Watercolor is one of the most misunderstood
mediums. Either people think it's "too difficult" and
"unforgiving", or they think it's a lightweight medium only suitable for studies
and mediocre Sunday painters. The truth is, it's just another medium with it's own
fortes and foibles.
The advantages of watercolor is it's
calligraphic immediacy, luminous color when used well, it's unpredictability, and it's
relative speed when compared with other mediums.
Disadvantages include a longer initial learning
curve, a lack of texture, and the inconvenience of wholesale editing.
Compositionally, and in terms of color, pictures need to be a bit more pre-planned to some
Obviously, someone looking at this site could
guess that I enjoy the medium tremendously. For me, the best thing about watercolor
is it keeps me on my toes. It simply isn't possible to do something exactly the same
way twice, which leads to a lot of happy accidents.
If in charge of someone's art education, after
teaching them how to draw and render well in dry media---in line and tonally----I would
teach them watercolor next. The reason is that it seems easier for watercolorists to
learn to paint in oil, than vice-versa. Don't ask me why, it's just something I've
Some Great Watercolorists to
Note: All of these painters are visible
at www.artchive.com For some reason (the
frames perhaps) linking to them individually doesn't seem to work.
Childe Hassam (A really
underrated painter, especially his early work.)
Andrew Wyeth (A really aggressive watercolorist)
John Singer Sargent
would be a good starter palette?
Before really worrying about a palette, I would
suggest a student just work with one color, monochromatically, for a while. This will
allow you to see more clearly the effects of the different brushes and the amount of water
you're using. Payne's grey is an excellent pigment for this because of it's value
and it's handling properties.
Beyond that point, I would suggest a good all
around palette include the following colors:
A careful observer will note there are no green,
violet, or orange tubes listed. In watercolor, these secondary colors are easily
mixed, with a large enough selection of primary tubes and their variations. I do
include several of these secondary and tertiary colors in my palette---I have on hand an
extensive collection of paints---but I use them only infrequently when some inherent
property of a given pigment is needed.
Additional colors I frequently use in my own palette include:
Brown Madder Genuine
Rose Madder Genuine
How would you teach a watercolor class?
From Carole Gonsalves and lots of other people.
If I were to teach a watercolor class, there are
really only a couple things I would do that are different from how I would teach any
painting class in any media. Both of these ideas address the heart of the problem
people face when trying to paint in watercolor.
In other media, for example: oil painting, a lot
of the skills involved are separate functions, or can be dealt with that way. You
might paint in the rough shapes of your composition, then adjust them later, then begin to
refine the edges between them. You might, as you're working, realize that a blue
shape should be orange, or a shape should be eliminated entirely from the composition.
Things might be too light or too dark in value, etc. These are all decisions that
are made when painting in any media. Your use of the medium (linseed oil or
turpentine) is limited to adding just enough medium to the paint to allow it to flow and
The difference with watercolor is with each
brushstroke, you're making your value, edge, shape, and color decisions simultaneously!
At the very least you have to be aware of the implications of each brush stroke,
even if you use it in such a way as to postpone their effects.
For some reason novice watercolorists approach
the medium believing that they must use a lot of water...after all, it's watercolor isn't
it? This is simply wrong. Can you use a lot of water? Sure, but it is a
technique you use to a particular end. As with other mediums, you try to use just
the amount of medium you need to manipulate the paint. When a novice uses too much
water, they cause themselves the following problems:
They over-lighten the
values of their painting (causing the washed-out pastel look of most watercolors)
They lose control of their edges.
They cause the painting to remain wet beyond their needs, causing a lot of
unintentional "bleeding" and mixing of colors.
So the key idea I'd try to communicate about the medium
Since the amount of water in the
brush controls your values, edges, and the kinds of marks you can make, you cannot paint
well in the medium, until you understand how to control the amount of water in your brush!
To that end, if I were teaching a class, I would
have them just play with the brush for a class, working monochromatically
at first, trying
to mix square wet into wet washes, dry into dry washes, blends, gradations, etc.
Once they could do that, I'd have them do the same thing over again, but this time in
After they were proficient handling their
brushes, I would have them do a small, simple, monochromatic rendering from a
photo---about 6" x 6" attempting to duplicate the values and edges in the
photograph exactly. To do this correctly, they would have to acquire a feel for how
much water their brush was carrying as they approached the paper. This kind of
assignment would teach control of the medium which is essential for the following
exercises. After that I would begin introducing a full palette, starting with simple
gradations and squares, mixing one color into another, experimenting with transparent and
opaque pigments, etc.
As the class went on, I would introduce them to
looser painting techniques, which is where watercolor excels as a medium, but other than
that, I would conduct the class as I would any other painting class in any medium.
brushes would you suggest to a beginner?
These are the brushes I'd recommend to a
beginner. A large mop like brush, at least two flats (1" and 1/4"), and a
3-4 rounds of various sizes from small to large. Actual brush #'s don't matter that
much because different manufacturers will have different # 5 brushes, just have a variety
I'd recommend Windsor
Newton or Isabey brushes
for watercolor, though I also use Cosmos, Liquitex and others. For watercolor, it's
very important that you obtain the best brushes you can afford and use them ONLY for
watercolor and gouache. If you use a good sable brush for acrylic painting or oils,
you're going to be crippling some of the water-carrying and flexibility aspects of the
If you buy good brushes and care for them well,
a good brush will last you a lifetime. I know several watercolorists who own brushes
they've used for 30+ years.
Watercolor vs. Oil...vs. Acrylic...etc.
There is very little difference...period.
If a painter is skilled enough to paint or draw well in any medium, they are skilled
enough to do so in any other medium. Why do I prefer painting in watercolor or
oils? Because in my mind, working in watercolor and oils is like wearing cotton or
leather. They're very pleasing mediums in an aesthetic and tactile sense----they're
comfortable. Acrylics are more like wearing polyester. So I don't choose to work
in acrylic that much...but for certain uses, like if it's raining...I'm reaching for the
Probably the most important thing I could say is
to just touch the brush to a paper towel before painting with it. This removes the
bead of excess water at the tip, allowing for better brush control. Besides that, I
would tell a beginner to try and use the least amount of water that will do the job, and
to use the proper brush size, for the proper task. If you use too small or too large
a brush, you're going to screw it up.
Realize that the "loose" calligraphic
qualities of watercolor are only achieved when the painter has complete confidence in what
their doing...or at least they've learned to pretend that they do! Being loose in
watercolor is easy...being disciplined, when you need to be, is much more difficult.