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Israel in Watercolor: 'watercolor snapshots' of the Holy Land

I’ve always fantasized about being a traveling artist. Back in art school, when I studied art history, I was enamored by the paintings of Eugene Velasquez, as he traveled to the Orient and came back with exotic imagery of Arabs on horses, and belly dancing women lounging by the seashore. This was at a time when photography was either in its infancy, or wasn’t invented yet.

America has a similar tradition with the development of the West. Artists would come out here and paint lush paintings of the Grand Canyon, and vast stretches of wilderness to entice the imaginations of Easterners to come out and move to the West, and to develop it. I’m sure this also had something to do with the expansion of the railroad out west.

It was this expansive view of myself that I went on a trip to Israel. Israel has always held a special place in my imagination. It’s a holy land. It’s sacred. Its history goes back thousands of years.

I’ve often felt that art has a holy quality to it that it speaks in a deeper way to people than do photographs. In fact, photographs often do an injustice to reality. The way you can prove this to yourself is examining how you feel in a place versus what your photos record. You’ll find that the camera can quickly capture an image, but what it can’t capture is how you felt. That’s where the artists comes into play.

To really capture the soul of a place, especially a place as special as Israel, I felt I really needed to document it with paintings, artwork. So instead of a camera, I brought a small set of watercolor paints with me.

I brought a small set of watercolors made by the Sennier Company. It was a traveler’s set that came with eight colors in tubes, and when you opened the hinged cover, a small palette was slide out from the bottom side of the paint set, with eight little pans for me to squirt color into. There were no primary colors in the set; they were all secondary or tertiary colors. There was a yellowish-orange, there was a pthalo blue, there was a sap green, there was an alizarin crimson, there was a burnt sienna, and a few others. The set came with a small little #3 brush, which felt about the size of a stylus on a Palm Pilot.

I came prepared with watercolor paper. I went to a local art supply store, and had one of the workers take a sheet of 30” x 24” watercolor paper and cut it down to sheets about the size of 4.5” x 6.5”. Those pieces of paper fit perfectly into one of those small plastic portfolios with plastic pages, the kind that look like photo albums. I bought a few of those portfolio books at the art store. Each portfolio held about forty-eight images, so it took about two and a half sheets of the watercolor paper cut down to size to fill the book.

I always kept a small bottle of water with me, which I would use for my paintings. The cap would be my water dish, and I’d pour water from the bottle into that little cap, and that’s what I’d use to rehydrate my paints.

Since I was traveling at a very fast pace, following a tour around, I didn't have the luxury of sitting around to paint just using paint. I had to make a sketch in pen, and then go back into it later and add paint. The pen that I used was a felt-tipped pen that I got from the local office supply store. I did a few tests with a few pens, and found one that did not smear.

My strategy was to quickly sketch a drawing and if I had time, I’d paint it in right there. Otherwise, I’d wait until later that night or the next morning to add paint. About one fourth of my paintings I actually finished at the place where I made the painting. The others I had to write painting notes on the back. The notes were usually about which colors to use, how to apply them, an indication of the light source, and any other descriptions, which helped me accurately convey the ambiance of the source. Sometimes, on the back of the painting, I’d make a quick sketch of the quick sketch, with arrows pointing to various points on the drawing indicating color notes.

This proved to be a very satisfactory way of working for me, and I regard these 4” x 6” paintings as “watercolor snapshots”. They were about the size of a photographic print, and I fun gently shaking them to facilitate drying. It reminded me of the Polaroid Land camera film, or the SX70 type pictures, where when you’d take a picture, it would immediately come out of the camera. I’ve witnessed people who take SX70 pictures shake the picture back and forth to facilitate the development of the image. Well, there I was with a photograph-sized piece of watercolor paper, shaking it so it would dry. It was an interesting reversal of behaviors. I felt like a photojournalist, but instead of camera I had a watercolor set, and some photographic print sized paper.

My first painting was a self-portrait. I painted it while in my hotel room in Tel Aviv, which was our first stop. Our hotel was right on the shore of the Mediterranean. We’d been traveling literally for twenty-four hours straight, having made four plane connections. This included many layovers, so by the time we landed in Israel, we were exhausted. It was about five in the afternoon when I sat down to do this painting. My mood was a bit overwhelmed. I felt glad to be there, but exhausted. So I painted a picture of myself looking into the mirror. It was the one picture I made without a pen.

One of my favorite paintings that I made was looking out the window of a hotel on a kibbutz, the kibbutz “Hagoshrim”. Kibbutzim are businesses these days. They used to be an experiment in collective living, and they used to be primarily agricultural in nature. Agriculture is only a fraction of the Israel economy, and the kibbutzes are legitimate businesses that are even represented on the Israeli stock exchange. This hotel that we were staying at is but one example. Others that we’d encounter on the tour included a shoemaking factory, archaeological digs, and a rafting company that had us raft down the Jordan River, among others. I scene I painted from my hotel window was very lush. The way I drew the painting was almost in a blind type fashion, I’d be looking and drawing without checking my work too often. That was my approach throughout this tour. I’d look and transmit the image from eyes to my hand, looking at what was before me more than I was looking at the page. I’d peek down every so often to make sure that I wasn’t getting too far off the page, to make sure that the drawing didn’t look too bizarre, and this served me well. What made the hotel painting successful, I feel, is how I used light. I focused on two things: I let the white of the paper be the light, and mixed up some grays to indicate shadow. For the foliage, which is very verdant, I used the wet-on-wet method. I started by painted a light green in a tree, and then while it was still wet, I’d dab the underside of that green foliage with blue. The blue would just run right into the light green.

The second painting I’d like to talk about is the “Temple of Pan, at Banias” on a bank of a tributary of the Jordan River. This image in this painting is a temple carved into the side of a mountain, and the temple is dedicated to Pan. The rock was very red, with dark stains in it. I come from Arizona, so this phenomenon is very familiar to me. However, painting it was another story. I only had time to sketch it out and to make notes on how to approach it. So what I decided to do was to paint the rocks red, and while it was still wet, dab the black stains with black paint, and then go back in later with red paint. The whole thing had a splotchy, drippy, craggy mélange that I feel captured the very interesting colors and textures in that rock.

Another painting I really enjoyed was one of the quickest ones I’d done yet. This was at the Ben Yehuda Mall in Jerusalem. The Ben Yehuda Mall is a very active outdoor place that spans a large area, at least a square mile, although I have not walked the whole area. No cars go through there. It’s all brick and cobblestone streets. There are all sorts of shops, and vendors, and activity going on through there. It’s unlike anything you see in America. Malls here are indoors for the most part. And even those that are outdoors, like Venice Beach in Santa Monica, where you can walk along the beach and see vendors, this has the charm of being very old. There are very old stones that line the streets and the architecture is made of stone, and there is a real sense of history. Even though Ben Yehuda Mall is about a hundred years old, even that’s novel by contemporary standards. The night I was out, I was with my roommate who’s also an artist (he’s a potter), and we were both meeting a girl who he knew. She had stayed in Israel as a student for ten months, and now she was getting ready to leave. She’s the one who walked us around Ben Yehuda Mall. We had shwarma and falafel to eat from a shop there, and as we were finishing, I pulled out my pad and my pen, and drew a quick sketch of the intersection. There were white lights strung across the stone pathway where people walked, connecting one building to another. There were bright neon lights on the names of the shops written in Hebrew, and bright street lamps illuminated the whole area. Ben Yehuda Mall has a lot of charm. There’s a lot of life there and activity. It’s an exciting place; it’s very much about people. Cars drive around the periphery of it, where there are roads made for cars. So I made a quick sketch of it. In the back, I indicated the coloring notes, which seemed to be a frenetic splotching of color: reds, oranges, greens, blues...and the sky was very dark, so I indicated that the sky is a dark purplish blue.

What I really enjoy painting, however, are people. This requires you to be somewhat of a spy, because you’ve got to be very observant, but you’ve got to be very quick. You’ve got to steal a few quick glances of what the person looks like when you’re trying to draw, and get it down before the person notices you. Inevitably, it doesn’t take long for them to notice you. This happened to me several times. When that does happen, they’ll either walk away, or they’ll come to you and ask what’s going on. So I had to be very quick with my drawings of people, because I knew that often, my efforts would be frustrated.

While I was at Ben Yehuda Mall with my two friends, we decided to have something to drink at a local outdoor bar. When we sat down, we saw a bald headed man, about thirty years of age, dressed all in white, sitting at an outdoor table, watching soccer on a big screen TV, and smoking a hookah. Hookahs are really big in Israel. They are water pipes with hoses coming out of them, that I usually associate with the Orient, with these old photographs of Arabs or Chinese people smoking opium. Nowadays they’re used for smoking tobacco. So this guy, who we later find is the owner of the bar, puts down his hookah, comes to our table to take our order for beer. After he took our order, he went back to his hookah and his big screen TV. At which point, I pulled out a piece of paper and quickly sketched what he was doing there.

It was too dark to paint, but I did make notes on what the colors looked like. There was a lot of red light coming from the letters of the name of the bar. The tree he was sitting next to had red lights that were projecting upwards from the trunk, so on the back of the sketch, I sketched the tree and indicated with arrows the direction that the red light was projecting. The whole effect, I indicated on the notes on the back of the painting, was to be made using the wet-on-wet technique. This technique I often found useful for indicating colored lights. It makes it look like the light is covering everything. This is the most colorful painting I’d made on the trip, and I’m very happy with it because the riot of color really gets across the feeling that there’s a lot of life and activity at this bar, and the environment around it.

This gets me back to the point I was getting at earlier about how photographs do not capture what the sketch artist or painter sees. The painting is an exaggeration of what was happening there. If I were to take a photo, the picture would be darker. It would just look like a man watching TV smoking a hookah. But the feeling, the smells, and the energy of the place you have to translate with line quality and color. In this case the line quality is frenetic, and the color is diffuse and wet, and all over the place...which indicates how I was feeling at the time: full of life.

Another person I had a lot of fun drawing was our tour guide. Our group ended up one day in the mystical city of Safat. And as we gathered in the courtyard after we got off the bus, our tour guide, whose name was “Mookie”, explained the history of the region and why they came here. It was known for being a place where a man named Joseph Luria, who had mystical visions, developed the kabbalah, which he wrote down in a surrealistic biblical poetic style. But it’s also known for its artists and artisans. However, as he was speaking to us all, I decided to join Safat’s history of artists...so I sketched Mookie. Since I only had a few minutes to capture him, I focused only on his most salient features, which were his hand gestures. Mookie loved to gesture with his index finger pointing up to make a point, and with his extended pinky, which indicated education, refinement, and culture: a studied and pretentious quality.

I had to rush with that painting. I quickly got the drawing down, and started painting it right away. My friend and roommate, Andy, snapped a photograph of me painting Mookie. The photo that Andy snapped of me illustrates my method of working. If you look at the picture, you’ll see that I’m holding a very tiny brush. I’m holding, with my thumb, a piece of paper, which is no bigger than a postcard against the portfolio book, which I will later insert this page into after it dries. At my knee is a bottle of water, which is open, the cap is right next to me. That cap is filled with water, and I was continually dipping into that cap with my brush. Behind me and off to one side you’ll see a small paint set that I carry with me. The paint set is no bigger than the palm of my hand; it’s very portable. I stored the paint set in a plastic freezer bag, so that the paints wouldn’t drip over other things in my shoulder bag when I was done.

Our final destination our trip through Israel was an excursion across the border into Jordan. In Jordan there’s a fabulous site called Petra. Petra is a series of red sandstone mountains where the Naboteans and later the Romans carved temples right out of the rock. It’s an entire city complete with houses, amphitheater, and burial tombs carved right out of the rock. My first painting of Petra was in front of its most spectacular feature that is called “The Treasury”. This is the most intact remnant of Petra. It has not been worn away by the winds or the elements. Incredibly, it is in pristine shape. It probably has something to do with the fact that it is tucked away inside the crevice of a cavernous nook that protects it from the elements.

When our group arrived at this spectacular edifice, I immediately pulled out my drawing pad and quickly sketched the camels that were lying down in front of it, as well as the Treasury itself. By my side were little Jordanian boys trying to sell me souvenirs. There was a moment when one of the Jordanian kids was watching what I was drawing. I showed it to him, and he looked at me, smiled, and gave me a thumbs-up sign..., which I thought was great. Art really is a Universal language.

We had another minute to linger at the Treasury, so I sat down at a bench and quickly added paint. I was interrupted by our tour guide who said that it was time to carry forward. So I put my paint set away and continued on with the group. Looking back at the painting, I can see that the very limited use of color I added, due to the fact that I was being rushed to move along, actually helped the painting. Spare use of color with lots of white space leaving just the drawing imparts to me a feeling of bright light, airiness, and heat. A rich use of color imparts to me a sense of water, fertility, and coolness...but Petra was not like that. Petra was very desert-like. In many ways, it reminded me of Arizona, from where I hail. So I was glad that was rushed along, for now I can see that to make a successful painting, you don’t need layers and layers of paint. A few strokes here and there as accents can go a long way.

My trip to Israel, as an artist, was incredibly rewarding. I was seeing sights that I’d only heard about or had seen photographs of. But here I was in the Holy Land, with my bottle of water, my palette of paints, and my portfolio book of snapshot-sized pieces of paper. I recorded everything I could see as quickly and as honestly as I could. I really feel that I brought back some of the feeling and flavor of Israel.

I would encourage all of you watercolor artists out there to travel, and make it a habit of taking a paint set with you. Get something very small that you can have always with you. Get a small book of paper that you can carry around with you. Also bring a bottle of water, and use the bottle cap as your water dish. Recycle the capful of dirty water by pouring it back into the bottle when you are finished with it. I feel that you will get results that will please you more than those you’ll get shooting photographs. Photography’s been overrated. See the world with new eyes. It’s okay if you forget to bring your camera. Just don’t forget to take your watercolor set. Good luck, and happy travels.