John Clapp


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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 extent.

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 observed.

Some Great Watercolorists to look at:

Note:  All of these painters are visible at  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
Thomas Eakins
Winslow Homer

Questions & Answers
What would be a good starter palette?
How would you teach a watercolor class?
What brushes would you suggest to a beginner?
Watercolor vs. Oil...vs. Acrylic...etc.

General Suggestions

What would be a good starter palette?
From Everybody!

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:

Lemon Yellow
Cadmium Yellow
Cadmium Lemon
Yellow Ochre
Cadmium Red
Alizarin Crimson
Ultramarine Blue
Cobalt Blue
Cerulean Blue
Burnt Umber
Burnt Sienna
Payne's Grey
Ivory Black

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
Indian Yellow

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 mix readily. 

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 is this:

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 specific shapes. 

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.

What brushes would you suggest to a beginner?
From Everybody!

watercolor_brushpic.JPG (39964 bytes)

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 of sizes.

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 brush.

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.

From Everybody!

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 polyester! 

General Suggestions?
From Everybody!

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.


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