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Personality and Nature
Knowing the nature of watercolor ahead of time would help the would-be painter in his quest. When you are starting out, you really would profit from overview about the nature of the watercolor beast. First of all, watercolor has been around since the cave men, in ancient Chinese dynasties where artisans painted on silk. It is not a new phenomena or a craft craze, but a time honored type of fine art, like oils.
Watercolor has fallen in and out of favor, however, and its current renewal has found some resist and kickback from the establishment. In this regard, it is relevant to know that watercolors painted on archival (acid-free) paper with light-fast watercolor paints is one of the hardiest of the visual arts media. It has known its number of top-notch, museum quality artists over the years, one being J.M. W. Turner, the famous English watercolorist who strapped himself to the prow of a ship during a storm to render the effects afterwards in paint.
Painting watercolors is fun and productive, and easy to begin if you have an overview that includes the following seven peculiarities of it, or said, another way, if you know seven ways it is different from the other media.
The Seven Differences of Watercolor
1. Wet. All paint is wet, but in this medium, you supply the water, its carrier, whether you add it to dry or semi-moist cakes of color, or to wet paints from tubes. Watercolor tubes are smaller due to the high tinting strength of the pigment in the tube. You need to add water to the paint to give it its luster, its glow, to awaken its transparency. Watercolor paint plus water is called a wash, and washes can vary from 1 % pigment all the way up to 100 %. This is more than just a technical fact, it is what gives the medium life. You could say watercolor is born once the paint hits water. Water is the vehicle without which you can do very little. In spite of this, every year I encounter students who try to add water stingily, by the drop. Fear of lack of control puts a stranglehold on watercolor painting. In fact, you could say the only bad watercolor is a dry-looking one (but there’s probably one more). That’s what my Polish instructor, Leon Jonczyk, from Munich, Germany taught about watercolor.
Another implication of the wetness of watercolor as a separate medium is that water is probably more responsible for carrying your paint than even your brush is. You can’t say that about the paint in any other medium. More watercolors are ruined by over-stroking the paper with the brush, than by doing nothing once wet paint is applied. Back and forth fidgeting will even scrape holes in the paper.
Most of the names of the strokes include the word wet. ‘Wet-next-to-wet,’ ‘wet-next-to-dry,’ ‘wet-into-wet,’ ‘splatter,’ ‘backwash,’ and its opposite, dry-brush.
2. Losing Control. I don’t think any other painting medium addresses the matter of control in the same way as watercolors. Rarely does a skill require ‘losing’ control. However, this one does. The best analogy would be riding a runaway horse–you have to let the horse start to run away from you, before you can learn what to do with him at each phase along the way. Fortunately in watercolor, although you might lose a sheet or two of paper, you’re not going to get hurt, learning.
Oh, but how new students act as though it will. The overview to this is that you must learn what to do as the watercolor dries. There are appropriate things to do all along the way. This is not a science, so you must learn it intuitively. One good example is that if the watercolor passage on the paper is almost dry but still moist, you can’t put a loaded brush next to it, or into it. It will explode and ruin the nice set to the color laid down.
However, again, ‘ruin’ in watercolor is really temporary. The ruin of one moment is the success of the next, another outworking of less control.
Now it’s time to tell you the other type of ‘bad’ watercolor–that’s the one that is too dry. That means you’ve been working your little bit of water to death and worn out the paper and the color. Overworked watercolor crystals stop sparkling.
The type of control one needs in this medium is analogous to the reins on a horse, knowing when to pull him in, turn him left, right, when to talk to him, when to be quiet. This is why sketches, fun, and a sense of play are truly helpful with watercolors.
3.Non-dimensional. Watercolor paint used in the traditional way is non-dimensional; it won’t stand up on the paper or any surface. No bumps, no bulges, no texture per se. It is a thin, surface medium, and that is not a detraction. It works best that way. You can paint the effect of texture with stippling, dry-brush, and other things, but it is trompe l’oeuil, or fool the eye. Really, if you clump watercolor paint onto your paper, the end result will be a deadening of the color.
This is because the system is designed to allow for the white of the paper to show through. The light reverberates through the applied color and gives a jeweled effect. It is as though light were turned on from behind.
This explains why you should gently caress the paper with your paint infusions and not solely rely on the tip of the brush, but on its side to deliver paint to the painting. This explains why classical watercolor as was taught me in Europe requires that you use only round-ferrule brushes. These brushes hold a lot of water but gently sweep over paper’s surface with its teardrop shape loaded with wash, the tip used primarily to get close to a line, not to make one.
4.Movable Medium. Again, the image of horseback riding applies. As the weight of the different colors varies, so does the movement of the color you have laid down. It means you can add other colors while it is running (wet). You can infuse small or large amounts at the edge or in the middle. You can develop a whole style based on using water aggressively to move paint, as in Charles Reid ‘s drip paintings. An internationally acclaimed watercolorist, he has successfully rendered flowers, interiors, and portraits with his aggressive runs, splats, and drips. I was lucky enough to have hims select one of my watercolor paintings for a Watercolor Society of North Carolina annual exhibit. He works with a huge, round brush and a bucket of water, H2O flying everywhere.
That is why some paint on an easel, instead of flat, to allow the drips to move downward.
5. Transparent paint. Transparent watercolor painting is one type of painting which has no need of white or black paint. Now this is so interesting, because supply houses do dearly love to play to ignorance by offering a Chinese white to watercolor kits. This color does not work the same way acrylic does, or oil. The only way to get a beautiful white in watercolor is to leave the white of the paper showing, as mentioned in another section. All the whites do not need to be solid, they can be intermittent, or soft, light colors. Add more water to your wash, and you come closer to white. If you try to buck the system and add white, three things might happen. You weaken the strength of the pigment. You alter the color that you are using. You turn the white into a blue cast white, because anything lighter painted over something darker is blued.
The transparent versions of these colors are so much more beautiful than the opaque version. Watercolors should sparkle and shine. If you do a full-fledged, multi-layered finished watercolor, you must leave some layers that go all the way to the paper, some with only a wash, some two, and on, to maintain the painting’s luminosity and sense of transparency.
6. Not wysiwyg. All of the other media are more or less additive, and so, they are wysiwyg, or, what you see is what you get. Not watercolor. It changes minutely, hourly. You will never get what you think in your mind’s eye, or if you do, you will have over-controlled your paint. Over-controlled watercolors are just like that type of children–joyless, rigid, not spontaneous, murky, sullen.
7. Moody. All six of the foregoing lead to the last conclusion about the idiosyncrasies of transparent watercolor. Watercolor is like a mood ring that changes colors with you and your mood. If you are feeling frisky, you probably will have a good product that day. If you are anxious, insecure, leave it alone and come back. You will notice the mood by reading the watercolor. Three quarters of the painting might work and that last fourth? It runs counter to all of the rest. You will have already read my eBook, Watercolor Painting Techniques Easy(ier). If not, make sure you do, it is free to download.
This will hopefully provide a base for you as you delve into painting successful watercolors.