I remember on the first day of my first ever watercolor class, the teacher asked this question, and I decided right there that I was dealing with an idiot. Obviously, watercolor was what old people did and if the oil class hadn’t been canceled that semester I wouldn’t have been sitting through that lecture in the first place.
Cue my surprise when I discovered over the next four months that watercolor is a fascinating rubric cube of a medium, and now ten years later, I still haven’t moved on.
For me, a helpful thing to learn at the outset was that watercolor, oil, and acrylic are all essentially made using the same pigments. It’s the binders that hold them together that makes them different mediums. That was helpful because when you first sit down to watercolor, if you’re coming from an oil or acrylic background, it feels like you just landed on art-Mars and nothing will ever be okay again. But it will be.
So really in watercolor, your foe is water, and how all the different pigments interact with water. For me, that realization was a big key that began to unlock watercolor.
Because, we all know a lot more about water than we realize:
We know that it’s attracted to itself. If you have two droplets of water right next to each other, they will begin to inch together. This happens on your paper all the time.
We know that gravity has a big effect on it. It always runs downhill, so the tilt of your paper is just as important as your brushes.
We know that water ‘climbs.’ We’ve all gotten the hems of our jeans wet and suddenly before we knew it, we were soaked up to the knees because the water climbed upwards. Anytime there’s a pool of water on your paper, it will start to creep upwards and take pigment with it.
We know that certain things float, and certain things don’t. The same is true in watercolor, some pigments have more buoyancy than others, which effects how they’ll layer and interact with other pigments when things get wet.
We know that water erodes things.Your painting might not be the Grand Canyon, but every time you add more water to the paper, the water is going to erode the pigments that are there. It’ll move things around and create little causeways for itself, just like it does in nature.
There are loads more watercolor/water observations, but I think you get the idea. All the things you know about water, you know about watercolor. It’s not as foreign as you think, or as it feels the first time you sit down to paint.
Each of those things can be broken down into techniques and become a separate post, but I just wanted to share a subtle mental shift that really helped me when I first sat down to watercolor. It’s not as unfamiliar as you might think.