“All knowledge essential to the painting of a fine watercolor can be obtained from books, many book; teachers; and the subscription to the truth of the pragmatic theory that doing is part of the knowing.” … Edgar A. Whitney
The beautiful qualities of wetness, gradations and colors precipitating together on that wonderful white paper are responsible for reeling many of us in to the medium of watercolor. For me, it has been a lasting fascination for over thirty years. When I first tried my hand however, I quickly realized I had much to learn about how water and pigment work together on this surface to create something that I would be pleased with. Getting results that remotely resembled what I was hoping for seemed elusive. After quite a few years, I began to understand it much more as a balancing act than a conquest; the art of giving deference to the medium, interjecting action when required, and most importantly, carefully observing my successes and mistakes along the way. While this may sound tedious and less than encouraging to a watercolor newcomer, I like to instill the belief that while there is no by-pass, there are quite a few teachable and demonstrable concepts that can lessen the levels of frustration early in the game.
Wet-into-Wet, why bother? We know there are many approaches to watercolor that don’t require us working on squirrely wet paper. Beautiful paintings abound in books, magazines and juried exhibitions resulting from glazing on dry paper, or mingling with watercolor in a preplanned or “wet as you go” fashion. The wet-into-wet thing is personal, and simply a choice. As an east coast painter enamored with Appalachian mountain landscapes, I find that it enables me to translate the atmospheric (and often very humid) mood and feeling of a temperate rain forest better than any other method. Many who sign up for my workshops express a similar desire to learn this technique for these reasons. I have felt obliged to come up with a better way teach it other than that of trial and error, “hang in there, eventually, you will get it!”. Having taught Learning Skills and Strategies coursework to college students for many years, I relied on what seemed to help them synthesize complex or nuanced concepts into useful and retainable information; real learning, so to speak. Relatable visual models and analogies seemed to be a key component, and these could often be personalized for even stronger recall.
Provided below is an overview of key concepts that I focus on early in my “Bold and Controlled” workshop. In addition to demonstrating and discussing processes, I facilitate a guided experiential exercise on the first day. I have found that when participants actually feel and experience some of the conditions I’m describing, it carries them toward understanding some important water/pigment dynamics that are occurring. In addition, they often see how they are unknowingly and repeatedly impairing their efforts.
For many years I structured my watercolor workshops in a rather traditional way that went something like this: 1) Intro, materials and palette set-up discussion, 2) Planning and surface preparation 3) A painting demonstration with discussion of how and why I am doing certain things along the route, 4) participant painting time with round-robin instruction. Each day of course, we address a new important concept; value, color harmony options, and maybe unique approaches or ideas for subject development.
While there was nothing overtly wrong with this approach, too many students left at the end of the week still frustrated with the wet-into-wet approach; excited about certain aspects of the week but still a bit defeated in practice. They were not coming close to the results they had hoped to achieve. Thus, I found it necessary to revamp my approach and find out how to better convey to them what they were missing. After a number of attempts, they were still washing away their shapes, muddying their color, and mixing weak pigment pools on the palette; in short feeling neither bold, nor controlled!
I decided that a new “day one” would dawn. My students would no longer create a rice paddy on their paper that floated away all their shapes. They would pick up rich moist pigment on their brushes (no more hardened tiny balls of paint in their palettes regardless of their stinginess). And, I was going to give them a visual model of how to understand and control the water/pigment dynamics from the start. This would relate to their palette color mixtures, the loading of the brush, and the wetness of paper surface. We would spend day one getting this down before moving on to all of the other complexities and topics involved in making great art. This was no small order. Read on and follow me through three of the key concepts of the new “day one”.
- Proper Surface Preparation (AKA: the phrase “Wet-Into-Wet” is a Myth). Consistently setting up the ground and getting the paper to the proper level of dampness before painting is a big factor in success. Cotton Rag paper takes time to fully saturate. My rule of thumb is 15-20 minutes of heavily brushing or sponging water on BOTH sides of the paper while it rests on slanted Gatorboard (around a 15-20degree angle). This will usually get you to the fully saturated place you need to be. I find that most still want to rush the process, as we are always anxious to begin. This a good place to introduce the more meditative mindset that watercolor seems to require of painters. Relax and consciously slowdown in this phase that you want to speed through! Once fully saturated the paper has no bubbles, quickly flops back to the Gatorboard when lifted, and is ready for phase two.
Here is where we dispel the myth. I always try and achieve a consistent dampness, not wetness with the paper prior to painting. Surface water can be lifted off lightly with a paper towel, or with a clean lint-free rolled terry towel. Do not apply much pressure to the surface in this process, as you don’t want to remove moisture within the body of the paper, only the surface glisten. When touching the paper with the back of your fingers the surface should feel damp. At this point, I suggest stapling the paper about ¼” from the edge of the Gatorboard with staples placed 1.5-2” apart all around the paper’s edge. If you follow this rather tedious prep description, you are ready to move forward with no backwards glances and can focus on the fun painting to come. The phrase Wet-into-Wet in my view, is often responsible for conditioning painters to begin on a surface that is far too wet. Let’s substitute the phrase Damp-into-Damp, for that is far more often the condition that will give us success. Keep in mind, this very quality of dampness is what creates the beautiful blends and gradations as we apply watercolor to the surface in a controlled manner.
2) Achieving a pigment/water mix of the correct concentration to achieve our desired effect. This refers to what mixture(s) we prepare on our palette and also what we pick up with our brush prior to moving to the paper surface. On this topic, I find too many painters err in the following ways: dried out pigments; mixing too small a working puddle of color for the area(s) they hope to cover; diluting palette pigment with too much water; and finally, loading far too much water versus pigment in the fibers of their brush. Stroke after stroke, they slowly and methodically flood their surface without awareness.
3) Learning to observe and control the water content of the loaded brush, and the saturation level of the paper as we place our mixtures on the surface.
Just as Goldilocks discovered, there is a porridge for every intended purpose that is “just right”. I help students experience this in a hands on manner with an exercise called “True North” (described in the Wetness Compass model below). It is important to see, feel and apply a correct mixture of proper pigment concentration on our perfect damp paper described above in order to understand the possibilities that await you. I prepare a large dense pool of a single pigment that has a wide value range, capable of going from very light to quite dark in value. Ultramarine or Prussian blue are examples of such. I also take great care to demonstrate how to load the brush, pull off excess water at the base of the fibers, and transfer this rich color to the paper with one long, slow, smooth stroke. Everyone in my class, one by one, comes up and paints a “True North” power stroke with my guidance using a very nice 1” sable flat brush that I provide. This provides what I call a touchstone experience: they have just established a bold middle value shape that stays put on damp paper. If water was properly controlled in the brush, the edges of the stroke are slightly soft, but do not bleed or dissipate. For whatever reasons, I find this single experience often redefines their perspective on what painting with watercolor should feel like. Honestly, watching participant reactions during this exercise is one of my favorite moments of teaching.
A few of you reading this may be moving to the “Yes, …but.” side of the fence? A painting is complex! We use many differing pigment and water concentrations to achieve a variety of shapes and effects, and to achieve value and color goals that we have planned for. This is true. Now we move on to a model that will enable them to reproduce or alter this single experience in a variety of ways. Over time, this results in the ability to approach a landscape, abstraction, or any subject for that matter, in a confident and successful manner.
With the True North stroke above, we have discovered how to achieve a beautiful and bold middle value shape by creating a certain set of conditions. But, we need the capability to shift gears or deviate from our touchstone in order to build a complete painting. Unless of course, we want a painting of all strong middle value and white paper. My final goal on day one is to give students a tool that will enable them to visualize how to move forward through a painting using what they just experienced as the frame of reference.
I outline four basic actions available to them that are described via a model I refer to as the Wet Zone Compass. In relation to wetness and pigment concentration, I would utilize each of these modes at some point in the painting of a typical landscape. We already have experienced the first of these compass points, we know what it feels like, and how to set up the conditions to create it. Our afternoon painting lab on day one focuses on a simple abstraction developed by using each of these modes.
- True North – A Strong Mix of Pigment and limited water will give us our middle-value shapes. I point out that while there is often a “value” parallel in relation to this wetness model, this depends upon the inherent value range of the pigment chosen
- East – Wetter Stroke with Less Pigment – A sky or a foreground with strong light hitting the surface might be good examples of “going east”. My analogy and reminder of this option is that our East coast is often much more humid, a wetter environment, than out West. East conditions often occur early in the painting process, as the sun rises here first! An example I demonstrate of moving East is a relatively wet, atmospheric sky using a warm underpainting with just enough pigment to tone the surface, then followed by a slightly stronger blue overtop of similar wetness.
- West – As we move to our West option, we think in terms of strengthening the pigment in the mix significantly, and reducing the water. To generalize, this action is usually reserved for the mid-point of a painting at the earliest, and typically comes more in to play in the later or finishing stages as we choose to intensify color or deepen value in certain areas. An example I use in demonstration of moving West would be in achieving a deep value blue-green band of Ponderosa pines flanking a Montana hillside. So, stronger pigment, less water in the mix, and often by point in the painting process where West mode is called for, we have a less damp, maybe even dry surface. I am able to produce the necessary contrasts and hard-edge shapes as needed, by going West.
- South – Ah, the mysterious South. What could “going South” possibly involve? Generally speaking, when we refer to a painting going South we are likely not too happy about what is going on. I use this directional reference to remind painters that we can not only create shape and color, we can remove and alter it during or after the process. For whatever reasons, I see this as an underutilized option, or in this model, Compass direction. If we have mistakenly moved too far East, we can remove wetness with a damp brush and careful “lifting out”. We can create directional movement and contrast in a “too uniform” sky or foreground via the same process. Too often, we only think of lifting out color or wetness as a repair tool for an area that has been overworked, or when we have reached a certain level of dissatisfaction. I try and demonstrate that the South options, can serve as creative tools in the same vein as placing color with a brush.
The above process and model as described may sound a bit complex and challenging to envision and implement. I debated if isolating this aspect of the watercolor learning curve was warranted, or if it fell into the category of overthinking; too cerebral of an undertaking. But, I took the risk because I felt too much frustration from my participants who were investing in my workshop. Fast forward past five years of trial, error and revisions on my part from inception: feedback tells me that it is quite helpful for most, and sometimes very enlightening for a few. They certainly aren’t transformed overnight into water control artists, but there are often a number of a-ha experiences much earlier in the week. If nothing else as we move into the concepts of value, shapes and color harmony as the week progresses, they at least know why their efforts are not coming to fruition. This alone imparts a bit more confidence and a willingness to continue. I enjoy overhearing conversations during our painting labs in vein of, “I went too far East in my mixture and my mountain washed away”.
So, think about getting out your compass and set your bearings on True North! The best learning models are personalized. Mine grew out of an affection for the outdoors bordering on obsession, thus the compass was meaningful and easily remembered. When struggling with nuanced processes, one of the best things we can do is to provide ourselves with a simplified frame of reference, an underlying bone structure in a sense. This enables us to slowly layer on more complexity as we get more comfortable with process. Test my model or better yet, create one of your own!
“Everything depends on the lenses through which we view the world. By putting on new lenses, we can see things that would otherwise remain invisible.”
― Parker J. Palmer