Watercolor classes versus painting at home

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.

One of the paintings I have my students produce in my watercolor classes by watercolour painting Joe Cartwright
One of the paintings I have my students produce in my watercolor classes.

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.

Wet weather street painting

Here is the wet weather street painting I did with my students last week. Actually the painting was completed over three classes. Here are the three main stages:

Drawing a street scene

The first week we covered how to draw a street scene. The key point is to start with eye level (horizon) and then draw your objects relative to that. What do I mean by this? Well, when drawing with proper perspective, objects above eye level will appear to move down to it the further away they are. While objects below eye level will appear to come up to it as they move away. Another point about eye level which is important is that it basically tells you how tall people are – hence eye level. You can then make all your other objects, cars, awnings, posts, fences, etc. , relative to that height.

Here is my reference photo for this watercolor painting. I took the photo a few years ago as I was leaving Bathurst after having completed a workshop at the Mitchell School of Arts. I have obviously made changes to aid my composition. The Church on the right is St Stephens Church.

Bathurst after the rain reference photo for watercolor painting
Bathurst after the rain reference photo for watercolor painting

Watercolor under painting and buildings

In the second class we did the watercolor under wash for this wet weather street painting. Other than the muted colors there was nothing to say it was a wet weather scene. The important part of this stage was to get our areal perspective right. Here are the key points:

  • Objects in the distance are lighter in tone. Because of the effects of the atmosphere things in the distance will look lighter than those which are closer to the viewer. You can observe this easily by going outside and looking at a distant object like a hill or mountain.
  • They are bluer and duller in color. Again the atmosphere causes colors to look duller the further away they are from you. They also move a little towards blue hence making them look cooler.
  • They are soft edged with less detail. When you look at a hill covered in trees, from a distance you see very little detail. The edges separating the different shapes tend to merge into fewer and fewer shapes.
  • The strongest tones will be in the foreground. In this wet weather street painting the trees on the left hand side are the strongest tones.

Finished wet weather street painting

The painting was finished in the third class with the details and reflections. The cars, poles, and people were painted. They had to be painted first as it was their reflections that would add the wet character to our wet weather street painting.

To paint the reflections I wet parts of the street area and then dropped the color of the reflections into the wet. If you don’t want such soft edges in the reflections you just need to leave parts of the street dry. I will be doing this painting as a full demonstration and will post a link to it here when it is completed.

Bathurst in the rain wet weather street painting by Joe Cartwright
“Bathurst in the rain” wet weather street painting by Joe Cartwright

Watercolor painting of sheep on Australian farm

This watercolor painting of sheep was completed recently by my class. The week before I had conducted a workshop in the country and brought back some good reference photos. I was staying on a farm with loads of excellent painting subjects.

As we hadn’t painted sheep before I thought this would be a good topic for a class watercolor painting.

Often we take photos which appear to be uninteresting or have just too much information to be inspiring. This was certainly a problem I used to have when I first starting watercolor painting. Now days I see paintings in almost every scene. In part this is because I have no concerns with editing a photo or scene by moving things around or adjusting the time of the day or other light conditions. One of my regular quotes is “Never let reality get in the way of a good painting!” I have also found that if you take a large image and crop it smaller you can often find a number of interesting paintings within the original.

Cropping your photos for watercolor painting

Below is the original reference photo I took.

Sheep on Australian farm reference photo for watercolor painting
Sheep on Australian farm reference photo

While not a bad photo there is a lot of information in it which could cause some difficulty for a beginner artist. I usually simplify this type of scene by asking myself just what message do I want to get across in my watercolor painting.

As I wanted to cover how to draw and paint sheep this was easy. I still however wanted to keep the feel of being on a farm as part of my painting.

The next photo is my cropped version which needed very little adjustment prior to painting.

Sheep detail 2 cropped from original photo for watercolor painting
Sheep detail 2 cropped from original photo

I could now focus on the sheep and I have given the scene better balance. Other than moving the tree a little to the right the painting can proceed pretty much as you see it in the photo.

The finished painting can be seen below. I am currently producing a proper step by step demonstration article on this which will be posted in a little while. Once completed I will come back and edit this post to direct you to the demonstration watercolor painting.

Completed painting of sheep

Watercolor painting of sheep grazing
Watercolor painting of sheep grazing


Watercolor painting demo of warm red sky and reflections

I have just finished posting my latest watercolor painting demonstration. This one is of Lake Bonney in South Australia. You can view the complete demo at this link: Lake Bonney watecolor painting demonstration.

You can see the finished watercolor painting below.

Lake Bonney sunset completed watercolor painting demonstration by Joe Cartwright
Lake Bonney sunset watercolor painting by Joe Cartwright


Tea Gardens sunrise watercolor painting

This is a class demonstration watercolor painting titled “Tea Gardens Sunrise over the Myall river, New South Wales”.

I was attracted to this scene by the light reflected on the water of the Myall River at Tea Gardens in New South Wales. Watercolor is a great medium for capturing light so decided to do this as a class painting. I simplified and made other adjustments to the photograph below to improve its composition and also to make it work better as a watercolor lesson.

My key focus was to teach my students how to create a feeling of space and how to capture the early morning light reflecting off the water surface.

Sunrise over Myall River at Tea Gardens reference for watercolor painting
Figure 1: Light reflections on Myall river, Tea Gardens

The main adjustments I made were:

  • Raised the horizon to focus on the light sparkle on the water
  • Lighten the sky
  • Remove all boats except the one little house boat
  • Remove foreground grass and car

The next step, after making my design decisions, was to do a very simple drawing of the scene on my cold press watercolor paper.

Pencil drawing Tea Gardens Sunrise for watercolor painting
Figure 2: Drawing prior to watercolor painting.

My next step was to paint the sky with my watercolor paints and while this was wet to paint the distant hills. I worked with progressively stronger tones (more pigment, less water) as I moved closer to the foreground.

The land closest to the viewer was completed after the sky area had dried so I could produce hard edged shapes against the sky.

Notice how the land jutting into the river is basically  horizontal where it connects with the river. This stops the river area from looking like it is flowing up hill.

I let this dry completely.

Watercolor painting of distant land on Myall River watercolor painting
Figure 3: Painting sky and distant river sides with watercolor

The water in this scene is painted with the side of my round watercolor brush. I used quick movements to create a dry brush stroke which gives the impression of light on the water.

The distant water is lighter (thinner mix) and bluer than the foreground which is stronger in tone (more paint) and slightly warmer – there is a little Burnt Sienna in the mixture.

The sparkle on the water is just left white paper.

After the water area is fully dry I painted the house boat and then its reflection. As the boat is very light colored the reflection has to be a little darker.

This watercolor painting was finished with the addition of various bollards and poles in the water and a few strategically placed birds in the sky and over the river.

Completed watercolor painting “Tea Gardens Sunrise”

Watercolor Paintng Tea Gardens sunrise with house boat on Myall River
Figure 4: Watercolor painting of house boat on water with sunlit reflections “Tea Gardens Sunrise by Joe Cartwright”

This article is not meant to be a full demonstration but more a reference for my students to use. You should be able to understand some of my watercolor painting technique for this type of scene however. I do have a similar and more detailed demonstration here: simple watercolor painting demonstration of boats and water.