Suggestions for watercolor beginners

     If you’re just getting started with watercolor, you might find that it’s difficult to know how to start a painting, and then how to keep it going.  Perhaps you’ve struggled with paintings until they look like something you put under the car to catch oil drips.  Remember that almost all paintings go through stages where they look pretty ugly.  Don’t stop painting.  If you do the right groundwork, you can paint through the terrible-looking stages and pull off a good painting.

     Make sure you have good materials.  Nothing is more frustrating than trying to control cheap watercolors and flimsy paper. 

     Begin with a good preliminary sketch where you work out the composition and values (lights and darks).  You might also want to play with color schemes on your preliminary sketch.  Remember that you don’t have to use the colors you see in the subject; you can change the colors to suit your mood or make the picture more interesting.  Think of the sketch as a road map to the final work.

     Now transfer your sketch to the “good” watercolor paper.  If you have a projector, or know how to “grid up” a picture, these methods might speed things up for you.  I’ve personally found that enlarging my design by just sketching it again onto the big paper gives a spontaneous look to the final piece.  Remember that you’re painting a picture, not making a photograph, so it doesn’t have to be absolutely perfect. 

     Make the pencil lines dark enough so you can see them after they’re covered with paint.  When you finish the painting, you don’t have to erase all the lines – they add texture, give the painting expression, and help the viewer see how you saw things. 

     To begin painting, work on a drawing table or drawing board and tape the paper down to the surface on all four sides using masking tape.  The paper may buckle when it’s wet, but it will flatten down nicely when it is completely dry.  Before starting, mix up puddles of paint that are big enough to let you paint for a while without mixing more.  Don’t just pat your colors on when you start painting – make big confident strokes.  If something slops where it shouldn’t, blot it up immediately with a clean rag or paper towel.

     Paint the largest masses first.  This will usually be the background area.  Then work into the foreground, and then go to the smaller masses of your subject.  Possibly the best rule to remember is to start with the largest brushes, painting the largest masses, then work your way down to small brushes and details last.

     With watercolor, it’s a good plan for beginners to place light washes down first.  The reason is that you can always go darker with watercolor, but it’s hard to go lighter if you’ve gone too dark too soon.  Watercolor “purists” stress saving white areas of the paper for the whites, but many of the Old Masters simply used white paint to recapture brilliant white areas that got lost in the heat of painting.  Either method is fine — it’s the final result that counts!

     As you gain experience, you might want to alternate darks and lights.  You could paint a dark wash first, let it dry, and then add the light wash and let some of the dark one bleed into that for an interesting effect.  Or do the reverse.  There are no “rules” that you have to follow.

     If you have a dark background, don’t hesitate to connect it to a similar dark tone in a figure or building.  You can also “lose” the lightest side of an object in a light background.  If you think in terms of masses and shapes rather than “This is a tree, this is an eye,” etc., you’ll make a more interesting picture.  If a few edges fade into the background, it looks more natural than if you try to make each element stand out.   When you make the edges of objects too sharp, the thing looks as if you cut it out and pasted it down on the paper. 

     Most painters don’t know when to stop.  They keep fussing and polishing until the painting looks stale and overworked.  Don’t try to reach perfection.  Overworking a painting takes away its charm and snap.  Try quitting when you think you’re 90 percent finished.  Put that picture to dry somewhere where you can’t see or fuss with it.  Then go on to the next painting.

By Kay Sluterbeck/AAPJ 

Published by on January 2012. Filed under Art-to-Art Palette Journal, Paint Box Section, Tips&Techniques PB dept. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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