Learning to paint
March 7, 2005 7:41 AM   Subscribe

What's the best way to learn to paint in watercolors?

I've been teaching myself watercolor painting through experimentation, online resources, and library books, and I'm pretty happy with the progress I'm making so far. But I'm wondering if I'd learn better through individual or classroom instruction. What are your experiences with learning to paint - is practice the most important thing, or is there greater benefit from having someone teach you?
posted by icetaco to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (10 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Basic rules of thumb of watercolor are:

1. Start with light colors and work your way to darker pigments
2. Work fast — sketch your work first with pencil

Not sure what a teacher could tell you beyond this that wouldn't apply to any other medium.

Best thing you can do is practice. Sign up with a local life model group. Find a local river and a nice place to sit on a warm spring day.
posted by AlexReynolds at 8:43 AM on March 7, 2005

Try copying watercolour pictures. This frees you up to learn technique without having to worry about aesthetics.
posted by orange swan at 8:50 AM on March 7, 2005

Oops, sorry, I realize I haven't answered your specific question.

I did take a one year program in Visual Arts and found it enormously rewarding. An experienced artist can put his or her finger exactly and instantly on whatever flaws there are in your work and tell you how to avoid them. Practice is more important than anything, and you can learn from books for sure, but that qualified instruction is very valuable. It's up to you and whether you want to invest the time and money in a class.
posted by orange swan at 8:55 AM on March 7, 2005

Are you seeking stylistic or mechanical help? Teachers (in books or classes) are best for the former, I suppose, but they tend to mix up the stylistic and the mechanical, which can be confusing, especially if you're a self-directed type with your own vision of where you want to go.

My opinion is that the first goal of "practice" in wet-brush watercolor (as opposed to dry-brush, which is more like drawing) is to master the mechanics without any regard to your ultimate stylistic goals, and the following discoveries were very helpful to me:

Learn to completely control wetness, both of the paper and of your brush, at all times. Water always flows from wetter areas to drier areas, and will not flow between areas of equal wetness. Don't paint over partially dry paint.

Understand the properties of the pigments you use. Non-staining colors are much more forgiving than staining ones because they can be more easily lifted and reworked after drying and more effectively manipulated when wet; the color charts of almost all major paint brands list staining characteristics of each pigment.

Use high-quality materials, especially paper, from the start; all w/c papers have a major defining role in the way the paints work, and cheap w/c papers hardly work at all. Arches cold-pressed is probably the best "standard" paper to start out with.

posted by dpcoffin at 10:48 AM on March 7, 2005 [2 favorites]

Two additional tidbits:
Regarding wetness: Glossy but not puddling or running is the most flexible and useful state of your wet paper whether there's paint on it yet or not, and not-glossy but still damp is the most fragile state; don't paint over this!

Regarding pigments: Staining pigments are the best choice for wet over dry layering, especially for the underlayers. Painting over non-stainers is more difficult.

Um, I could go on.....:-)
posted by dpcoffin at 11:01 AM on March 7, 2005 [1 favorite]

dpcoffin, please do go on! At this rate I won't have to pay for classes! :)

Seriously, though, it's all very good information, thank you. I think I'm looking mainly for mechanical help; I want to improve my technical skills to the point where I can make the medium do what I want, and then I can go nuts with it. Sounds like practice is my best course, though I'm still looking into local classes. Anyone in the Seattle area have any recommendations as to where to take good watercolor classes?
posted by icetaco at 12:25 PM on March 7, 2005

dpcoffin, please go on!
posted by CunningLinguist at 3:51 PM on March 7, 2005

I enrolled in a water color course at my local art museum years ago. Much of one's experience depends on the teacher, I would say -- I am still friends with the teacher from that course. I did benefit from his teaching style and from being in contact with other students.

One caveat about all adult education though: people take these courses for a myriad of reasons with all manor of skill sets. This is sometimes a boon for learning but other times can be a real handicap. Look into refund policies before signing up and don't be afraid to change courses just to have a different mix of students or a different teacher.
posted by Dick Paris at 4:30 PM on March 7, 2005

OK, some less-brief going on:
A good first step in learning to control wetness is to observe how your favorite brushes react to being wiped off (after a thorough wetting) a given number of times. In other words, slosh the brush around in your clean-water container, then wipe it once on the rim and then paint. Slosh and wipe twice; three times; etc... Slosh and wipe quickly once on a towel; twice; etc. You'll soon develop a sure, habitual sense of how wiping a given number of times after wetting or mixing will give you the wetness you'll need for the job at hand. It's almost never a good idea to NOT wipe your brush before you bring it to the paper, unless you're just wetting down a large area prior to painting.
There's an illuminating discussion of controlled wetness in the book Mastering Atmosphere and Mood in Watercolor by Joseph Zbukvic (inspiring work, too). He's come up with a naming convention that describes 4 degrees of wet paper and 5 degrees of wet paint, then proceeds to demonstrate how he gets everything he needs by combining these. A very good excercise would be to make a series of swatch cards on which you document how each degree of paint wetness works on each degree of paper wetness, using only a few colors. Even if you never refer back to the cards later, you'll learn a lot.

As to colors, it's a very good idea to work as much as possible in triads (a red, yellow, and blue that will mix to a neutral grey when combined) with different properties, i.e., have a staining triad, a non-staining triad (my choice), or a transparent traid and an opaque triad...examples include: Indian red, cerulean blue, and yellow ochre for non-staining and Winsor Red, Winsor Blue, and Winsor Yellow for staining....there are many possibilities. The idea isn't that these combos are all you'll ever need or want (altho they could be), but that by limiting yourself for a good while you'll really learn how to mix...and will naturally develop an appreciation for the power of tinted greys...a very useful thing!
Good book on pigments: Transparent Watercolor Wheel
by Jim Kosvanec

In Seattle, you're aware, I'm sure of this: (I envy you!)

An overwhelmingly useful w/c site:
posted by dpcoffin at 11:49 AM on March 8, 2005 [2 favorites]

Important point when using triads: place all three colors on the edge of a single large mixing well, or around the edge of a single saucer, so you can easily and precisely bring varying amounts of each into your mix.
posted by dpcoffin at 11:58 AM on March 8, 2005

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