Watercolor painting is difficult enough without hindering yourself with unnecessary obstacles. I have dramatically improved the painting skills of many students by giving them the basic tips I am going to give you.
How Good Materials Are Essential
When painting in watercolors, you should be comfortable, ergonomically organized, and use the best equipment you can afford. When we look at a beautiful painting, it is easy to lose ourselves in its emotional and aesthetic content. It’s also easy to forget that the painting requires the correct use of the appropriate materials and equipment in order to achieve the finished result. Our first lesson, then, is that it is impossible to convey mood, or anything at all for that matter, if you’re handicapped by your materials. Using the incorrect materials will interfere with the way you’re trying to convey your message. Ultimately, the brush marks you leave on the paper are the visual language you use to tell the story to the viewer. If you’re unable to make the correct marks, you will forever struggle with the language rather than effectively tell the story.
Learn the Basics and Avoid Bad Habits
As I travel around teaching, I am constantly surprised at the number of students who have been painting in watercolor for years and yet have managed to avoid learning some of the most basic skills required to produce successful watercolors. It’s like trying to drive a car without knowing how to change gears, so you settle for traveling everywhere in first gear! I recall one person who handled her watercolors with amazing dexterity considering she held her brush as one would hold a knife. (Many ex-oil painters do this, by the way.) She had been doing this for some 30 years! I remember another student who used a plate as his palette for mixing paint, which would have been perfectly acceptable if the plate had been white instead of green! No wonder he couldn’t understand why the paintings looked too warm. It’s easy to want to have fun and play with watercolor. Many people have fallen under its magic spell only to learn the hard way that creating traditional paintings is not easy. There are no shortcuts in traditional art. I know some of you will find all this obvious but I wish somebody had shown me some basic rules when I began my journey. It might have saved me many years of struggle and frustration. Remember that the chains of bad habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken!
Your easel should provide a flat surface adjustable to a variety of angles, such as a drafting table. It should be sturdy but easily maneuverable. If you prefer to stand while working, the table should be the right height. I like to sit most of the time and have a comfortable drafting chair on wheels for that purpose. I stand up when doing major washes or large paintings.
Paper type is your choice entirely. The style of painting will determine the type of paper. Some artists prefer a rough surface which is better for impressionistic, looser types of work. Others use a smooth surface to create highly detailed work. The surface I seem to use most of the time is medium texture or cold press. This gives me the flexibility to range from broad washes to relatively small details. For outdoor work I tape the paper down to my board with some masking tape. Or I use a block of paper which is already stretched.
Before I paint large-scale work, I stretch my paper by soaking it first and then taping it down with gummed tape. The board you tape the paper to must be primed or sealed in some way to prevent staining. Buy a lightweight board that’s easily maneuverable and keep different size paper to suit it.
Your pencil should be of medium hardness such as 2B or 4B because pencils that are too soft tend to smudge and produce messy drawings, particularly on rough paper. On the other hand, hard pencils dig into the surface and are impossible to erase. I use a mechanical pencil because the point can stay the same length, unlike wooden pencils that become shorter with sharpening. It is imperative to use a beautifully sharpened pencil. You quite simply cannot produce a good drawing with a short, blunt pencil. You should restrict erasing to the very minimum or, better still, don’t do any at all. I quite like to leave pencil lines as part of the finished work. This is certainly better than having bands of smudgy or abraded marks left by an eraser. If you must use an eraser, please use the softest you can find—the kneaded type used for charcoal is best.
Like the tires on your car, brushes are probably the most important part of your painting equipment. Even the best, most exotic motorcar won’t handle well with bald tires. Likewise, you’ll never do a decent painting if you’re using brushes of dubious quality.
First of all, just like your pencils, your brushes must have perfect points. Even your largest brushes must be pointy. How would you cut around any square shapes if your brush has a round tip? You’re better off with two good brushes than 20 useless ones. They need not be the most expensive in the shop—there are some wonderful nylon brushes on the market today. Actually, I find sable brushes too soft and they lose their points quickly.
Have a good range of brushes, but please throw out those tiny brushes under size 8, which are next to useless because they hold so little pigment. Always relate the size of your brush to the size of the shape you are painting. Use a large brush for large shapes, a medium brush for medium shapes and a small brush for small shapes—it’s all so logical. There’s only one way to hold a watercolor brush correctly: lightly and as far up the handle as possible. Never grip your brush in a white-knuckle fashion close to the tip. The only time you may want to hold the brush fairly close to the point is when rendering some very fine detail. You should always paint without touching the paper with your hand. The brush should dance freely across the paper without ever losing freedom of movement and dexterity. Never dab or puddle! Use confident strokes with the utmost economy.
Studio Equipment and Setup
Ideally, every artist should have a studio. However this is not always possible, and those who don’t have that luxury should take heart from the fact that many wonderful paintings have been produced on the kitchen table! That’s the beauty of watercolor painting. It’s quick to set up and pack up, relatively cheap, and portable. If you do paint in the kitchen, at least set yourself up so that everything is ergonomically arranged. Ergonomics has to do with efficiency and comfort of movement. For instance, don’t have your palette on your left if you’re right-handed, or vice versa! It’s hard to keep an eye on your work while your arm is reaching over your painting towards your palette or water bucket. Instead, place your water container next to your palette on the side nearest your painting hand. I have a purpose-built studio that I designed myself and it has certainly served me well. A large skylight directs light onto my work from my left side. I use a blind to adjust the brightness. This was knowledge learned the hard way. Many years ago I struggled because the light shone in from my right and my hand formed a shadow over my work. The light also reflected off my palette so I couldn’t clearly see what I was mixing! Oh, the ignorance of youth. As you paint, you should have enough room to step back and look at your work from some distance. You should also have a large mirror to check any faults. Looking at your paintings in a mirror is particularly useful when painting symmetrical objects such as faces, or vases and bowls in still lifes—any errors will be immediately apparent when you see the painting in reverse. If you paint at night you must invest in some “daylight” bulbs, which are available from any good lighting shop. Ordinary light bulbs have the wrong color-cast and will trick your eye, whereas daylight bulbs simulate outdoor light so that your colors will be truer.
Your studio should have plenty of safe storage space for your paper and sketches. There’s nothing worse than getting paint splatters on new sheets of paper or, worse still, on a freshly finished painting. Most of all, your studio must have as much counter space as possible. I find that I always end up using the floor as well as all the tables for my references, photographs, books and all the other bits we seem to collect. This material must be easily accessible.
Ultimately the studio has to be comfortable and suit the artist’s personality. I have collected many bits of memorabilia while on painting trips and I like looking at them from time to time and reminiscing. For instance, my prized possession is a clock in the shape of Elvis Presley. My studio is also fairly modern and has little resemblance to the old fashioned, rustic studios of yesteryear. I like to listen to music while painting, so I have a good CD player and an endless supply of Mozart, Otis Redding and of course, Elvis!
I never, ever think of watercolor as paint. Even the word itself describes it as “water color”—it consists of two separate ingredients: one is water and the other is pigment.
I believe watercolor in tubes is best because it can be used liberally and is gentler on brushes. However, pans are great for travel and for making small sketches because they don’t spill or leak. Whichever you use, don’t be stingy—buying good quality will pay off in the end. Not only will cheap colors fade but, worse still, they will not flow or mix well on the paper and you will miss out on that wonderful watercolor translucency.
When I first began to paint many years ago I used a white dinner plate as part of my equipment. One day I went out on a painting trip, discovered I had left my palette behind, and had to use one of the hubcaps from my car instead! Nowadays I keep one palette exclusively for outdoor work. When you set out to buy a palette you’ll find there are plenty to choose from. However, a lot of them have too many color wells and not enough areas for mixing color, so choose one with generous areas for color mixing so you can return to those mixes as you paint and not have to continually remix them.
When you are painting, it is essential to continually wash out your brushes perfectly clean in order to mix different colors. In the studio (and ideally outdoors too) you need a large water container that will hold at least five pints. You might consider two containers in order to have a steady supply of clean water.
There are other numerous bits and pieces we use when painting, such as rags and paper towels, razor blades and masking fluid. If you need to use that old credit card for scraping or the garden water sprayer for special effects, so be it! Whatever makes you comfortable and makes the difficult job of painting watercolors easier, do it!