Pick a Tough One
Watercolor is a challenging medium if you dive into it for the first time without any direction. It’s famous for artist-to-media break-ups and proclamations like “Oh, I tried watercolor once, and it came out AWFUL!” The pigments re-wet after drying, many colors stain paper, making a need to lighten a passage almost impossible, it dries lighter than it looks when wet, and white sections of your final design are usually void of any pigment; the white of the paper has to be preserved in the painting plan. But don’t hurt yourself trying to figure her out. Watercolor is just particular, and with a little direction, and time spent getting to know her, you’ll fall in love. Pinky promise.
Advice to Myself
If I could go back in time and advise my younger self, I’d insist on a regular practice of playing with watercolor in small format, with one rule: No painting a “thing” allowed. The exercise should be a courtship of the medium. No recognizable objects like a flower, a house or a landscape. Drawing an object, and painting with watercolor are two distinct skill sets. Single file, people – One at a Time. Full attention on the pigments themselves is worth a little focus and playful experimentation, regularly. How do your colors respond to wet-into wet vs dry glazing? How do your colors mix on different papers? Which pigments have visible particles, which of them “over-ride” the colors they’re laid on top of? Is one more transparent or more opaque than the other? How many of your pigments can be lifted with a clean, wet brush after they dry, and which of them stain?
First, Learn how to Drive
Watercolor is an amazing medium for quick creative decompression and art-making. Only have 30 minutes? Pull out an assortment of watercolor paper scraps, your palette, a brush and a quarter cup of rinse water, and PLAY.
- Dip a brush into your clean water, and paint a clear 3×3 square on your paper.
- Before it dries, dip your wet brush into cerulean blue (collect a good amount of pigment, don’t be shy) and pull a horizontal stripe of blue along the bottom of your wet paper square.
- Rinse your brush and collect some alizarin crimson.
- Brush another bold stripe at the top of your wet square.
- Rinse your brush, collect a yellow (again, lots of pigment) from your palette and pull it through both colors in a vertical stripe.
- Put the brush down and tilt your paper to watch how each color interacts, and which new colors emerge as they mingle.
- Do this on a variety of watercolor papers with an assortment of colors from your palette.
- Don’t touch the wet colors; just let the pigments commune and dry, so you can see what the end result looks like.
Learn by Playing
After your little color garden dries, notice what happens to the pigments: did the edges blend and disappear? Did the color lighten considerably? Which color dominated in the mixing? If you duplicate the little square in a grid on a sheet of watercolor paper, experiment with wet-into-wet color-touching-color for a date night with your paints. Try not to mix them deliberately. Practice letting the pigments interact of their own accord as they’re suspended in water on your paper. The fun you have with letting your pigments interact as you watch, without interrupting them, will stay with you. The wonder and delight will inform your next adventure of painting a still life, or a landscape. You’ll remember your swatches as you select pigments for a sky or a flower petal, and you’ll be more inclined to let the colors dance together on their own, without your brushes noodling the colors into potential mud.
After your swatches of watercolor dry, you can play with them some more by layering other colors on top to see which ones are transparent at various water-to-pigment ratio loads on your brush.
Watercolor artists are on instagram in delightful droves. If you follow them, you can scroll through inspiring images every day to kickstart your own creative mojo. Have a look at Jennifer Orkin Lewis, known as August Wren, and Charlotte Hamilton, on instagram as Blue Shine Art, and Watercolor Illustrations, a curated harvest of watercolor art on instagram, and Nan Rae, and Melanie April, and Cindy Lane, and Marcos Beccari. There are many, many more, so if you have a favorite, please share with a link in the comments.
If you need the structure of lessons to practice your watercolor skills, there are wonderful books available for self-paced sessions at a table with a brush, paper and pigments. Have a look at Adele Earnshaw’s Painting the Things You Love for lots of helpful tips on watercolor glazing and using your own photos as references. Gina Rossi Armfield’s No Excuses Watercolor is full of exercises and demos in a loose, journaling style that’s accessible and fun. Cathy Johnson’s Artist’s Sketchbook: Exercises & Techniques for Sketching on the Spot is a wonderful take on sketching and painting the things in your home, your garden, and while traveling.
Learn How to Use Your Tools
You wouldn’t build a house till you learned how to use your tools, right? Beginning artists often start with a love of watercolor, and then they mount a campaign to learn how to draw, how to see and render recognizable, realistic objects, how to shade, suggest light and depth, and how to paint all that with the finicky media of watercolor. That’s a looooong list of firsts, and when you stack them in a pressure-to-perform sandwich, it’s easy to see why so many beginners give up on watercolor. Don’t do that. Stay with it, and play with your watercolors. Get acquainted first, and you’ll be rewarded with a confidence in your tool box that will carry you forward with a lot of joy in your artistic journey.
Thanks for visiting today, and I’ll see you in the next post!
A person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly. You can have a wonky nose and a crooked mouth and a double chin and stick-out teeth, but if you have good thoughts they will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely.
~Roald Dahl (1916-1990)