My 5 Day Workshop with Herman Pekel

"Watercolors can be like relationships; the harder you try, the less they work."~Herman Pekel

I always wanted to take a workshop with the great Herman Pekel.  I finally got this opportunity in late July 2018. I was skimming through facebook and came across the “Art in the Mountains” workshop in Bend, Oregon.  Art in the Mountains is owned and operated by Tracy Culbertson.  There were a few openings left.

So, I thought there was no better time than to catch Herman here in the US for his workshop.  This was a workshop geared to help improve landscape painting, which made it even more appealing.  Landscape painting is something I rarely do and could certainly improve upon.

So I booked my workshop and flight.

One of the main reasons I wanted to attend this workshop is my desire to paint landscapes and improve my ability to paint skies.  Herman is considered one of the best landscape painters in the world.

Before getting started, I wanted to inclue a small introduction about Herman’s work from his website (excerpt).  I have also included some of his workshop paintings that are some of the most beautiful watercolor’s I’ve ever seen.

~Herman Pekel was born to Dutch parents in Melbourne, Victoria in 1956.

The art teachers of Herman’s youth, Roger Webber, Ernest Buckmaster and Lance McNeill were all primarily oil painters, but the experience of painting with them on location left a strong impression on Herman, giving him the freedom of spontaneity and leaving him an intuitive painter, ultimately working from the light source.

Herman painted spasmodically until 1981 before commencing a Fine Arts degree at RMIT and studying under Dale Hickey and Jeff Makin. Like many young artists Herman experimented for a time with abstract expressionism, but he is now well known for his oils and watercolours. Herman is an artist of energy and enthusiasm. He is able to see a painting in almost any subject matter and is capable of producing award winning work in oil, watercolour or gouache. ~ (From Herman’s Website)

I’m not going to include everyday, because the first day’s workshop set the ground-work for the remaining days we spent painting and going over the same principals of Herman’s process of painting.

One of the first things we learned in this workshop was “an excuse to save the white”.  It’s very important to “be brave and bold” in watercolor.

If you look closely at Herman’s work, his background is oil painting and watercolor, and he paints very much like an oil painter with deep , bold colors and brush marks.  This technique carries over to his watercolors.  His watercolors are both bold and charismatic, saturated in deep color with powerful brushstrokes.

Sparkle!  Always have an excuse to save some white paper! – Herman Pekel

It is interesting to note that Herman rarely seems to paint on quarter sheets.  He likes half and full sheets the most.  Most if not all of his studio work is on full sheets of Saunders or Arches rough paper.

Herman has this uncanny ability to compose watercolors without the need to sketch. He appears to plan this subconsciously .  He seems to work out the tones, where to save the light and overall composition right in his head before he starts.

He stressed that if you can see the finished painting before you start, it will greatly improve the outcome.  However, he also stressed that many times when he paints, he lets the painting dictate the process.

You can never force watercolor, you have to let it do what it wants to do.  And if you make an unintentional mark, well, that’s what it wanted to do – don’t fix it! – Herman Pekel

As I began painting, it was a little difficult as it is in all workshops.  Let’s face it, when going to a workshop, it’s like beginning to paint again.  Many of my first attempts looked amateurish and ill-defined.  However, as the workshop progressed, so did my painting.  His premise for painting is very simple; paint what you like and do it in 2 washes.  Find the focal point and juxtapose light against darks.  You can read my last post on “4 tips and the importance of Value in Painting.”

Painting in Bend, Oregon posed it’s own challenges.  The area is very dry and the watercolor paints dry very quickly.  We worked a lot in wet-on-wet and took great care to keep the paper quite wet.  He gave us some advice including wetting the back of the paper and even adding a little wet ‘varnish’ to the paper before painting.  This would allow you to easily lift paint in certain areas and recapture lite areas.

One of the main reasons for going to this workshop, again, was it gave me the opportunity to improve in 2 areas, 1) Landscape painting and creating distant shapes and 2) Improving my clouds.  Herman is a master at cloud shapes and Landscape painting.  After taking this workshop, I’m convinced that Herman is likely the best watercolor landscape painter in the world.

Find the focal point and juxtapose light against darks – Herman Pekel

The first day was mainly classroom demos and exercises.  His first demo included an Australian landscape and he went over his entire process of painting.  He first started with a simple principal:  Most paintings can be done in 2 washes + dry brush.  Anything more will likely cause the painting to get too muddy.

Below, is a series of photos from his first landscape demo.  He essentially painted this in about 20 to 30 minutes.  The principals are discussed and outlined in the photo captions.

The first demo drawing of an Australian Landscape.
The first demo drawing of an Australian Landscape.
First Wash
First Wash including splatter and texture.
Second wash Including some wet into wet trees, ‘Vegemite’ for trees and bushes with dry brush.

He begins with a very loose pencil drawing.  Again, he doesn’t do a sketch and seems to have already worked out the composition in his head.  He starts on large sheets of paper and exaggerates large shapes.  He stresses that every painting is just a series of large shapes.

Completed Work with Shadows and trees/bushes added in Foreground

If I see something interesting in my subject, I exaggerate it – Herman Pekel

So, in the first wash, try not to have a too deep tone or value (nothing greater than a 3-10 on the value scale).  REMEMBER:  This first wash is all about COLOR and not tone.  Try not to let the first wash dry until you are completely satisfied with the results. The first wash should be blurry and atmospheric in nature.  “Lots of wet into wet on this first wash – Herman Pekel.”

The first wash is all about color, not tone – and think of an excuse to save a patch of white- Herman Pekel

The first wash is also when you can add clouds wet into wet. The first wash includes splatter and other thicker paint that is wet in wet to give the painting texture and atmosphere.

In landscapes and watercolor, it is much easier to paint as much as you can in that first wash, including splatter to create texture such as ‘bushes and shrubs’ in the case of this Australian landscape. He stressed the more watercolor can paint for you, the less you have to do in the second wash.

In oil painting, you would actually have to paint each tree and shrub.  In watercolor, you can just splatter them in! – Herman Pekel

When this first wash is completed, it must completely DRY.

In the second wash, a background can be added (in this case the mountains). Remember to always mix your paints thicker than the underlying wash. This is very important. This is also done when creating your clouds in the first wash. Add thicker paint and test your value on paper before committing to it.

Clouds and backgrounds in this case should be wet in wet. If the sky is grey, he also uses some opaque white or lavender to give it a misty atmosphere and pushing it away from the foreground.

Put the sky in first if it is the most important part of your painting.  Never let a sky dry before your are happy with it.  The sky should be wet into wet – Herman Pekel

The final steps of his painting includes bold dry brush strokes with thick vegemite paint.  The workshop was called “Be Brave and Have Fun”.  It couldn’t be more true.  I had to muster some courage to go really bold and brave with my painting in this workshop!  If you have weak and washy watercolors, Herman is like a boot camp of sorts.  You will leave mixing much thicker paints, I guarantee it!

So, that is basically it! He painted all of his paintings the same way, 1) finding an excuse for white, 2) lay down color in your first wash and 3) be bold and definite in your technique.

We learned valuable lessons in composition and adding detail work at the end of our paintings. Very often, he will leave his painting and come back to it the next day with a ‘fresh set of eyes’. He will often add details or even subject matter to enhance the overall look and composition.  He also talked about making every stroke mean something.  Sometimes, the harder you try to work on a watercolor, the worse it becomes.

Watercolors can be like relationships; the harder you try, the less they work – Herman Pekel

In the first day, we discussed and were given by example many important tools and techniques to improve our paintings. Of course, it is up to us to utilize the principals and refine them in practice.

Here are some other small mixing tidbits I took away from the workshop.

1. If you want a good green, mix raw sienna and Ultramarine blue. Also 95% raw sienna and 5% pthalo green or viridian is a good mix for vegemite.

2. A good purple is 90% Ultramarine and 10% Alizarin.

3. Remember that Alizarin and Viridian or pthalo green are staining colors.

4. Darks in the last stages are created using Ultramarine/Burnt Sienna or Viridian and indigo blue with Alizarin. These will make almost a black.

Remember, when painting and composing a painting, the best watercolors combine 1) wet in wet, 2) wet on dry and 3) dry brush. If you can add these 3 components to your painting including where to put light, shadows, hard and soft edges, you will have a wonderful watercolor painting. Remember, dry brush is excellent for ‘things you can’t paint”, meaning dry brush is great for suggesting distant objects and atmosphere.

Remember to balance the painting with strong shapes, verticals and defining marks – Herman Pekel

The remaining days in the workshop included more classroom demos and landscapes. We had the awesome opportunity to paint at Smith Rock State Park, a famous national park near Bend Oregon.

The following is a series of paintings from Herman’s classroom painting of Smith Rock showing the steps just discussed.  The following day, we did another plein air painting of the same subject.

Initial drawing, very loose.
Here, he starts with with wet paper, wet into wet clouds .
While the paper is still wet, thicker paint to add a background. In this case some mountains.
This stage is still in the wet stage and is all about color. Remember to keep the paper wet and use heavier paint to create texture and splatter. Remember, the less you have to actually paint, the better.
Here, Herman’s famous ‘spitting’ and splatter to create texture. The more texture you can create now, the less you have to paint in the second stage.
The final stage of the painting including vegemite and dry brush marks.

Herman was a true delight with great ideas behind his paintings.  Here are a few I took away from the workshop – I call them Hermanisms:

1.  When plein air painting, the exciting part is never knowing what your going to end up with.

2.  Put the sky in first if it is the most important part of your painting.

3.  Never let a sky dry before your are happy with it.

4.  Try to see the end of the watercolor before you start.

5.  Use dry brush to suggest things, indicate but don’t state.

6.  The first wash is all about color, not tone.

7.  Never correct calligraphy, it looks better being wrong than trying to correct it right.

8.  Never waste the underneath wash!

9.  Don’t hesitate when painting, it’s all about confident strokes.

10.  The first trick I learned in painting is putting dark over light and light over dark.

11.  If in doubt where to start, start with the focal point.

12.  Find an excuse to keep the white of the paper.

13.  Sparkle!  Always have an excuse to save some white paper!

14.  Watercolors can be like relationships; the harder you try, the less they work.

15.  The longer a wash takes to dry, the nicer the watercolor.

16.  Never say die until its dry!

17.  Never finish your paintings completely on site.

18.  Color will never give you an image, but tone will.

19.  If I see something interesting in my subject, I exaggerate it!

Happy painting and I hope this post helps you in painting landscapes!  Remember to be “brave and bold” when it comes to watercolor painting!


  1. That looks like it was a terrific workshop to do. The quotes are just great, especially the one you featured. They could apply to many other endeavors, e.g. #11, #18, #19 and others can apply to photography. I really like his approach – I’m not familiar with watercolor artists but I can see the originality and strong technique in his work. It’s interesting to see photographs of the work in progress, too. A rewarding post, thank you. And thank you for the follow; I appreciate it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, it was a wonderful workshop. He was quite an entertaining teacher and a joy to be in his class. I learned a great deal. It’s amazing how painting and composing a painting is so much like a photographer, you have to think like one. Great stuff.

      Liked by 1 person

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