Saturday Studio: Watercolor and the Double Life of Herbert Ferber

Alyssa Dumire, Director of Children’s Education

July is World Watercolor Month, and as we searched the collection for suitable “Saturday Studio” inspiration, Herbert Ferber’s work was one of many watercolors that caught my eye. Upon doing a bit of research on all of them, I was so surprised by Ferber’s story that I couldn’t resist sharing it this week! Many artists have surprising pasts and varied interests (one could argue that curiosity makes a good artist), so what makes Ferber unique?

Herbert Ferber was a New York School sculptor and painter known as one of the first artists to create an Abstract Expressionist form of sculpture. As an artist, he was Herbert Ferber, but to his patients, he was Dr. Silvers. That’s right, he led a double life as a dentist! He dropped his last name in the art world, instead using his middle name to avoid being known as a hobbyist rather than the serious artist he was. Silvers (the dentist) never actually worked full-time in his field, although he maintained a dental practice even after Ferber became a “famous sculptor”, as he didn’t trust the art market to provide a reliable income.

It was actually dentistry that led Ferber to art: the students in dental school were required to make anatomical drawings. Finding he excelled at these, and with the encouragement of an instructor to pursue interests outside of dentistry, he enrolled in night classes at the Beaux Arts Institute of Design where he received an academic training in drawing. He began selling etchings to earn extra money while still in school. After his graduation from dental school, he taught dentistry part-time while pursuing his career as an artist, teaching himself to sculpt. His first sculptures were wood carvings, but he soon found it limiting and began working in metal–first lead, then copper and brass. He became good friends with many of the better-known members of the New York School, especially Mark Rothko, after beginning to show his work at Betty Parson’s gallery.

A colorful abstraction consisting of repetitive lines of differing widths, colors, and quantity.  There is a layer of thin black repetitive lines in the background. Over that pattern are bold, thicker lines in yellow, white, brown, red, and black.  These lines wander over the page randomly. For variety, there are circles, squares, crosses, and zigzag shapes in yellow and white.
Herbert Ferber, American, 1906-1991. Untitled. Ink, oil, and watercolor, 1949. Gift of the Betty Parsons Foundation, 1985.08. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

FWMoA’s Herbert Ferber painting is reminiscent of a map, with concentric organic shapes similar to those on a topographic map, and lines and dots that might represent roads, railways, or rivers. This isn’t a map I can read though; it’s missing a key! It feels almost like a mysterious treasure map. Knowing now that Ferber’s first sculptures were wood carvings, I wonder if the black lines might be inspired by wood grain.

Ferber layered different materials to achieve this work, beginning with a soft watercolor wash in the background. Watercolor can be unforgiving and difficult to control, especially when trying to paint detailed realistic works (although it can be done!), but abstract paintings like this are a fun way to experiment with the technique. Let’s give it a try!

You’ll need:

  • Watercolor paints
  • Brushes (preferably large ones; we’re not doing very detailed work)
  • A white crayon
  • A black pen or fine marker
  • Oil pastels, or tempera or acrylic paint
  • Watercolor paper: I’m using a watercolor block, which is bound on all its edges to keep it flat, but if you’re using loose paper, you will want to use painter’s or artist’s tape to secure it to a board on all four sides.
  • Optional: salt
You can barely see the white lines on the white paper.

We are going to use a resist technique to create some of our abstract map lines first. This is a way to keep some of the white of the paper showing through even though we’re covering most of it with paint. Pressing hard, use the white crayon to draw a couple of lines that cross the page. Think about a winding road or river, and draw from one edge of the page to the other. Go over it a couple times to thicken it and make sure the lines are really solid.

Now, use a brush to drop a bit of water on each color in your palette so they will be ready to go when we want to paint.

With a clean, wet brush, wet the entire piece of paper. I’m using a large flat brush, but you could use a sponge if you only have small brushes.

Now, load up your brush with some color and lightly touch it to the surface of your paper. Watch it flow across the page, like in the video above! Since the paper is wet, you’ll need to use more color than you would normally–it will get lighter as it dries and is diluted by the water on the page.

Pick up a different color and place it next to or on top of the first one. See how the colors mix and blend right on the page? I prefer to use my brush as little as possible when working this way, and just let the paint move and mix as it wants to.

After you’ve filled as much of your page as you like, you can sprinkle on some salt to add texture to a few areas. It needs to be applied while the paint is still wet but after you’re totally finished working in that area. If you brush over it and move it before it dries, you’ll lose some of the effects!

Let your watercolor wash dry. Above is my painting before and after it dried! Notice how the salt draws in some of the pigment to create little dots.

Brush off any salt you added. Grab your black pen or fine marker and draw a few organic, blob-like shapes in different parts of your paper. Draw around each shape a few times, varying the amount of space between each line. You can also go back and vary the width of the lines as Ferber did.

Once your first shapes get closer together, fill in between with more shapes. Your lines should never overlap or cross each other.

When the entire paper is filled with these “topographic” shapes, you can add some more map markings like Ferber did, using another kind of paint or oil pastels (I also went back over my white crayon lines since I didn’t press hard enough). Create your own mysterious symbols! Where will your map lead?

Share your maps with us here on the blog or by tagging us via social media: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter.

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