After Watercolor Basics… What Next?
STAGE I. THE BASICS.
Anyone with desire and focus, can learn to paint with watercolors. The process, however, can take a very long time, even years, and true artists never stop learning (nor do they want to). But let’s assume that you have learned what materials you need and the fundamental techniques you need to use those materials. What comes next? When I began to paint in 2008, I didn’t know. I don’t think I even knew that I was considering such a question. What was important to me at the time was improving! I wanted to get more proficient. In this post, I intend to share some of the steps I’ve taken in my process of learning watercolor, a few questions I’ve asked myself, and several concerns I’ve had along the way.
STAGE II. COPYING & CLOSE OBSERVATION.
Beyond the elementary techniques, I found that what I wanted was to portray my reference images as accurately as possible. I quickly learned that close observation was required. But as an artist, I found ‘seeing’ isn’t simple.
Most of the time, we look at things with only part of our attention. We see only what we expect to see, often assigning a label to every image. For instance, if what we are looking at is a ‘tree,’ we may not explore carefully what is really there. This habit of not paying close attention keeps us from actually LOOKING at things. In the everyday world, we quickly categorize and move on, perhaps in part because there seems to be so much information.
When I started painting, I would choose an image to paint, and the first thing I’d notice was a lot of detail. I was distracted by details, as perhaps you are, too. What do you do with all that detail? How do you know which details are important? Those questions overwhelmed me. I had been told to ‘look carefully’ at a reference, but the more I looked, the more confusing detail I saw. Over time, however, I began to believe that the trick had to be focusing on something else, not trying to capture every tiny detail. Focusing on small details, like individual leaves, or trying to include every tree trunk or grass blade in a painting, didn’t work well.
Thus, to paint more successfully, I forced myself to slow down. I tried NOT to look at small details first, but instead to examine and study the shapes, values, and colors that made up the larger framework of each scene. ‘Seeing’ does mean focusing attention, looking closely, but especially at the arrangement of shapes. For example, where is the light hitting the tree branches? Can you see through the branches? What is the overall shape of the tree? Are branches straight, upturned, crooked, rough? Is the tree lopsided or symmetrical? Are the highlights a different color from the shadows? What is the weather, and how does it affect the appearance of the ‘tree’? By asking such questions and looking carefully, I began to more accurately paint what I SAW, NOT what I THOUGHT I saw.
As I became more familiar with and practiced at painting, I began to see more subtle color, more nuanced detail, more understated tones. It seems that ‘seeing’ cannot be forced and may only develop gradually over time, with experience, and when one is ready. With practice, however, we can expect to notice more and sooner, perhaps even noting details that others miss or take for granted.
DRAWING HELPS YOU OBSERVE CAREFULLY.
Drawing trains the mind, hand, and eye to work together. Many beginning artists may avoid drawing altogether if they can, feeling that their drawing skills are not good. However, you should not feel obliged to render precise drawings of what you wish to paint. Do not let your concerns about drawing ability or drawing technique deter you. I found that even sketching a quick, rough thumbnail required me to consider what was important in a scene. One of the main purposes of drawing is to TRAIN yourself to see shapes and spaces more accurately – to ‘see’ like an artist and keep the big picture in mind. By keeping details to a minimum, just getting some information down without stressing, you can help yourself to see.
More specifically, you should look for basic SHAPES and notice how they are connected. Find larger shapes first; then fit smaller shapes into them. See the image as a whole; and only then concentrate on individual components. Distracting details are only decoration on the surface of these shapes. Squinting your eyes often helps you to see beyond any unnecessary detail. Concentrate; work slowly and intently. Give yourself the time to observe and take in information before rushing to produce an image. Ultimately, the goal is to be able to perceive what you see as totally abstract forms, values, lines, and color, as in a jigsaw puzzle. You must shift your perspective. Remember that shadows are shapes, as are reflections. Backgrounds have shape and should act as frames for the subject of a painting. Only when you can ‘see’ in this way will you begin to be able to suggest three-dimensional reality on your flat, two-dimensional paper.
Frederick Franck, artist and philosopher, says in The Zen of Seeing/Drawing: “I have learned that what I have not drawn I have never really seen, and that when I start drawing an ordinary thing I realize how extraordinary it is, sheer miracle . . . .” So do not hesitate to sketch and draw what you intend to paint. As you draw, you will notice which details are important and sharpen the mind/hand/eye coordination necessary to improve your painting skills. Drawing is a skill that requires practice and time, just like any other ability (including learning the techniques of painting). The skills and mental processes necessary for drawing are the same as those you use when painting with a brush.
STAGE III. BEGIN TO DESIGN, PLAN, & SIMPLIFY.
When I began to feel more confident reproducing an image before me, I sometimes found myself wishing I could improve a composition; the reference pictures I found weren’t quite satisfying. Occasionally I wanted to combine two photos instead of having to copy one. In other instances, I wondered if some of the components in a picture might be better relocated to another section of the picture, even left out. A tree or a building might have been blocking what I thought was the most interesting section of the picture.
At this point, I also began to take some of my own reference photos, to create a view I desired. I essentially inched my way toward DESIGNING my paintings, seeing what was in front of me but arranging and modifying the information to actually improve the picture, making it something I liked better and felt was more effective.
Eventually it dawned on me that this desire to improve a reference might be the start to a new stage in painting for me. To improve a painting, I could forget about ‘reproducing’ nature. I could start to REARRANGE it! I could take what I liked and ignore what I didn’t want to include. Definite rules about design and composition existed and could greatly improve a painting. I wanted to learn them.
Mastering Composition by Ian Roberts is a comprehensive guide and excellent resource that can help you learn more about composition.
These blog posts might also be of interest if you want to know more: “Composition!?!”, (5/7/2020), https://leemuirhaman.com/2020/05/07/, and “Designing A Strong Painting With Good Composition!”, (10/16/2018), https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/10/16/designing-a-strong-painting/.
I found that this designing and PLANNING need to be done BEFORE any paint is put on the paper. Again, you will need to study your subject for a while. Think about what it is that attracted you – that should be the primary statement or BIG IDEA in your painting. Consider what you will emphasize in the picture. Eliminate anything that might compete with or distract from the ONE focal point and main idea. You shouldn’t try to include every daunting detail in a scene. Instead, it pays to NARROW your vision (even to crop an image) and SIMPLIFY your subject.
Ask yourself what your focal point is. What will your painting be about? Is there a lead-in to invite the viewer into the picture? Think about what you want to say before you start. WHAT do you hope to achieve, and HOW are you going to achieve it? Establish some clear objectives.
While drawing or sketching develops necessary observational skills as mentioned previously, drawing also helps you to plan and condense information into a simplified format. This clarification will strengthen the message of your final painting. With a drawing you are more likely to end up with your focal point being prominent, because you concentrate mainly on that particular feature. Your drawing will be streamlined, easier on the eye of the viewer, because you collect only the information that counts and leave out extraneous material. Thus, drawing trains the brain to think about and analyze what is essential to the picture.
IV. EXPRESS FEELINGS & EMOTIONS.
A later stage in improving my painting skills grew out of the wish to have my feelings and emotions come across in each painting. When establishing the IDEA for a painting now, I try to think about how I feel. We all interpret a scene in our own way – WHAT you want to emphasize and WHY will probably differ from what interests me or another person. That is to be expected – we all have different experiences, reactions, thoughts, and feelings that affect our impression of our world. These factors will affect our chosen focal point, our ‘big idea’ for a painting, even the style in which we paint it. (Our own particular concerns and perception directly determine the painting style we choose.)
In other words, I try to consider MOOD when planning my painting approach to a picture, and then work to express it. It seems easier for me to achieve some success at this in some paintings than in others. I contemplate how the scene makes me feel. Happy, sad, excited, nostalgic? I strive to determine what it is I want to show and what the meaning of each topic is to me. Why did I choose to paint this picture? Why was I drawn to this image? Does the scene remind me of a favorite place? Does the picture make me feel calm? Do I feel like laughing when I look at or think about this subject?
I believe great artists are able to paint their feelings about a scene, as well as an impression of its actual appearance. (Think about Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, for instance, or Vermeer’s Girl With A Pearl Earring.) They make sure they don’t copy the details so faithfully and precisely that there is no room left for life, mystery, or emotion in a painting. Instead, such artists paint their interpretation and memories, share what they feel are the significant factors behind what may be a commonplace scene, attempt to translate emotions aroused in their hearts. They often reveal their skill at rearrangement and invention in the scene.
Emotion can be conveyed in a painting in a number of ways. The mood of a painting can be created or altered by hard, soft, or lost edges; light and dark values (contrast, high key, or low key); line and arrangement of masses (lyrical, angular, curved, open, closed-in, a preponderance of verticals or horizontals); light (overcast, ominous or threatening, nighttime, bright and sunny, glaring, or late afternoon); and color choice and color proportion (warm, neutral, cold, cheery, drab, soothing, jarring, or balanced). For more in depth information on emotion and mood in painting, see “Get In The Mood!”, (9/4/2018), https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/09/04/get-in-the-mood/ .
Choosing and combining so many variables appropriately and successfully to express your emotion takes experimentation and practice, yet is the ultimate goal in art.
Take note of and respond to your own emotions – these feelings are what you will try to get down on paper and share with viewers of your art. Think with your heart. People will connect to YOUR art with THEIR emotions!
V. BECOME YOUR OWN TEACHER.
After painting for ten years, I lost my beloved mentor and watercolor teacher, who died in 2018. Before he died, he asked me to take over the teaching of his watercolor classes. While I didn’t feel at all ready for that, I really didn’t want to let him down. For that reason, I started teaching others what he had taught me. However, I couldn’t help feeling that there was still more for me to learn. If I had questions, though, who could I ask? My solution was to study art books, seek information online, and continue taking occasional workshops in person and courses online.
I also began writing blog posts (in 2018) to share with others the information I was learning about watercolor. I studied and wrote about things I was struggling with, or topics I found especially interesting. In order to write about a subject, I had to consolidate, understand, and make sense of it for myself. Writing has helped me know my own thoughts.
I think we can all work towards becoming our own best teacher. Always keep learning on your own and for yourself. I’m not suggesting you avoid taking classes or working with watercolor instructors you enjoy and are learning from. Instead, I’m asking you to treat yourself as a good teacher would, by being supportive of yourself, allowing yourself to investigate and learn more about the art topics that you might be struggling with, and searching out information about your art interests. (One of my recent investigative searches has been about how to paint light, create the glow of light in watercolor.) I hope that you take an active part in your own art education.
If interested, the following blog post will explain more about creating the best possible attitude toward your painting: “How Can I Become My Own Best Teacher”, (7/21/2021), https://leemuirhaman.com/2021/07/21/how-can-i-become-my-own-watercolor-teacher/.
For me, I want to continue to write and to paint with watercolor. I hope to freshen up my website, perhaps even adding an option to purchase directly from the site. I would like to improve my skills at designing my own pictures more creatively, and to spend more time painting my own compositions. I will also, of course, persist in studying, learning, and researching what intrigues me about watercolor.
What’s next for you?
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What do you think about this quote by Martha Beck who has said, “An artist’s real contribution isn’t what he paints, but the way he sees.”? Let me know in a comment below.