So, what is watercolor?

Afterlife 2014

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.

watercolor study 2014

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.

Field mouse study 2014

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.

3 thoughts on “So, what is watercolor?

  1. I totally love your mouse picture, and the way you use such a variety of colors that don’t just blend into ‘mud’. I have never learned painting formally in terms of illustrations so I am really appreciative of your blog. When I have done my watercolors, I haven’t used any ink/pen sketches first, so everything has been freehand and it’s a bit messy…

    Love your paintings and animal shapes and expressions. I’m curious as to how many drafts or sketches it takes to do one piece, and whether there are 2-3 wadded up balls of ‘effort’ on your studio floor or if there are 15-20? 🙂

    And last question: What is your favorite animal to paint/draw?

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    1. Thank you!
      I love the freehand watercolor look. For my style, I benefit from a little more structure, but many of my watercolor inspirations do pretty freeform work. Do you have yours online anywhere? I’d love to see them.

      As for the sketches, I usually end up doing between 3 and 5 sketches and rough drafts. Sometimes more, but not usually. I have my system pretty down now.

      And birds!! I love to paint birds! They’re my favorite animal and they have so much personality 🙂

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  2. I haven’t posted any of my paintings on my blog yet, but I will! I don’t have many right now, because I keep giving them away, but it’s something that I need to get after and start painting again!

    I’ll post a link as soon as I get them up!

    I love your birds, by the way. You really give them great expressions, too. So awesome!

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