by Linda M. Gosman
Strategically designed lively shadows and rich luminous washes of transparent color describe the work of New York artist Marlies Merk Najaka. "I want the viewer to experience the same intensity and reaction to the way light bounces through space and transforms a subject and its perceived color that I do," relates the artist, "and to see shadows as more than just a black shape."
To accomplish this, Najaka reveals the subtleties of form, color, and light often overlooked in a seemingly simple still life or hidden in an intricate, denser subject by zeroing in on her object of interest and then reducing its components to their simplest forms. "My goal with every painting is to see how much I can leave out rather than how much I can put in," states the artist. She effectively combines similar values, shapes and colors in the picture plane to provide the foundation for her work. "Although my subjects appear to be realistically rendered," explains Najaka, "they are actually composed of abstract shapes.
A graduate of the Parsons School of Design and illustrator for the past thirty years, Najaka, who always knew she wanted to be an artist, painted her first picture at two years old and her first plein air oil at the age of twelve. Later, after working in a variety of different media, the artist began experimenting with flat non-tonal washes of watercolor over her pen and ink drawings. "It was a Eureka! moment," recalls Najaka who was captivated by the effect. After that, she combined her interest in watercolor with her illustration career until five years ago, when two unsuccessful back surgeries forced the artist to seek a less demanding schedule. Leaving the pressure of deadlines behind her, Najaka channeled her creative energies entirely into fine art field. Her focus shifted from creating on demand to exploring new artistic avenues and into further mastering the demands of the elusive wet medium. "The unpredictability of watercolor continues to keep me constantly excited and challenged," says Najaka.
Inspired by such masters as J.M.W. Turner, Thomas Eakins, John Singer Sargent and Edward Hopper, Najaka is especially attracted to the works of Sorolla and the skillful use of white in his paintings. "I am fascinated with light and shadow," says the artist who especially likes to paint transparent subjects juxtaposed with interesting shadows. A strong design element, the latter allows Najaka to create drama in her work. "Shadows interest me more than the objects themselves," states the artist. These shapes enlivened with color are entities unto themselves, utilized to entertain the viewer and lead them to the focal point. "They are the juiciest part of the painting," the artist relates.
Self -directed, before Najaka is even finished one painting she is already thinking ahead to the next artistic challenge she wants to present herself. For example, in her painting, “Kyoto”, the artist resolved her aversion to green by forcing herself to execute an entire piece almost exclusively with subtle variations of that pigment. Again, in the painting, “Lost and Found”, Najaka explored the difficulties of maintaining the transparency of a glass object and its projected shadows. Once a painting goal is established, Najaka selects objects for a still life or utilizes one or a compilation of photographs taken with her Minolta or Canon 35mm cameras for reference material. "Although I use color film now, I used to use black and white to help me see the values more clearly," relates Najaka. "I use the photograph only as a visual reminder of my subject." After years of experience the artist is able to forego the traditional preliminary and thumbnail sketches. "But I do spend a lot of time visualizing the composition, color and values of my subject until I have a very clear picture of the painting in my head," Najaka explains.
Using a mechanical pencil, the artist begins with a detailed sketch directly on a full or elephant sheet of Arches 300 lb. cold-pressed watercolor paper. To save time if the subject is extremely complicated Najaka will use a projector to transfer an image. She begins reporting the largest shapes first. "I try to get rid of the visual clutter," says Najaka, "and get down to the basics of what I'm looking at. Then, I include whatever information I feel is needed even if I know that some of it might go unpainted."
Working on a slightly inclined drafting table the artist utilizes a combination of natural and halogen lighting during the painting process. First, Najaka saves the small white shapes in her painting by using a synthetic brush to apply frisket to these areas and then allows them to dry. Next, with a two inch flat wash brush she wets her paper leaving only an irregular white border of dry paper to frame her object of interest. Used to convey the fluidity of the watercolor medium, these well planned, unpainted, organic edges eliminate the need for a mat that might constrain a watercolor painting. "The loose boundaries surrounding my subject counterbalance its realistic appearance and are an important design element," states Najaka.
Working from the upper right to left hand side of her paper the artist applies broad washes of pigment to the still wet paper. Although she keeps in mind the local color of each object, Najaka ignores individual boundaries and covers the entire surface except for her border with a wash of transparent color. "I use various shades of blue in my backgrounds because they are a good basis for shadows and the play of warm against cool in subsequent layers enliven the transparency of the surface," the artist relates. Avoiding opaque pigments, she doesn't employ white or any of the cadmiums. Her deep rich darks are achieved using a combination of the various blue pigments on her palette. Although she sometimes uses a blow dryer, Najaka allows her beginning washes to dry naturally to avoid pushing the pigment around too much.
"My first wash is quite pale," Najaka remarks. Next, the artist rewets her paper but this time cuts around specific objects utilizing negative space to shape her subject. Dropping color into this clear wash allows Najaka's pigments to mix directly on the paper. To facilitate this she moves, bends, or folds her paper in whatever position necessary to create the effect she desires and to "float" the pigment away from the form or frisket to avoid hard edges when appropriate. By the third wash she begins adding reflective colors. She explains, "I keep adding as many layers of transparent pigment as I need until I build up the background, define the subject and develop a midtone." Once the latter is established, Najaka proceeds to developing her focal point and surrounding areas.
Adhering to a distinguishable value pattern, the artist reserves her light and darks for the subject itself. First, she wets the object, then alternating direct with negative painting, Najaka employs a #12 or #14 round brush to apply the approximate color and value that she wants to convey to the viewer in one strong, colorful, wash. The artist creates an artificial appearance of spontaneity by placing soft edges in areas of less importance and in her shadows. The latter are painted simultaneously with her subject when she wants the two to blend. This allows the pigment to intermingle between shapes and helps to unify the composition.
Recently, Najaka prefers denser subjects, as in her painting, “Bleeding Hearts”, a complicated composition of leaves and foliage. The abundance of smaller shapes eliminates the need for broad washes allowing the artist to start and stop painting easily as her health dictates. After establishing a background Najaka works from light to dark utilizing negative space to carve out her subject. Layer after layer she allows the viewer to see hidden wonders in the interior of the form. When finished, the artist strengthens her darkest darks and removes the frisket with a rubber cement pickup to restore her whitest whites. If necessary Najaka goes back in with a wet brush to soften any unwanted hard edges.
"I like to think of my approach to painting as "controlled spontaneity", remarks the artist. By disassociating herself with the subject the artist is able to focus on the interplay of shapes and colors that define the object and entertain her audience. "Someone once said my painting was like a "hot fudge sundae for the eyes."
Najaka's palette includes: lemon yellow, Sahara yellow, Gamboge, opera, mineral violet, permanent mauve, Hansa yellow deep, Hooker's green, Milori Blue, peacock blue, turquoise, Monestial blue, lapis lazuli, ultramarine violet, phthalo blue green, and Indian blue.
Najaka took art classes at the Art Student's League and the School of Visual Arts and graduated from the Parson's School of Design, all in New York. She is a signature member of the National Watercolor Society and the American Watercolor Society. An author and illustrator of three children's books, Najaka's work has also been included in North Light¿
“Splash 5 and 6” and “The Best of Watercolor”, series (Rockport Publishing, Gloucester, Massachusetts). Her paintings are in both private and corporate collections.
bio: Linda M. Gosman is an artist, teacher and writer based in Severna Park, Maryland.
For more detailed information about the palette I use in my watercolor paintings please click on this link: http://www.handprint.com/HP/WCL/palette4y.html
Reprinted with permission from American Artist magazine. Copyright 2003 by VNU Inc., 770 Broadway, New York, NY 10003. All rights reserved.
This article appeared in the Fall 2003 issue of the American Artist Magazine.
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