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Playing along: A mug, a few oranges, become a painting

  • Bob Dunn gets a lesson in watercolor painting from local artist Brooke Schnabel in his studio in Williamsburg.<br/>JOSH KUCKENS

    Bob Dunn gets a lesson in watercolor painting from local artist Brooke Schnabel in his studio in Williamsburg.
    JOSH KUCKENS

  • Bob Dunn's finished still life watercolor painting, completed with the help of local artist Brooke Schnabel in his Williamsburg studio.<br/>JOSH KUCKENS

    Bob Dunn's finished still life watercolor painting, completed with the help of local artist Brooke Schnabel in his Williamsburg studio.
    JOSH KUCKENS

  • Bob Dunn is amused by his own efforts as he gets a lesson in watercolor painting from local artist Brooke Schnabel in his studio in Williamsburg.<br/>JOSH KUCKENS

    Bob Dunn is amused by his own efforts as he gets a lesson in watercolor painting from local artist Brooke Schnabel in his studio in Williamsburg.
    JOSH KUCKENS

  • Bob Dunn gets a lesson in watercolor painting from local artist Brooke Schnabel in his studio in Williamsburg.<br/>JOSH KUCKENS

    Bob Dunn gets a lesson in watercolor painting from local artist Brooke Schnabel in his studio in Williamsburg.
    JOSH KUCKENS

  • Bob Dunn gets a lesson in watercolor painting from local artist Brooke Schnabel in his studio in Williamsburg.<br/>JOSH KUCKENS

    Bob Dunn gets a lesson in watercolor painting from local artist Brooke Schnabel in his studio in Williamsburg.
    JOSH KUCKENS

  • Brooke Schnabel demonstrates proper brush technique while Bob Dunn gets a lesson in watercolor painting from the local artist in his studio in Williamsburg.<br/>JOSH KUCKENS

    Brooke Schnabel demonstrates proper brush technique while Bob Dunn gets a lesson in watercolor painting from the local artist in his studio in Williamsburg.
    JOSH KUCKENS

  • Bob Dunn gets a lesson in watercolor painting from local artist Brooke Schnabel in his studio in Williamsburg.<br/>JOSH KUCKENS

    Bob Dunn gets a lesson in watercolor painting from local artist Brooke Schnabel in his studio in Williamsburg.
    JOSH KUCKENS

  • Bob Dunn gets a lesson in watercolor painting from local artist Brooke Schnabel in his studio in Williamsburg.<br/>JOSH KUCKENS

    Bob Dunn gets a lesson in watercolor painting from local artist Brooke Schnabel in his studio in Williamsburg.
    JOSH KUCKENS

  • Brooke Schnabel works on a still life while giving a lesson in his Williamsburg studio to Bob Dunn.<br/>JOSH KUCKENS

    Brooke Schnabel works on a still life while giving a lesson in his Williamsburg studio to Bob Dunn.
    JOSH KUCKENS

  • Bob Dunn focuses on the still life in front of him during his painting lesson with local artist Brooke Schnabel in his studio in Williamsburg.<br/>JOSH KUCKENS

    Bob Dunn focuses on the still life in front of him during his painting lesson with local artist Brooke Schnabel in his studio in Williamsburg.
    JOSH KUCKENS

  • Bob Dunn gets a lesson in watercolor painting from local artist Brooke Schnabel in his studio in Williamsburg.<br/>JOSH KUCKENS
  • Bob Dunn's finished still life watercolor painting, completed with the help of local artist Brooke Schnabel in his Williamsburg studio.<br/>JOSH KUCKENS
  • Bob Dunn is amused by his own efforts as he gets a lesson in watercolor painting from local artist Brooke Schnabel in his studio in Williamsburg.<br/>JOSH KUCKENS
  • Bob Dunn gets a lesson in watercolor painting from local artist Brooke Schnabel in his studio in Williamsburg.<br/>JOSH KUCKENS
  • Bob Dunn gets a lesson in watercolor painting from local artist Brooke Schnabel in his studio in Williamsburg.<br/>JOSH KUCKENS
  • Brooke Schnabel demonstrates proper brush technique while Bob Dunn gets a lesson in watercolor painting from the local artist in his studio in Williamsburg.<br/>JOSH KUCKENS
  • Bob Dunn gets a lesson in watercolor painting from local artist Brooke Schnabel in his studio in Williamsburg.<br/>JOSH KUCKENS
  • Bob Dunn gets a lesson in watercolor painting from local artist Brooke Schnabel in his studio in Williamsburg.<br/>JOSH KUCKENS
  • Brooke Schnabel works on a still life while giving a lesson in his Williamsburg studio to Bob Dunn.<br/>JOSH KUCKENS
  • Bob Dunn focuses on the still life in front of him during his painting lesson with local artist Brooke Schnabel in his studio in Williamsburg.<br/>JOSH KUCKENS

I was never considered the artistic one in my family.

That honor went to my brother and, by extension, my mother, both of whom are gifted visual artists.

My brother, even at a young age, could see a picture in a book and, in a few minutes, draw an impressive replica of his own, using just his eyes, pencil and paper.

He went on to graduate from the New England School of Photography near Boston, and to write and play music — making me ridiculously jealous along the way.

My mother satisfied her artistic itch by taking classes in different painting techniques. Soon she was decorating our home and our rooms with landscapes, cartoon characters and — in the case of my childhood bedroom — a map of the solar system, complete with statistics of each planet attached.

Yes, I was a nerd even then.

Seeking the opportunity to do something indoors during these short, chilly days and hoping to settle some sibling rivalry, I tracked down artist Brooke Schnabel at his Williamsburg studio.

Inside the studio were finished and unfinished paintings, cityscapes and beach scenes among them. A small CD player occupied one corner and a few windows offered a glimpse of the outside.

Schnabel, 54, has been a professional artist since the late 1990s after he became somewhat disillusioned with teaching English, his first vocation.

A tragic swimming accident involving a friend led Schnabel to decide that if he wasn’t happy doing what he was doing, it was time to change things.

“Life is brief and fleeting,” he said.

He took some art classes, and furthered his formal art education at the universities of Maryland and Massachusetts.

The first show of his work was held in a bank, and since then his work has appeared in public spaces throughout the region, as well as in galleries in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut. He also teaches painting classes.

When I arrived at the studio, I noticed a mug surrounded by a few oranges in various states of consumption. I feared that I’d interrupted lunch before I realized that I was looking at our subjects for the morning.

We worked in watercolor, and I was surprised to learn that there isn’t a lot of difference between the sets of paints professionals use and the sets children use to stave off boredom on rainy days — or did use before, that is, the advent of touch-screens and high-resolution pixel displays. Schnabel said people can usually get themselves started in watercolor for about $30 for brushes and a set of paints, which, with care, should last a while.

The dry paint, water, a shallow tray for mixing, a couple of brushes and a surface to paint on are about all it takes, he said.

My first step was what’s called contour drawing. We observed the items we were going to paint and, with a colored pencil and a sheet of paper, drew them without looking at the paper, or lifting the pencil from it.

This was actually harder than I thought it would be. What I drew appeared to be random squiggles on the paper, rather than a painting guide.

The purpose of the drawing is to try and develop the scale of the painting, and to create the parameters to work within, Schnabel said — sort of like making the lines to color inside.

Schnabel was a gracious instructor, telling me after we’d finished our outlines that he preferred mine to his. I told him that he needed to raise his standards.

Watercolor is a preferred medium for many artists, he told me, simply because it is so imprecise. Edges blend and blur, shapes and shading come to light by applying darker colors in certain spots, or, in other spots, mixing paint with brighter colors to give it a lighter appearance.

I took a moment to think about my dissatisfaction with my painting in progress. I thought it might have more to do with my proximity to the paper than a complete lack of skill, though skill was certainly a factor.

The images on the page only started to take shape and resemble what they were supposed to be once I pulled back a few feet. From a distance, the shading looked like an absence of light, not just darker blobs of paint, for example. And that squishy, shaky, mass of blue pigment could be mistaken for a ceramic coffee mug under the right conditions.

That seems to be the magic of painting, for lack of a better word — the use of colored liquid to represent solid, recognizable, real-world objects to someone else.

I’m not sure how someone conveys something intangible, like emotions or mood, using those same methods, but I’ll leave that to the real artists.

That requires a shift in perspective, Schnabel said, to be able to see the world beneath its surface, to break it down into shapes and learn how the eye perceives information, and then fills in the gaps, creating three-dimensional objects for our brain.

So I am now the proud owner and creator of a painting of a mug and some oranges on a table that looks something like a mug and some oranges on a table if you squint and take a few steps back. With my mother and brother both hundreds of miles away in two different states, maybe finding some wall space at home for my painting will make that gap between us feel a little smaller.

Bob Dunn can be reached at bdunn@gazettenet.com.

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