Some students only attend watercolor classes or workshops. They rarely produce artwork at home or in their studio. I am always encouraging my students to try and paint as much as possible at home. In addition to attending my watercolor classes. I did this because I noticed that those that did so progressed much faster than students who just attended classes. Recently I realised the main reason why these students progressed at their faster rate. It has all to do with developing their observation skills versus memory skills. Let’s look briefly at the pros and cons of watercolor classes.
Pros and cons of watercolor classes
If you attend a class or watercolor workshop you will achieve a number of things. Firstly there is the camaraderie of working with other students. Secondly you learn watercolor techniques from your teacher who can also critique your artwork. Thirdly, regular classes keep you moving along with your watercolor painting when you might otherwise be tempted to give up.
However observation skills can suffer when you attend a watercolor class or workshop. This is because students concentrate more on trying to remember everything their teacher is saying, rather than observing what is happening with their own work. Your teacher may show you a step in a watercolor painting which you are expected to follow. When you go back to your easel your first thought is usually to try and remember what you have just been shown. Instead of you thinking through the steps you need to take to complete your watercolor painting you spend your time trying to “remember” what you were told. To progress with your watercolor painting what you need is the ability to think through the steps for yourself. You also need to observe the affects you create with your watercolor paints. Observation is critical to improving your watercolor painting techniques.
Furthermore there can be plenty of distractions in a watercolor class. Other students talking, your tutor or other students looking over your shoulder as you paint. Concerns about what others might think about your painting. Cramped space, poor or different lighting, etc. All of these things can hinder you ability to observe.
When you are painting at home, you are forced to think through your own steps to complete your watercolor artwork. You are also more likely to observe what is happening on your paper than in the classroom. It is much more important for you to observe what is happening on your own watercolor painting than to sit there and just try and remember the steps someone else has given you. Furthermore, when you are working on your watercolor painting at home or in your studio you are not distracted by other people. This makes it much easier for you to concentrate and observe. It is for this reason that I have found that students that do some work at home in addition to their classes always progress the fastest with their watercolor painting skills.
In summary, observation is critical for watercolor painting, probably more so than for any other medium. It is much easier to observe when you are at home in your own studio rather than with all the distractions in a class. Obviously for more experienced artists this is not such a problem, but then again an experienced watercolor artist is less likely to be attending watercolor classes or going to workshops. I hope the above is of some use to you in your watercolor painting journey.
This watercolor painting of a shed with strong morning shadows was a painting I had my students do recently. The reason I selected this for the class painting was because it gave my students a chance to practice how to capture the early morning light and the shadows that result from it. It was based on a photo I took of a friend’s old shearing shed. I had previously painted this exact scene in Pen and Ink and Brush and thought it would also work well with watercolor. I think watercolor is a wonderful medium for capturing light.
Reference photo for this watercolor painting
The basic steps for this watercolor painting are as follows: 1. Find a suitable subject that captures your interest. 2. Decide what you want your message to be. In my case it was the beautiful shadows falling on the foreground. 3. Make any needed design decisions. As I wanted my watercolor painting to focus on the shadows I increased the foreground area. I also decided to add some sheep as it is a painting of a shearing shed. 4. Paint the sky and ground under painting in one go. It is important to get the tones right with the lightest in the sky and those in the ground getting stronger towards the foreground. It is very important to let this stage of your watercolor painting fully dry before you continue.
5. Next comes the distant hills. Remember to keep them light to add depth to your painting. While these were a little wet I painted the distant foliage in the far right hand trees. I finished this foliage after the hill had dried so I could create some hard edges. 6. Next comes the main trees on the right hand side. If you are interested you can find out how to paint gum trees by reading another article on this website here: How to paint Australian eucalyptus trees. 7. When the trees are completed I then painted the sheds with a mixture of Cobalt Blue and Burnt Sienna watercolors. I used a thicker mix of French Ultramarine and Burnt Sienna for the dark areas of the main building e.g. under the roof, under the large awning on the right had side of the building, above and below the door, etc. Some dropped in Burnt Sienna gave the shed walls a look of some rust. 8. The watercolor painting is nearly finished at this stage. However before the shadows are put in I painted the rocks, sheep, and fence on the left. 9. The shadows finished the watercolor painting. For shadows I used a mix of French Ultramarine and Alizarin Crimson – this mix should lean towards the blue not the red. I also make sure I have more than enough paint to finish all the shadow areas without having to mix more. The shadow watercolor mix was applied to the building and the ground in one go. 10. The shadows are laid down very quickly and while they are wet I drop in some various dark greens. 11. Once the shadows are dry I finish my watercolor painting with the addition of some grass to help lead the eye into the painting. The above is a very brief and not complete breakdown of the steps taken for this watercolor painting. Hopefully it will be of use to my students as a review. I will try to produce a full step by step demonstration painting of it sometime.
A question I often get asked by new watercolor artists who are struggling with their watercolor painting techniques is, “How wet should their watercolor paint mixture be?” Another is, “How wet should their watercolor paper be?” Paint wetness seems a simple enough topic but it can give newcomers to this art a lot of grief.
These are very simple questions and should definitely be asked by every watercolor artist. The challenge, however, is how to answer them! I am going to have a go at coming up with a way of looking at this which is both simple to understand and easy to apply. Experienced watercolor artists have solved this issue, usually with lots of practice, but paint wetness can be quite difficult for new artists to understand.
Why is this question so important to answer and understand for watercolor artists?
Well, the consistency of your watercolor paint, and the wetness of your watercolor paper, combined with your brush handling, and an awareness of how fast everything is drying, will determine just what type of edges you will create when painting. All effects from very soft wet on wet to hard edged wet on dry and all the variations in between depend on this. Even dry brush strokes are influenced by the consistency of your watercolor paint and the wetness of your paper. It is at the core of most watercolor painting techniques.
Why is Paint Wetness hard to define?
Firstly, most books and articles on watercolor painting will use words like “create a weak mix” or “mix a strong mix” when referring to a particular mixture of watercolor paint that will be used for part of your painting. The problem here is, “Just what is a weak mix or a strong mix?” For a beginner artist or even for quite experienced ones this does not really tell you very much as a weak mix for one may be considered a strong mix for another. Combine this with how wet your watercolor paper is and the whole topic become more difficult. The problem breaks down into two sections: the first is definitions of terms and the other is the complexity of what is happening on your paper.
Some books, like an excellent one on watercolor painting techniques written by Australian watercolor artist Joseph Zbukvic, have tried to use terms like coffee strength and tea strength mixes to help define a particular consistency. I found this quite helpful but it still creates some confusion for some students. It all comes back to degrees. Just how strong is coffee strength or tea strength watercolor mixtures. Some people take their coffee with lots of water (weak) and others with less (strong). Not everyone drinks tea and again its strength can vary. So obviously, while this is a useful scale, it can still cause confusion in a beginner watercolor artist. This confusion is further compounded because a particular mixture strength will react quite differently on your watercolor paper depending on its wetness.
OK, so how to try and tackle this problem. Well firstly, what we can say for a fact is that just plain water can be considered your weakest mix and paint directly from the tube with no water on your brush or paper is your strongest mix. So obviously if you are someone that finds it difficult to mix a dark color then in some way you must be adding more water to your mixture than you need to. This water can come from various sources. Most often it comes straight from your water container into the mixture on your pallet and all you need to do is use less water. Sometimes however it occurs through the bad habit of cleaning your brush each time you want to pick up more fresh paint. This is rarely required but if you do need to clean your brush, because you need to pick up some really clean color, then make sure you dry it on a cloth after cleaning and before you go into the new paint. It is also possible that you are picking up wet paint from the bottom of your paint well where water may have already accumulated. Finally you may be painting onto paper that is too wet – though this is not so common.
I suppose one could try to define the consistency of watercolor paint scientifically such as “this much volume of paint for this much volume of water” but really when you take the wetness of your paper into account this system would not be any more useful that by referring to mixtures as being similar to cream strength or milk strength etc. Overall these systems for describing how wet your watercolor mix should be are at best a guide and I don’t think one can be more accurate than that. So where does this leave the budding watercolor artist already struggling with a whole collection of art terms and techniques? My students still need some guide!
Watercolor painting techniques: How a watercolor landscape painting is constructed
In a landscape watercolor painting you start with the big shapes and then progress to smaller ones. Your first watercolor wash is usually the sky which in most cases is the lightest part of your painting (apart from highlights or objects actually painted white). Notice how I use words like “usually”, remember there are no absolutes in this world of watercolor painting, or in life for that matter. All these “rules” are just guides as one can “usually” find an exception to all “watercolor rules.” Don’t be afraid to experiment when it comes to watercolor painting techniques. Just because something can or can’t be done one way doesn’t mean it can’t be achieved in another. For years I never used a fan brush with my watercolor painting as it was rarely mentioned in watercolor books but now it has become a critical part of my watercolor equipment.
Now after the sky you would continue your watercolor wash down to the distant ground and on to the foreground. The distant ground will have more pigment than the sky above and the foreground would have more pigment in your watercolor mixture than the distant ground.
So you can see that by thinking this way you don’t have to compare your mixes with anything other than how strong a mix you used for your sky and other parts of the painting you do after that! In a way everything flows from this first step.
Now once your sky and ground are totally dry you will see that you already have a watercolor landscape painting before you. If it doesn’t look right at this stage the rest of your watercolor painting won’t work! Think of it as laying the ground of your landscape painting upon which you will paint hills and trees and animals.
The next step is to paint the distant hills. So what consistency paint do you need for this? Well vertical shapes are usually stronger in tone (more watercolor paint to water ratio) than the horizontal objects near them in their space. For example a tree is usually stronger in tone than the ground it is on!
For this reason when I start a painting I generally mix more paint than I need for my initial wash. In this way after I lay down my under painting I have plenty of paint to use as the basis of the following watercolor washes.
So for the distant hills I would add more paint to my sky mixture in my palette and I use this for the hills. Now obviously I would use additional colors but more importantly in adding these colors I am increasing the strength and hence the tone of my mixture. This will ensure that my hills sit in their correct position in the picture plane.
The same process would generally be used when painting the distant trees and foreground objects such as bigger trees, grasses and shrubs.
So an important watercolor painting technique is to compare the consistency (strength) your watercolor paint mixtures with the mixtures you have already used in your PALETTE.
Depending on how light you start with your sky will determine how strong you need to go with the rest of your watercolor mixes to achieve a watercolor painting with a feeling of space with all objects in their right place in the picture plane. By playing around with your sky mixture you can influence the range of tones within your watercolor painting. There is no right or wrong, it is more a matter of personal taste. However, if you feel your mixtures are too light, for the effect you are trying to achieve, just add more pigment. If they are too strong add more water. If after adding more pigment the mixture does not get stronger then you are adding more water to the mixture somehow.
By the way, don’t forget to test your mixtures on a scrap piece of watercolor paper as it is very difficult to judge paint consistency just by looking at the mix in your palette.
Now there will obviously be some exceptions to this, and I know that the explanation is not as simple as I would like to have made it, but hopefully you will find the above concept is a useful guide when looking at your own watercolor painting techniques. Have fun and please let me know if you have any questions.
Now the sand is done we will now look at painting the sea.
Using the same mix of watercolor paints but make sure the consistency is stronger than that used for the sky; we use a dry brush technique to paint the water.
I use the point of my brush to establish the horizon line and then use the side of the brush with quick horizontal dry brush strokes to create the sea and waves.
I add a little clean water to the mix in my brush for the foreground water and waves.
The trick is to leave just enough untouched white patches in the sea area that they look like the white of waves. If you have too many, the sea looks very choppy, not enough white and it looks too calm or maybe like a lake.
This watercolor painting is nearly finished now, once we paint the figures.
Painting small figures
To paint these people, figure 9, start by using an almost buttery mixture of French Ultramarine and Burnt Sienna (learning towards the brown) to paint the head, arms, and legs. Notice the legs are drawn with dry brush strokes that are of different lengths, this is done to give them the feeling of motion.
If both legs are touching the sand with sharp edges, the figures will look stationary.
Then use the same mixture with some more blue added for the shorts.
For their shirts I use a weak tea strength mixture of these two colors and shade in the sides of their clothing away from the sun, some parts of the shirt are left untouched. Notice that the shadows on the shirt are irregular to give the feeling of motion and surface variety.
By using a quick semi dry brush stroke we can give the impression of sea weed on the sand. By giving it a bit of a curve we can more gracefully lead the eye into our painting, it also adds more interest to the sand.
The foreground rocks are painted with almost pure paint with just enough water for it to flow off the brush. Again remember to leave highlights. Also make sure the rocks vary in size or they will look unnatural and boring.
Before the rocks dry, get a damp brush and soften their edges here and there at their bases. This will help anchor them to the sand and not make them look like they were stuck on as an afterthought.
Now put in the birds in the sky. The key to this is to use birds as a device to direct the eye of the viewer where you would like it to go. Don’t just put them any old where. Also vary the space between the birds, their size and the angle of their wings.
Birds in the sky can also be used to add interest if the sky is looking a bit too plain and open.
The birds on the wet sand are painted by first putting a little flick of paint to represent a bird. Then under each bird, leave a little gap (for their legs which are too thin to show) and then place a little dab of the same colored paint underneath. You then get your finger and touch this dab and drag in down the page to create a little dry brush (with your finger) stroke under each bird – this should read like the birds reflection.
If you put these birds on the part of your painting which is supposed to be dry sand then they will not have a reflection, but will instead have a shadow that is away from the light source (usually the sun). Remember when painting reflections and shadows – reflections are towards the viewer or the bottom of the painting while shadows are away for the source of light in your landscape (usually the sun).
The shadow for the two figures is the last step in this painting, though it could have been done any time after the figures were painted in. A couple of quick irregular brush strokes starting from the figures legs and away from the direction of the sun with give their shadow and the painting is done!
As you can see, even with a relatively simple two color painting as this there are many steps to consider with a watercolor painting. By thinking through any of your paintings in this way, and deciding when to let various sections dry, what painting consistencies to use and what type of edge (wet on wet, dry brush, wet on dry, etc) to use where, you can tackle any watercolor painting with increased confidence.