Breaking the Rules for Big Rewards

By Angus McEwan

The question I hear most about my work is: “Is that watercolor? That’s not how watercolor should look.” More often than not my work is often considered to be produced with acrylic or oil rather than watercolor, as it is either too strong tonally, too strong color-wise, or too thick. I break a few rules when working, but I like that. I love experimenting, and that is where I get the most enjoyment from, so I don’t follow the “rules” as they are applied to watercolor. If it is archivally sound, anything goes, and I will combine many things together to create my work. Enjoyment is paramount when producing artwork and that reigns supreme for me. Who cares if you use white? Some of the best watercolorists that ever used the medium did, and so do I.

The biggest challenge for me is not having enough time to do everything that needs my attention. Being an artist involves many different aspects which need tending to, like a garden (you can’t focus on cutting just the grass all the time). Unfortunately, I can’t concentrate on painting all the time, as I also commit part of my week to teaching in college. I have articles to write, emails to answer, PR to deal with, preparation for workshops, judging competitions, selecting work for shows, preparing work for exhibitions, arranging work to be collected or sent abroad, making boxes for sending work away, curating and arranging other artists’ work for exhibitions, and so on. The list is endless, and I am sure every artist is the same; you just don’t get enough time to paint.

Angus McEwan recently took First Place in the bi-monthly PleinAir Salon competition, which accepts work in a variety of categories.


“Contemplation” (watercolor, 30 x 22 in.) 1st Place Overall: $1,000 Prize in the August/September 2018 PleinAir Salon

Contemplation is based on a subject I have painted many times over the years although not in this particular place. On this occasion, it is a gallery space in the botanic gardens in Edinburgh, Scotland. I love painting contre jour (against the light) and I particularly like how this creates a lot of soft unresolved areas within the painting juxtaposed with the harsh silhouette of an object against bright light. It was the softness that caused me the most problems but dry brushing and continual spraying helped me find an appropriate solution.

The painting was originally a small sketch in a sketchbook and a series of photographs were taken as an aid memoir. It was a familiar concept and therefore not much time was taken sketching out the idea. The challenge was to balance a large area where not a lot was happening against an area at the top of the painting which contained most of the largest range of colour, tone and subject. I had to repeatedly wet and soften most of the edges in the painting to create the illusion of atmosphere, this also meant my focal point was largely out of focus and suggestive. I enjoyed making this painting as it challenged me in a slightly different way to my normal subject matter.

The painting is about absent friends. An empty seat, waiting to be filled. That moment when you are alone with your thoughts wishing your friend or loved ones were present to share the experience with you.


“Simpler Times” (watercolor, 30 x 22 in.)

Simpler Times came from an old farm up the West coast of Scotland. There is an old writing desk sitting in front of a small dusty window, on the desk are initials and letters carved into its surface. Hanging above the window are harnesses which were obviously used on the farm amongst others farm paraphernalia attached to the wall. The challenge for me was to depict the lovely fall of light as it comes through the distorted surface of the window. It was difficult not to make the tonal range too extreme and therefore too stark. I wanted a gentler fall of light and a feeling of being in a place of its time, I therefore kept the coloring very muted and subdued. There is a hint of a brighter more colorful life outside the window but the surface holds back and softens the vibrancy. I wanted a feeling of nostalgia, somewhere lost in time, a point in history around the time after the second world war where times were less frenetic and simpler.


Angus McEwan “Tea Break” (watercolor, 22 x 15 in.)

“Tea break,” a moment in time preserved for eternity, the point when someone puts their cup and newspaper down on the desk and walks out the door never to return. Why have they not returned? Why did they not come back for their coat or clean the mug or put the paper in the bin? This scene looks as if the owner of the coat will return again very soon until we realise that the coat has cobwebs arcing across it. The scene, which I happened to come across, is set in an old lumber mill in Scotland, the tools and paraphernalia stuck in the 1940s. It is a slight departure for me subject-wise, but it has been an idea which has been lingering in my thoughts for a little while. This means I’m alive to the moment when I come across it.


“The Protector” (watercolor, 22 x 12 in.)

The Protector is very much in the tradition of many of my pieces, and in fact I was startled to discover that I had painted something very similar after my first trip to China in 1996. I will quite often split my painting surface up into basically thirds although it is not always that simple. Most of the painted surface is taken up with an object, or door in this instance, and it allows me to experiment with surfaces and textures. The pieces of brightly colored cloth at the bottom of the painting “breeches” the division running down the painting. In the darkness a hint of a window gives a slight sensation of distance and carries the eye into an area that is primarily absent of color or substance.”


“Global Crisis” (watercolor, 30 x 19 in.)

This old gourd in Global Crisis was found tied up to a window in the souk in Marrakech. It, however, meant a lot more to me than just an interesting subject to paint. It was a stark reminder of the possible state our planet may begin to resemble if we don’t rein back the abuse we as a species are dishing out to our home. Uncared for and taken for granted, the surface layers of this gourd were delaminating and eventually it wouldn’t be fit for its purpose; the metaphor wasn’t lost on me.


“Shroud of Qingdao” (watercolor, 21 x 40 3/4 in.)

I came across this boat on a beach one late November day while on a visit to Qingdao to attend the opening of an exhibition. I was immediately taken with the boat, which had obviously been half buried on purpose and covered with a rough, thick blue cloth to protect it from the elements. Having very little time, I drew a few of the boats which took my eye, but I knew this one was going to be particularly interesting to paint.

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  1. Mr. McEwan’s paintings are exceptional. Could he share a bit about how he gets the rich textures such as the walls beside the window in “Simpler Times”.

  2. I am humbled and in awe by the beauty and magnitude of Angus McEwan. Thank you for sharing your story, as I’m in love with the versatility of watercolor!

  3. Angus continually amazes me with his approach(es) to textural surfaces. Being a formally trained illustrator, now working nearly exclusively in watercolor, I can appreciate the depth and space his painting prowess captures. Well done, my friend! Well done…

  4. I was at a watercolor class last week where the instructor was very upset with my work because I was breaking the rules by squeezing paint from the tube directly onto the paper allowing me to create areas of thickness in my abstract style. Angus McEwan has given me much needed confidence to pursue my own explorations. I am very grateful.

  5. I’ve only been watercolor painting for three years. I have improved immensely but cannot ever imagine painting this well. I stand in awe and high appreciation. I agree with the person above, the text added so much. WOW – just so inspiring. I also appreciate Mr McEwan’s comment about breaking the rules and using white! Yes! I needed to hear that! will keep experimenting and enjoying the process!


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