How Can I Become My Own Watercolor Teacher?

Wouldn’t it be terrific if we could each find our perfect watercolor painting teacher (if watercolor is our chosen medium)? But they are hard to find! And a great artist doesn’t necessarily make a great teacher. How many good teachers are there? And how easy are they to find? I looked for years for a local watercolor teacher before running into my mentor by chance. You may be limited by where you live and the desire to take in-person classes. You will have more teachers to choose from if you are willing to take a workshop or even an online course. But after the workshop ends, then what? Even if you could find a good local teacher, would classes cost a lot of money? And each teacher you are able to locate will provide instruction in their own way, in their own style. Will they teach what you need to know? 

What if, in addition to any painting instructor or classes you find, you could also become your own teacher, able to learn about and explore all the things you need and want to know? You can, with the proper attitude and mindset. First you must make a strong commitment to improve your painting. To become your own teacher, consider what you’d hope for in any good teacher, then strive to cultivate those same characteristics in yourself. 

Forsythia In Vases Watercolor.

Are you able to cultivate the awareness and OBJECTIVITY necessary to evaluate your paintings with some detachment? In other words, can you get some distance on your work? To be a good teacher to yourself, you must be able to step back and view your work as though someone else painted it (during the painting process, as well as after the painting is complete).

CLOSELY OBSERVE details in your work and the scene you are painting. Does what you’re doing in your picture work? What is going wrong? If something is not quite right, pause during painting to evaluate the situation. You’ll need to figure out the problem if something looks odd, before rushing in to try this or maybe that. While pausing, ask yourself what you might change to correct the problem. For instance, are my values (lights/darks) correct? Am I using the colors and color temperature I need to create an effective image? Are edges soft or crisp enough where they need to be? Am I using too much (or too little) wetness? Am I emphasizing my center of interest appropriately, or has another section of my painting taken over center stage? Have I lost important highlights? Through such an assessment, you can become aware of the picture’s difficulties and create a plan to resolve any problem. With possible solutions in mind, you can then resume painting.

Red Flowers Watercolor.

You will need to have PATIENCE with yourself. Learning to paint takes perseverance and time. While we all strive for quick progress, often it seems like we take two steps forward only to take one step back. Yet, that is how we all learn – we need to take action and learn from our mistakes.

Be KIND to yourself. You deserve respect and understanding. A good teacher is warm, caring, supportive, and has empathy – encouraging painting strengths as well as pinpointing places to make improvements. 

Don’t give up! A good teacher is positive and reassuring. It’s okay to step away from a painting for a breather if you need it, but remember to be ENCOURAGING and give yourself a pep talk, in spite of any frustrations.  For more insight on self-assessment of painting problems, you might like to read ‘A Positive, Problem-Solving Attitude To Overcome Frustration’, (1/9/2020), https://leemuirhaman.com/2020/01/09/become-a-problem-solver-to-overcome-that-awkward-stage/.

Crocus Watercolor.

Let’s be HONEST. Give yourself honest feedback (but not harsh criticism). Painting is NOT a matter only of talent – painting skills can be learned. Improvement comes from lots of practice and repetition.You know learning to paint can be difficult, and sometimes frustrating and discouraging, but don’t forget it can be fun and worth all the hard work!

Take RESPONSIBILITY for improving yourself. Search out and study when you want to learn more (through books, YouTube videos, ‘googling’ a question you might have, signing up for a workshop, joining art Facebook groups that interest you, taking online classes with teachers you admire and joining their online support groups). Try not to blame mistakes or poor painting on outside circumstances (poor quality paper, humid weather, lack of time, confusing template image, cheap paints). Blaming takes responsibility out of your hands and will make it difficult for you to see what YOU can do to take charge and resolve any difficulties.

Apple Blossoms Watercolor.

Do not settle for half-hearted effort from yourself. Strive to do your best! A good teacher has high expectations, and will MOTIVATE and CHALLENGE a student. Encourage yourself to do the hard, consistent work necessary to improve.

Finally, don’t take yourself TOO SERIOUSLY. Yes, you need to work hard, but keep in mind that everyone makes mistakes. No worries! Strive to enjoy the process of painting. Remember a good teacher is fun, full of joy, playful, perhaps even high-spirited. My favorite watercolor teacher told jokes and stories throughout every single class.

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How Wet Is Too Wet? The Secrets To Controlling Water And Paint.

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If you have ever tried to paint with watercolors, you know how difficult it can be to estimate amounts of water accurately. Some beginners may use too much water and lose control of their painting or paint overly pale colors. Other beginners are inclined to use rather dry, stiff color in their work creating uneven, streaky, or possibly even muddy passages. How wet is too wet?

While many people feel watercolor is difficult and uncontrollable, once you understand how using the right amount of water can give you control, you’ll begin to have more fun painting.

Footbridge and ford over water.jpg

BASIC RULE.

A basic (and unbreakable ) rule of watercolor is that the wettest area of paint (or water) ALWAYS flows into a less wet (damp) area, whether you are placing paint next to other paint on the watercolor paper or touching a wet or paint-filled brush to paint already on the paper.

Further, there are different degrees of wetness, and these differences affect the success of the techniques a painter uses. Whether a technique works or not will depend on your ability to observe and control the amount of wetness involved.

Crashing waves.jpg

THE SECRETS.

The secrets to controlling the application of your watercolor paint are 1.) TIMING, and 2.) LEARNING TO JUDGE THE CORRECT AMOUNT OF WETNESS for the job you want to do. The moisture comes from several sources, including the mixed puddles of paint, the degree of dampness of the watercolor paper, and the amount of water/paint in the brush.

When you want controlled, clearly defined brushstrokes and a hard edge, paint on a dry paper (wet-on-dry). On dry paper, paint will only go where you put it. Keep in mind that after you have put paint down, you have created a wet area into which you can charge other colors or paint wet-in-wet. (See one of my related blogs, “Charge Ahead and Mingle: Blending Color on Watercolor Paper”, https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/06/04/charge-ahead-and-mingle-blending-color-on-watercolor-paper/, published June 4, 2019).

It can be difficult to paint large, complicated areas wet-on-dry because some sections of paint may dry too much before you can finish painting the area. This can create problems such as ‘cauliflowers’, ‘blossoms’, or ‘backwashes’ as you place wetter paint next to a less wet (damp, starting to dry) wash. (Remember that wetter ALWAYS flows into less wet!) Try to paint leaving a ‘bead’ of wet paint on the edge of your painted area (i.e. keep your paint edge wet) while you pause to reload your brush with color, to avoid having a drying edge of paint. If you have trouble maintaining a ‘bead’, you might want to pre-wet the area to be painted.

Ocean rocks.jpg

Make sure you mix a large enough puddle of paint so that you don’t need to skimp on paint or run out of mixed color partway through a wash. Also use a large enough brush to get paint down quickly, before it starts to dry and creates unwanted brush marks or ‘cauliflowers’.

One important point to remember is that watercolor fades as it dries and color that looks just right when it’s wet, can often look weak and unconvincing when dry. Try to mix your colors darker than you think you need. Getting the color right the first time looks fresher (and often less muddy) than trying to adjust color with a second layer over the first. If possible, try to avoid unnecessary over-painting.

Golden seagull.jpg

THE PAINT ITSELF.

Only experimentation will tell you what your paints will do, which is why you hear so much about the need to practice painting and to get to know the colors on your own palette. Paint behaviors depend on the type of pigment used in manufacture (organic, mineral, chemical, dye), how finely the pigment is ground (how it is milled), and also whether or not paint contains fillers (as many student grade paints do). Different brands may use different ingredients in different proportions. Generally, experts say that the more transparent a pigment, the better its flow on a wet surface.

PAPER AND TIMING.

The wetness of the watercolor paper itself also is a factor in how paint behaves. When water is first applied to paper it can be described as FLOODED with a sheet of water. After a short time, a WET sheet of paper becomes evident, as water starts to soak into the paper. On wet paper, you see a shine but the texture of the paper can be observed. As time goes on, water continues to soak into and evaporate from the paper. On DAMP paper the shine becomes dull and the watercolor paper is ready for the artist to put paint to paper. Here is where TIMING becomes so important! If the shine disappears from the MOIST paper, it can be a problematic time to paint. The paper may not be wet enough for paint to move smoothly or may be drying unevenly, which can create unexpected streaks or bleeds. (Note that the time it takes for these processes to occur can vary quite a bit depending on weather conditions, such as humidity, and even the type of watercolor paper in use.)

 

THE BRUSH.

Similarly, through practice, you should learn how to control the amount of water on your brush. Small brushes don’t hold a lot of water or paint, especially synthetic brushes, so it is difficult to overload them. But they also cover a limited area when painting, making it very unlikely that you will be able to paint a smooth wash with them. Large brushes will quickly cover the paper and keep your painting looking spontaneous, however, they can sometimes hold more water and paint than you want. “How much water should I use?” Not too much.

A SOPPING brush, which goes directly from the water container to the paper, is only okay when you are pre-wetting your paper! You will probably NOT want to paint with a dripping, sopping brush because too much paint will flow onto your paper and you will have little control. Instead, a WET brush is wiped once or twice on the edge of the water container or tapped lightly on a paper towel to make it more manageable, and can be dipped into the paint and used for painting. Before applying the paint, check your brush again to see if it is dripping with paint, and, if so, gently squeeze a small amount off on the edge of the palette or on a paper towel, as before. A DAMP brush is wiped on the edge of the water container and excess moisture is squeezed or blotted away. A damp brush can still moisten your paper and would be ideal for ‘softening an edge’. When softening a just painted edge, the painted edge should still be wet AND the brush MUST be less wet than the painted area. (See my related blog “Softening An Edge or Fading Out”, https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/10/23/softening-an-edge-or-fading-out/, dated October 23, 2018.) Finally, a MOIST brush has only enough moisture to hold the brush in shape and would be perfect to use for lifting color.

Reflections.jpg

TO SUMMARIZE.

While nothing is simple in learning to paint, attention to detail and practice WILL lead to your success. Everyone can learn how to paint. Keep in mind the basic rule of hydrodynamics in watercolor – that the wettest area of paint (or water) ALWAYS flows into a less wet (damp) area. And also try to remember, the secrets to controlling the application of your watercolor paint are 1.) TIMING, and 2.) LEARNING TO JUDGE THE CORRECT AMOUNT OF WETNESS for the job you want to do. The moisture comes from several sources, including the mixed puddles of paint, the degree of dampness of the watercolor paper, and the amount of water/paint in the brush. Enjoy!

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