Decades of dedication, effort, learning, mentoring, experience, and teaching have led to a fully realized creative life. Joe Cibere’s journey began in Dayton, Ohio and has since spanned multiple states, countless creative ad campaigns and a mentor that showed him the potential of transparent watercolor. Along with his wife he raised a family in Southern California where he still resides and works out of his studio. He continues to pass on what he’s learned through his teaching.
Can you tell us how you got started?
I was raised an Air Force brat. My Father was stationed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio and was disappointed that I didn’t take his advice and become an engineer. Instead I went to Art school in Cincinnati, affectionately known as CACA – Central Academy of Commercial Art.
At one point the School went on a field trip to Chicago and instead of participating in the field trip I went looking for a job and found one. So I started off in Chicago as an assistant Art Director at an ad agency.
So you were still in School when you got the job?
(He Laughs) Yeah, the whole point of going to school was to build a portfolio so I could get a job. When I thought my portfolio was good enough I went looking for a job and found it. I stayed in Chicago a couple years on the Ad agency side. Then I went back to Dayton and joined an art studio. I stayed quite a while and it was there I met my wife. We then decided to move from Dayton to Detroit to join another art studio specializing in the automotive industry.
Who were you doing storyboard and illustrations for in the beginning?
We did stuff for Gallo wine, Mazda, Arco, Bank of America etc. It was all for television commercials or print. Also, some licensing projects for Warner Brothers but working for the movie business is death – too many egos. We did a lot of mock ups for their posters and collateral materials.
Were you still working in advertising when you went to Detroit?
Yes. In Detroit it was a lot of car industry stuff. Storyboards for commercials, car catalogs, illustrations from the art studio side.
How did you get from commercial art in Detroit to Southern California working with Watercolor?
Well, here’s an interesting twist I guess – my wife and I were looking for a good place to raise our family. We had a list of five places and southern California was one of them. We left our jobs and made the move. My freelance work was all we had for income at the time.
I hooked up with an agent and that relationship lasted about twenty years until the late eighties when computers came in and changed everything. Digital killed the art studios. There aren’t many left outside of a few freelancers.
Anyway, when I arrived in California I saw Nita Engle on the cover of American Artists. I couldn’t figure out how she did what she did. When I found out she was working with transparent watercolor I was intrigued. I took three different workshops from her and she became a mentor and a friend to me. She taught me most of what I know about transparent watercolor.
That’s cool. I think finding a mentor is very Important for an artist.
Oh, it’s absolutely essential. We still do it today in my marketing business. Not only do we mentor but we also reverse mentor. We find that you can learn a lot this way.
You’ve been working as an art director or in marketing since before the internet and the implementation of computers in the art world. How has that experience affected your work?
I consider myself lucky because I’ve bridged both those worlds. The younger people in the business can’t understand where I came from. They have only experienced the industry with computers and I was able to experience it both ways.
As it pertains to my painting I think working in the art business before computers was really good training. Not only was it finished art but lots of storyboards. You had to know how to draw and draw quickly. That discipline has helped me immensely throughout my career. I find most of my students today lack basic drawing skills even if they’re proficient in the painting medium. They don’t know perspective or proportion and they’re often unhappy with the results they get because of this.
I’ve noticed that as well. With new tech a lot of people view drawing as a waste of time – they can just use Photoshop and a projector and have a layout in minutes.
I know, but they miss out on learning how to see. When you draw you learn how to see your subject – not just look at it.
What’s the biggest challenge in working with transparent watercolor?
The myth of transparent watercolor is that it’s the hardest medium to work with and you have to do everything right the first time. Personally, I think it’s the easiest medium to work with if you can overcome the challenge of knowing when to stop and let the medium take over. That’s why the most successful paintings seem almost effortless. Simply stated; watercolor has made me a better painter because I only have to paint half a painting and let the medium paint the rest. The biggest cause for failure is trying to do too much.
You don’t have to put down every brush stroke you just want to get it started and you’ll be amazed at the results. It’s a partnership…
Can you explain your painting process?
My process is straight forward. I usually start with a doodle/thumbnail using a black marker and create a “Notan”, Japanese for darkness & lightness and then I add mid-tone. I don’t do a pencil sketch because that’s what it is, a sketch, not a value study. This value study gives me my three values and those define my shapes.
Also, I can play with the proportion of my painting without spending a lot of time. This is the fun part for me because I can solve most of the visual problems. I can then figure out my color palette if I want and then all I have left to do is paint.
Simply put: Paint the mid tones leaving white – Paint the darks -Paint the detail if necessary. If you did your value study, you’ll have your roadmap and foundation to paint with confidence.
What led you to your ‘Abstract Realism’ technique and did you work through other styles previously?
Well, I may have had a previous life in the Far East. I have a very minimalist approach to life – less is more. Basically, I like a lot of nothing with a little something in my paintings.
The ‘Venice’ painting is brilliant. It conveys reality and emotion without any hard line details. How did you achieve this?
What happens a lot of the time is that one of my students will bring in a photo from a trip that they want to paint and I help them figure it out. The reference photo in this case was a vertical shot, wasn’t very interesting and had poor lighting. So we changed it around and did a horizontal layout with more interesting shapes and values.
For a painting like this it’s essential to start out with a good drawing and a well thought out design. No matter how good you are with color, technique, shapes and values if the drawing foundation isn’t there you won’t be happy with the result.
‘Wetlands Sunrise’ is beautiful and very reminiscent of ‘Chinese Brush Painting’. What was your Inspiration?
Yeah, in this piece you can see the way I think – the way I was feeling. This goes back to my less is more theory. I was trying to demonstrate a specific technique in this painting, showing my students how to work through a painting that is changing and allowing it to just happen.
Can you explain the piece titled ‘Mountain Mist’?
The whole point of this piece was to paint atmosphere through technique. It was a demo I painted for the California Art League. I painted from back to front – top to bottom and on each layer I washed out the edges at the bottom, painting wet on dry.
In the piece ‘Basket Girl’ the weight of the basket can clearly be seen in her facial expression and hints to a heavier burden she carries. It’s a wonderfully expressive piece. What was your motivation or intention here?
A student brought me this photo and wanted to know how to paint it. The biggest part for me was to get the profile and expression right because that’s what tells the story. You can see her life is different than ours. I started with the background and intentionally kept it loose –simply suggesting the environment she’s working in. The next step was the basket, which I painted quickly to keep it suggestive. And I painted the most important aspect (the figure) last.
How often are you teaching?
I’m teaching a couple classes a week and a workshop the first Saturday of every month. Occasionally I’ll do a demo or workshop outside of this schedule as well. I have about nine tables set up for classes in my studio at ‘Studio Channel Islands‘ in Camarillo California.
In your opinion is one subject better than another for beginners to start with?
I think working with skies is the best way to learn watercolor. It’s a lot about paint consistency – pigment to water and timing. Is it wet? Damp? Dry? And what effect or reaction does this create?
What are the bare essentials for the beginner to have in their toolbox to get things done?
A lot of times people will show up for a work shop with two pallets, sixty colors and a couple dozen brushes. But you’re better off to think of it like golf – the fewer the strokes the better result – so, you really don’t need much to get it done.
I suggest starting with a big flat, a big round and a dagger brush. With these three brushes you can paint just about anything. As for colors you really only need a (warm and cool) yellow, blue, red and a paynes grey. It’s also vital to use good paper. I suggest Arches, Fabriano or Strathmore 140lb cold press.
Any final tips for aspiring painters?
Color, edges and technique are all important but if you don’t have interesting shapes defined by value you’ll probably be disappointed with the result. Every painter should keep and use a sketchbook. When using a photo reference, create don’t copy!
In the words of Joseph Zbukvic: “Indicate, don’t state. Leave something for the viewer to fill in…”
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