Feel the Heat: Tangible texture, varied edges, and moments frozen in time
The strong composition and detail in Peggi Habets’ award-winning watercolour, ensemble (below) perfectly complement the finely orchestrated chaos of a restaurant kitchen. To achieve such balance, the artist evaluated each object in the space and decided if and how each would contribute to the overall movement of the painting. The effect is an enchanting blend of grounding simplicity and exhilarating energy, as noted by Watermedia Showcase judge Anne Hevener. “This watercolor features beautiful color passages and skillful brushwork, especially in the handling of the chef’s uniforms,” she says. “Compositionally, Habets has created a dynamic painting that draws the viewer into the hustle and bustle. You can hear the hiss!” Habets agrees, adding, “You can almost hear the clatter, feel the heat and steam, smell the food and see the interaction of the kitchen staff.”
objects in motion
Habets begins each painting with a series of several hundred reference photos. No object is too sacred to move or even remove if necessary. “For my cooking series, the photos were taken quickly, with no regard for composition, so as not to disrupt the kitchen,” says Habets. “I find the most interesting element in a photograph and start editing from there.” Just as Michelangelo chipped away marble to reveal the sculpture within, Habets eventually found the composition she was looking for. “I can take a character from one photograph,” she explains, “promote a pot of soup from another and kitchen utensils from a third. I resize, mirror or rotate each element and look for diagonals and strong contrast values to give impact to the design.”
There are prominent diagonals running through it ensemble, from the row of cooks to the metal beams in the ceiling and many that run perpendicular to them. They work together to draw the viewer’s gaze from the foreground to the end of the row of chefs, where the tallest turns his head to another, creating a point of interest. The figures are clearly in motion, painted with the crispest of edges and blurred strokes to give the viewer the sense of seeing movement. “I choose to combine sharp edges where I want the viewer to go first with softer, more blurred edges to allow the eye to rest,” says Habets. “I reduce the contrast of the values to create the illusion of soft edges. If I want an edge to be soft, I not only soften the edge with a wet brush, I also keep the values closer together instead of creating a strong contrast.”
The values in Habet’s paintings are refined in advance through studies. She calls herself a planner. “I like to play around with different design and color options in a small format before embarking on a larger painting,” she says. “I’ve found that I can paint more fluently and confidently when I approach a painting with a sense of what the color palette and value forms will be like. The paintings are less likely to become overworked or muddy.” In cases where this is the case, Habets says, she simply adds water to try to mop up some paint — or, in extreme cases, uses her own opaque white I think can be distracting at times. Their value and color trials take no more than an hour, and sometimes there’s more than one achievement in the stack. For her cooking series, Habets created a blue-dominant color study and a green-dominant color study. The green became ensemble and the blue became group 2 (under).
The value sketches are done in black and white to show Habets where all their lights and darks will go and what each value form will be. “Once I’ve created a design on the computer,” she says, “I print it out on a 5” x 7” sheet and lay a piece of tracing paper over it. I trace the outlines of the figures and work with a pencil to create a strong value sketch.” The artist’s goal at this stage is to create enough impact to draw a viewer closer from across the room, to examine him. “The value sketches and color studies are rough and quick,” she says.
On screen and off
With the value and color studies complete, Habets’ planning has paid off and she is ready to move on to the final painting. “I print larger versions of the painting on high-quality paper so I can see the details,” she says. “I don’t like painting from a laptop screen.” Interestingly, the artist also prints handheld versions of her characters to cut out and edit in 3D. “I arrange them on the watercolor paper and trace their outlines. So I have the numbers right where they need to be. From there, drawing in the scene is a lot easier and saves me from erasing too much and damaging the paper.”
After completing her final drawing, Habets uses a liquid frisket to cover the small areas of white around her composition. “For ensemble“I started my first few washes with the lightest background colors on a wet surface,” she says. “I let the colors mix and blend, sometimes tilting the paper in different directions to move the color. I kept dripping in paint until the paper started to dry.”
Habets allows a painting to dry completely before beginning the figures, which are painted one at a time. “The edges of the figures vary from hard to soft,” says the artist. “Some areas blend into the background and others are sharp lines that allow a character to stand out. For the vapor, I left large areas of white and added very light values to shape and shape the vapor.” She saves the background for last, adding the darkest values and additional detail. Having proven herself to be an expert on balance, she naturally counters the detail with areas of soft, blurred edges.
The kitchen symphony
Habets is very detailed and meticulous in planning, but her ultimate focus is more universal: the human component. “My initial inspiration for my series of cooking images came from the kitchen of a Toronto restaurant,” she says. “From my seat I could see the movement of the chefs, waiters and other staff gracefully intertwining and twirling around each other. It reminded me of a symphony where everyone played a role individually and as an ensemble.”
Growing up in Pittsburgh in a “working-class family” was crucial to Habet’s own work ethic (she says she worked throughout her youth) and also her appreciation of the hard work of others. She paints the chef, not the dish.
“I’m more focused on the hard work behind the scenes than on a traditional beautiful portrait,” she says. “My focus is on handwork and everyday people. Watching the chefs at work, I didn’t see a chaotic kitchen with people running around. I saw figures moving gracefully around one another in space.”
The human experience is also central to Habet’s latest series, Untangling Our Roots, in which she paints figures between symbolic and natural objects to explore meditation and the Buddhist perspective, which the artist says shaped her adult life. Similar to how her compositions reveal themselves to her over time, Habets says her new series began as a humble collection of quotes, images, color inspiration and phrases that stuck in her mind. She kept them in a sketchbook. “I added sketches of ideas inspired by the collection and at first I wasn’t sure what they all had in common or why I was drawn to them,” she says. “Over time, ideas kept germinating until I had a clear idea of the direction of the series.
Each painting explores the connection and disconnection between our childhood teachings and experiences and our adult beliefs. Each painting is filled with mystery, symbolism and fairytale illustrations.” Habets says her goal is to suggest, hint at, and start conversations about these ideas, rather than articulate them with too much detail. The large, 48 × 24 inch paintings are mounted on cradles and waxed with a cold wax medium rather than using glass or acrylic.
Although she has been making art since she was a child, these types of personal paintings are a fairly new venture for Habets, who has worked in graphic design for most of her artistic career, painting commissions of people and pets. Unable to teach the week-long workshops she had built over the past decade, during the COVID-19 quarantine she turned inward and made the decision to focus on her own work rather than teaching virtually . So her best advice for new artists is to keep an open mind. “Be prepared for twists and turns in your art career,” she says. “Be open to unexpected paths that you would never have dreamed of earlier in life.”
About the artist
Peggi Habets (peggihabets.com) lives and works in her hometown of Pittsburgh. Her deep love for the fluidity and spontaneity of watercolor has led her to paint and teach in this medium for more than 15 years. Her figurative and urban paintings have been exhibited and collected internationally and received numerous awards. Habets is the author of Watercolor Made Easy: Portraits, and her work has been featured in many art publications. A popular watercolor teacher, she enjoys hosting workshops and painting retreats across the country.
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