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What I Wish I’d Known When I Began To Learn Watercolor Painting!

Some painting teachers start students at the beginning and show them how to mix a paint puddle and how to paint a simple flat wash. Other teachers show how to do all the techniques without explaining anything. Still other teachers just set up a still life and leave students on their own, but not even knowing what questions to ask. As a student, I have known ALL of these types of teachers. And I have to say, I have learned a number of things on my own that I truly wish I had been taught earlier in my painting adventures. I would like to share some of these tips with you here, in the hopes that you find them helpful.

1. Watercolor painting almost always involves LAYERS of paint. When I began to learn, I assumed as a painter you put down everything at once, and if you didn’t get it right, you were in trouble. Not true! Often, in watercolor, painters will put down a layer of color, let it dry, and apply another layer or partial layer of color. Gradually they build up part after part of the painting, for example, varying shades of color to add interest or emphasis. Shadows would be added to a painting in this way. It is important to let layers DRY before applying the next layer – this new layer over the dry layer would be one example of glazing.

2. With watercolor, you usually paint from LIGHT TO DARK, leaving the white of the paper as the lightest light.That means you really have to PLAN ahead – you need a very clear idea in advance where those light areas will be so you can either paint around them, tape, or mask (with masking fluid) over these areas to preserve them. It does not work very well to make up a picture as you go along or to change your mind in the midst of a painting (unless your intention is to create an abstract or a picture without realism).

3. You can fix almost any MISTAKE in watercolor! If paint is still wet when you notice a mistake, simply blot it up with a paper towel or tissue. If paint has dried, you can carefully re-wet and with a damp “scrubber” brush gently tickle the area and blot straight up and down (never rub or you will damage your paper) with a paper towel to lift the mistake. If paint has begun to dry (it’s damp), then letting it finish drying is best before proceeding to correct a mistake (in order to avoid creating “cauliflowers” or blooms).  Another correction technique that can dramatically change an area of your painting is applying another wash of color to your picture.

4. Always try to MIX A LOT more of the desired color of paint than you think you need. I would encourage you to double or triple the amount that you think you need. Don’t be stingy!! There’s nothing good that happens when you need to stop in the middle of a wash to try to mix more paint to match a color.

5. Always have “TEST” PAPER at hand to try out your mixed color and the technique you plan to use on your painting BEFORE you apply it to your painting. The color may look perfect on your palette but may look quite different when applied to watercolor paper. It’s better to check BEFORE a mistake happens.

6. There are several ways to add color to your painting – each technique creates a different effect. You can     A. Mix two colors (sometimes more) ON your palette before you  paint,     B. Mix on the paper or CHARGE one color into another on the paper itself, or     C. GLAZE a second layer of color (or more) over thoroughly dried watercolor paint.

7. When mixing colors on your palette:

 If you intend to mix a LIGHT color, it is quicker and easier to begin by putting some WATER on your palette FIRST, then gradually adding pigment to it until you reach the desired color.

If, however, you wish to mix a DARK color, dip into your PIGMENT first, only adding enough WATER to make your puddle of paint the desired vibrancy and consistency.

8. Many beginning watercolor students have quite a bit of trouble understanding how to judge WETNESS and its effects in watercolor painting. While experience helps you to learn how to control wetness,  even experienced painters need to follow the laws of physics. If painters try to fight the law of hydrodynamics and force the water to do their bidding, they will struggle! This rule is fairly straightforward, but it is not to be ignored. Simply put, greater wetness ALWAYS flows into lesser wetness. Use this knowledge, and you become a more successful painter. Use this knowledge, and your skies will be fluid and smooth, you will avoid “cauliflowers” or blooms, and your washes and glazes will not have hard edges.

9. Some paint pigments STAIN your paper. Mistakes made using staining colors are NOT easily corrected or lifted off. Staining colors are often transparent, bright and strong, so they are very useful. It is probably best to take the time to learn which of the colors on your palette are staining and which are not, so that you know what the characteristics of your colors are. Common staining colors include permanent alizarin crimson, permanent rose, phthalo blue or winsor blue, phthalo green or winsor green, winsor orange, quinacridone gold, winsor red or pyrrol red, Indian yellow, and gamboge hue.

10. If an edge in a painting is sharp or well-defined, it is called a HARD edge; it attracts the eye, which will follow along its length. If an edge is fuzzy or indistinct, it is a SOFT edge; a viewer’s eye is not drawn to a soft edge. Painters tend to use hard-edged details for the center of interest in a painting – painters do NOT want detail in every part of their picture. Thus, knowing how to create soft edges when you paint is invaluable! I use this technique in almost every watercolor that I paint. The technique is called “SOFTENING AN EDGE” or pulling out or fading out color. When softening an edge, you are NOT actually moving any paint. You are using water to encourage the paint to move on its own. Painters try to put just the right amount of wetness (not too much or too little) in the right spot at the right time to allow the paint to ‘sigh’ into the wetness. This approach works best if the paint area is very wet (just painted) and the brush is less wet (just damp). With the clean damp brush, try to lay a line of dampness down just barely touching the edge of the paint. Don’t go too far into the paint, or your brush will act like a sponge, soaking up and spreading the paint around – not your intention. You want to produce a smooth, graded effect – so instead, with a clean damp brush make additional damp strokes farther and farther from your initial stroke. The dampness makes a path for the paint to soften into.

11. Watercolor paint needs WATER in order to flow – paint will not move without the water. You can use this knowledge when painting to stop the flow of paint on your paper. In other words, dry paper creates a dam where paint stops moving (and simultaneously forms a hard edge). If you pre-wet part of your paper then apply paint to the wet area, the color will stop flowing as soon as it touches the dry paper.

12. The most realistic and interesting watercolors are not taken directly from a tube or pan! They are MIXED from a combination of other colors! Don’t try to buy every color you think you need! Many beginning painters DON’T WANT TO BOTHER learning how to mix colors themselves. They prefer to buy already mixed colors because they don’t know where to begin to create different colors or why they should bother. That’s okay in the beginning, but as painters become more experienced, they notice how hard it is to find a tube of green paint that is not gaudy or is the right shade for their grass or tree. They start to notice how a black straight out of the tube is dead, flat, and lifeless. They come to understand that since everyone’s skin is a different color, they can’t use the same ‘flesh’ tone for every person they paint. In the end, they also realize that making combinations of colors is FUN!

“I’ve Always Wanted To Paint Watercolors But Don’t Have The Talent.”

While watercolor painting has a reputation for being unforgiving and difficult, I believe anyone can learn to paint using watercolors. It’s NOT a matter of having some inborn “talent.” Painting well is A SKILL that is learned step by step, and it must be pursued with attention and effort. Skills improve naturally with PRACTICE. It takes time, and, yes, you may struggle in the beginning and be unsatisfied with your first attempts. However, keep practicing, and at some point, all that you have been learning will come together into a gorgeous painting.

I find that the ATTITUDE of each of my watercolor students makes a huge difference in their success in class! Students who become successful painters begin with a more open attitude. They try to relax, are willing to try new techniques, and accept that they have a lot to learn. These students understand that they are beginners. They don’t expect themselves to be perfect. In fact, they expect that they will make mistakes, that mistakes are inevitable. They are much more likely to ask, “What can I learn here today?” than to state, “Ugh, this picture is awful.” They keep trying, ask questions, and do not give up. No matter what happens, they keep painting. They understand that the more they paint, the better they will get. Successful learners are willing to try, take a chance, and not take themselves too seriously.

Believe me, nobody starts off as an expert; everyone begins as a learner. I can still remember one of the first paintings that I did on my own. I set up a still life that included a pair of old work gloves arranged on an antique redware milk pan. I had high hopes. I mixed my colors, and they were spot-on, but when I was finished and stepped back, what I saw looked like dead bananas on a huge pretzel bun! Very frustrating and disappointing!  It was, however, NOT the end of the world. I persisted and tried again. (I’m pretty stubborn.)

What do new students tend to get impatient with? Many difficulties arise involving students’ ability to judge and control the AMOUNT OF WATER used in mixing paint or applying paint to their pictures. Even executing a smooth and even flat wash can be tricky. SOFTENING or fading an edge well can also be challenging. Understanding how to avoid blossoms or cauliflowers also depends on controlling wetness.

Further, beginning painters often are disappointed when their paintings don’t look exactly like their reference photo or the objects that they have painted. But keep in mind: we don’t want a photograph! Painters with some experience strive to create an impression to express how they feel about their chosen subject. They SIMPLIFY, often eliminating some details while focusing on what they feel are the salient ones. They may emphasize lighting or specific colors or soften some edges to help focus a viewer’s attention on what they wish to have noticed in their picture. Keeping a painting simple makes for a strong painting!

I always encourage students to use QUALITY materials when they paint, as doing so makes success much easier to achieve. While many teachers recommend starting with student-grade materials, I think that is a mistake. Don’t buy the cheapest brushes, paper, or paint to try to save money. You will instead frustrate yourself!(Look for my post about what materials a beginner should look for, Help! I Don’t Know What Art Supplies To Buy!, https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/07/31/help-i-dont-know-what-art-supplies-to-buy/, available July 31, 2018.)  On the other hand, just because materials are the most expensive does not necessarily mean they are the best.

Becoming a skillful watercolor painter does not happen overnight. When students make learning to paint a priority, they COMMIT themselves to the effort even when it seems that for every two steps ahead, they take one step backwards. They organize their lives to meet their goal of becoming skilled painters. They try to stop making excuses not to go to class or not to do the painting. They may at times feel unsure or afraid or discouraged, but they are determined to keep going. They promise themselves to finish what they start! And as time goes on, these painters produce better and better pictures. Their work becomes consistently amazing!

I really do believe anyone who has desire and the willingness to put in the necessary practice can learn to paint well. Give it a try! You CAN do it – one step at a time. Take a watercolor class, and you’ll get support and help all the way, AND you’ll have fun doing it. If you want to learn to paint, you can!