Watercolor: Yachiyo Beck: Not Just Another Still Life

Watercolor: Yachiyo Beck: Not Just Another Still Life

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By employing a most unusual form of contrast, Yachiyo Beck has found a way to create still lifes with a distinctly personal flavor.

by Jennifer King

Afternoon Apples
2005, watercolor, 18 x 28.
Collection the artist.

If one of her paintings looked like any competent artist could have painted it, Yachiyo Beck simply wouldn’t be satisfied. That’s why she has drawn upon her personal interests, tastes, and life experiences for inspiration in creating her own look.

That look is at once dramatic and serene. It’s as if her paintings grab your attention, only to encourage you to pause and take a deep, relaxing breath. Yachiyo (the artist uses her first name professionally) explains that she creates a peaceful feeling by giving her objects a lot of space and using a harmony of lush, earthy colors, while adding excitement through a healthy dose of value contrast.

Yet perhaps the most striking aspect of her work is the way she employs one of the most unusual forms of contrast possible: “I’ve always had a great admiration for almost photographic realism in objects, but I love abstract, textured, decorative settings,” she says. This surprising marriage impresses viewers with Yachiyo’s virtuosity by reminding them that her works are indeed paintings and not merely photographic renderings.

Apples, Deco I
2006, watercolor, 22 x 30.
Collection the artist.

The artist’s work offers evidence of a number of different influences. Born and raised in Japan, she was constantly exposed to creativity and artistry in all aspects of life. “In Asian countries, art is everywhere,” she says. “Everything in our culture is about decorating and making things beautiful. As a child, I learned art, drawing, and calligraphy in school, which fostered my sensitivity to color and line.” Yachiyo’s first career as a high-fashion model enhanced her flair for the dramatic and her knack for creative presentation. Later, the loss of her first son led to her desire to find tranquility and share it with others.

Like many artists, Yachiyo has a few challenges to deal with in her painting process, but she doesn’t let them stop her for a moment. One obstacle is that, in her current home, she doesn’t have a dedicated studio space for setting up her still lifes. Another is that her time-consuming process requires at least a week’s worth of effort per painting, making it difficult to keep the fruits and vegetables fresh as she paints. So as much as she’d like to work from life, she works from reference photos instead.

Radishes With a Vase
2006, watercolor, 7½ x 11.
Collection Eli Saraf.

Yachiyo typically sets up her fruit and other objects outside under natural sunlight before photographing them. She’s found that early morning or late afternoon is the best time, as the angle of the light shows off the volume of her objects, casts long shadows, and creates the most interesting shapes. “I’ve never worked in a studio, but I think I prefer natural light anyway,” she says. “Sunlight brings out the color of the objects and cast shadows, and it causes the colors to bounce against one another.”

However, she doesn’t worry too much about setting up the perfect still-life arrangement at this point. “I shoot many pictures, and then arrange the objects in sketches to create a good design,” says Yachiyo. “In particular, I think about the positive and negative shapes, about the shapes within the background, even about the spaces between the objects. For instance, when I’m placing one object in front of another, I sometimes overlap them only slightly so that you can see a tiny triangular space between their lower edges. This gives the objects some room to breathe and keeps the painting from looking cluttered. It’s also a nice way to bring in a dark or light accent of background color.”

Pears, Deco I
2006, watercolor, 22 x 30.
Collection Margarethe
Wiersema and David Horne.

In addition to drawing out her compositions in sketches, another secret to the artist’s success is her practice of doing small preliminary paintings. “That white surface can be intimidating, and if I go right to a large size, I feel I have to be very careful and work slowly,” she notes. “But if I work out my design ideas, color combinations, and compositions in small studies, I can paint confidently and creatively, without worrying about making mistakes.”

With her photos, drawings, and sketches in hand, Yachiyo is ready to begin a big painting. She typically makes a light graphite drawing of the objects’ outlines, then uses inexpensive brushes to apply masking fluid over these objects. This gives her the freedom to paint the background loosely with plenty of paint and water, or, as she says, to “rock and roll.” She takes care to use a separate large flat for each color in the background to keep the paint mixtures clean as she applies them. She prefers to use 200-lb cold-pressed paper because it doesn’t need to be stretched. As a working mother of a young child, Yachiyo likes to be ready to paint whenever free time arises.

Afternoon Persimmons
2006, watercolor,
22 x 30. Collection Brian
and Nancy Kennedy.

Backgrounds are very important. “If I’m going to put in a decorative border that is somewhat complex, as in the Deco series, I want the background behind the fruit to be absolutely smooth so it’s not distracting,” she explains. “But without a border, I add an element of abstraction to a simple background with brushwork and mark-making.” Besides the textural quality, the colors and values of the backgrounds are also key qualities in her distinctly dramatic look, which is why Yachiyo typically applies as many as five layers to establish very dark, saturated, subtle colors. At times she may even use black in a nod to traditional Japanese sumi-e ink-and-brush painting.

The artist’s ideas for abstract backgrounds and borders often come to her through experimentation. For example, with Afternoon Persimmons (see demonstration) Yachiyo says she’d come up with the idea of adding the little rectangular graphic elements as a unique way of breaking up the large expanse of background, but when painting her preliminary sketch, she just couldn’t quite make the concept work. In pure frustration, she grabbed a brush loaded with dark paint and dashed it across the wet page. Much to her surprise, the mottled result was just the soft yet intriguing effect she needed to tie the whole image together.

Tomatoes With a Bowl
2006, watercolor, 71/2 x 11.
Collection Mr. and Mrs. John Ducar.

After applying numerous glazes to her backgrounds to build up rich, deep color—allowing each layer to dry thoroughly between applications—Yachiyo removes the masking fluid. She then reapplies small dabs of masking fluid to preserve the highlights, again allowing herself to work more freely. When the fluid is dry, she begins to apply layers of colors to the objects, developing the realistic three-dimensional form and enhancing the sense of light. “I love the cat’s tongue brushes for painting some areas,” she adds. “The pointy shape is great for being precise, and they hold a lot of paint.”

No matter which part of the painting she’s working on, throughout the entire process Yachiyo remains conscious of the whole, which is why she always saves the main object for last. “I want to see how the background and other objects turn out first, and then I paint the main fruit in response to them,” she explains. “The rest of the painting will tell me what to do to make the main object stand out.”

Pomegranates, Deco I
2006, watercolor, 22 x 30.
Collection the artist.

Making that happen often requires going back in and refining the background and surrounding areas when the main objects are complete. For instance, she might enhance the value contrast by darkening the background and foreground near the lightest areas of the main objects, or by darkening the objects’ shadowed sides and cast shadows to contrast against lighter background areas. Edges are another way she accentuates the focal area, specifically by keeping the main object’s edges crisper while softening the edges of secondary objects and background shapes.

Once she’s made these adjustments and tidied up the details, such as removing the masking fluid and softening the edges of those preserved highlights, Yachiyo likes to set the painting aside for several days. She usually stands it up somewhere so she can glance at it repeatedly throughout each day. “When I’m focused on the painting, it’s easy to miss little problems because I’m too close to the work,” she says. “Over time, I begin to see corrections to make—a shape that can be improved or areas where the color or value could be better balanced. When I don’t see any more things to fix, I’m satisfied and the painting is complete.”

Yachiyo’s technique is masterful and her personal style mature, even though she has only been painting for about 10 years. When her first son died of cancer, she returned to her childhood love of art as a way to find solace and healing. Now, she says, her favorite part of painting is the emotion behind the creative act itself. “When I’m working, I go to a special place where I don’t think about anything else.” She adds, “It’s a peaceful feeling, one that I hope my viewers experience when they notice the serenity of my watercolors.”

About the Artist
After working for 16 years in the Japanese fashion industry as a model and later a modeling-agency manager, Yachiyo Beck retired and moved to the United States. After settling in Oregon, she studied watercolor painting under her friend and mentor LaVonne Tarbox-Crone. She soon began exhibiting with the Watercolor Society of Oregon and other organizations, through which she won several important awards. Since moving to the Los Angeles area two years ago, Yachiyo has become involved with the National Watercolor Society, achieving signature-member status in 2006. In 2007 she will exhibit at the Festival of Arts and Art-A-Fair Festival, both in Laguna Beach, California.

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