Learning to Paint Watercolor

Unfortunately, the idea of painting in watercolor is not a particularly cool one. It has no cachet, no All-Star Wrestling appeal. Watercolor is associated with little old ladies, sketches by artists before doing the real painting, and Prince Charles.

But there I was in my late forties, suddenly spending a lot of time in bookstores, avidly reading all the watercolor books I could find.

I drew, with a modicum of talent, and no more, as a kid. During a time in the Eighties when I was out of work and at loose ends, I would wander the Sea Wall and Stanley Park in Vancouver, sketching this and that. That pursuit dwindled and ended for no apparent reason.

But there I stood in bookstores, pouring over recommended paints and brushes and papers. Finally I bought a book, Watercolour Fast & Loose by Ron Ranson, an English painter. A hardback book. I never buy hardback books. I was attracted by his informal loose approach based on three brushes: a two-inch Japanese hake brush, a one-inch standard flat brush, and a rigger, a long, flexible brush for line work.

Another appeal was that Ranson only began to paint in his fifties after losing his job as a ‘publicity manager.’ Despite that late start, the dashing impressionistic style he developed made me want to try my own hand.

Now, several years later, I can say that I might be getting to the point where I can really try what Ranson recommends: the big brush approach.

The beginning watercolorist is almost always beset by detail, which is accentuated by working from photographs. This habit to tune in to detail and not take in the bigger picture is probably the single biggest fault of amateur watercolorists. I have been no different, although I have made progress. I feel I am almost ready for Ron’s book.

Watercolor is a funny medium… it rewards ambiguity and inexactitude, artfully done. Of course, there are photorealists and other painters who do make a virtue of detail and precision. But it’s that skillful ambiguity that deeply appeals to me.

Recently I’ve learned from observation three big things about painting. (They’re big for me, self-taught and not benefitting from any art school education.)

1. Shapes… eventually it gets hammered into your head, after innumerable fussy and overworked paintings: get some interesting shapes in there, and just hint at detail.

2. Color and values: how do real artists get all those colors in the painting: the green shade in the face, the purple trees, the gold and scarlet hills… It really struck me looking at a European artist’s otherwise rather stock oils in a kiosk in the local mall: put in whatever colors you want as long as the tone is accurate. As long as you get the darks and lights and middle values spot on, you’re free. Free, I say!  Well, you should try for a little color harmony, but that’s it.

3. Line. This is a little tough to get across, but good lines in a painting separate it from the mediocre. They got to be tasteful, for lack of a better word. Good lines in watercolor especially keeps the composition from becoming an amorphous mess.

Two additional books I can recommend tonight (I have become an aficionado of watercolor instruction books):

1. Watercolor: You Can Do It! by Tony Couch. A more methodically instructional book than Ron Ranson’s, it is good on design and composition. (http://www.tonycouch.com/)

2. Painting with Your Artist’s Brain (I love these titles) by Carl Purcell. (http://www.carlpurcell.com/index2.html).  Although it sounds like a general book about creativity and painting, actually it demonstrates a solid method on how to create a good watercolor work.

Explore posts in the same categories: Art

4 Comments on “Learning to Paint Watercolor”

  1. shantimarie Says:

    Sounds great, you seem to be on the right track… I have many books and the ones you like are all very good resource books. Keep reading and drawing.
    Check out my blog I just started it…

  2. fencer Says:

    Hi shantimarie,

    Thanks for stopping by… and for your encouragement. I will take a look at your site.



    An interesting read.
    “It rewards ambiguity and inexactitude, artfully done.” – nice comment.
    I note that you say watercolour is associated with little old ladies…. and then the three reference books you recommend are all by men!
    I say, just keep painting. It’s such a joy. Every time I tackle something with some modicum of realism or representationalism, I find I learn to see the world I live in with better appreciation. It’s this seeking and seeing that keeps me coming back to painting. There’s a Zen feeling about it that is quite satisfying.

  4. fencer Says:

    Hi Artiseternal,

    Thanks for your comments…

    My first reaction is to come up with watercolour books written by (little old?) women of which there are many fine ones, but I should admit your point instead. I hadn’t noticed that but true about the titles I exampled…

    I do need to paint more and talk about it less!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: