In October I tutored a painting holiday in the South Luangwa in Zambia. We had plenty of space in the game viewing vehicles and the painters followed my lead in painting the wildlife and landscapes from the vehicles, even painting while we were bumping along! The ‘less is more’ principle of watercolour became very apparent in this set-up: 3 small pots of water nestled within a low height container could survive rattling around on the bumpy roads, a palette of pans and 1,2 or 3 brushes max, was enough to handle, 3 colours in each painting were enough to manage and made the painting more straightforward. ‘Painting on the hoof’ is very good practice for becoming more ‘efficient’ in watercolour. If you are becoming studio-bound or slow to take your paints out in ‘the real world’, deliberately break the habit. Take a minimum of materials with you, into the lounge, the garden, the cafe; out in a park, to the mall or the promenade. Keep the subject simple, just paint skies and clouds, or quick figures, bird shapes and colours, the tonal recession of distant hills, or the shapes of trees and the gaps and spaces underneath them, and amaze yourself with what you can do in less than 20 minutes in watercolour (especially if it’s getting cold!). The bliss you will experience will last much longer. Go on have a go!
If you want to learn to paint I encourage you to spend time painting from life, transforming the 3D world into 2D. That means making paintings from the physical world. Learning to see for making paintings is about observation, making judgements and selections, pulling stuff in, leaving stuff out. How and what you notice and enjoy in any subject matter is unique. What you choose to represent and emphasise is the stamp that becomes your style. Painting from photographic reference is fine once you know how to paint but it is a hard way to learn because, instead of shrinking the world to the size of your canvas or paper and making all the decisions and choices that come with that minimalisation, you have to enlarge from framed and limited information, so it is learning to paint the wrong way round!
Welcome the adrenalin rush, the stress, even the angst of painting from life - if painting was not a challenge, if it was easy, it would not be called an art.
When you see something you want to paint, ask yourself what in particular has attracted you to this subject even before you start drawing and observing in detail. It is usually something less concrete than the subject itself; eg it could be the way the light is falling on the subject, the shape the subject presents, a combination of colours, or an exciting tonal exchange. This is the real subject of the painting, not the physical item. This is your focus. Remind yourself of the reason as you get deeper into the painting in order to stay on target, tell yourself repeatedly why you are painting this view and even explain it to anyone who shows interest, whether they have wings or not!
I am currently painting in North America, my watercolour road-kit is down to as little as possible. The sketchpads I use outside have to fit into my artbag (slung over my left shoulder) which means size is limited, but this means my right side is free to flip open the cover, take out the pad, palette, pencil, brushes, fill the water pots and start painting within a very short time, because the light effects or incidents that attract me rarely last very long.
A camera also has to fit in the bag for the fleeting images that are impossible to catch with paint or pencil. A watercolourist needs very few materials - if you encumber yourself with too many they may even put you off starting to paint - so I challenge you this summer to reduce your watercolour kit to the minimum and discover just how little you need and how quickly you can set yourself up to paint watercolours outdoors.
Watercolour welcomes the bold.
By bold I mean a confident approach to brushstroke, colour and tone. Trust the medium to deliver the freshness inherent within it by using fewer brushstrokes, fewer colours, fewer layers and a more immediate delivery of tonal depth. Taking the brush back and forth upsets and wearies the pigment particles, too many pigments tend to darkness, excessive layers compromise translucency, dark tones built up through layers are less vibrant than deep transparent single layered darks.
So be confident, be deliberate, try to get the appearance and effect intended with bold applications rather than hesitant increments. A watercolour that takes one hour may be fresher than if you take two, but it is not speed that is the key, it is the enthusiasm, efficiency and economy of delivery and application that contribute to the freshness of watercolour.
The Temperature of colours seems to be quite a confusing area, so here is more clarification. Red is warm and blue is cool but within each hue (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet, brown, grey) there are many different versions, and these individual colours have a red or blue bias, ie they veer towards red or blue. This ‘veering towards’ warmth or coolness is what constitutes the temperature of the colour. Hence Alizarin Crimson is classified as a cool red because it is a red that veers towards violet, and violet is going in the direction of blue. In relation to blues and greens Alizarin Crimson remains a warm colour but in relation to other reds it is a cool red.
A good way to see temperature bias is to paint swatches of all your yellows (then reds, then blues and so on) and compare their warmth or coolness alongside each other.
Temperature of Colour:
Aspiring painters usually understand which colours are warm and which cool, but have less understanding of why temperature bias is so useful in practice.
Within the hues, individual colours veer towards red (warm) and blue (cool), so, for example, Permanent Rose, is a cool red and Ultramarine Blue a warm blue. Knowing the temperature of a colour enables the artist to mix colours extremely efficiently. The two colours above would mix to make a bright violet because both are already veering in that direction.
Everyone knows blue and yellow make green, but if you mixed Ultramarine Blue with Indian Yellow you would get a very dull green because both are warm colours, veering towards red, and red, being the opposite of green, dulls the mix.
A bright green is reached by mixing a cool yellow, eg Aureolin, with a cool blue, eg Prussian, because each colour already leans towards green.
It is easier to make vibrant watercolours on pristine paper. That sounds obvious, but often I see painters touching the surface of the white paper with their fingers or the palm of their hand, or rubbing out pencil marks broadly and vigorously. Fingers transfer grease onto the paper and erasers scuff the specially prepared surface. Anything that compromises the appearance of watercolour, however minimally, is not in your best interest. Rub off only the pencil line, avoid the paper either side. I have even seen people stacking their palettes and brushes on top of their white paper, Noooo, keep it covered until the moment you start drawing or adding paint, anything else is self-sabotage!
To understand how the transparency of watercolour works on paper it helps to think of the minute particles of pigment like the millions of pixels on a screen. Watercolour pigments, which are bound in gum Arabic, do not dissolve in the water, the micro-particles of pigment are held in suspension and floated across the paper in the solution of gum Arabic and water. When the water evaporates the gum Arabic dries and sets the tiny particles in place. Light shining on the white paper reflects back through the transparent particles, and may be refracted, and bounces back from the white paper spaces left between the opaque particles. Now you can see why it is so important not to block out the light with too many layers of paint or to push the pigment around on the paper into clumps. Keep your pigment happy and it will reward you with the luminosity for which watercolour is famed.
Fear of failure sometimes prevents us from experimenting and taking risks in watercolour. We start a painting with such hope and excitement and too often end with an awful feeling of disappointment when it goes wrong. But is this failure? What have you actually lost? The brushes are still there; the amount of pigment squeezed probably barely indented the tubes; the only thing ‘lost’ is the lovely clean piece of paper (even this can be recycled by over-painting with pastel or priming for oils). Is the time wasted? Usually we learn more from the paintings that go wrong than from the paintings that go right. So if nothing is actually lost why fear ‘failure’. Failure is a necessary part of the creative process.
Here are some of my favourite quotes:
Richard Branson: “To increase your success rate, increase your failure rate”
Pushkin: “We can try, and fail, but we shouldn’t fail to try.”
Tiger Woods: “I am my own worst critic, but I never undermine my own confidence.”
Exodus: "Do not linger, move on"