John Marin Part 3: Charcoal IN Watercolor? Oh My!

by Kathleen Huebener in Painting Tips

Adding my observations from viewing the artist John Marin originals in the Art Institute of Chicago to what I gleaned from studying John Marin’s Watercolors – A Medium for Modernism, I have a revelation about the substances Marin added to his watercolors to achieve his improvisational expressions. He was not concerned about traditional watercolor painting. His goal was to handle watercolor in an uninhibited, intuitive way, and thus creating an extremely personal visual language. As in Marin’s use of various watercolor papers, he also progressed in experimenting with different materials as additions to his watercolors.


Ø      Graphite pencil:

In the beginning of his watercolor artistry, Marin started his paintings with a faint graphite pencil sketch loosely rendered. He then with watercolor would add shape and light on the buildings. With a soft dark pencil, Marin then would outline the structures and the architectural details. To finish the painting, he would rub with pencil over the paper to create shade.


Ø      Charcoal:

Marin soon abandoned graphite pencil and switched to charcoal. Using the natural powdery characteristic of charcoal, he experimented with charcoal to create different textures by mixing the charcoal with watercolor. Interestingly enough, Marin manipulated the charcoal within the watercolor mixture not with a brush but with a rag. He discovered that, using the charcoal/watercolor mixture, most of the charcoal particles would set on the high points of the paper’s textured fibers. Only a small amount of the charcoal particles would settle in the valleys of the surrounding fibers. Marin also drew charcoal lines over wet washes, and then tamped the lines with a tool, sometimes a stump, creating soft-feathered lines. While implementing these discoveries, he still strove to learn more.


Consequently, Marin switched to colored pencils and crayons to produce various lines in his inquisitive search of expression via watercolors.


Ø       Black colored pencil: The pencil contains a binder that holds black pigment to the paper fibers, creating a crisp sharp narrow line. Marin, using a light pressure of the pencil, found it deposited clumps of pigment onto the paper fibers. Using a heavier pressure the colored black pencil yielded an even line onto the paper.


Ø      Black crayon: Bound with wax, the black crayon does not smear or smudge like charcoal. The wax of the crayon also creates a resist for the watercolors. Its line appears as deep dense shiny line, generally wider than lines made with colored pencils. Marin discovered that the parallel striations in the wax revealed the direction of the application of the crayon.


Ø      Ink: Marin also added shiny delicate lines of ink to his paintings occasionally by brush, but his favorite method of applying the ink was via syringe.


Throughout his painting career, Marin explored the potential of multiple drawing media and their interactions with watercolor. His in-depth interest in each material’s visual properties and physical characteristics when combined with watercolors made his paintings highly successful. Marin embraced an intuitive art that emphasized the experience of seeing and feeling.


An insightful quote by John Marin ends my study of John Marin on this web site.

“A work of art cannot be understood, it can be felt.”