regain something of the simpler time.
According to what rules do you decide what colors you use?
There are practical systems rather than rules because it’s a matter of employing the color appropriately. For freelance projects, I usually let my gut decide, applied projects demand a clear-cut concept. You should put some thought into it, for instance the color temperature. Cool colors have a different effect than warm ones and a picture has a more harmonious effect when it remains in one color temperature. I also think it’s wise to work from one color, with a guiding or lead color. It is appealing to design subjects in one dominant color and then add points of contrast.
Did you learn anything new while working on the book?
I noticed that there is some harmony theory somewhere for almost every imaginable color combination. But when there are hardly any exceptions, I personally prefer to limit the theories to the most essential and then explain that rules are not always helpful. What’s new about my book is that it is neither set in this purely emotional-esoteric nor in the sober-rational area, but is about the appropriate use of the technique in the respective contexts. For me it’s a matter of demonstrating how the artist can develop his or her own personal color tonality.
This adheres to the observation that illustration, for instance in editorial design, is increasingly being used as an emotion-laden and at the same time serious information medium.
Exactly. We’d like to have a simple black and white world, but it doesn’t work that way. That makes life pretty nice actually. We ought to simply trust ourselves more when dealing with nuances.
Felix Scheinberger at work over his sketchbook in his studio. In the right of the picture is his coffee mug with a Mumin illustration, whose maker the artist esteems highly.
From craft to psychology: Scheinberger’s book combines theory and practice in an inspiring way.
Felix Scheinberger introduces readers to different color and color harmony theories and also encourages them to throw these rules overboard at times.
Using his own drawing from childhood days, Felix Scheinberger encourages the reader to embrace a self-determined drawing style.
The complete first edition of the book Wasserfarbe für Gestalter has a hand-colored binding. The paint glass illustrated on it was painted by the author with different watercolors (Hermann Schmidt Mainz, 32 euros, ISBN 978- 3-87439-824-4).
Inteview: PAGE MAGAZINE 11/2011 PAGE 4
WATERCOLOUR FOR DESIGNERS
Design: Nikola Aehle
156 pages with hundreds of colored samples
Size 21 x 24 cm
Half-cloth binding with stamping and enforced with metal edges
Each book is individually painted with watercolors by the author!