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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From Pretty Good To Better Composition!

Only occasionally, as artists, do we discover a perfectly designed composition we’d like to paint. More often, we find an appealing image that needs some improving and editing to make it more effective. Editing allows an artist to interpret a scene and tell the picture’s story in a stronger, more personal way. All the information may be there in front of us, but we may want to re-organize some of the parts. We might want to combine several reference photos, or totally remove some distracting information. We know we don’t want to just copy a reference, but how would you go about ‘improving’ a composition?

Joe English Hill Photo, Spring.

Here is an image that appealed to me. Let’s evaluate the composition though – it does have some problems. It’s hard to tell what this picture is about, isn’t it? It probably wouldn’t make a very good painting, as is. What attracted me to this scene in the first place? I was drawn to the dramatic cliff (barely visible in the photo) rising steeply behind the vibrant, early spring colors. So, my first decision would have to do with figuring out what I want my center of interest to be, and then deciding how best to emphasize it. 

I decide to make the cliff my center of interest. How could I simplify some of the shapes or eliminate unnecessary detail? There is too much information in this reference photo. I certainly don’t have to include all of the trees from the photo. I will remove some of the smaller trees blocking the view of the cliff to uncover it. I will also eliminate a few trees on the far right, but leave one tree to help frame the cliff. This tree on the right would also function to stop your eye from following the line of the top of the far hill right on out of the picture. While I think the large green gold trees on the left also function as a frame of the cliff, I want to move them more to the left to further open up our view of the cliff. And I want to increase the height of the trees on the left, hoping they appear closer to the viewer and increasing depth in the picture. And finally, I plan to exaggerate the size of the cliff to make it even more prominent in my painting. 

Early Spring Color, Joe English Hill, Another View.

Color will be important to give the picture the feel of the new leaves and grasses of springtime. Spring is a time of fresh growth, when buds and flowers burst forth. Fields and forest floors are becoming free of frost and snow, and bright green shoots begin to appear. I hope to exaggerate the brightness and variety of colors in the final painting by using bright complementary colors. Reds and greens (complements) will be used for newly emerging leaves, and yellow and green gold leaves will complement purple-tinged rocks and purplish shadows. Muted grays and browns are planned to contrast with the bright colors.

I hope to make use of differences in color temperature as well. Cooler colors on the distant hill (and minimal detail) should help it recede, increasing depth in the painting. In contrast, warm yellow greens in the foreground field and trees should advance.

Values (lights/darks) in the reference photo seem to be much too similar. By looking at this black and white version of the reference photo you can see there is very little contrast in values. If there are too many areas of equal light intensity (or a lack of shadows) in a painting, the image will tend to look flat, less interesting, or bland. I will need to create more contrast to make the picture work better! Good value contrast (with light values close by and emphasized by darks) can create the illusion of light, depth, and a center of interest.

Black and White Version of Reference Photo.

After experimenting with several small thumbnail sketches to find a better arrangement of strong lights and darks,  I chose this arrangement. 

Final Thumbnail Sketch.

The lightest values in the painting will be the green gold leaves, road, cliff, some saved light birch tree trunks. Mid-values are planned for the middle distance trees on the opposite side of the road. And the darkest values, which will help to highlight the cliff, will be the top of the hill, dark shadows and tree trunks. 

Below is the finished watercolor painting, and its black and white version, which resulted from the improved composition.

Final Watercolor, Joe English Hill.
Black and White Version of Painting.

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Know Your Edges!

Edge quality in a painting is important! Proper use of edges helps to direct the viewer’s eye toward your chosen center of interest. An edge is the border between shapes, the transition from one shape to another, where contrast occurs between shapes. By adjusting the degree of contrast along the edges of shapes in a painting (in addition to the contrasts of value and color), an artist can control eye movement and focus. Edges also suggest the mood or atmosphere of a subject. A hazy, humid picture might have many soft, fuzzy edges, and generate a mellow feel. Or a painting of a cold, crisp winter day might have numerous numerous hard edges.

Soft, Hard, Lost Edges – ‘Flowing Forward’ Watercolor

When we talk about an edge in painting we mean how it appears to the eye. Keep in mind that an edge in a painting may NOT be just an actual physical edge (like the side of a tree trunk, building, or rock). An edge can also be the transition between sunlight and shadow, between wet sand and dry sand, between a ripple and calm water. 

Types Of Edges And How To Paint Them.

There are, in fact, several types of edges. A good artist tries to incorporate, in each painting, as many of the types as possible to create variation and interest. A HARD edge forms a clear, crisp, abrupt transition between shapes. The contrast of a hard edge will attract the viewer’s eye; perfect to use at the focal point or between light and dark areas. Some hard edges are good in a painting, but using only hard edges will result in a flat image without depth (e.g. as in a woodcut). Hard edges are painted on DRY watercolor paper.

Hard, Soft, Lost Edges – ‘Red Bumpers’ Watercolor

In contrast, an infinite variety of SOFT edges exist. Softer, less-defined edges are used to de-emphasize, and are useful in the background or distance, within a shadow, or when you want a shape to recede further toward the background. Soft edges are gentle and a bit blurred; perfect when painting fog, haze, or mist.

The relative wetness of PAPER and brush will determine finished softness of the edge and the extent of the spread of the watercolor pigment. Try to learn to judge the wetness of your paper by observing the amount of sheen. More shine means more wetness, less suggests a damp or drying paper. It is also good to test the result you want to achieve on a test sheet/practice paper (made of the SAME kind of paper you’re actually painting on to approximate similar results). 

Soft and Hard Edges – ‘Swamp View’ Watercolor

Keep in mind that controlling edge quality has as much to do with the dryness of the BRUSH as with how wet the paper is. A brush overloaded with paint will lessen your control and may flood an area in your painting, whereas a brush with too little wetness will not allow the paint to move easily. Further, when the brush becomes wetter than the paper (from added water or wet paint) you will be in danger of creating an uncontrollable ‘cauliflower’, ‘run back’ or ‘blossom’ in your painting.

A LOST AND FOUND edge is a broken or interrupted edge that will tie the shapes to the background or other objects in the painting. It will connect shapes, allowing them to partially flow into one another.

Varied Edges – ‘Barn Interior’ Watercolor

A LOST edge is an edge that has disappeared. One shape has merged into another, as in a dark shadow. When the values of touching shapes are the same, the edge between them tends to vanish, whether soft or hard, even when there is a color change. Lost edges force the viewer to invent any missing information, and can be quite interesting. By creating shapes of equal values, you will be able to merge edges. In other words, nearby shapes of similar value tend to have less obvious edges. But adjacent shapes with more value contrast will have edges that are well defined.

Lost, Hard, Soft Edges – ‘Red Geranium’ Watercolor

When To Use Different Edges.

Sometimes the subject matter of a painting will tell you whether edges should be hard or soft, but no rules apply. Think about placing hard edges at your center of interest, where you want the viewer to look, then de-emphasize other less important areas with softer edges. Soft edges describe a subject in more general terms, while hard edges provide more detailed and specific information. It might be appropriate to paint a soft object, like a teddy bear, with soft edges. A cut glass crystal bowl, however, will have numerous hard edges. Distant objects often are painted with softer edges, while closer components could have harder edges.  Make choices about your desired mood for the painting, deciding what types of edges are appropriate in the same way you choose your values and colors. For instance, an evening painting might be low key, painted with mostly cool colors but some contrasting warm colors, and a lot of soft or lost and found edges along with a few hard edges for emphasis.

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What Does It Mean To Simplify A Painting?

Most artists have heard that they need to ’simplify’ when painting. We’re told that simplifying is  good! But why, what is it, and how do you go about ‘simplification’? A beginning artist, unsure exactly what simplification means, may often just go ahead and struggle to copy what they see, details and all, exactly as it is.

Why simplify?

With more experience, however, we come to understand that it’s possible and sensible to IMPROVE a painting by changing some of the components of an image. We want to share a story in our own way about what we see. Perhaps we want to emphasize parts of our picture and encourage the viewer to understand what is important to us. We don’t want to include confusing or extraneous information in our image. Sometimes a painting becomes more effective and stronger if some parts are left out completely. We want to make less be more! That is why we simplify.

What is Simplification?

The essence of simplifying is making something less complex and complicated. In painting, simplifying can mean making your painting and your message clearer, easier to understand.  Complex forms with lots of detail are REDUCED or EDITED to become fundamental shapes and including only the most important details. Copying is not simplifying, whereas painting an impression or suggestion of a scene is. 

Crocus simplified.

How to simplify? First, Establish Major Shapes.

Begin by thinking about shapes – the MAJOR SHAPES of the scene you hope to paint. (Don’t begin by focusing on details.) Look for the largest shapes, the big overall pattern. Imagine the least number of shapes necessary to make your design. In a landscape painting, the fewest number of shapes could be two – sky and land, or sky and ocean. But your image could have as many as 5-7 large shapes. A row of trees with their shadows (their shapes combined to form one) could be a shape. Or a mountain range can be a major shape. Keep in mind that ‘shapes’ are not necessarily single objects or subjects. A single barn could include several shapes – one side of the barn sunlit, the other shaded (see below).

Some of the major shapes include sunlit front of barn, shaded end of barn.

Only after noting major shapes (which form the backbone of your painting), should you consider smaller shapes, then details.

Second, Reduce The Range of Values.

Shapes in a painting can often be related to VALUE (lights and darks). Strive for simplified value contrasts and limit yourself to light, middle, and dark values as you plan your picture. Rather than trying to capture a lot of little shapes and an infinite range of values, design your painting with strong and simple shapes and a limited range of values. You will avoid confusing clutter that distracts viewers from your intended message.

Third, Use Fewer Colors.

Another way to simplify your image and create a stronger painting is to use a LIMITED PALETTE of colors. Too many colors can complicate a picture, making it appear garish, as well as make mixing of color burdensome. Fewer colors, on the other hand, can increase color harmony and balance.

Limited palette of colors used.

Fourth, Limit details.

Better artists are able to look at the vast amount of information around us and screen out extraneous details. To do that yourself, stop and ask yourself what it is about your subject that you liked. Once you have identified what interests you about the scene, think about what details are important to your message (that you might want to emphasize) and which details do not contribute (which you might be able to make less important or completely filter out of the picture). It’s sometimes a good idea to even crop out/eliminate an area that does not add value. 

You may want more detail around your center of interest to encourage a viewer to focus on this area of your painting. Soften and eliminate some details elsewhere in the picture (perhaps blurring details in the distance and shadows). 

In this barn painting, I cropped away some of the edges, simplified a bit of the fencing and barn board, and got rid of the trough in the foreground completely.

Details limited in painting.

Original Reference Photo.

Thumbnails To Help You Simplify.

Use several THUMBNAIL sketches to structure the best possible composition for a painting. Thumbnails are not finished drawings, but quick, small, simplified sketches, 2X3 inches (or perhaps 4X5 inches) that help you explore where your painting might go.  Try to keep your thumbnail sketch proportions similar to what you plan for the finished work.  Experiment with the arrangement of shapes and values. Your first thumbnail is often not the best arrangement you can come up with, so draw several thumbnails, with pencil, before choosing a final composition.

Fourth and Final Quick Thumbnail for Field Painting.
Watercolor Painting of Field

Sketching out a few thumbnails is like brainstorming, investigating options or variations on possible picture arrangements. It need only take 3 to 5 minutes. By working small, there is no room to fuss with detail. It is one of the best ways to organize and simplify a composition, and to focus on important information, while eliminating the unnecessary.

In Summary.

As an artist, strive to simplify, interpret a scene, and make it your own. Be bold. Simplifying your composition improves its focus, clarity, and power. To simplify may seem difficult at first, but less can really be more!

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I Just Want To Know The Rules… Of Reflections.

I’ve been painting a lot of water and reflections in my watercolor painting this summer. Water is appealing! It can add interest, mood, and depth to a landscape. I love to paint water! However, reflections can cause all kinds of problems, and be quite challenging to paint.

SO MANY VARIATIONS!

Since there are numerous variations in the appearance of water, each painted differently, it makes sense that there are also differences in the way reflections are painted. Your scene could show still water, a slow moving river, a rushing stream with whitewater, a windswept lake, water riffled by a soft breeze, a shallow puddle, rolling ocean swells, or crashing waves. The techniques used to paint reflections are determined by the characteristics of the water itself.

OBSERVE CAREFULLY.

But before painting a water scene, it’s important to understand what causes the changes in water’s appearance. As an artist, you mustn’t merely paint a blue wash with a few straight lines for ‘ripples’ and expect this to look convincing as water. It won’t be convincing at all! Instead, take the time to slow down and to closely OBSERVE and study reflections. You might want to read Painting Begins With Looking And Seeing, 12/18/2018, https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/12/18/painting-begins-with-looking-and-seeing/, to learn more about critical observation skills.

Wachusett Reservoir Sunset.jpg

WHAT COLOR IS THE WATER?

In general, the color of water is determined by the color of the sky. A clear, blue sky does produce a blue sky reflection, whereas an overcast, stormy day could create a gray water surface. A yellow dawn or an orange sunset would similarly affect the color of the water that you see.

When painting water, keep in mind that it would usually look better as a GRADUATED WASH, darker at the front and getting lighter as it recedes into the background. A graduated wash is preferable to a flat wash of a single unchanging value. The water in the foreground tends to be shallower, allowing a viewer to see more of the lake or river bottom. In contrast, when water is seen from a distance, the viewing angle is more acute, meaning that more of the light sky is reflected.

Floating Xmas Tree

Yet, water is not usually a perfect reflecting surface (like a mirror). Water tends to be translucent, like frosted glass, allowing light to pass through it, but diffusing the light at the same time. That is, water is a translucent liquid with a reflective surface. The water, if you eliminate the reflection, has its own ‘local’ color, which will depend on minerals, silt, or microscopic life suspended in the water as well as the depth of the water and whether you can see the bottom. So, while water will reflect sky color, it also has a color of its own.

REFLECTIONS.

Usually there are objects in or surrounding a body of water. These will be reflected on the water’s surface. There may be a shore with trees and other vegetation, or buildings, bridges, boats, rocks, or fences and posts. We might see reflected light on the water’s surface or even another object, for example, the red of a nearby buoy reflected in the water, or the water’s color reflected up onto the hull of a boat.

Stone Bridge Reflections.jpg

Since the surface of the water is seldom perfectly calm, but may be disturbed by a faint breeze or the moving of the water, the reflection almost always is blurred. And when the water surface is disturbed by a stronger wind, lighter rippled areas appear that reflect the sky, not the shoreline objects.

YOUR PAINTING OF WATER NEEDS TO VARY AS THE WATER VARIES.

There seems to be so much diversity! Since different variations of water create so many types of reflections, how do we keep these straight? And, how in the world do we know how to go about painting each?

SOLUTION?

Make your painting plan on a case by case basis. First, CLOSELY OBSERVE your water scene and note important details.

Swamp and Mt.

Second, review Zoltan Szabo’s 10 RULES on the PHYSICAL LAWS of reflection. Understand, then memorize these important rules and you will know exactly how reflections work. There are no shortcuts here if you want your reflections to be convincing!

RULE ONE: Any given point on an object must reflect DIRECTLY BELOW itself. Further, the distance from the bottom of the object to the top of the reflection is exactly equal to the height of the actual object, even if part of the object is not visible in the reflection.

RULE TWO: An object tilting TOWARD you will foreshorten, and its reflection will seem LONGER than the tilted object.

RULE THREE: When an object tilts AWAY from you, its reflection appears SHORTER than the object itself.

RULE FOUR: The reflection of an object appears the way you would see it if your EYES were ON THE SURFACE OF THE WATER, where the reflection is located. Since your vantage point is always higher than the reflection on the water’s surface, you may be able to see inside a boat on the water while the reflection will show only the outside of the boat’s hull.

RULE FIVE: The TONAL VALUE of a reflection is controlled by the DEEPEST VALUE of the water’s own LOCAL COLOR. NO reflection can be darker than the water’s own local color. Therefore, you will have to consider BOTH the sky color AND the water’s local color when painting a reflection. This can be extremely confusing! If, for example, the color of the water’s surface is a combination of shallow bottom (dark local color) and the sky’s reflection, green weeds may be close in value to the water’s surface. If these weeds block the sky reflection, the muddy bottom dominates the color and value of the weed’s reflection – the reflection is similar to the muddy bottom color. What this means is – if the value of the reflecting object is LIGHTER than the deepest value of the water’s own LOCAL color, the reflection will be DARKER than the object.

If an object has the SAME value as the LOCAL color of the water, its reflection will also have the SAME value.

Whereas, if the object is DARKER than the water’s own LOCAL color, it still reflects the LIGHTER local color. A DARK tree’s reflection in a shallow light-colored stream (i.e. the LOCAL color is light) will be LIGHTER than the dark tree itself.

RULE SIX: The color of a reflection is influenced by the LOCAL COLOR of the water. For example, a red boat would reflect the red hull plus the water’s own LOCAL COLOR – if brown, then reflection would appear reddish-brown. Or a reflection of a white boat in blue-gray water would look similar to the LOCAL COLOR – white plus the blue-gray of the water. A blue boat in the same blue-gray water would appear a darker blue – a combination of the blue of the boat with the color of the water (blue-gray).

The Dock.jpg

RULE SEVEN: (Sounds scary, but it isn’t really.) The angle of incidence and the angle of reflection are always the same. That is, on STILL water, when you look at a reflection you’re looking at the ‘point of reflection’. Your line of view creates an angle with the water’s surface, and this is the angle of incidence. A reciprocal angle is formed between the object being reflected and the water’s surface. These two angles are the same size. See below.

Reflect

Chart from  Zoltan Szabo’s 70 Favorite Watercolor Techniques, p.25.

Why does this matter? Because, when there are WAVES, things change – the angle of reflection bounces off a TILTED surface rather than a flat mirror-like surface, AND then the ANGLE OF REFLECTION changes. In simple terms, when there are waves, the eye sees a DIFFERENT IMAGE on each side of the wave. Waves have a near and far side! A wave’s NEAR side often reflects the sky (and also shows some local color) while the wave’s FAR side (which appears narrower because of its tilt!) reflects what is on the other side of the wave (what is behind the wave).

RULE EIGHT: Reflections are not in the water but ON ITS SURFACE. A reflection wiggles following the movement of the water. Also, the reflection of the far object in the nearby waves will start to SKIP just before it stops reflecting on the waves’ NEAR SIDES. Reflections on the FAR SIDE of the waves will reflect a little longer/farther, until the whole wave reflects only the sky.

RULE NINE: If a gentle wind blows from the side making tiny riffled waves, you may see BREEZE PATTERNS interrupting otherwise calm reflections. They are dominated by the color and value of the sky.

RULE TEN: When a very light subject reflects against a very dark background in GENTLY moving water, its reflection may appear much LONGER than the length of the object itself. The more the contrast (between light and dark), the farther the reflection stretches. If the water is NOT MOVING, however, the reflecting bright/light  object will be the SAME size as it appears in reality.

red-bumpers

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