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). 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.

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!