November 4, 2017

fall leaf
Fall Leaf (watercolor on cold pressed illustration board)

With a bit of rain, a drop in temperature and the drop of a few colored leaves from nearby liquidambar trees, fall seems to have finally arrived in SoCal. I bring this piece out and hang it on the wall when it is finally clear that summer is finally over.

The “Stuff” for Watercolor

Watercolor can be very tricky and this particular one represents the first time I realized I could tame and manipulate the medium satisfactorily. Woo hoo! Up until then I spent way too much time soaking expensive watercolor paper in the tub, using gummy brown paper tape to affix the paper’s edge onto a hollow board (made for just such a maneuver). If you don’t wet the paper, stretch it and then let it dry it will leave ripples when you paint on it. So, here is the secret to such control. Don’t use expensive watercolor paper, use Strathmore cold press illustration board. Or don’t worry about the ripples and just paint away. The next biggest secret to watercolor, in my opinion, is that you will need to practice, practice, practice—another reason not to use expensive watercolor paper, as it will seem like you are wasting it. Then, once you start, try working really wet and loose, try letting different layers dry and then paint on top, or just let colors bleed together. Try to enjoy what you are doing, and remember what you did by mistake and see if you can do it again on purpose. You will make mistakes. You need to understand that using watercolors is not very forgiving—meaning you can’t just paint over what you have decided is a mistake. That’s because watercolor is transparent, so whatever you put down on that paper it will be seen, no matter what. Gouache is for making mistakes; it’s opaque and will cover up almost anything. Browsing the Internet you can find plenty of resources for teaching watercolor painting. My personal favorite is a YouTube video where an amazing watercolorist from Studio Ghibli (Kazuo Oga) creates a simple looking piece of nature with his masterful watercolor technique.

As I kind of mentioned, picking the right paper is very important, and of course the expensive cotton rag paper is by far the best to use. However, the watercolor paper you can find in pads will work too. I look for pads of paper that are on sale. You can start at the back of the book and move forward with each page, trying washes of every color (ultramarine blue or cobalt blue are favorite sky color washes for me), watercolor layering and dry brush techniques. Then flip the pad over and do the same on the back of each sheet going forward.

The watercolors themselves can be kind of daunting when you walk along the isles of supplies in an art store. And the higher priced (better quality) tubes and cakes are really better than the cheap stuff. And of course choosing colors may also stop the faint of heart from looking. However, as a starter there is a nice Winsor Newton travel set that gives you a dozen colors, including a cake of “cheater” white gouache. I almost never use black (it’s not in this set) because once you start adding layers of black everything seems to go dark rather quickly. And too much black may even make your watercolor look kind of dirty. I let my dark blues (Indigo) and greens (sap green) do the dirty work—the darkest tones I use. Personally, I think you can get away with cheaper paints than cheaper paper. Oh, and don’t forget to try watercolor pencils, those are fun too.

Brushes can really cost a lot. I pretty much just use my trusty #14 synthetic watercolor brush for everything. It’s fat enough to hold the perfect amount of water/pigment to achieve nice washes on 9 by 12 inch watercolor paper. The tip works well for any detail you might like to add at the end, like the veins on this fall leaf. Oh, and keep your water clean—trying to mix beautiful colors with muddy water kind of muddies the colors, I think.

The “Patience” for Watercolor

So, now you’re ready to create a masterpiece. Not really. Probably the most important lesson I learned (with this leaf) was being patient while the paint dried between the many layers of color it took to create it. In fact, I used a small hair dryer to dry each layer of the “sepia-like” paint. Someone once asked me how many layers of color wash I put on before adding the final vein details. I lost count, but I think I applied at least 7 or 8 layers, drying each before applying the next. If you don’t let it dry completely, the brush and water will start to pick up the color you just laid down when you add the next layer. This can be very frustrating and might undo whatever plans you had. Oh, and it’s good to get up and walk around a bit to let the paint dry. And if you think you are done, you are. Know when to stop and really stop. It’s so easy to overwork watercolor and I somehow want my watercolor paintings to look kind of fresh, with plenty of white and soft places for your eye to go.

The “Passion” for Watercolor

So, you might ask if I use this kind of watercolor technique anymore. Are you kidding? No way! It’s way too much work, and I have no idea where I would plug in a hair dryer when painting outside. Besides, hair dryers make a lot of noise—not very conducive to the natural plein air urban sketcher outside experience I am passionate about now. My outdoor paintings are the result of a kind of quick three-step approach that includes a snack. First, I find the perfect spot for that day’s painting, do a quick thumbnail sketch and set up my stuff. Then, I lay in all my washes and deepest, darkest shadows on watercolor paper. This helps me think about where I want to leave white spaces—covering 1/3 to ½ of what I plan to do on the whole page. This is not usually where I want too many colors to bleed into another—that kind of effect comes later. So, I take a few beats, look where I plan to add paint and mix more colors in my watercolor pots. Then I go back and forth in the painting and add more layers, encouraging colors to bleed or dry. It’s at this point I start to worry that I may be going too far with color or detail. I stop for a snack. This gives the painting a chance to really dry. After the snack I add final details that might include some Inktense pencil scribbles or watercolor crayons.

You might have already realized that I am still perfecting my watercolor technique. I think it will continue to be a life long passion for me. Mastering watercolor might seem like too much trouble and you might have a passion of your own. Maybe it’s oil painting or acrylics, or visiting art museums and galleries? Maybe your passion is baking, gardening or reading? Maybe you’re passionate about walking, running or traveling. It’s kind of like, if you had a time machine that could speed up or slow down time, what would you use it for? Would it be to zip through a day of work so you could spend time doing what you’re passionate about? And then, you could turn the speed to “slow” and linger a little longer doing what you love. If I had such a machine, I know how I would use it. What about you?

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