Watercolor and the Art of Life

People think watercolor is difficult.

“You can’t control it,” they say.

And, “It’s so unforgiving!”

“You just need to learn its secrets,” I tell them. “When you do, your watercolors will take wing all on their own.”

Goshawk watercolor painting
“Goshawk in flight,” watercolor sketch 11″x 11″. Click on the bird to read about its symbolic meaning!

Here are the secrets of watercolor:

1. You don’t paint with watercolor. You set it up for success. You create the framework. Then, all you have to do is encourage the water to follow the framework. The water does the painting for you.

2. Watercolor isn’t unforgiving. You can lift it, scrub it, paint over it. Or just turn over a new leaf of paper and start over. The only thing that’s not forgiving is our rigid vision of perfection.

Doesn’t it sound a lot like life?

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Trying out that Fredrix watercolor canvas

There was this square Frederix watercolor canvas kicking around the studio and thought I’d finally give the thing a try.

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Clara & Pavlov portrait in progress
Clara & Pavlov portrait in progress

Just started this double portrait of my daughter Clara and one of our dogs, Pavlov.   ( I always seem to start stuff in batches.  Maybe because it’s easier than finishing!)

There was this square Frederix watercolor canvas kicking around the studio and thought I’d finally give the thing a try.

The stuff doesn’t absorb like watercolor paper, and it’s hard to get   a decent depth of value.  You have to paint in lots of layers.  I’m finding it to be a little frustrating, since I’ve been shifting lately from a many-layers approach to a much more direct technique which seems to give me fresher, better results.

So we’ll see how it turns out.  I may have to break down and finish in acrylic or oil!

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How to Fix Mistakes in Watercolor

My mom mentioned she’d been sketching but felt intimidated by watercolor because “if you make a mistake you can’t correct it.”

“You know, ” I said, “watercolor’s a lot more forgiving than people give it credit for. “

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Knowing your paints can really help when you make mistakes in watercolor!
Knowing your paints can really help when you make mistakes in watercolor!

I spent last week up in Michigan’s U.P. at a family reunion.  My mom (a true artist on the piano) happened to mention that she’d been sketching but felt intimidated by watercolor because “if you make a mistake you can’t correct it.”

“You know, ” I said, “watercolor’s a lot more forgiving than people give it credit for. “

And it’s true.

There are a couple things you need to know about correcting mistakes in watercolor.

One is to move quickly.  If you wipe it up right away with a clean wet brush or damp paper towel, you can usually get even the most staining colors to lift quite a lot.

The other is to know your pigments.  Some hues in watercolor are a lot more forgiving than others.  They’re known as “non-staining” colors, and they’re easy to remove from the paper with your damp brush or towel even after they’ve dried.

Other hues stain like crazy so you’d better move like lightning to get up as much as you can if they land somewhere unwelcome!

Non-staining colors generally have larger pigment particles which are less likely to adhere to the paper.  Most of the earth tones are non- or low-staining colors.  Some examples are yellow ochre, burnt sienna and cerulean blue.

Examples of staining pigments are pthalo blue (VERY staining!) and alizarin crimson.

Daniel Smith has a great line of watercolors.  One of the things I really like about shopping for them is that they tell you all the characteristics of each hue right on the page.  It really helps when you’re choosing paints you’ve never tried before!

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