Interview with Witte Wartena

Witte Wartena
L: "Engels", watercolor, felt tip pen, pencil on paper
R: "Pequot", watercolor, felt tip pen, pencil on paper

We are very excited to be offering "Watercolor Workshop: the Berlin Landscape" with new instructor and artist Witte Wartena. The workshop will focus on the urban landscape of Berlin and introduce mixed media watercolor techniques central to Witte's own practice.

On the occasion of this new workshop, I asked Witte about his unique approach to landscape and the picturesque, as well as his relationship to watercolor as a medium. We also talked about some exciting current and upcoming projects of Witte's very international art practice.
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MOB (Mira O'Brien): You have a unique approach to the watercolor landscape genre. The cityscape of Berlin seems very central to your interest, but not the iconic scenes. How exactly do you choose a location to use as a subject for a drawing? 

WW (Witte Wartena): I choose places that have a special appeal to me. This happens mostly unconsciously a location stands out in my eyes somehow. The function, history or position might play a role too, but the decision to make a drawing is first and foremost based on aesthetics.

MOB: Can you describe your process?

WW: I go for walks and look closely at my surroundings, I take photographs. At a later time I will go through the pictures I took and make a selection. From these images I will then make a drawing in pencil that I will later render in watercolour.

MOB: Your paintings remind me of the tradition of travel sketches, as practiced by 19th century British painters such as John Ruskin or John Singer Sargent, except that you are seeking out a sort of anti-picturesque. What is the idea or motivation behind the anti-picturesque?

WW: Thank you very much, I feel a kinship with these kinds of diary like works. I want to register the world I see around me. However I think it is not interesting to show the typical landmarks and beauty spots. They are well known and will be captured by many others (and probably better than I ever could). The unknown or unseen (overlooked) is more fascinating. In a diary you might describe  a party in great detail but not an ordinary day, however people in years to come or those that are unfamiliar with your life learn much more from the latter. I also think there is much beauty in the mundane or even what is preserved to be ugly. It intrigues my why things look the way they look. Why does that spot gather rubbish, why did someone decide to spray a gratify there or why did someone plant flowers next to a tree and hang out some bunting.



MOB: Watercolor has the reputation for being an unforgiving medium. I find that people are often intimidated because they think with watercolor, you are not allowed to make a single mistake. How would you respond to this preconception? 

WW: Well it can be but you can learn to control it. On the other hand you can also use exactly that and utilise the "mistakes" to make your work more lively.

MOB: What attracts you to the medium of watercolor?

WW: I used scan in my drawings and do the colours in the computer. Although I loved the possibilities of this and the big monochrome colour patches I could make. I missed working with my hands and wanted the work to look more alive and less sterile. I experimented with several materials and was immediately attracted to watercolour, because of it's versatility. You can work very painterly or very graphic. Very thin and transparent with colours that blend in to one another but also with bold colours and distinct shapes.

MOB: What projects are you working on now? You were recently making silk screens prints in Paris?

WW: Yes I did I made one of my drawings (well actually it is a combination of two) into a silk screen print on the same scale. That was shown in an exhibition in Paris last weekend. I am very pleased with that as it is in a show with prints from some other very famous artists. I am also having a show here in Berlin with drawings in ink. This was stimulating as I had not worked with ink for a long time. The size was also much bigger as I am used to and the subject matter took me to draw things I might have not otherwise. However I have learned a lot and think I might continue. I can also use this in my watercolours or combine the two. This show will travel to Uppsala in Sweden next and I am looking forward to see it hanging there in another constellation and setting.

a recent work made at the studio in Paris

MOB: In addition to showing your own work, you sometimes also curate exhibitions? Can you describe an exhibition that you curated? Do you have anything coming up?

The Berlin/Uppsala show is one that I curated myself together with my friend and artist Gijs Weijer who lives in Uppsala. We invited four artists living in Sweden, Germany and Holland who we feel artistically related to. Some are from our present and some go back to our art school days. All these participating artists were asked to create new works with black ink and one optional colour on the theme Transience. I hope to also organize another show in Berlin at the end of the year.

Witte on site!

the resulting painting "Zum Freund" from the site pictured above

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