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Am I a Candidate for Painting Watercolors?
So many students over the years have asked me what they should start their art experience out in, when they are ready to invest time and money in learning a new craft. Should they pick acrylic, oil, colored pencil, pencil drawing, or some other exotic type of painting?
In this article, I will try to address this question. I’ve addressed myths surrounding watercolor, how it is different from other types of painting, but now I’d like to consider the emotional response of a viewer to watercolor, and the emotional input of the artist. Is there a type of person who would prefer watercolors, and just who might that be and why will busy me in the next little bit.
Personally, I loved the J.M.W. Turner movie, Mr. Turner. It seemed to be set in an Old Masters’ kind of time frame, the very days dark and the colors drenched with shadow. The man himself was a tad nasty, but still, I felt it was authentic, and the famed watercolorist certainly had a soul for beauty, as well as strategy. He experimented to the nth degree, stretching the medium. I’ve often referred to his strapping himself to the prow of his boat to study the effects on the water of a storm at sea. Very eccentric and costly; I think his health went after that experimental venture.
Although offered megabucks at one point for his whole collection of paintings, Turner held out to turn them over to a museum according to the movie, a strategy at which he succeeded–doubly good, in that not only do museums care for and restore their paintings from time to time, but they would also be less likely to store them in their basement or attic equivalent if they formed a whole dramatic collection. Thus, his heritage wouldn’t fall victim to the museum’s hiding away, either. So, what does this have to do with who likes them?
As with anything new or resurging, watercolors had a time ‘coming off’ with the public, but maybe less with public opinion than the art club he showed with. So you could say his admirers were the great unwashed, people, just like you and me. Queen Victoria hated him and was overheard to say about one of his works in an exhibit, “This one is vile!” She also passed him over for knighthood. He exhibited for the last time in 1850, produced thousands of pieces over the course of his career. Some 2,000 paintings were sold to private collectors. One source says 19,000 drawings and sketches plus nearly 300 finished and unfinished oil paintings were left behind at two studios.
So perhaps the Queen and highbrow artists did not like watercolor in Turner’s day, at the very least, Turner’s watercolors, which dispersed and broke up light. However today, the Prince dabbles rather competently in watercolors. So the look of a watercolor might vary with the fashion of the time, the nobility of the time, the prevailing ‘state’ or ‘town’ opinion.
Watercolor is best known for its spontaneity, its sprightliness, its unexpected nature, so you can probably venture a guess that the most pronounced personalities will probably swarm over it, while the more conservative or classical might prefer the stately oil or acrylic. These are over-generalizations, I am sure, and invite the exceptions to the rule to stand up and speak out. If you look at Turner’s watercolors, many have the same depth and deep coloring of the oils one expects to see of the masters.
Now to the would-be watercolorist him or herself. Is there a type of person who prefers watercolor? Or a type who eschews watercolor?
From my experience, indeed, there are types who strongly prefer one or the other.
For the main part, those people who are primarily cut and dried, who consider themselves plain-spoken, straightforward, and don’t like to be surprised will opt out of watercolor, even though watercolor can be ideal for getting what you want eventually.
“I want what I paint to look exactly like what I see,” is the viewpoint of those people, and so I steer them to acrylic, oil, or even gouache, the watercolor that uses white that many extremely detailed painters in naturalist areas love.
Those who like a pronounced atmospheric, different textural effects, surprise colors and spreads, should definitely try out watercolor and as playfully as possible. It becomes a system of push and pull, play and concentration, loose and tight, sketchy and studied, not only in the piece of work itself, but also in the seasons of learning the craft. When one starts getting too tight, dry, stingy, and cramped, one needs to enter a season of loosening up. When the washes fly all over the place and don’t look like anything at all, maybe it’s time to pull in and push color with more specific goals in mind.
I can’t think of a medium better suited to à la prima or au plein air (please, folks, learn some French from whence these terms come, and don’t butcher the French language and turn these words into hideous amalgams like alla prima and plain air; it makes one sound hilarious and uneducated). See, you get more training than you opted in for. Plus, you may buy a beret and sound French when you talk about art.
Color mixing is quite fun in watercolor, as well. For me, it seems easier to experiment with mixes, and the conclusions you get in watercolor hold for the other media, as well. Check out the palette in my eBook, Watercolor Painting Techniques Easy(ier).
One category of people who would opt for watercolors would be nursing mothers and mothers of young children, since the issues of solvents and mediums is so great. My aunt thought pregnancy would prevent my advance in art, but I picked watercolor, since I could do it fast in a small space, and the smell and toxins of mineral spirits used with oils would not endanger my family and little ones. So then would a newly married couple be able to paint in a small house. Whether he or she, the use of watercolors adapts itself to small spaces nicely. It is compact, easy to fold up and easy to put back out to use, pour used water down the sink. It is also the medium of choice for someone prone to have a sudden moment of ‘I want to paint, now’!
Watercolors beg for show and tell time. They are good across generations and skill levels, so that moms can do them with their children, beginners and experts alike. With a medium so quick and vibrant, creativity does not have to be strapped down and made to wait, and freedom has an open road. If you try it, you might discover that some of the surprises are quite happy ones and maybe you would prefer the possibility of an overwhelming ‘wow’ to a ‘yes, that’s all right.’ So come on over to my studio where we will allow our mood to be pumped by the plump brushes, the water, the vibrant colors, and bits of different sizes of nice, heavy paper. Oh, there’s a piece with some light lavender washes already on it! I think I’ll paint some red across it, maybe a little neon green. Who knows what it might become? I don’t think it really matters, as long as we are having fun along the way to producing something beautiful. Do you?
Tomorrow we will do it in steps of one, two, three.