I love watercolour and if you are reading this, you probably do, too. Its unpredictability makes it exciting, but it is not for the faint hearted. Just when you think that you have finally made headway, it likes to push back at you. However if you are willing to put a bit of thought in, plan a little, be willing to go with the flow and persevere, watercolour is wonderful.
There is no right or wrong way of working with watercolour. I become a little cross when people say that painting loosely is best. Think of the wonderful botanical art or consider the people who build up images with 20 layers of transparent wash and still retain great luminosity; I take my hat off to them. However, my preference is for painting loosely and directly, but don’t think for a minute it is the only way.
Painting loose is fresh, simple and confident. However, a spontaneous-looking painting that captures the subject’s essence needs great observation and deliberate painting – with a sprinkling of luck and the ability to make the most of happy accidents.
To achieve that fresh look you need to analyse your subject, simplifying it to shapes of tone, colour and line. Less is most definitely more when it comes to watercolour.
The main thing is to enjoy it. Learning comes from experiments and playing so love painting for painting’s sake. If you make a big mistake, turn the paper over – it is only paper.
My passion is painting animals and flora, but the same philosophy and approach applies to any subject you want to capture in an expressive and exciting way.
Let’s look at the materials that will give you the best chance of success. I think that the less worried you are the better you will paint. If you have a plentiful supply of paper and paint you will not feel anxious about running out or messing up. Not only will you enjoy the process more, you will be bolder and more experimental.
On a Mission, watercolour on Bockingford 200lb NOT watercolour paper, (32x42cm).
What you leave out is more important than what you include.
The support is far more important in watercolour than any other medium. Traditionally we paint watercolour on white paper, but JMW Turner painted on tinted papers and he knew a thing or two!
Now new preparations are available so you can use canvas, but as a starting point look for a good-quality, consistent paper. The fibres in cheap watercolour paper fluff up, leading to the colours becoming dull and boring.
Bockingford is a great all-rounder of a paper. It is consistent, yet economical enough that you needn’t be worried about mucking things up. For this reason I prefer to use loose sheets of paper, rather than blocks.
I like a NOT or Rough surface – the texture adds another dimension. If you feel you are in a rut, try a new surface or brand of paper. You may be delighted with the results! Generally I would recommend painting on the largest piece of paper you can. The size will give you the space to breathe and move, and you can crop it at the end. While we are talking about paper, I very much believe life is too short for stretching. If you use at least 140lb paper it should not cockle.
1. Small pieces of paper, with small brushes and tiny dabs of paint will never encourage expression.
2. If your painting cockles, once it is totally dry, spray the back with clean water and weigh it down under books overnight. Alternatively iron the reverse – but don’t use steam!
3. Handle your paper with care. Your fingers are oily and you will leave fingerprints. If you are buying loose paper in a shop don’t buy the top one, as people will have been feeling it.
Because patience isn’t my strong suit, I like to use tube colours. It is easier to be generous and to mix up rich creamy washes. I would always encourage you to use the best quality you can afford. Artists’ quality paints rather than Student quality will reward you in the long run. Student quality is cheaper because some of the good stuff has been left out and you will find that Artists’ pigments have more life and respond as they move around on the paper.
I am not brand loyal and usually look for good value in my paints. But beware; different brands of the same named colour can be totally different. Try to buy big tubes; it is hard to be free with colour if you only have 5ml of it! If you are going to use Student paints then Cotman from Winsor & Newton is good and very economic.
A great starter palette is a warm and a cool primary, a couple of earth colours and perhaps a ‘treat’ colour. This should see you through just about any subject:
- Cadmium yellow/gamboge/quinacridone gold/Indian yellow
- Lemon yellow
- Cadmium red
- Alizarin/quinacridone rose/carmine
- French ultramarine/indanthrone blue l Cerulean/Prussian blue/phthalo blue
- Burnt sienna
- Raw sienna
- Raw umber
- Dioxazine purple
- Viridian/phthalo green
- Sap green
- A small pot of white gouache (opaque watercolour) is useful for missing highlights.
Colour is a joy, but don’t try to use too many colours in one painting. A limited palette will be more harmonious. As you gain experience really get to know your pigments. Are they transparent? Do they stain? Do they granulate? Are they a single pigment or a mix? Such knowledge will make you a better painter.
Ready Steady Go, watercolour on Bockingford 200lb NOT watercolour paper, (35x40cm).
Good quality materials you can rely on along with plentiful supplies lets you enjoy painting for painting’s sake.
1. Watercolour is transparent. This sounds obvious, but you can paint dark colours over light and they will mix on the paper, but you can’t do it the other way.
2. Watercolour dries about 30 per cent lighter than when it is wet. So paint darker than you intend if you don’t want it to be wishy-washy.
Water is your friend and brings the pigment to life. Two large pots of water are essential – one to wash your brush and one to mix up clean colours. Change them often and be disciplined about it. Muddy water will contaminate everything. A small water spray bottle is incredibly useful too. I mix my colours to a full fat milk consistency before I start painting.
Good watercolour brushes can be expensive so what do you really need? I reckon three or four basic brushes should see you through most subjects: a large Round No. 16, a small Round (No. 8) and a Rigger (No. 2). A flat brush is a good add on and you may find you want to work with one all the time as you develop a personal style. The Jackson’s Studio range is good.
Your Rounds should have a good point. To check, wet it thoroughly, tap it on the side of the pot and if it comes to a point it’s a good one. Although sable would be lovely, synthetics have come on in leaps and bounds. Look after them and they should last for ages. And please don’t leave them in your water pot – it is the quickest way of ruining the point.
The way you hold your brush can make a radical difference. Try to hold it lightly at the end.
Palette I like a daisywheel ceramic palette for the simple reason that it forces you to choose and limit your colours. The danger of using a box with 24 pans is that you don’t think about your colours ahead of time. Six or seven colours per painting are more than enough.
Painting board You will need a board to support your work. I tend to work at a ten-degree angle so I prop my board on something like a roll of masking tape. If you like a clean edge to your painting, tape it down all round. A hairdryer can help and paper towels to blot your brush or lift pigment are very handy.
Tips for loosening up
1. Stand up to paint if you are able. This helps you to move your arm and shoulder, which encourages loosening up.
2. Try to paint with large brushes on big pieces of paper to help you focus on painting large shapes; this also discourages you from painting details.
3. Your first mark is often the best so try to touch the paper only once with your brush.
4. Don’t dab. Use your large brush until the painting is nearly complete then move to a smaller round or a rigger for smaller shapes and lines.
5. Painting requires thought and skill to make something special. Given that it is much easier to add to watercolour than to subtract, take time to consider what to leave out. Having decided how to simplify, be definite in your actions and always remember what attracted you in the first place.
The Cow with the Zebra Ear, watercolour on Bockingford 200lb NOT watercolour paper, (35x35cm).
Loose paintings require thought and planning – loose is not sloppy.
Where to begin
Here’s a summary of all the best advice I’ve been given over the years:
- Paint something simple and well, rather than complicated and fail.
- What attracted you in the first place? Make this your focus.
- Look for the main tones. The greatest contrast will draw your eye so put it at your focus.
- Paint shapes and patterns, not objects.
- Simplify. You are trying to capture the soul of the subject not the detail.
- Make room for imagination; you don’t need to resolve everything.
- Do you need a background? If yes, plan it from the start.
- Plan for and use as few colours as possible – six or seven maximum.
- Keep your water clean!
- Mix darks from opposites that you have used elsewhere in your painting.
- Don’t use a colour in only one place.
- Make a variety of hard and soft edges; they create interest and movement.
- Don’t fiddle.
- Know when to stop and what to leave out.
- Stand back from your work to have a proper view. If you are close and the board is virtually flat, it will be distorted. You will only see what your brain thinks is there, not what is really on the paper.
- Sometimes watercolour has a mind of its own. These happy accidents can bring a painting to life. Perfection can look boring and smug, whereas a few mistakes appear honest and spontaneous. So when something goes wrong, accept it. Trying to correct it rarely improves things.
- Loose paintings generally omit detail and go straight to the heart of things. Luckily the human eye and imagination likes to extrapolate and fill in the blanks. For this reason I like to get 90 per cent through my painting before taking a break and considering which details will help and which ones won’t.
- Finally, a wise person said that you have to be willing to make a lot of bad paintings before you start doing good paintings.
Liz at Green Park Painting Club (Photographer: Stewart Turkington)
Liz is a professional artist based in Berkshire. She runs classes and workshops, and exhibits across the country.
This article is taken from the August 2017 issue of Leisure Painter