Sarasota Plein Air Workshop with Vladislav Yeliseyev

"Remember, it's only a sketch!" ~ Vladislav Yeliseyev

This week, I traveled to Sarasota Florida for a 3 day open plein air workshop with Vladislav Yeliseyev. I have been anxious to attend this workshop and meet and learn more about watercolor from this wonderful artist. This will be my last formal workshop this year. My last 2 workshops where inspiring, and I am finding this experience just as rewarding.

I discovered Vlad’s work on Facebook. His technique and vision is truly his own. He spent many years as an illustrator and architect working for a large New York firm.  Vladislav is the founder of Renaissance School of Art in Sarasota, Florida which has since closed.  He is now teaching full time.  Vlad is a great illustrator and artist.  In 1996, he won the Formal Presentation Drawing Award from American Society of Architectural Illustrators. His work is prominently featured in February 2016 issue of Watercolor Artist magazine where he is also chosen as a cover artist and 2017 July issue of PleinAir Magazine.

In his work as a plein air artist, Vladislav has participated in prestigious invitational paint-outs nationwide and abroad. He has won numerous awards including Best of Show, Collector’s Choice Award and The BoldBrush Award.

Vlad is an exhibiting member of many art societies nationwide, and a signature member of American Impressionist Society, National Watercolor Society, and Florida Watercolor Society. (Website)

Our group had a wide array of wonderful folks and career artists.  I was humbled to be among such a great group of artists.

Day 1:  Ca’D’Zan

I arrived in Orlando in the afternoon and traveled to Sarasota after picking up my car at the airport rental.  The trip to Sarasota was actually awful.   The trip on Highway 4 was ‘bumper to bumper’.  Some 3.5 hours later, I arrived at my hotel in Sarasota.  It was nice to settle in and get ready for the first day with Vlad.

We had an early change in venue on the first day.  We headed to the famous Ca’D’Zan, winter home of John Ringling from the Ringling Circus family.   The history of this iconic estate is fascinating.  I arrived to the estate on an un-named road just off Bay Shore road.

The history of John Ringling is fascinating as well.  John was the 5th of 7 brothers who founded a traveling circus in 1870.  They purchased the Barnum and Bailey Circus for $400,000 in 1907.  He was the last of the Ringling Brothers to survive.  John married a sophisticated aristocrat, Mable Burton in 1905, and built the Ca’D’Zan as their winter home in Sarasota, built in 1924 and finished in 1926.  The cost to build the Mediterranean style mansion was 1.6 million dollars (21 million dollars in today’s currency).

Called “the house of John”, the Venetian style mansion is a massive 30 room estate.  John and his wife were avid art collectors and after John’s death in 1936, he willed the estate to Florida to be open 1 day a week to the public.  John was one of the richest men in the world, but when he died, he was basically penniless.  He willed his extensive art collection, the mansion/property and museum to the state of Florida.  In 1991, he and his wife Mable and John’s sister, Ida Ringling were exhumed and re-buried at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, just in front and to the right of the Ca’D’Zan.  He is buried between the two women in the ‘secret garden’ on the Ca’D’Zan estate.

Day 1 began with a discussion on LIGHT, FOCAL POINT and VALUE.  Vlad is very conscious of light and the focal point in the painting.  He discussed his early days in art school and how they spent days and years drawing the cube and sphere, and how light reflects on the objects.  He discussed the importance of shade and the ‘cast shadow’.  Shade is a light version of the cast shadow.  However, cast shadows can fade, etc.

His discussion concerning shades and cast shadows is important, because it lays down the foundation to his style of painting.  As we would learn in day 2, color is divided into 3 stages, I) The area of Light, 2) the Shaded areas and 3) Shadows.  I will get more into detail about his painting on the second day.

The first day basically set up the important fundamentals to tackle color in painting.  In a way, Vlad stresses that a good painting doesn’t really need color at all.  It’s all about composition, tone and value.

He began by discussing the importance of composition how it relates to light and shadows, balance and tonal value.  His first exercise for us was a painting or a sort of tonal painting or sketch of the Ca’D’Zan.  We weren’t allowed to begin painting with color, this was reserved for the second day.  Our first day concentrated on tonal values and composition.

His favorite moto:   “Remember, it’s only a sketch”.

When making a tonal painting or sketch, he stressed the use of a small ‘post card’ or ‘stamp sized’ sketch.  This forces you to think less of detail and more about the shapes and tones.  It stresses the relationships of the tonal values.

We all worked on the value study and is was much more difficult than it looked.  I did a tonal study and then went to my hotel and attempted a full painting.

Day 2 took us to Phillippi Estate Park.

Day 2: Phillippi Estate Park

Phillippi Estate Park is a beautiful place in Sarasota.  We chose the Edson Keith Home (house on the estate) as our painting subject.  The home was built in 1916 and sits on a 60 acre estate.   Day 2 was our day to paint.  We again started with a wonderful demo by Vlad.  Again, he always starts with a value sketch and composition.

Today, however, he used a pencil drawing as his value sketch.  He starts by taking a photo and using the editor to help himself get an idea of the subject.  In this day and age, he feels technology is just another tool.  Of course, he doesn’t have to use the photo editor but used this as an example on how to compose a painting.

To help illustate his painting style and process, I’ve broken it down into steps:

Step 1:  Picture and Drawing the Value Study

Again, Vlad stresses the use of the value study, because he uses this as a guide when he paints.  He composes the painting before painting it.  He finds the light, the focal point and tries to balance the painting as a value sketch prior to putting it to paper.

“If the composition of the value sketch and tones are not correct, the painting will not be good.”

The left photo illustrates his compositional study (where he places things in his painting).  In this case, he places the palm trees, the lamp posts, the people and the car in areas that are pleasing and compositionally sound.  The curvature of the road and so on.  The sketch on the right illustrates his value study and what he wants to present in a painting. (The lights and darks).

Now, we get into the meat of Vlad’s madness.  He provided us with a color chart that illustrates his use of particular colors at certain stages of painting.  This was extremely helpful, but very new to me.

Step 2:  Drawing on watercolor paper. 

This is where the compositional study in your sketch is transferred to your watercolor paper.  He spent some time discussing the proportions in drawing.  I can also see how doing a tonal study provides a ‘run-through’ or practice before your actual watercolor drawing.  Again, he doesn’t get reall specific with the drawing and often goes right from the tonal study.  He also talked about erasing.  He discourages it, but light erasing is acceptable.

Step 3:  Painting (in Stages)

Stage 1:  First Wash, light areas (Tea)

This chart is what he describes as his use of primary colors in different stages of painting. Stage 1 is basically the first wash which includes basic yellow, red and blue. He mixes these colors and stresses mixing these colors, ideally on paper in the first wash. The first wash is supposed to just bring out the lights, but cover the paper. In some places, some white of the paper can be left.

So in this instance, his first wash included starting with the lightest areas of the home and then going into the foreground. Interestingly, he did the sky and roof after the walls of the building, because they were somewhat darker than the lightest light. Since this was a very lite day, it was important to get the colors correctly.

In the first wash, the consistency of his primary colors which includes yellow ochre (yellow), Alizarin Crimson and about 10% Dioxazin Violet (Reds) and Cerrulian Blue and Cobalt Blue( Blues) is like TEA.  What is interesting is that he likes to mix these colors in the pallet, but would rather have them mix on paper.  In his video or DVD just released, he also talks about mixing these primary colors on paper.  This is a good time to add some texture with water platter and also he gets very loose.  This was the simplest stage to master.

I think for amateurs like me, the concepts of color vs tone (because darker color can also be darker tone) is something that is the hardest to master.  It obviously takes lots of practice and patience to grasp the concepts of color and tone.  Remember, stage 1 is just laying down color.  This is very similar to the teachings of Herman Pekel and Alvaro Castagnet.

Another point to be made is, in this stage, you are just coloring by using the concept of ‘warm and cold’.  The areas that are warmer should obviously have more yellows,orange and red.  The cooler colors including the blues and purples (combined by mixing blue and red).

When you are satisfied with this first stage, LET IT DRY COMPLETELY.

I also briefly want to show you Vlad’s palette.  It was quite lean I must say.  His colors (from warm to cool) includes yellow ochre, Raw Umber, Burnt Umber, Gold Ochre, Burnt Sienna, cadmium orange, Alizarin Crimson, Dioxazine Violet, Cobalt turquoise, Cerrulian Blue, Cobalt Blue, Ultramarine, Van Dyke Brown, Indigo and Sepia.

Stage 2:  Shade Area (Milk)

As he began to continue his painting, he stressed that the second and third stages overlap somewhat, so it’s not always distinct.  However, the second stage is primarly using your 3 primary colors again, but only for ‘shade’ area or darkening the tones.  In this case it included the background and some of the foreground.  In this stage he wants to basically only address the ‘shade’ areas.  The colors are now richer and deeper.  The yellows include burnt umber and Van Dyke Brown, the red is a creamy mixture of Alizarin Crimson and Dioxazine Violet and the Blue is straight Ultramarine.

This is where I would get confused in my painting.  This concept of second stage painting, that only the shade must refer to the tones and shadows.  So in this case, he addresses the background, some of the palms and some of the foreground shade.  He stressed this was not the stage for ‘cast shadows’ , because that would be the final frontier, the last stage.  The distant tree line is placed and pushed back.  This stage requires a more ‘milk’ consistency of paint, where in stage 1, the wash is more like a tea consistency.  The trees and actors are set on the stage in stage 2 as well.  Shadows are placed on the house and the roof is highlighted with shade.

Stage 3:  Shadow (Cream)

In stage 3, the final stages, he paints the final cast shadows and darker tones into the painting.  This includes the cast shadow from the car, the people and lamp posts.  The cast shadows on the ground from the trees on the right.  This stage is important again in the sense of light, now applying the cast shadows.  In this painting, the cast shadows go left and under the roof, because the light is coming from the right.

Also, the shrubs are brought forward and much of the foreground is addressed.   This is the time to get creative with your foreground.   The paint is now quite thick, a cream consistency, but not butter.  The butter consistency of paint is used at the very end to accentuate the players in the painting.  Zbukvic calls this “the jewelry stage”.   With his final brushstrokes, he accentuates the dark against the roof line and the cast shadows off the people and car.  This is where calligraphy is most important.

Vlad also discussed some of his brushwork technique, especially when painting palms and trees.  He is especially fond of the sword brush for his work on tree branches.  It is loose and unpredictable.  This is something Vlad tries to accentuate in his paintings, the loose character of the scene.

I must also add that the “emergency dark” can be used in the second and third stage to increase tone.  That is the purpose of the emergency dark, to darken or increase tonal value to your mixture of primary colors, not particularly increasing the consistency of paint.

This is imporant, because if you look at the final works of most professinal watercolor painters, it still retains the transparency of colors and tone.  It doesn’t look like a cheap, thick oil painting.  Increasing the color to all cream and butter will give your painting a cheap, oily look rather than an elegant watercolor.

The second day was packed with a lot of information and now it was time to go rest and get ready for more the next day.  The next day, we would head to Bayfront Park for some harbor scenery.  This was another day to just paint.

Day 3:  Bayfront Park Sarasota

The last day was another wonderful day for painting.  It was on the warmer side and we found some good shade and Vlad performed one of his awesome demos. I was amazed at how easily he makes plein air painting look.  It’s no wonder he has won some very prestigious plein air awards.

We all gathered at the front gate to meet and then went off to watch his demo.  Again, he started the day with composition and a tonal sketch.

The tonal sketch again set up his drawing. The view of the harbor was great.  His composition for this painting was ideal.  Again, the boats are the focal point that take you into the painting.  He doctored the buildings in the background to relect a more “european” style.   I won’t belabor his process again, but the end result was priceless!

We took a break for lunch after his first wash and then went on to see him finish the work. We all had a chance to either paint his scene or compose our own. I managed to get in 2 paintings that afternoon, but I struggled with the tones and washes.

Overall, I enjoyed this workshop.  With this instruction, it almost seems like learning something new and starting all over again. I think in watercolor, you have to let the fundamentals sink in and you must continue to work hard in this craft. Nothing in watercolor comes easy and without some frustration in the early stages.

Overall, Vlads workshop was great and informative.  I learned some great technique from a master and also now understand the importance of tones and composition.  They are undoubtedly the most important aspects of any painting.  I was amazed at Vlads loose style of painting.  The ease at which he painted.   It was an honor to watch and observe this master of watercolor.  I was lucky enough to get his final demo.  It will look great in my office.  It will be a remembrance of this weekend for many years to come.   Now, I will just sit back and enjoy the rest of my vacation.


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