WATERCOLOR Articles 4 min read

Ryan Fox’s Watercolors Don’t Always Go the Way He’d Planned

Domes of St. Nicholas and skyline of downtown medieval Amsterdam, Netherlands at sunset.
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Welcoming the Unexpected

One of the most expressive and challenging ways to use the watercolor medium is in large, intricate works with layers of luminous washes, and Ryan Fox accomplishes that brilliantly in his batik-style, award-winning work, Amsterdam Skyline. The layers of luminescent color and dramatic value structure make this aerial view of the centuries-old European city an absolute stand-out.

“The editorial team was blown away by the complexity and visual excitement of the composition,” says Watercolor Artist editor-in-chief Anne Hevener. “The sense of depth, punctuated by the centerpiece building, creates a picture of an expansive city—with the presence of pedestrians and other details adding to the liveliness. A beautiful color palette and the textural surprises of the rice-paper surface add to the fascination.”

Domes of St. Nicholas and skyline of downtown medieval Amsterdam, Netherlands at sunset.
Amsterdam Skyline (watercolor on rice paper, 12×18)

Open to Change

The artist’s initial inspiration for Amsterdam Skyline came from a photograph taken on a family trip to the featured city; however, Fox took plenty of artistic license with the image to create an exaggerated view of sunlight and shadow moving rhythmically around exquisite architecture. “The original picture was shot on an overcast day and was quite uninteresting,” says the artist. “What I love most about being a painter is the ability to create what I want to see.

By using alternating layers of warm versus cool colors, I turned an average photograph into a sunset panorama.”

Fox also greatly enjoys the unpredictability of his chosen medium, especially when creating batik-style paintings, and allows the spontaneous nature of watercolor to keep his work loose and his mind open to outcomes that deviate from his original plan. “When I begin a painting, I have an idea in my head of what I want to create;” he says, “however, it usually takes five minutes to mess up that idea. Instead of getting frustrated, I embrace what happens, which makes each painting unique. Watercolor is exciting because painting with it is like walking on the edge of a cliff. One misstep can really change the course, and you’re suddenly off in a new direction—but that’s part of the appeal.”

Happy Accidents

Batik is a traditional Indonesian wax- and-dye technique for printing designs on fabrics. The wax, acting as a resist, can create a veined or crackled textural effect. Fox simulates the look, using wax resist with watercolor on rice paper, to create paintings he refers to as his “batiks.”

“When I started Amsterdam Skyline, I hadn’t painted batiks for some time,” he says. Normally he’d use a 2B pencil to create a compositional line drawing, but he forgot to make his pencil lines dark enough. “After the first wash, I couldn’t see any lines.” he says. “It took half a day to redraw the composition.”

In general, when Fox begins applying paint, he starts with his most colorful layer to establish the dominant mood of the painting. “I’m primarily a value painter,” he says. “I use a lot of colors, but I think in terms of warm versus cool.” For Amsterdam Skyline, he placed the underlying warm areas in a diamond configuration that counter- balanced the large church in the center.

One might consider the matrix of streets and buildings in Fox’s winning painting to be a metaphor for his painting process: Weaving his way along, step by step, the artist redirected his approach when he ran into problems or when accidents occurred—those unexpected twists and turns in the process.

“Batiks are difficult because, in the later stages, it’s hard to see what you have or haven’t preserved with wax,” says Fox. “Painting a complex cityscape on a full sheet of rice paper doesn’t help. Throughout the process, I made lots of mistakes—inverting shapes by accident, dripping wax onto unwanted areas, and so on.” Many of these mistakes, however, turned out well. “Happy accidents,” says Fox, “often end up being the favorite part of my paintings because I couldn’t have planned them.”

Batik Crackling

Graphic accents stand out amid the purple-, gray-, and blue-shadowed structures of the buildings in Amsterdam Skyline, and two golden ochre roads lead the eye up to the sky. In fact, one of the many standout qualities of Amsterdam Skyline is the appearance of a seemingly aged-patina texture in the sky—as well as in the streets and waterways below. This crackled effect is achieved mid-process by using a brush to apply wax to a specific area on the paper, which is then crumpled and crushed to produce a random crazing.

“The best part of batik painting is crumpling the painting into a ball,” the artist says. “This forms cracks in the wax, and then I go back in and add further color to those cracks. It makes a mess, and it’s terrifying. It’s really easy to tear the delicate paper into a hundred pieces; however, when the wax is removed you can finally see the hard work beneath.”

Allure of the New

Fox’s batiks, as well as his paintings on YUPO paper and other artworks are popular, and he sells a variety of options on his website, from framed watercolor and photography prints to surface-design and screen-printed items in the home décor, lifestyle, apparel and tech categories. At the beginning of his career, the artist spent many years as a professional photographer. Then, in 2011, he rediscovered his love of watercolor painting and dedicated himself full-time to the medium. Photography and fine art continue to converge in his professional life, however, since most of his watercolor paintings are inspired by photographs taken on his regular travels.

Fox finds inspiration in visiting places he can view with fresh eyes. Asia and Europe are favorite destinations, but the North Carolina-based artist also finds inspiration in the great cities of the U.S. In addition, he travels vicariously through social media, which he considers a positive influence in his life and career because it allows him to share artwork with more people, continually exposes him to new artists, which provides motivation. “When I see a painting that takes my breath away,
I study it closely, trying to figure out what makes it successful,” he says. “It could be the color choice, a new technique or a nontraditional approach to watercolor.”

Fox admits that he’s always trying something new. “With experimentation come plenty of disasters,” he says, “but from the wreckage of these disasters comes a bit of knowledge gained. My goal is to learn something new each day—this is what keeps me energized and excited about painting.”

About the Artist

Ryan Fox (ryan-fox.pixels.com and rfoxphoto.com) holds a BFA with a concentration in photography from the University of Michigan. He’s a Signature Member of the American Watercolor Society and has won awards in several national and regional watercolor-society exhibitions and competitions. As an instructor, he has shared educational material in magazine articles and books, as well as through a series of instructional DVDs by Creative Catalyst Productions.

Meet Toan Nguyen, the 14th Annual Watermedia Showcase Best of Show winner, here.

See the winning work of Peggi Habets, the 14th Annual Watermedia Showcase Third Place winner, here.

To see all of the award-winning work in the 14th Annual Watermedia Showcase, check out the Spring 2023 issue of Watercolor Artist.

Allison Malafronte is an arts and design writer and editor and a regular contributor to Artists Network magazines.

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