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A Baker’s Dozen of My Favorite Watercolor Books…(Part 1)

I LOVE books! And I really love watercolor painting books!! I wanted to share my favorite watercolor books with you. While looking through my collection and trying to choose the best, I realized that I wanted books that offered specifics and clear instruction while also being useful and practical. I chose some books appropriate for beginners, some for more experienced painters, and others appropriate for both groups and all painters in between. After much deliberation, I share these personal favorites, which are listed alphabetically, by author’s last name:

 

Making Color Sing, 25th Anniversary Edition: Practical Lessons in Color and Design (2011, originally published in 1986) by Jeanne Dobie.                              Color, color, color! Don’t buy lots of tubes of paint – just read this book to see how a few basic colors can create almost any color there is. Dobie’s book may change the way you paint with watercolor.

In the 25th anniversary edition of Making Color Sing, Jeanne Dobie teaches you new ways to think about color and make it work for you, through 31 clear, easy-to-follow exercises. No color exists in isolation; colors are always interacting with one another. As the author explains, understanding color relationships is the key to successful painting.

The lessons on color lead into another essential painting consideration: composition and design. Painting is much more than copying what you see. It involves finding a structure that allows you to organize and thus communicate your impressions and reactions. Dobie encourages artists to experiment with different arrangements of shapes and values to build a dynamic foundation in their paintings. This book stimulates new ways to think about color, generating responses that unlock personal creativity and allow artists to express themselves with paint.

I recommend Making Color Sing to those who have some experience in watercolor as well as to more advanced watercolor artists.

 

Powerful Watercolor Landscapes (2011) by Catherine Gill.                                    This book gives you the “power tools” you need to transform dull, flat landscapes into robust, colorful expressions of your artistic vision. Each chapter focuses on a specific strategy for tackling tough challenges, complete with inspiring examples, hands-on demonstrations, and instructional diagrams to make these strategies easy and fun to learn. Following Gill’s masterful visual instruction, you’ll learn how to:

  • See beyond “what you see” to develop strong foundations in every composition

  • Avoid repainting, overworking, and frustration by focusing on a composition’s unifying elements

  • Become decisive with your values for heightened interest and impact

  • Quickly and easily mix a huge range of clean, rich colors—including vibrant grays and greens—with no more mud!

  • Put it all together, following detailed step-by-step demonstrations of complete paintings from start to finish

The author wants you to get beyond replicating a scene, but instead to start infusing your art with impressions and feeling. Gill can tell you WHY a piece of art catches your eye and HOW to create art with that kind of impact.

Powerful Watercolor Landscapes is NOT a book for someone who wishes to paint exactly what they see before them, but for a painter who wants to create expressive art with impact.

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Texture Techniques For Winning Watercolors (1999, 2014) by Ray Hendershot. (First edition better reproduces Hendershot’s artwork; reprinted edition is reportedly of poor quality.)                                                                                                      Filling in the gaps where other books fall short, Hendershot elaborates on the fine details that distinguish a good painting from an excellent painting. With his guidance you can learn about a range of effective methods to create texture, such as spattering and spritzing, scraping and blotting. If you have previously learned the basic watercolor techniques, Hendershot offers step-by-step demonstrations and hands-on exercises to build your repertoire. This book would be an asset for advanced beginners.

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Painting Nature’s Details In Watercolor (1987, 1991) by Cathy Johnson.                  Johnson offers practical advice on portraying light and shadow, texture, water patterns, plants and flowers, wildlife, and still life. She is a prolific and knowledgeable artist, with a knack for simplifying her images to include the most salient details of her subjects. Johnson helps an artist observe and take note of the natural world’s subtle detail. My favorite chapter in this book is called Painting The Light and offers numerous tips on how to capture the glow of light in your paintings.

Johnson has written many other books (Creating Textures In Watercolor, Painting Watercolors, Artist’s Journal Workshop, Painting In Nature, and others) as well as many magazine articles. She offers mini-classes on her website (cathyjohnson.info). All of her work is appropriate for beginners and more experienced painters.

 

Ways With Watercolor (originally 1949, Second Edition, Enlarged 1963) by Ted Kautzky.                                                                                                                                            Ted Kautzky was a master watercolorist. His book discusses pigments, washes, composition, contrast, and the use of accessories for special effects. In simple direct language, Kautzky shares his extensive knowledge of watercolor. At times you may have to re-read portions of each page to truly grasp all the information he has packed into each sentence. In addition to many demonstrations, he also includes challenging practice material. Many illustrations are in black and white, and color reproductions are somewhat muted, but this limitation should not detract from the valuable information presented in Kautzky’s book.

Kautzky has also written other excellent books, including Painting Trees and Landscapes In Watercolor and The Ted Kautzky Pencil Book.

 

Perspective, Depth and Distance (2004) by Geoff Kersey. (Newer 2017 edition – Painting Perspective, Depth and Distance In Watercolour – is expanded and updated.)                                                                                                                                          Kersey is a good explainer, and in this book he is concise when teaching the theory of perspective, both linear and atmospheric. Then he illustrates perspective with a number of demonstrations, thus making the learning of perspective enjoyable and relevant. He shows how to create depth and distance while painting objects in perspective and allowing them to recede naturally. I recommend using this book to make your watercolors look more realistic. Perspective, Depth and Distance is suitable for beginners and experienced watercolorists alike.

Here ends the first installment of my favorite watercolor books. Check back next week for the rest of the list.

 

Book Review of ‘Paint Watercolor Flowers : A Beginner’s Step-By-Step Guide’ by Birgit O’Connor

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).

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).

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 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.

Creating Form and Space in a Painting.

How can I create the look of a three-dimensional object or scene on a flat piece of paper? An artist creates form in a picture, in part, through the use of TONAL VALUES: lights and darks will suggest weight and mass in your painting. In other words, contrast and variation of values (lights and darks) will indicate form, space, and depth. Shadows appear as SHAPES lying on the surface of an object, following the contours and revealing the form of the underlying object.

Many of the objects you paint will be a combination of CURVED and FLAT surfaces. Light interacts differently with each of these surfaces, so pay attention to value changes in order to paint a convincing illusion of three-dimensional form.

On a curved surface, darks and lights change constantly and smoothly. When painting a curved object look for a core shadow with reflected light on the dark side as well as a slight shadow on the light side. The change from light to dark on a curved object is gradual across its surface. The direction of the light shining on the curved object determines where different shadows and lights will fall.

In contrast, a viewer can perceive flat surfaces because of a contrast of value between EACH of the surfaces. Each side of a cube, for instance, receives a different proportion of light. Value does NOT stay constant across each surface, but changes slightly as each side recedes.

Color is made up of both HUE (the name of the pure color) and TONE. Each color (hue) has the quality of lightness or darkness. (Yellow has a lighter tone, for instance, than purple.) Differences in the tone of a color are easy to see when the colors used are not very intense (or strong). However, the brilliance or intensity of colors can interfere with your ability to isolate and focus only on the lightness/darkness of color, thus making it difficult to judge tonal values in a painting. SQUINTING your eyes can help you see the proper tone. As you squint, look only for the difference in lightness or darkness of an area.

A black/white gray scale (a card with gradations of white, gray, and black) can make it easier to judge tone in your picture. Alternatively, make a black and white copy of your reference photo, or draw a value sketch of your scene including lights, mid-values, and darks for reference while painting. In black and white you will see the tonal values of the subject ( and not the color). This new way of seeing will help you compose, simplify, and adjust values in your painting. With practice, you will be better able to recognize tones and values and to control them.

When you look at your painting subject, look for a range of tones from light to dark. However, keep in mind that TONE in a picture is always relative. Observe the strength of tone in one area of the picture in relation to all the other tones. When you squint, you will notice that highlights and darks are visible to you while non-essential details tend to blur. Try to simplify your image into at least three (no more than five) tonal values, e.g. light, dark, mid-tone. You can start your painting with pale undertones to establish the layout of your composition. Leave highlights as the white of the paper. Mid-tones are painted next, overlapping some layers to build up color. Dark tones are usually the final layer of building up color in your painting. Having the lighter layers painted, you will find it easier to evaluate just how dark you need to paint your darkest colors.

CONTRAST (the relative difference between light and dark areas in a painting) is one of the ways in which the brain distinguishes one thing from another. The stronger the contrast, the more it attracts attention. Contrast helps a viewer differentiate between subject and background in a painting and directs the viewer’s eye to the center of interest, especially when the center of interest is the point of greatest contrast.

Contrast is dynamic, contributing excitement, attracting attention, and relieving monotony. Contrast creates a tension between the opposing elements, a push and pull, to provide visual strength and make a forceful statement in a painting. (COUNTERCHANGE is the term used for placing light and dark tones next to each other to create impact.) Every artist wants to paint a picture that has some impact! To create a stimulating painting, include strong contrasts.

Contrast in VALUE is the most common form of contrast used by artists. Other possible types of contrast are contrast in temperature, in energy, and in purity of color (bright or muted). While painting, artists try to arrange and modify the values of various parts of a picture, depending on what they want to emphasize. Sometimes they alter values from how those values appear in reality to whatever the artists need to make a stronger composition. If you squint at your painting and certain areas blend into each other, you may need to add more contrast in your work. If you make shadows darker or lose some detail in the bright highlights, you can make your painting more dramatic. If your picture looks dull, with all areas the same tone, you may need to increase the tonal range. Make sure that darker and lighter tones alternate across the painting and that there is tonal variation WITHIN each wash for variety.

Early Morning, Early Spring.jpg

In the above watercolor painting, note the contrasts in tone and color temperature in particular. Are there soft and hard edges? What draws your attention in this picture? What techniques suggest depth and three dimensions?

Since variation is important in watercolor, also allow some edges (perhaps in shaded areas and highlights) to merge into areas of similar tone and to be less detailed. (This is called LOST AND FOUND, or HARD AND SOFT EDGES, or fading and disappearing edges, or broken or inferred edges.) When edges appear or disappear or are soft, they create a sense of movement in a painting, allowing the viewers to imagine or interpret what they see. In contrast, hard edges define SHAPES and hold or direct the viewers’ eye. By employing hard and soft edges, the  artist can further refine the creation of distance, depth, and form.

Also use PERSPECTIVE ( a succession of spatial planes receding into the distance) to help you create believable space and form. When you place a light-toned object in front of a darker one, it appears to be positioned in front of the other spatially. Larger objects appear closer than smaller ones.

Tonal counterchange (light against dark) not only appeals to the eye but also creates depth in a painting. Light and shadow across the surface of an object reveal the form of that object. Strong tonal contrast and a varied range of tones create the illusion of space and suggest three-dimensional form.

Basic Watercolor Techniques You’ll Want to Learn.

Here are some basic watercolor techniques that every painter should strive to master.

*Painting a WASH is an important skill. Try to use a big enough brush to hold a good amount of paint. Mix a larger puddle of paint than you think you need so that you don’t run out and have to mix more in the middle of painting the wash. Start with color at one end of your paper and smoothly stroke across to the opposite edge. Your brush should hold enough paint to sweep from one side to the other without running out of pigment. If not, find a larger brush to use. There should be a damp bead of paint on the lower edge of the color you just put on your paper. Reload your brush fully with paint, and smoothly stroke across the page again, just touching your brush to the damp bead of your last stroke. This bead tells you your paint is still wet and helps prevent streaky washes.

*To paint a GRADED WASH, start with color at one end of the paper. Paint three to four long strokes, as above. Dip the brush in water, and wipe it gently on the side of your water container (so the brush is not too wet), then return to the wash and continue painting three to four strokes. Repeat, dipping the brush in the water and wiping gently before going back to the painting. What are you doing? Every time you dip and wipe your brush, you are reducing the pigment and water on your brush to gradually lighten the color of your wash. You are not trying to wash all the pigment out of your brush all at once, but instead are gradually diluting the pigment on your brush as you continue to paint down the paper.

* Blend two colors together to create GRADATION. Start by laying the first color about 3/4 of the way from one end toward the other in a wash. Right away, load your brush with your second color, and paint toward and over the first color 3/4 of the way. Reverse direction, and work back to where you started your second color WITHOUT lifting your brush. Move back and forth until the colors blend smoothly. The trick here is to not lift the brush from the paper once you begin blending.

*To MIX COLOR on your palette, dip into the lighter color first, then drop the darker color into the light color. Mix. It is not necessary to wash your brush every time you reach to get more color to add to the mixture. Doing so is wasteful and dilutes your mixture. Instead, just go to the color desired, and pick up some color with the dirty brush, then bring it back to the mixture. Any dirty palette wells can be cleaned later with a damp brush! It’s okay, however, to clean your brush when you want to use a single clean color or want to change to a new mixture of color.

*To mix CONCENTRATED DARK COLORS, mix as above, but DON’T keep adding water, because you dilute your mixture and will have difficulty achieving intense or dark combinations.

*Learn how to LIFT COLOR with a brush. Remember that you can lift wet paint from your paper as long as your brush is DRIER than the paint.

*FADING OUT or SOFTENING AN EDGE is done by running a damp brush along the edge of a painted shape while the painted area is still wet. Use a brush that is less wet than the painted area. DON’T reach into the painted area and drag color out! Also, be careful how close you get to the wet paint with your brush. You are trying to lay down a damp strip that will attract the wetter paint, so barely touch the edge of the paint. It may take several passes of the damp brush in order to moisten the paper enough. Once the paint begins to move, make your strokes further and further away from the paint. It is best to get to fading or softening quickly, because as the paint dries, it is less likely to move easily, less likely to flow. (This technique is somewhat different from painting wet-in-wet or wet-in-damp, although both produce soft edges. ‘Softening an edge’ allows the artist more control in the sense that one side of the paint stroke is preserved as a hard edge while the other side is softened – perfect for rock crevices, folds in fabric, or flower petals.)

*Learn to LET THE PAINT AND WATER DO THE WORK. Don’t fight the paint or try to force it to do what you want it to. Learn the rules of how water behaves -(i.e., when two unequal bodies of moisture meet, the GREATER wetness will ALWAYS flow into the LESSER wetness). Learn to do nothing except watch what the paint and water can do without your help.

* Learn to see and paint NEGATIVE SHAPES. A negative shape is the background or shape AROUND an object, not the object itself. You essentially save the light shape (perhaps of trees in a forest) by painting around the tree trunks with a dark color. For trees, paint vertical strokes that represent the space  between tree trunks. Try to vary sizes, angles, and shapes of the dark lines, even making some of the light tree trunk shapes y-shaped to represent branches. When the paint on the paper is dry, use a slightly darker pigment to paint again but only in the dark spaces, and add even darker marks to define the space between more tree trunks deeper in the forest. It might help to lightly sketch these first. In the beginning, allow large spaces around a few shapes. If you leave too little space, it becomes difficult to paint meaningful shapes at deeper layers. Repeat the process for several layers. Slowly and gradually progress to darker layers of color. (There is no need to mix progressively darker puddles of paint here – use the same puddle for successive layers. Two layers will appear twice as dark as one, etc.) Negative shapes in a painting add variety, depth, interest, and a sense of reality to your image.

*Practice control of  BRUSH STROKES and techniques. As an artist, you want to paint with as few brush strokes as possible to preserve the freshness and clarity of your painting. Make your shapes with a single stroke as opposed to first outlining and then filling in with color (like a coloring book). Avoid cautious, tiny strokes with a too-small brush.

While many other techniques are useful, learning the ones described above will assure many a good painting. Thank you to artist and author Gordon MacKenzie for recommending many of the above ideas.

 

Get In The Mood!

Mood is only one of the important effects we create in our efforts as artists to get our viewers to see what we want them to see. (Other main effects that we use include unity, dominance [or emphasis], variety, contrast, gradation, transitions, perspective, balance, rhythm and movement, pattern, and so on.) Establishing a mood will bring character and interest to your painting, while enhancing your subject. MOOD is the pervasive feeling evoked by your painting — for example, calm tranquility or languid, hazy heat. Mood conveys emotion to your viewer.

To intentionally create a different mood (also sometimes called ATMOSPHERE) in your painting, you might manipulate COLORS, VALUES, or CLARITY. To think about this issue more simply, you might consider first whether you want your picture to have a warm or cool feel to it ( COLORS lean toward warm or cool temperatures – see The Paint Colors and Brands on My Palette… my blog published 8/28/18.); then you could decide on the dominant VALUE ( lightness or darkness, such as ‘bright and cheery’ or perhaps ‘dark and foreboding’); then, you could define the CLARITY (level of detail) you hope to achieve.

You could also create mood by manipulating the SPATIAL DESIGN of a picture. For instance, a large empty expanse in a painting could be used to create a sense of ease or openness, or even bleakness or emptiness. Converging lines could be used to make the viewer feel confined, closed in, or up close to a subject. To suggest calm and tranquility, keep your main lines HORIZONTAL, with one or two vertical lines to break up the monotony. (Water in a calm scene should be smooth, with mirror-like reflections, and with clouds echoing the predominance of horizontal line.) Strident VERTICAL lines will enhance feelings of awe, even fear. (Crags and mountainsides can appear intimidating, castles will seem impregnable, especially if trees, dwellings, or figures below are made smaller.) Strong DIAGONALS suggest a sense of dynamism and movement, and diagonally directed clouds with ragged edges will produce a sensation of strong winds and restlessness. (Diagonals guided toward the focal point emphasize its importance.)

Both value and clarity will determine the lighting in your painting, which in turn, will tell you the intensity of the colors you should use.  It is the literal atmosphere that creates figurative ‘atmosphere.’ For instance, the amount of humidity, snow, rain, dust, or fog in the air determines the quality of light that gets through it, as well as the colors and amount of detail we see. Think coastal fogs, dark clouds, or misty mountains! Mood often has a tonal range or value – these ranges can be described as low key, high key or middle key. A low key painting would be dark and could give a viewer a heavy or somber feeling. A high key picture would instead have a bright and cheerful effect. A middle key painting uses a wider range of values which could be used to create a wider variety of moods.

If you want a bright, sunny picture (also called high key) with sharp clarity, you want to use colors that are mostly pure. Do a lot of wet-on-dry painting for sharpness, show distant detail, and use shadows and highlights. In contrast, if you are striving for fog or haze, most of the colors you  use will be dulled because of subdued lighting. Use wet-on-damp techniques to produce soft edges, and flatten the background shapes so that they have few details. In this way, atmosphere contributes to ‘mood.’

Why should you worry about mood? Why should you care whether you create a specific mood in a painting?  Painters care about mood because a watercolor painting without a mood is dry, generic, uninteresting, and without feeling!  Try to move beyond a mere representation or photographic copy of objects in your art. Rather than precisely copying every detail in a picture, you should aim to suggest and imply.  While creating ‘mood,’ strive to interpret a scene by choosing the details to include and the ones to leave out. There is no need to tell the viewer everything! Mood adds drama and appeal. Allow each viewer to see something different, to use THEIR imagination, to feel their own emotion, and to participate in your painting. By creating mood and atmosphere when you paint, you will be on your way to creating a visual poetry that stirs deep feeling in your audience.