This morning I was working on a lesson plan for my next Sketchbook Adventure Club class this Saturday (theme for the day will be ‘Watercolor 101’), and honestly, I was struggling. I had way too much to say, insights into the ins and outs and predictable pitfalls of this magical medium, and was at risk of losing everyone in an avalanche of detail. Then I suddenly asked myself:
“Why does watercolor have the reputation of being so difficult?”
It is for one reason and one reason alone. It’s not the paint, the paper, or even the brushes. The challenge every single time is the dang water. Yup, that’s the big secret, it’s the water. The part that is absolutely free. In watercolor, evaporation is your best friend and your arch-enemy.
Watercolor is often a race against the clock.
Dry art media (like pencil, pen, markers, pastel) afford you the time to draw a little, then look, and ponder, and go out for coffee, and return and carry on. Wet media (like acrylic and oil) have their own drying tempos, but they are each a stroll in the park compared to the stop-and-go sprints of watercolor.
Some experts say there are four stages of evaporation in watercolor, and about a gazillion things you can do to cooperate with or sabotage these inevitable phases. The stages are wet, moist, damp, and dry. Think of a paper towel, not really mysterious right? But what you can successfully accomplish during each of these stages, now that is where the real art of watercolor comes in.
Beginners are taught about the materials, but are never taught about the dance.
The dance of multi-layered drying times. Watercolor has a starting gun at the beginning of every brush stroke, as the evaporation process begins over and over again. The good news is you can get to know this obstacle course so well that the starting gun will no longer startle you.
Here are some things I have learned: I work mostly from observation rather than from my imagination, so I do a lot of ‘mental painting’ before the first wet brush stroke hits the paper. By simply staring, observing, and selecting my focal point first, I make a lot of decisions in advance, deciding what areas I want juicy and soft, and what areas will need crisp edges. Then I create a light pencil sketch of the most important areas in order to confirm my design. By the time I pull out my brush and palette, I have done a lot of the work (which is actually play of course). Then the only challenge left is to practice, practice, practice in order to become skilled at understanding the wetness of the paper, and of the brush, and how much wind there is. A metaphor sometimes helps…
A human bird call
Have you ever been walking in the woods, heard a bird singing, and tried to call back with your own rendition of their language? However feeble your attempt, sometimes it gets the bird’s attention. It continues to sing, and you continue to try to improve your own whistle.
This is exactly what painting is for me. I see an image before me, a landscape, a still life, a shadow across a pile of bricks and rubble, and I am drawn to call back, however feeble my attempt. Sometimes my ‘whistle’ is pretty good. Sometimes it’s like I have been eating crackers. No matter, I still whistle.
So my watercolor lesson is, “Don’t worry if occasionally you have a mouth full of Saltines. Some days, for no reason at all, you will confuse the robin by being right on pitch yourself, and downright lyrical. You and the bird will be amazed. It is worth every failed attempt for those silent inner happy-dances of, “Yes! This time I got it!”
Evaporation Happens. Sally forth, brush in hand, whistling all the way.