As September comes to close, so does my last 6 months in watercolor painting. October will be the beginning for my next 6 months. Who knows what wonders it will bring? It will certainly be exciting.
I thought I would take a break from painting tonight and reflect on my first 6 months as a watercolorist. As you all know, I painted my first watercolor in April. My portrait of a lonely, green apple was something to behold.
I didn’t know a lot about the medium, but just loved how it looked. I loved the richness of watercolor and how it flowed on the paper. It’s something unique to the medium. .
I remember appreciating the watercolor works of Gunnar Trygmo and his beautiful water birds.
This is one of the first works that inspired me to paint, and my first waterbird scene entitled “Sandpipers”. I learned so much in that first month, working on sketching and exploring the medium. It was painful too. I hadn’t drawn anything since high school. I began to realize the importance of drawing as the backbone to a good painting. Then, as I began to paint, my drawings seemed to be the best part of it. I began to ruin many good drawings in those first attempts with muddy watercolors. Even in my first attempt with my Sandpiper piece, I got so frustrated, I sprayed the whole thing down with water just to see some of the colors run. It actually made it look better.
Then something strange began to happen. As my painting improved, drawing took on a different role. The drawings needed to be good, but the painting began to improve over my drawing skill. Now, drawing is taking on a more important role as I’m beginning to get more confident with my painting.
In the first month of painting, I created a few nice works, but I was frustrated with the medium. I wasn’t really able to understand the medium and how it could ‘paint itself’. I forced it. I didn’t understand how painting watercolor differed from other mediums. Some of my paintings appeared heavy, like oils. I could see the look of watercolor and what I wanted, but didn’t know how to achieve it. I didn’t understand tonality and sunlight. I didn’t understand composition and what makes a painting. Below, are a few examples of that first month of painting. It’s not my best efforts, but I kept them to always look back at my beginnings. Some people would have trashed them immediately and not share them, but I have no problem with sharing my work and being my harshest critic. I don’t think you can improve unless you start somewhere and really get critical with your own work.
Throughout May I struggled, but I continued to paint. As May turned to June, I began to paint more and more. I made a few small breakthroughs with my series of 3 ships. These were my best efforts in June, but my paintings were still hit and miss. I would easily draw and start one painting, only to stop half way and tear it up. I began to loose faith and confidence as easily as day turned to night. It was fleeting.
At the end of my second month, I felt a little lost. I began to view videos and began to read. And I began to read a lot! Probably the number one thing that help me most, was taking a lesson with Daniel Marshall, who gave me a simple foundation on how to get started. I learned a lot that weekend in Colorado at the end of June 2017. I began to think more like a painter. I realized how important drawing had to be as a foundation to good painting. I learned some simple techniques on watercolor, tones and washes. It was exactly what I had been reading and learning, but it was good to hammer it home with some real life examples. The hardest thing that weekend was painting outside and painting landscapes. It forced you to think in tones and more about composition. I had my work cut out for me when I got home.
In July, I began to make a few breakthroughs. I forced myself to paint outside and continue to paint, even though some of my paintings were still lacking in form. People began to see my work on social media which was a great inspiration to continue to paint. Even Herman Pekel liked one of my paintings! Looking back, my paintings were still lacking some artistry, but I was on my way. I began to get a lot of compliments on my work, even though I thought it was still lacking a lot of skill. I joked often with my family and friends that my paintings looked like a third grader did them. But what I lacked in skill and technique at that point, I made up in confidence. I persevered.
In August I began to paint more boats and more outside. More plein air paintings on Sunday mornings. I made a pact with myself to go outside and paint every Sunday. Sometimes, I would even get out on an afternoon. Many times, I would get out and only be able to paint 50% of the work. The heat was not conducive to painting watercolor outside. But, the experience was worth every minute of it. I started getting good at painting boats on the bayfront and I think this experienced helped me a lot in working on water and tones. I even painted a train at a grain elevator and learned something new!
As I began to paint more, something funny happened. I had a breakthrough moment in August. One of my first paintings was “Marina” and “Marina Del Sol”. I only partly completed these works outside because of the heat and I was so disappointed with them, that I almost tore them up. Fortunately, I put them down, took a break and revisited them a few days later. I completed them and a funny thing happened. The “Marina” happened to be one of my best works to date. So I realized that no matter how much I don’t like the work or think it’s going to be a bomb, you must persevere and finish it. Magical things can happen in a painting, and sometimes it’s not until the very end that it happens!
What I lacked in skill and technique at that point, I made up in confidence. I persevered.
In September, one of my best experiences in painting was attending my first class workshop with Frank Eber. I learned so much on washes and learned that it’s OK to glaze over works. I began to realize how important the drawing and the first wash was in laying down the foundation of a nice work.
Since my workshop, my paintings have progressed to works that look more like watercolor. They are certainly my best to date. I learned a valuable lesson in these works. I had faith and continued to paint even when I had some doubt in the outcome. It’s a valuable lesson. Doubt may creep in, but you can overcome it by staying true to your work. I’m sure that even the Master’s doubt the outcome of their work. It’s part of being an artist and as soon as you come to grips with that, you can move on to better work. You can then gain the confidence and realize that what your have learned so far in experience and knowledge, that you simply cannot fail. Yes, your painting could fail, but look at that as a learning experience as you strive closer to that next masterpiece. As a painter gaining experience however, you cannot fail and you will continue to improve. Even the masters continue to improve, it’s an ongoing process.
I took this knowledge and have been steadily improving on my work and getting happier with the results. I’ve learned some valuable lessons in these 6 short months and I’m going to mention a few of the important things that I’ve learned as a new watercolorist:
Practice drawing/painting and get advice from the Master’s in our field by example
There is nothing wrong with trying to emulate what the master’s in our medium have already accomplished. Some may try to copy the master’s and as tempting as that is, every artist must find their own true voice. With that said, there is nothing wrong with learning the techniques and ‘tricks’ of the trade. It is the foundation of watercolor to learn simple techniques in washing, mixing colors, etc. So, in order to understand the basics, you must read and practice. Then read and practice some more. I now have a mini book and DVD library of various masters in watercolor that include Herman Pekel, Michael Reardon, Charles Evans, Terry Harrison, Jean Haines, Joe Cartwright, Edgar Whitney, Ray Hendershot, Joseph Zbukvic and Robert Wade.
One of the most enjoyable books that is like a workbook is William Newton’s book entitled Learn to Paint in Watercolour Step by Step. This book had a step by step approach to some basic watercolor techniques and mixing colours such as green and using earth tones. He also describes the benefits of mixing colors on the palette and on paper. He describes and illustrates tone and distance, shadows and glazing, composition, sketching techniques and then puts them all together in step by step exercises.
The best advice come from the master’s who have already taken this journey. However, we must travel it too with their guidance. Practice will improve both your drawing and painting skills. You must practice both on a daily basis.
Have Faith and Confidence in your work
As I’ve practiced, I’ve gotten comfortable with washes. I’m not at all afraid of them. At first, like anything new, I had doubts and notions on how the pigments should flow down the paper. If it didn’t flow or mixed correctly , I was petrified that my painting was ruined. However, as I began to paint more and more and realized the true beauty of watercolor, the beauty was in how watercolor flowed by itself. How it would “paint itself”. Frank Eber said, ““To paint a watercolor or painting, you must mix the correct color with the correct amount of value and put it in the correct place with the proper brush”. So it’s rather simple really. You only need to apply the proper values and consistency of pigment in the correct amount, at the right time with the proper brush and brush strokes! But until you practice it in real time, you will never know. Of course, painting is an expression of your own vision, what you enjoy and want to relate to others. It’s more than just paint on paper.
One of Robert Wade’s famous quotes goes like this:
Seeing with your brain-
Feeling with your eyes-
Interpreting with your heart. – Robert Wade
When it comes to technique however, the most important thing in painting is to have confidence that the painting will work and to not force what watercolor will do on it’s own. Make simple brushstrokes. Confident, single strokes whenever you can. There is something pure about a single stroke that is bold and confident and it shows in your painting. Less is actually more in painting watercolor. And, If you are lucky, you will have small accidents, highlights or whatever and you can turn these little gifts into magic on paper. It’s really how you interpret the painting as the watercolor happens.
Think of a painting as a composition that includes shape and order in value, color , shapes and direction
I have always been somewhat of a neat freak. Chaos is not something I enjoy or embrace. I rather enjoy a nice view, an early morning sunrise and I appreciate the harmony and order we see in nature. Painting, for me, should be the same. Many of the masters have talked about interpreting a scene, any scene, into its most simple form. Squint to see just the shapes and tone. Watercolor, by its very nature, is somewhat atmospheric and abstract. Just look at Ed Whitney’s paintings. In the most simplest of terms, the eye must first find the focal point and lead you into a painting, whether it’s the focal point leading you in or something else leading you to the focal point. Some artists are gifted to just compose a picture because it looks nice. But behind the scene is usually that simple order. Painting is simply a visual language and must not be over-emphasized or it looses it’s meaning entirely. One of Ed Whitney’s famous lines is “I don’t want it true-instead, I want a beautiful lie!”.
Tone and value cannot be overemphasized in watercolor or any painting. Ed Whitney, Vladislav Yeliseyev, Robert Wade and many others stress the use of a sketch and describing the tonal values before painting. It’s how you also paint light. Jean Haines, in her book Colour & Light in Watercolour, says, “The ability to see light and capture it creates magic that takes the boring and ordinary into the realms of incredible and extraordinary”.
In these first few months, I’ve also begun to appreciate how light and tones can be painted in watercolor. As I see it, there are probably multiple ways to achieve tones, but two techniques stand out. One is by adding tone in the first wash and a sort of tonal sketch, using various colors to achieve lighter and darker tonal values . Tones can either be ‘cool’ or ‘warm’ with warm tones usually taking a more forward roll in the painting and cooler colors taking and more distant role. The other is by starting light in tone and then layering the work by using glazes. What’s really important is being able to match and adjust these values to give life to the work.
I don’t know what it is, but when I paint now, I fuss with tones and continue to work with them until my painting ‘comes to life’. It’s something that I immediately recognize, I can’t really explain that. It’s either a color or tone that can suddenly awaken the painting. In most instances, until I start placing my darks, it’s only then that it begins to make any sense to me.
Frank Eber touched on this in his workshop too. He said that 95% of the time, if something is just not right or doesn’t feel correct in your painting, it is likely a failure of tonal values.
The great watercolorist Robert Wade point’s out in his book, Robert Wade’s Watercolor Workshop Handbook:
“Consider this: there are no outlines in Nature. We are able to see things (Shapes) because of the surrounding contrasts, and the contrasts are stronger or weaker depending on the quality of light present at the time.”
Another thing that I am getting better with is matching colors with what I see. By improving mixing of colors and practicing color swatches (which I have done with some of my favorite colors), it gets you closer to what you actually see. In actuality, a good painting only requires a few colors. Robert Wade also stresses that a limited palette produces a cleaner result. Frank Eber also stressed in his workshop that the only real colors in painting are the 3 primaries; Red, yellow and blue. Many paintings have what Joseph Zbukvic terms “Mother color”. This is also a good way to decide which colors interest you and set the mood of your painting.
Many of the master watercolorists stress squinting and observing only shape and tone to eliminate details. In fact, when I start a painting such as a landscape or even boats and buildings, I try to outline the shapes very simply and get a feeling for the relationship and proportions.
Directional lines are also very important and help to draw the eye around a painting. It’s also a part of the overall composition of a work.
We can all over analyze a painting. My goal in the next 6 months is to continue to explore the medium of watercolor and exploit it’s natural properties. Watercolor has some unique properties in the way it washes on the paper and has a magical quality to it. Talent is a bonus when painting, but there is no substitute for practice. I believe that the most talented painters see the beauty and emotion of a work, but there is no simple road to a masterpiece. It takes hours and years of observation and practice.
For the first 6 months, I’m pleased with my progress.
I’m looking forward to a few more workshops and anxious to see what the next 6 months will bring. I’m all in on this ride and journey. The medium is humbling. I don’t think watercolor is a medium you can truly master. However, with the more painting that I do, the luckier I hope to get and somehow, someway, a masterpiece is born.