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An artistic journey


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Andre Mehu

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Restored July 31, 2019 23:12

An artistic journey

A look at Charles Reid's artistic itinerary

An artistic journey

A look at Charles Reid's artistic itinerary

Except of being a rare genius, such as the “Facteur Cheval” or some children artists who spontaneously make, without prior learning, a high quality work, new immediately , out of any artistic movement existing or having existed, all artistic productions are the result of knowledges and mastery received from a master.

It is always rewarding to understand how an artist has come to create what he submits to our eyes. This is why it seems interesting to take the pretext of elements of Charles Reid’s biography and put it in perspective with the life of different characters who directly or indirectly are at the origin of his art.

In doing so we will discuss his artistic genealogy where we will find the sources of his technique and his style.

This legacy will help us to understand what specifically characterizes his watercolor style based on the principle of “pure local color / value”.

Finally, by studying some notions of technique we will show how the application of this principle submitted to the technique developed by Charles Reid produces a recognizable painting among all, described as fresh and spontaneous, imbued with the soul of jazz, and inscribing, in our mind, a flow inviting contemplation and diffusing a kind of “joie de vivre” just like some painters of the group of "La réalité poétique".


Charles Reid was born in 1937 in Cambridge, New York, and now lives in Westport, Connecticut. After studying at South Kent School he entered the University of Vermont at Montpelier and then at the Art Student League in New York before teaching for 10 years at The Famous Artists School.

His work has been rewarded multiple times:

-> 1969: First Prize at the New Haven Festival.
-> 1970: First Watercolor Award at the New Canaan Outdoor Show.
-> 1971: Julius Hallgarten Award at the National Academy of Design.
-> 1980: he is elected to the National Academy of Design.

Since then he has received numerous awards including the Childe Hassam Purchase Prize at the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the First Altman Prize at the National Academy of Design. Recent awards include a Purchase Award from Shanghai International Biennial Exhibition in 2013 and a Gold Medal from the Portrait Society of America in 2013.

His work is in private and public collections such as Smith College, Yellowstone Art Center, Brigham Young College, Roche Corporation, and the National Academy of Design.

As renowned international pedagogue, he runs workshops all over the world and has written eleven books about his work (no French edition !?):
Figure painting in watercolor (1972), Portraits painting in watercolor (1973),
Painting what you want to see (1983), Portrait and figure painting in watercolor (1984),
Pulling your painting together (1985), Painting by Design (1991),
The natural way to paint (1994), Flower painting in watercolor (2001),
Charles Reid's Watercolor Secrets (2004), Charles Reid's Watercolor Solutions (2008),
Flower painting in oil (1976 Watson-Guptill ).


16-year-old Charles Reid begins taking correspondence courses at The Famous Artist School. Then for two and a half years at the Art Student League he has Professor Frank Reilly (1906-1967), renowned teacher in the USA with whom he receives intensive classical training based on the representation of the human body.

It is as a self-taught that he is trained in watercolor, and at the end of the 70s he began to practice extensively the "contour drawing" and the drawing "dot-to-dot" wherever he could take advantage of every opportunity, especially at airports because he was traveling a lot at that time.

Reilly is, from the point of view of his influences, related to the academicism of French painting of the nineteenth century. In fact, he himself preceded Reid at the Art Student League where he had as professor of drawing George Bridgeman (1865-1943) and Franck-Vincent DuMond (1865-1951) as professor of painting.



Here is the following table of Charles Reid's artistic genealogy

Bridgeman <--->



Reid <--->Reilly <--->
Dumont <--->

J-J Levebvre

J-J Benjalin-Constant <--->


Bridgeman was at the Beaux-Arts in Paris, a pupil of Jean-Léon Gerôme (1824-1904), some of whose paintings are kept at the “Musée d'Orsay”. Gustave Boulanger (1824-1888) was his teacher at the “Beaux Arts in Paris” and then at the “Académie Julian” in Paris too.
Bridgeman had among others students Norman Rockwell, great illustrator and naturalist painter of the American life of the twentieth century.

DuMond also came to France to train at the “Académie Julian” under the aegis of Jules-Joseph Lefebvre (1836-1911), then Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant (1845-1902) pupil of Cabanel (1823-1889) tenor of the style "Pompier" very in vogue in the 19th century, and friend of Georges Clairin (1843-1919) (uncle of Pierre Eugène Clairin (1897-1980): pupil of Serusier at the academy Ranson and friend of Vuillard and Maurice Denis).

From the Julian Academy, a real nursery of painters founded in 1867 by Rodolphe Julian (1839-1907), emerged, among others, the “Nabis “(start 1888-89) and the “Fauves,” but also Henri Moret, Lucien Simon, Maurice Chabas, Jean Bazaine, Jules Cavaillès, Emile Compard etc....
Reid thus receives a teaching based on the contributions of the great pictorial movements which animated in France the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. His art is thus very influenced by the French impressionists like Edouard Manet (1832-1883) whose simplification of forms he appreciates. He also refers to the Nabis and particuliarly Vuillard (1868-1940) and Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) repectively told the Zouave Nabi and the Japanese Nabi. Those, and Toulouse Lautrec, count among his favorite painters. He will retain from them the use of pure colors for half and midtones values.

Moreover, Ch. Reid is very influenced by American post-impressionists such as J.S.Sargent (1856-1925) friend of Monet and pupil of Leon Bonnat (1833-1922) , or Winslow Homer (1836-1910) and A. Wyeth (1917-2009).


Reilly developed a drawing method based on the representation of the human body from six lines forming a frame from which the drawing of the body is constructed.

But he is first and foremost recognized for having made it possible to understand the organization of a palette based partially on the work of Munsell, which splits the notion of color into three characteristics: Value, Hue (color as such, red, blue, etc ...) and Chroma (Saturation or degree of purity of a color).

He thus organizes his palette according to 9 gray values ​​between the two terminals that are white and black. The latter is numbered 0, the mid gray 5 and white 10. Concept found in Charles Reid’s principles who also admits that the teaching of Reilly was focused on this theme rather than color. Indeed, according to Reilly the success of a painting rests 80% on the attribution of correct values ​​to the forms that constitute it, 20% on the saturation of colors and 0% on the choice of colors. This makes Reid say that the mastery of values ​​is more important than colors; a painting with bad colors but good values ​​will still work but not the other way round.

Reilly places this gray scale extended from white to black on the palette, and from left to right. Then under this row he places colors based on red and orange value corresponding to different grays. Thus, Reilly establishes a palette of colors to paint nudes based on red, orange and flesh color. He will create another palette to paint landscapes.

So each gray value is convertible into a precise color and vice versa.
For example, a light cadmium yellow will correspond to the grey value 9, and a grey value 5 will correspond to a cadmium red or an emerald green, a dioxazine violet will have a value of 1.

This is the method adopted by Charles Reid to organize his palette.


The drawing

The application of the paint is prepared by a contour and dot-to-dot drawing. The defining feature of this drawing is a continuous line with changes of direction, connections, overlaps, marked by friezes and dots in the manner of these games for children which consists from the point n°1 to arrive at the final point n°x to discover what we have drawn by the outline.

Note that in these games the line connects the outer contours of the shape to the contours of the inner forms that this form contains. This is a precondition of contour-drawing.

The difference here is in the connections beteen planes and forms. This drawing does not look for the outline of the objects considered as such, but searches for the shadow shapes and the light forms, which do not correspond to those of the objects. The pencil thus makes a journey, a route, on the sheet that brings it from an initial dot to an end dot with interspersed points along its path that mark the changes of directions, connections, crossings and overlaps. Thus the outline of an object will not necessarily be complete and will remain partly open to indicate a merge zone between two planes of similar value.

In the same meaning the line will be more or less pressed on depending on whether you want to connect or to separate, "find" or "lose" the boundary according to the tonal value of the contiguous zones that you want to melt in the other or separate.

Thus, already by drawing, Reid paints in his mind by the selection of the zones of fusion between the different planes, and of the zones that he wishes to highlight.

This drawing is not erased and is really the skeleton of his painting.

The colour

Charles Reid bases his approach to color (and composition) on the principles of the Impressionists (E. Manet), the “Nabis“ (Serusier, Bonnard, Vuillard …) and the “Fauves” (Matisse, Vlaminck, R. Dufy…) which in some considerations join those of the painters of "La Réalité Poétique" (The Poetic Reality : J. Cavaillès, friend of Bonnard). That is, he uses pure colors for mid-tone tones, and uses areas of similar value to join different shapes or planes.

Well-versed in oil technique he adapts this technique to watercolor. This is the originality of his work which is at the antipodes of the classical technique based on layers overlapped wet on dry as taught in the nineteenth century by Eugene Ciceri, little son of the painter Isabey.

Reid’s technique is based on the notion of the relationship between color and value and on the relationship between local color and pure color.

He applies the principle of "pure local color / value”
According to Reilly's teaching, Reid treats color in terms of gray value on a scale from white to black.
That is to say that each color of his palette corresponds to a gray of the values scale. We will say that each pigment by breaking down the white light produces a color which can be converted into a specific gray. We translate this by the concept of partnership Color / Value because these parameters are inseparable from each other.

To this pair he associates the qualifier "local" which grows the notion of " Local color/value". That is to say that any object apart from the variations of tonal values ​​caused by the effects of light on and around it such as splinters, shadows and cast shadows, any object has its own color. It is red, or green, or yellow etc ... and must be seen without modulation of nuance, in the manner of the child who draws a tomato, or the trunk of a tree, makes a spot more or less round of a uniform red for the fruit and a thick brown line for the trunk.

Note that Ch. Reid uses pure colors, that is, intense, vivid, saturated colors (the saturation of a color being its degree of purity) only for half tonal values ​​and for dark tonal values creating a strong contrast with the white of the paper.

Our “duo” therefore evolves in principle of "Pure Local Color / Value".
The quality of light in his watercolors comes from the right balance between the white paper he strives to preserve and the local values ​​associated with pure colors.
This principle of " Pure local color / value" leads to a particular management of blacks and whites.
Indeed, Reid has little use of intense black and rarely uses these pigments that sometimes darken a mixture already dark. But usually the black values ​​that he sees are painted clearer than in reality. He does not practice chiaroscuro, although he likes to paint "backlit", that is to say, against the light, as bouquets and still lifes placed in front of a window for example. It is through the play of pure colors/values ​​between the different planes of the painting that the light will express itself and not by a contrast white / black, because the pure colors have as much impact on the white of the paper as black.

As we said above on this, he favors mergers between the different planes by the play of similar and juxtaposed values ​​that belong to those different planes which adds to the effect of brightness.

For whites and clear values ​​corresponding to multiple shades of white Reid insists that a white object "stays white" regardless of the lighting it receives, even in the shade it is white (according to the other objects). The darker shades of white will always be brighter than the lighter shades of darkness. "White is white" in all circumstances. This means that he treats the tonal variations of white objects in the shadows and cast shadows by the use of shades of white obtained from cold and warm subtle mixtures that he juxtaposes on paper, and from shades of a gray composed of ceruleum blue, yellow ocher or natural sienna and carmine that he particularly likes.

We find in fact here the notion of pure local color applied to the white that we darken by the use of a slightly darker shade of white. It is only for these shades of white that Ch. Reid uses the diluted juices that will in turn help to create the effect of brightness in his watercolors.


He insists on the use of a lot of pain with enough water (getting the right ratio of water-to -paint) to avoid the blandness due to too much dilution because he likes that the water marks his print on his work. Thus he favors and seeks in areas of equivalent value the fusion of "juices" leaving the water to act freely. This is how he sometimes lets drips "paint" themselves, or lets halos, caulyflowers, balooning effects and blossoms form.

He is also particularly fond of projections. On this subject he is not explicit, and only says that he loves this process. This is why we intentionally use the term "ornamentation" to qualify projections but drips and halos too.

The dictionary defines ornamentation as the art or the way of arranging ornaments. Ornament being what embellishes. But what best reflects the idea conveyed by these ornaments is the definition of musical ornamentation. Indeed they are notes or set of notes added to a melody, to a rhythm, to embellish it, ie to produce an effect whose purpose is to embellish, they are non indispensable elements (according to the dictionary) of a speech or a writing (musical writing, but also pictorial writing for example), only introduced for aesthetic reasons. So, according to our intention, ornaments are touches of color that embellish revealing the whiteness of the paper but also animating its surface, helping to give life to the painting.

Moreover, as in music, these pictorial ornamentations are improvisation because they have a part of unpredictable, a part of freedom allowed to the water in the runs, drips and halos, a loss of control of the trajectory of the projections for example. Projections make connections easier and create a beautiful light effect by blurring outlines with chance. The whole is the equivalent from the point of view of their function of appoggiatura, trills, and other gruppettos (which, on the other hand, require a great precision in their execution and interpretation).

With the contour drawing and point-to-point drawing, and the use of pure colors we have seen that the work of Charles Reid, without being naive, reaches our inner child, touched also by the projections of colors, true confetties which brighten up his painting and enchant us.

These enrichments reinforce the idea of ​​cheerfulness, liveliness and spontaneity of his work.


Charles Reid makes no preparatory drawing, no value thumbnail study or composition. He begins directly his drawing with the outline of a small central shape of the composition, the hand anchored on the sheet that leaves only very rarely.

For the handling of the brush as for drawing he always keeps at least one finger, if not the edge of the hand, in contact with the paper. In contrast to Frank Webb, another great watercolorist, who holds his brush by the end of the handle with two or three fingers and slowly paints with great flexibility in the gesture of the arm, or Joseph Zbukvic who holds his brush to mid-sleeve or not very far from the ferrule and whose gesture is lively and nervous. To each personality his tempo and his gestures.

As we mentioned above Reid uses neither wash nor glaze .. Here, no step 1, 2, etc ... The paint freshly taken out of the palette is placed directly on the paper in juxtaposed spots which delimit shapes. According to his decision he will allow some of them to merge or not and consequently this will have some of their outline softened. Thus he can resume the same theme several times and will not repeat his drawing or brush work at the same place because he has no pre-established plan. He begins his drawing and painting according to his inspiration of the moment.

We can use here the musical metaphor again because he says that a theme is exploitable and interpretable to infinity. What is important for him is not to change the subject but to approach the same subject differently in the manner of a happening or an improvisation like in jazz. He chooses a theme like portrait, still life, landscape etc ... as the jazzman selects his musical theme and its harmonic grid on which with his instrument and technique he will express himself, without knowing what he will get at the end, and will create each time a new interpretation on an immutable basis (the theme).

With improvisation no possible return, it is a process "right the first time" a process adopted by the painters whose rule is to apply the desired value the first time. Charles Reid does the same.
Rarely he returns on the first passage. He does it only to reinforce a value or to suggest a detail because the rule imposes not retouching to correct a possible lack. Moreover, he never takes back what he considers to be a failure, he keeps this error and finishes his watercolor. Unlike one of his masters, namely Bonnard, who had been caught correcting a defect on one of his paintings by the guards of the museum of Grenoble that he was visiting. He had been roughed up and led to the curator of the museum, who was happy, to the surprise of the cerberers, to see the renowed painter enter his office. Since then we have been saying "bonnardiser" when correcting a paint.

His goal is not the search for the perfection. He doesn't want to paint a perfect watercolor which in his opinion produces a frozen and therefore lifeless painting, but prefers the rendering of the light and the play of the colors.

Like the “Nabis” he advocates the absence of a center of interest and pays particular attention to the angles and edges of the sheet. As an extension of the contour drawing, he insists on the notions of connection, separation and overlap between the inner contours and the outer contours of objects, or more exactly shapes of light and shadow, thus freeing themselves from the third dimension.

Figurative painter he sacrifices the object, while retaining the idea, to the benefit of forms and patterns, likewise wether the painting requires it, he frees himself from the aerial perspective to remain in two dimensions. All this contributes to give to his watercolor freshness and spontaneity or more precisely the illusion of spontaneity, because in fact this rendering is based on a solid technique and a long-term work. Indeed each brushstroke is thought to give the desired effect the first time. Consequently he paints slowly, contrary to what one might think admiring his work.

On a purely technical level he attaches great importance to the brushwork, that is to say in the way of putting the color on the paper and stretching it in this or that direction and in the way of drawing with the brush some outlines or sharp edges, "found" (separations), as opposed to lost edges (connections). For him, every object must avoid being crimped, contained, and enclosed, and for that it must have a part of it edge “found” and another “blurred” or “lost” part.
He begins with the application of medium-dark colors to go to light tones without worrying about their transparency or opacity because as we have seen it he doesn't use the layering technique. Then he ends with darks.

He doesn't moisten his leaf (Fabriano Artistico, 100% cotton, grain cloth, 300gr / m2) but sometimes with splashes of pure water. He paints by juxtaposing the keys of colors wet on dry by letting some spots merge with each other.


Talented improviser Charles Reid is a complete painter, worldwide renowed teacher whose work extends from still life to portraiture through nude and although he admits he is not a great landscape painter these ones are always imbued with great poetry and luminosity .

His classical training makes him a master of drawing who prefers the outline to rhythmic lines and masses. He unrolls his continuous line on the leaf, alternating lines and curves marked by dots or friezes here and there, like Calder unrolling his iron wire and thus drawing contours in space with knots by places and twists elsewhere.

Like jazz musicians, he considers his art from the angle of improvisation, escaping himself from annoying repetitions by creating each time a new work with gorgeous spontaneity character .

A worthy successor to the "Nabis" and the "Fauves" through the use of pure colors, and Impressionists through the light emanating from his watercolors, he produces by his technical mastery a fresh, luminous painting giving the illusion of spontaneity and the imprint of “joie de vivre”. His paintings breathe happiness and, with us, in this sense his work joins the painters of the “Réalité poétique” (Poetic Reality) like especialy Maurice Brianchon and Jules Cavaillles.

André Méhu



Figure painting in watercolor (1972 Watson-Guptill), Portraits painting in watercolor (1979 Watson-Guptill), Portrait and figure painting in watercolor (1984 Watson-Guptill), Painting what you want to see (1983 Watson-Guptill), Pulling your painting together (1985 Watson-Guptill), Painting by design (1991 Watson-Guptill), The natural way to paint (1994 Watson-Guptill), Charles Reid's watercolor secrets (2007 David & Charles), Charles reid's watercolor solutions (2008 North Light Books)

Doug Higgins, Learn to Draw and Paint Frank Reilly Art Teaching by Doug Higgins Artist

Charles reid’s 10-Lessons Course
Flowers in watercolor
Watercolor landscape Masterclasses
Watercolor Solutions
Watercolor Secrets
Painting flowers in watercolor
Figurative watercolor

American Artist Watercolor Magazine Spring 2008 issue.

Licence Creative Commons
Ce(tte) œuvre est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d’Utilisation Commerciale - Partage dans les Mêmes Conditions 3.0 International.

N° Siret : 33093324300025            N° d' ordre Maison des Artistes : M998389                                                                                                  Copyright André Méhu