Watercolor Painting Inspiration

I still struggle with watercolour painting. I chronicled some of my efforts in earlier posts: a painting about Haida Gwaii that many versions later I have still to get close to what I want; and thoughts about starting with the medium and a little of what I have learned about it.

I broke off my umpteenth attempt at that Haida Gwaii landscape with a small watercolour portrait that turned out surprisingly successful. That momentary relief from the larger frustration let me realize I have to be gentler and more subtle with my approach to the landscape painting. At my stage with watercolours, I have to be rough-hewn, yet delicate. And that’s not an easy thing, and may not be very pretty… sort of like ballet in cork boots…

The attraction of watercolour

winter sunshine I’m attracted to the style of watercolour that is loose and suggestive of form; still realistic, but not tight and fixated with detail in the way of many beginners (and photorealists). That is why many accomplished artists are skeptical of working from photographs, although that has its obvious advantages. It is often easy to get caught up with fussy rendering, and because of the limitations of photographic exposure, lose knowledge of the shadows and the three-dimensionality of the world.

LatefallRon Ranson’s work has always inspired me, as mentioned on other occasions. There are many other talented contemporary artists with their own style of grasping the essence of a scene such as Charles Reid, Andrew Pitt or the realistic abstracts of Andrew Wyeth. Of course there are those figures of the past waving at us from the heights of greatness, JMW Turner, John Singer Sargent and Winslow Homer .

Besides those widely known and justly famous watercolour painters, there are also a number of lesser known and equally superb watercolorists of more recent vintage, particularly from Great Britain, such as Edward Wesson and Edward Seago.

I wanted to mention some sites that I’ve found useful, off the beaten path a ways, that do not come up on the first page of Google when you type in “watercolour” (or “watercolor”).

The best online watercolour guide

autumn laneExcept, that is, for Bruce MacEvoy’s work of watercolour love and obsession, handprint. You’ll find it on that first page of Google, just as you should, given its importance.

It is what it claims to be: “the world’s finest guide to watercolor painting”, at least on the web. From in-depth treatment of perspective to frank evaluation of books to marvelously detailed examination of watercolour paints and colour theory, it is an unparalleled learning resource that MacEvoy has developed over the years and which he offers to the world for free.

the marsh millThe sections that I have gotten the most out of and often return to are his guide to watercolour pigments, the discussion of palettes (the paints chosen to make a painting), and his assessments of the works of many watercolour artists from early days until now.

If you take up more than a passing interest in watercolour you will inevitably come to examine very closely the characteristics of the paints you choose. There are staining colours (MacEvoy prefers the accuracy of saying “pigments”), there are fugitive paints, there are transparent and opaque and saturated and sedimentary pigments, and warm and cool colours… There is a world of obsession available in learning about your paints.

MacEvoy’s site and the book Hilary Page’s Guide To Watercolor Paints are the most useful sources I’ve found for the detailed information that you need so as not to waste valuable money on paints that don’t do the job you want. (The book is somewhat out of date, but there is a web site with updates.)

Sunflowers with DuckPart of the fun of learning about watercolour pigments is making up colour wheels and mixture sheets in order to choose your palette. In handprints palette example section, I’ve gotten a lot out of the discussion of accomplished artists’ choices around the colour wheel, from the discussion of the “velázquez palette” to the “classical palette” to Nita Engle’s, Jean Dobie’s and Chuck Long’s choices of paints. (I found the Chuck Long discussion particularly interesting.)

If you go through MacEvoy’s list, although unfinished, of watercolorists and their works you will come away with a great sense of the history of the medium.

Winslow Homer Sunset Beaching The Boat 1875 os 9x14There are various entries on the handprint site that are greyed out, indicating more to come. The site is still a work in progress. In the last several years, MacEvoy didn’t add much to the site, but happily he started again this past summer with a new article on “learning color through paints” and revision of “the secret of glowing color.”

When I look for useful watercolour information or approaches now, I’m not very interested in what seems to be the stock in trade of many, many watercolour websites and books and what usually amounts to filler: how to make a wash, how to stretch paper, how to use masking fluid and so on. These may be worthwhile things to come back to, but I’m wanting more detailed and technically useful information. And I want the person doing the demo or giving the tutorial or writing the book to have a certain high level of skill and the capability to impart what they’re doing. Please, no books by Marcia Moses

Other online resources

So I was happy to find on the web a series of free online watercolour lessons (and other media too) by Yong Chen and friends. I was impressed with the quality of the portrait demos especially. (Portraits being that branch of painting where there’s always something not quite right about the mouth, as John Singer Sargent said.)

9088 636221If you like to go back to the old English watercolour masters like Francis Towne, John Robert Cozens, and Thomas Girtin, and try to see how they did their painting, the article Masters of Watercolour Painting by H.M. Cunstall has some wonderful examples for study (at the bottom of the text).

I like to find out little tricks about technique such as are available on an About.Com painting site: using white wax crayon or candle as a resist instead of frisket, or using crochet hooks of different sizes for applying frisket (masking fluid).

And I found out that the common technique of applying salt (in this case rock salt) to watercolour before it dries for the sake of the interesting texture has even been patented. Don’t know how that’s enforced…

Roland Lee has a series of informative watercolour tutorials on his site. I came across his tutorial on painting water reflections and found it useful. He has quite a few others as well.

The combined site of The Artist’s Magazine, Watercolor Artist and The Pastel Journal has a large number of what amount to teasers and excerpts from articles in the magazines, but there’s still some good information and pleasing examples in there. For instance, there’s an idea about using gesso with watercolor that I hadn’t come across before…

Here’s a couple of blogs I ran across with interesting posts on watercolour technique: Maria Wiley describes an unusual effect obtained with charcoal and watercolour, and Nancy Standlee shows how she developed an unconventional background or underpainting for one of her works (hint: involves teabags).

The importance of Cleveland

1am302I have discovered that for some reason, Cleveland, and Ohio in general, has had an unusually high proportion of skilled watercolour artists. For instance, this site still has a description and fine examples from an exhibit in 1999 of many quite wonderful watercolor artists from what was called the Cleveland School. At a certain point in the 1920s, Cleveland surpassed Boston as the United States’ leading centre for watercolour artistry.

I am especially interested in the dusk and evening paintings since serious darks of the right tint, warmth and coolness are not so easy to get in watercolour.

At the Cleveland Museum of Art site, many fine paintings can be viewed and studied. I am trying to learn more about the illusion of space, aerial perspective, in the two dimensions of the painting surface, and not just in watercolour. The painting Approaching Storm from the Alban Hills, by George Inness, although an oil, is one I’ve been looking at closely to understand how he gets that effect of huge space.

The nice thing about this site is that the Museum allows you to closely inspect many of the artworks on display on the website. One exhibition of note in the archives is Nature Sublime: Landscapes from the Nineteenth Century , largely watercolours by American artists.

Google Books

One important source of watercolour painting information I found which is rarely mentioned is that available through Google Books. Many watercolour texts can be found there. Although the books shown are typically excerpted and not shown in their entirety, the excerpts are large and useful.

For instance, there’s a lot of useful information and demonstrations in the sample from Realism in Watercolor, by Christopher Leeper. Another of interest is Creative Watercolor Workshop by Mark E. Mahaffey. It’s a good way to look at specific watercolor books and see if the information is of any use to you before you buy.

Video watercolour

Joseph Mallord William Turner 017And of course there is the whole world of video watercolour demonstrations on the web. Here is just one by Steve Hall that gives a taste of the loose style of Edward Wesson. Like many such videos it is a teaser for you to buy a more extensive version. But there are a number of fuller introductory video tutorials online such as those at how to draw and paint.com. And here’s a couple of more complete video tutorials, one on variegated skies and another on distant hills and mountains , by Bob Davies.

There’s a whole world of watercolour instruction on video which I haven’t really explored very much. For another post!

[Home ]


If you’re so inclined take a look at https://fencer.wordpress.com/2009/12/19/help-me-choose-the-next-painting-project/ and give me a piece of your mind on my next painting project… although it may not be necessarily watercolor.


Notes on watercolour paintings shown:

From the top down:

1) Winter Sunshine, by Ron Ranson.

2) Late Fall , by Andrew Wyeth

3) Autumn Lane , by Edward Wesson

4) The Marsh Mill , by Edward Seago

5) Sunflowers with Duck , by Charles Reid

6) Sunset Beaching the Boat , by Winslow Homer

7) Workmen at Carrara , by John Singer Sargent

8) Black Shadows , by Carl Broemel

9) Alpine Scene , by JMW Turner. One of several paintings shown in this Wikipedia entry on watercolour.

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10 Comments on “Watercolor Painting Inspiration”

  1. Rick Matz Says:

    I remember years ago, telling my wife I wanted to take up painting. Landscapes, still lifes, it would be great. The next thing I knew I had a brush in my hand and I was painting bedrooms, kitchens, you name it.

    I guess I should have been a little more clear…

  2. fencer Says:

    Hi Rick,

    Those wives! Always looking for an opportunity…


  3. My goodness! You certainly have brought a lot of information about watercolour painting together in a compact article. I’m going to have to come back and explore some of your references when I have a bit more time.
    Of the classical watercolourists, I’m the most awed by John Singer Sargent; but I also love the joyous liberty of Raoul Dufy’s work. Photos in books just don’t do him justice. The originals are alive with colour and motion.
    I’m glad to hear you are getting your watercolour brush wet with pigment and working with it.

  4. fencer Says:

    Hi lookingforbeauty,

    Thanks for the Raoul Dufy reference… didn’t know anything about him. Looked up a couple of sites… wild use of colour, which fits being a Fauvist, which I didn’t know much about either!


  5. forestrat Says:

    Cool post.

    As a frustrated artist I loved looking at the works and imagining myself doing stuff like that and hanging out in cafes wearing a beret. Unfortunately my painting experience is more like Rick’s.


  6. fencer Says:

    Hi forestrat,

    I like imagining those things too, and humming “I’m an artist, I don’t look back” from some Bob Dylan lyric (interspersed with breaking out into loud song with the Band’s “Someday everything is gonna sound like a rhapsody \ When I paint my masterpiece…”)

    You should give watercolour a whirl someday… With your eye for photography and composition you might like it.


  7. Eliza D Says:

    Thanks for the compilation of references (vetted and summarised too!). Do keep posting of your watercolour experiences.

    I’ve been wishing, in these past few weeks, to do something more constructive and beautiful with my hands, other than typing copy, and sketching was a hobby when I was little. I could never get the hang of painting, particularly watercolour painting though.

  8. fencer Says:

    Hi Eliza,

    Especially since you liked to sketch once upon a time, I bet you would find some sort of painting or drawing quite rewarding… You just have to find the medium you find yourself drawn to, so to speak. Watercolour is just one of course, there’s acrylic painting which has all the impact of oils without nearly all the fuss. Coloured pencil, which one of my brothers, a far more talented artist than I am, likes to play with… it is capable of producing quite refined work. Charcoal, pastel… a whole world of possibilities! Hope you run across something one day that appeals.


  9. Rick Matz Says:

    Hey! It may only be a kitchen ceiling to you, but it’s still art! The art is in the artist.

  10. fencer Says:

    Hi Rick,

    And then there’s the conceptual artists, for whom merely the contemplation of the kitchen ceiling is enough…


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