Birgit O’Connor’s new book, Paint Watercolor Flowers: A Beginner’s Step-By-Step Guide, gets better and better as it goes along. Birgit begins by presenting some basic tips on getting ready to paint. In Chapter One, she discusses how to set up your studio and recommends equipment to employ. She wisely states that the tools a painter uses contribute to painting success. Specifically, buy and use artist quality brushes, paint, and paper! Cheaper brushes and student grade paint and paper are usually made of poor quality materials that make it much harder to paint well. Student grade paper, for instance, is usually not made of archival 100% cotton rag, but of wood pulp, which does not accept color well and tends to yellow.
Unfortunately, when presenting information about watercolor paints, Birgit’s suggestions are less consistent. Some tips are very good: colors with the same name do not always look the same as each other (page 11) and are not necessarily made with the same pigment. Other comments, however, are incomplete or create potential confusion: while Birgit’s statement “earlier in this book you were provided a list (page 14) of the watercolors I use” is technically correct, it would have been helpful to state where the list was located (on the unnumbered page BEFORE the Table of Contents, by the way) so the reader wouldn’t have to hunt. Some tips I found to be outright misleading: “You can mix different brands together, but some artists believe you should stick with only one brand for the best results. When mixed, different brands may give you unexpected results and appear dull or muddy” (page11). Creating ‘mud’ has nothing to do with combining different brands: mixing some colors of the same brand can also result in dull, muddy colors! Unfortunately, Birgit does not here define what a muddy color is (later defined on page 45) or give an explanation of the actual reason a color becomes muddy. Only later, on page 48, does she offer her ideas about “how to keep your colors clean and avoid making mud.”
Chapter Two covers some basic watercolor techniques, and here the book becomes truly helpful. I like how Birgit describes how best to hold a brush, when to use a round or flat brush, and why covering more paper with fewer strokes to preserve freshness is important. She provides an excellent description of how much water to use with your paint. Watercolor painting, after all, is all about painters controlling the amount of water they use. Birgit is a master of controlling water: Using the right amount of water gives her colors an effortless appearance. She also provides some very helpful tips for overcoming uneven washes.
Chapter Three is about understanding and mixing colors. Birgit explains how understanding warm and cool colors, and recognizing how they react with each other, can improve your painting. “The warmer and more intense a color, the closer it appears, the cooler and less intense a color appears, the further away it seems, creating a push-and-pull effect” (page 49). Further, “mixing any two primaries, warm or cool, will give you a secondary color, but depending on the temperature bias of each, the resulting mixture might give you duller results. For the cleanest colors, mixing two warms or two cools works the best. If you mix a warm color and a cool one, you are introducing some of a third primary color, which can dull down a painting” (page 50). Unfortunately, she does not specify what she means by cool and warm – for instance, we know that blue is thought of as a cool color, yet, there are warm blue pigments! Similarly, yellow is felt to be a warm color, yet lemon yellow is a cool yellow. Birgit’s point is not clear.
Birgit teaches a wonderful lesson on composition in Chapter Four – how to create a strong, interesting painting using shapes, color, and placement of a focal point. She describes several strategies for getting your composition to demand attention. Birgit suggests that “It’s most important to invite the viewer in, lead them to a point of interest, then allow them to use their own imagination to wander through and around the rest of the painting” (page 63). Yes!
In Chapter Five, Birgit presents more advanced techniques that she uses in later demonstrations, such as using brush strokes to develop shape and form, creating complicated and varied shadows, glazing and layering color to develop luminous effects, and painting negative shapes (i.e. the space around objects, not the objects themselves). Such techniques, however, may not be easy for a beginner to accomplish, even with Birgit’s instructions. In the final section of the chapter, the nine step-by-step demonstrations pull together the information discussed throughout the book and provide a nice variety of flower blossoms to try.
Despite a few reservations, I would definitely recommend Paint Watercolor Flowers: A Beginner’s Step-By-Step Guide by Birgit O’Connor to aspiring flower painters, but also to any watercolor artists looking to improve their painting. Birgit’s book is loaded with important lessons. While I found some of the information early in the book to be incomplete or misguided, I believe later sections are, overall, exceptional. And, of course, Birgit’s painting is wonderful!
Buy Paint Watercolor Flowers, or look for it at your local library.