Introduction to Watercolor

Watercolor is as simple as a third grader's tin box of cake watercolors (six colors to choose from), or as complex as one person's entire life journey (reason for living). Watercolor can be used to create nostalgic images such as a field of bluebonnets or an old shrimp boat up on blocks or just a splash of colors on wet paper (non-objective). Whatever you put on paper evokes a response from your viewer, often quite different from the reaction intended. Consider the skills required to manipulate watercolor around on a piece of paper with a brush and then add the aspects of art in general, such as composition, perspective, line, tone, color mixing and many more. Watercolor can be an idle entertainment or a very complex discipline. The best way to master complexity is to divide it into conquerable sizes and conquer the smaller skills one at a time. Some of these smaller pieces will be called working on wet paper, working on dry paper, composition, line, tone shadow, detail, mixing color, painting faces, painting figures, landscape, seascape, urbanscape, abstracts and many, many more. Let the journey begin and let it be fun.

A Way to Draw on the Road to a Painting

Use basic shapes, block in the layout. Block in with lines, circles, ovals, squares, rectangles, triangles, cones, cubes and spheres.

      Look over the blocked in layout to see if proportions are OK. Are the areas and things placed where you want them? Make any corrections and don't bear down too hard on the pencil at this stage of the drawing.

     Now, very carefully begin to outline each shape in the composition. Let your line do very methodically just what the shape does. Don't try to stylize the drawing at this point, but carefully seek the most accurate and sensitive line to portray the shape targeted. Check your completed line drawing for accuracy and make any needed changes.

     In drawing people, studies from figure drawing classes are quite often stiff and statue-like, yet simple stick figures can be drawn with exciting action. After trying out some action-packed stick figures, use a more sophisticated stick figure to block in the figure. The head can be blocked in with a double oval; arms, legs, back and neck can be blocked in with lines; the hip area can be blocked in with a rectangular box; the rib cage can be blocked in with a cone while shoulder blades, hands and feet may be indicated with small triangles. Hopefully this filling out of the stick figure did not cause any stiffness to appear.

     The average figure is seven to nine heads tall. On the face, the eyes are half way between the top of the head and the bottom of the chin. The mouth is one third down from the bottom of the nose to the bottom of the chin. The ears are directly back of the eyes. The top of the nose is usually half way from the eyes to the bottom of the chin. Variations in these average proportions is what we become aware of to obtain a likeness of the face or figure of a person. Legs are half the length of the total figure; knees and elbows are half the lengths of the legs and arms. Hands hang about one third down between the crotch and the knees. To add other proportions to your list, just simple start studying people.

     Whenever you see a photo, drawing, painting, print or other image that intrigues you, collect and save it if you can. Commercial artists called this collected material their Morgue. Try to determine what captures your fancy. Is it the color, composition, subject or situation? One area should surface in your mind and when it does, pick out the elements that isolate that interest and abandon the balance. This is better than just copying other pictures.

     Edit this area of material for a basic communication (these colors are exciting and dramatic like a fiesta or this is an attractive group of flowers). Perhaps a word symbol will evolve and that can become the Title.

     You can confirm your interest in the basic communication at this point by doing a collage of the subject, doing a line drawing of the material, painting an abstract of the subject, rendering a realistic painting of the composition. These should be quick studies and should be thought of as paths not destinations. Now you can study the completed designs and begin to plan the final painting.

     Subject matter pulled from the Internet, books, and TV can give you the opportunity to make a statement about things that are happening far beyond your own limited visual plane. You may also be exposed to feelings more deeply emotional than are readily available in your everyday experience.

     The best way to find your own personal style of painting is to quit looking for it. Technique is learned behavior but style comes naturally. If you don't like the way you're painting now, make some changes, even if they are wrong. If you are imitating another artist now, keep imitating that artist; you will still develop your own style while the imitation is in process Don't try to paint what you think other people want you to paint. The other people are probably doing something else the way they think other people want them to do whatever it is. Most people are much more interested in their own projects than they are in yours, and that's a good thing because it lets you off the hook. You can now paint the way you want. There are very few areas in you life that permit you to do exactly as you please. With your art, you can do exactly as you please and you will probably be more appreciated for having done it.

     It doesn't matter whether you paint old houses, boats, bluebonnets or nudes. It doesn't matter if you like bright colors or dull , smooth paper or rough, miniatures or murals, oil, acrylic or watercolor. Don't try to analyze yourself; just become acquainted with yourself and learn to like who you are. Some of us who were guarding Japanese POW's in the Pacific a few years ago are now driving Toyotas, so just be yourself and l­t the world catch up to you.

     Practice diversity by trying as many methods and techniques as possible; you'll naturally gravitate to choices that will determine your style. Impressionism, tedious detail, rapid application, methodical application, bright colors, dull colors, portraits, figures, bold line, delicate line, vignette, chemical reactions, leave lots of blank area, leave no blank area, try everything. Some of the things you'll discard and others you'll retain. It is through that process that you will find the style that is already within you.

     Here are some techniques to try: use delicate colors with delicate lines, bold lines with bold colors, brown line with a limited palette of ocre, hansa, burnt sienna and prussian, use line for shadow and texture, paint a classical vignette, paint a vignette that passes through the picture area, paint a design vignette, do a vignette with disappearing lines, paint a center of interest in focus and gradually fading out the detail, paint around each shape before painting the shape, paint on wet paper, use salt, alcohol, India inks, liquid watercolor, Rit dye and iodine for chemical reactions, try different textured papers, paint a picture leaving seventy-five percent of the paper white, apply paint with a sponge, knit rag, Kleenex, single ply corrugated cardboard, eraser, roller or a bottle cap. Do a monoprint. Paint through paper towels, Kleenex or rice paper. Apply ink through tissue paper. Spatter paint onto the paper using a toothbrush. Use a stylus to draw into a wet wash. Use classical compositions such as triangle, oval circle, S, horizontal and dynamic Z. Use the three bear principle of size variety. Alternate busy and quiet areas in your pictures. Try low and high horizon lines. Try large and small centers of interest. Try putting the center of interest in the four quadrants of your picture and then try putting them in unusual areas of the composition. As you try all of this, feel what you are doing.

     If you work your way through the above complex, compound paragraph, you will find a few things you like and you will have gone a long way towards finding your style.

Things to Do On a Wet Sheet of Paper

Wet the paper thoroughly. Apply the water gently with your largest flat brush working the water into the paper by brushing horizontally and then vertically. Check for dry spots and be sure the paper is glistening with water before applying color. If the wetness has turned into a semi-gloss look then you need to apply water again until the surface is glossy with water.

     Apply colors and watch the color spread over the wet paper. With your paper on a drawing board lift the board and the paper and tilt in different directions to permit the colors to flow with gravity. Observe the change in color as the various colors flow into each other. For some people this is an art-form all by itself.

     Try dropping the color from the brush on to the wet paper from several inches above. This works well if the wet color on the paper is dark and the dropped color is a bright yellow, orange or red.

     Brush on a dark color (blue and black or blue and burnt umber) and then drop alcohol from a brush onto the wet color from several inches above. Then try brushing alcohol into the dark color. With alcohol, what you see is what you get. The reaction is very predictable and is not easily developed into any additional effects.

     With the paper wet with a dark color, drop a small amount of salt on the surface and set it aside. Several minutes later you will see the reaction the salt has on the wet color. If the paper is very wet the effect will be a sea foam appearing reaction, but if the paper has a semi-gloss appearance when the salt is dropped the reaction will resemble a thistle. Variations are determined by the wetness of the color on the paper and the amount of salt dropped; the effects will vary from a thistle-like blossom to soft fern and sea foam. This reaction can be developed into interesting variations.

     There are a number of ways to lift color off of the wet paper. The most used lifting method is to remove the excess moisture from a brush with a kleenex, towl or blotter and then drag the brush over the area you wish to lift or lighten. This will not remove all the color but will lighten the area dramatically. Wet color can be lifted from the paper with a kleenex, piece of toilet paper, paper towel or a soft rag.

     An unusual effect can be achieved by wadding up Saran Wrap or a plastic bread wrapper and placing it onto the wet color, then place a book or other heavy object on the plastic to hold it in place. You will need to leave the book in place until the surface under the bread wrapper is completely dry.

     A soft outline can be made by using the pointed end of a small brush to draw into the wet color. You can also use a dried-up ball point pen or a stylus to draw into the wet color. The outline will be a softer one than one painted or penned on the dry paper.

     Variations on dropping colors and alcohol can be done by holding a small brush which has been loaded with water, bright color or alcohol over the wet color on the paper and flicking the brush to make small drops hit randomly on the wet paper.

     It is not my job to tell you what to paint or what is significant in art; that is for you to figure out for your own identity. Everyone feels that the way they think is the best way, that the way they feel is the best and that who they are is of the greatest significance. And, of course, they're right.

Things to Do On a Dry Sheet of Paper

Verbs to describe how watercolor can be applied to dry paper will be brush, drop, flick, puddle, puddle and blow and print.

     The most common method of applying watercolor to dry paper is to simply pick up a brush of the selected size, reach into the palette, fill the brush, move it to the mixing area where other colors can be mixed with it to secure the desired mixture of color; then this mixture is brushed onto the surface of the paper.

     With the brush held vertically over the paper and loaded with color, lower the brush and let the color puddle onto the paper, then blow the puddle with a soda straw; blow straight down onto the puddle and then blow in different directions.

     Again, make a large puddle of paint on a sheet of paper (the color should be dark) and then press another sheet of paper over the puddle in a blotting motion. Lift up the second sheet of paper quickly and you should have identical, opposite facing patterns on the two sheets. This gives you the beginnings of two watercolors.

     With a brush loaded with color, hold the brush horizontally over the paper and flick the brush with your index finger letting little spatters fall onto the paper. If you want the spatters only a certain area of the paper, cover the rest of the paper with pieces of scrap paper.

     Paint can be dropped onto the paper with an eye-dropper.

     Animal fur and bladed grass effects can be done by filling the brush with color and after "crinkling" the brush in the palm of your hand, apply the paint with a brush stroke.

     Using a printing motion paint can be applied with a sponge. The sponge should be damp before being filled with watercolor.

     A kneaded eraser can be molded into a given shape and then used to print color onto the paper.

     Corrugated cardboard can be used to print color onto paper, using both the end and the sides of the cardboard. Peel the paper from one side of the cardboard and use the inner texture to duplicate wood shingle texture.

     A damp washrag can be pressed into the watercolor mixing tray and then printed onto the paper to achieve an interesting texture.

     When you are "crinkling" the bristles of a brush in the palm of your hand, use only your medium and large round brushes. You need your small brushes for detail work and "crinkling" destroys the point on the bristles.

     To brush and blend, fill the brush with color and brush on the color, then clear your brush in fresh water and then drain the excess water onto a Kleenex or towel. Brush the damp bristles along one side of the previously brushed on color. This will leave one side of the original brush stroke with a sharp edge and the other side with a softened edge. If all the original color rushes into the blended side it means there was still too much water in the cleared brush. Brushing and blending is the "bread and butter" of watercolor painting, so you need to become very good at this exercise.

Brush and Blend

Notation: If you’ve read this far, you must be really interested in learning to paint with watercolors or in teaching watercolor and you must have asked yourself why anyone would write this much about a “how to do it” subject and show no illustrations. Just so you’ll know, this site is still very much under construction and will most certainly have examples of color painted on a wet surface, dry brush techniques and most of the little “tricks” described. Hopefully this will be in the very near future. I put this section in because I had been teaching watercolor classes and this was my best memory of what I had said at each class and the topics I had covered. My classes usually ran about then weeks and covered how to draw, composition, working on wet paper, working on dry paper, brush and blend, perspective and a new program I recently wrote on painting a concept. This section was very convenient to print and duplicate and give to my students to jog their memories later and permit them to concentrate on the demonstrations without having to take notes. If you are a watercolor teacher and have an interest in any of this material, feel free to download and use these subjects or any part of them. Now to get on with the technique of brushing and blending.

     The workhorse of conventional watercolor painting is the technique of brushing and blending. This involves mixing the color and water with a brush and applying it to the dry paper, then using another brush or cleaning the original brush and blending one or both sides of the first brush stroke letting the edge feather out or soften. Mix your color and brush on an area, then rinse your brush in your water jar and sling it hard to eliminate the excess water, now with the damp brush apply the moist bristles to one edge of the color and watch the color begin to seep into the wet area. Slinging your brush indoors may cause some problems so touching the clean, wet brush to a dry piece of Kleenex will do about the same thing. In an earlier session we talked about “printing” color onto the paper with a piece of eraser or cardboard to make bricks or shingles or leaf masses with a sponge; these can look very stiff and mechanical but if you will clean and clear you brush and conservatively brush through these areas they will blend together and appear much more sophisticated. You’ll know if you brushed and blended too much because your leaves will look like one big leaf.

     Think of a big leaf, sketch it in with a pencil, then mix a green color and paint the upper edge of the leaf; now clear you brush and blend the green color down to get a transition of the original color gradually lightening as it covers the entire leaf. If all your color runs into the interior of the leaf and you come out with a flat colored leaf it means you had too much water in your brush when you did the blending. Two thing s can be done to correct this problem. Use less water. If you are blending from top to bottom, tilt your paper down at the top so the color is forced to blend slightly uphill which will slow the process down and of course later on you’ll get a feel for tilting and knowing when to stop tilting or tilt the other way. You can soften a watercolor edge or surface by “scrubbing” it with a damp brush; this is done after the color is completely dry. Some artists put on lots of color and then lift it with a dry Kleenex and then let it blend raggedly into the lifted area. If you paint enough, you’ll discover all kinds of ways of doing things and getting special effects.

     I use brushing and blending on almost all surfaces for a variety of purposes. Draw a tree trunk, paint the trunk a light warm gray color and let it dry. Mix a darker warm gray and brush it down the left side, tilt the paper to the left and with a clear moist brush blend the darker gray into the center of the tree trunk. This establishes a shadow side and you’ll want to be sure that everything else in the picture has a left side shadow. Don’t can happen. When you become adept at brushing and blending, you will be able to make a blended area look as if it had been applied with an airbrush and you will blend with an irregularity that can not only put the shadow on the tree, but put a bark design in at the same time. Any time you see graded areas in a watercolor you are almost certainly looking at a brushed and blended area.

     Try brushing and blending to get the effect of tree bark, still water, clouds, rock formations, furrows in plowed ground, curved surfaces of the face and of almost everything in the world. This is a good time to recommend a drawing board of light foam board just a little larger than you plan to paint. Foam board is strong enough to paint on and is very light to lift and move around. Good luck and good painting!

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