November 22, 2011 3:24 AM   Subscribe

A young, talented art student needs advice. She did a beautiful sketch for an assignment, but had a *really* hard time with watercoloring it. Here's the final piece. It's set in a grotto-like space, with light coming from above near the waterfall, but she had problems making that area bright, making water further away really dark, with lighting, layering, shadowing, etc. She's great with acrylic, but unfortunately needs to work in watercolor again *soon*. She had a fairly basic student watercolor set, and used Arches watercolor paper." Any advice on what she can do to rapidly improve in the medium?
posted by markkraft to Media & Arts (16 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
www.wetcanvas.com can give great advice from practicing artists.
posted by b33j at 4:24 AM on November 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

Also, her work reminds me of William Blake's paintings (some of which I was privileged to see in the flesh, recently), but watercolour needs to be built up.

If she wish to add contrast and depth, she needs to apply washes/colour to the areas that require more intensity. Watercolour is like that, it's not done in the first painting (whereas, I suppose, oils & acrylics can be).

So, simplest advice, go back and paint over the areas, again (and possibly again) that she wants to add more intensity too.

But seriously, wetcanvas, really great resource.
posted by b33j at 4:26 AM on November 22, 2011

She should use the whites in the paper - if she's using rough or cold press paper she can use a resist to keep the white areas white - that's harder on hot press paper with its softer surface. Less fussy with the layers - learn to be bolder with more value range. The only way to get good at watercolor is to do a LOT of it. It's quite different than acrylic, less forgiving and requires one to get it right in each pass rather than to fuss rework and get muddy in a hurry. If she's using pan based paints she might investigate tubes.
posted by leslies at 5:06 AM on November 22, 2011 [3 favorites]

The big hurdle most students encounter with watercolors is in using the white of the paper as the light source...to think of the paper as, essentially, backlighting.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:12 AM on November 22, 2011 [3 favorites]

Came in to say wetcanvas.

Also, she should make sure she's using good quality materials. Good paints, good paper, good brushes.
posted by bunderful at 6:16 AM on November 22, 2011


Don't use black paint for the gray rocks - mix blue and burnt sienna. It looks like she's using paint straight from the pan - this makes everything look flat. Also, use blues and reds or opposite colors for shadows rather than black or more of the same color. (practice this on scrap paper first!) For example, the shadowy side of a yellow pear might be accomplished with a hint of purple.

I'd make the water greenish rather than blue, and add some reflections.

Do some googling on how to mix good flesh tones with watercolors.

The tips and tutorials here look very promising.
posted by bunderful at 6:30 AM on November 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

I haven't worked in watercolor for a while, but I used to love it, and conversely be pretty terrible at acrylic. The methods are so different that it can be hard, at first, to move from one to the other.

The main thing to remember- and this goes along with the thing about using the background as a light source- is that watercolor is translucent. In this picture, it looks like she was trying to treat watercolors like acrylics, which will never work- if you try to use watercolors like acrylics, you'll just see them as unsaturated and runny and 'not as good.' Instead, think of it more like liquid cellophane. You will do some mixing, but you are also gently laying color on top of color in order to create a sense of depth.

This is especially important in how you approach really 'picky' detail. If you work some little area too much, and all at one time, it'll get muddled, since the paints like to flow into each other, and since, being translucent, your mistakes can't be covered up. What you want to do for an area like, say, the hair, or a tree trunk, is to do a base of the lightest color you'll want to use, let it dry, and then gradually add darker and darker colors in, again letting it dry in between. Your lines will be crisp and dramatic, as opposed to muddled. Note that the idea of adding progressively darker colors is the exact opposite of how you'd typically approach acrylics.

Also, forget you even have black paint.
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:22 AM on November 22, 2011 [5 favorites]

What kind of Arches paper is she using? Hot press or cold press? Hot is much smoother and would allow her to build up the layers of watercolor, whereas cold takes a bit more muscle to build up the layers.
posted by ThaBombShelterSmith at 7:25 AM on November 22, 2011

If she's really using 140-pound paper going up to 300 or heavier could make a difference too.
posted by bunderful at 7:38 AM on November 22, 2011

Nthing that what's needed in watercolor is lots of thin layers and that using the whites of the paper is very important. In acrylic, there's a push and pull - you work between extreme darks and lights, and you can work dark to light if you want. In watercolor, you work light to dark / color / anything other than white, and there's not much you can do if an area gets too dark or muddy. If she gets impatient, she can use a hair dryer to dry layers before adding more.

Also, the fact that she has a "basic student set" of watercolors is probably part of the problem. Student grade watercolors are just not as good, much like student grade anything. Student grade watercolors will just make everything more difficult. Plus there are certain colors, like magenta for example, that simply can't be mixed from primary colors without getting extremely muddy; if she wants bright colors, she'll have to buy them. That's just how subtractive color mixing works, the more colors you add, the duller it gets.

She could also try using some gouache at the end for highlights / extremely dark areas.

Still, I think this is a really promising first / early attempt! She's mastered the idea that watercolor is about, well, water. Sounds basic I know but watercolors *can* be laid on as thickly as acrylics, and it that is just a muddy mess.
posted by fireflies at 7:51 AM on November 22, 2011

Is she pre-soaking/stretching/taping the watercolor paper? This is very important.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:52 AM on November 22, 2011

Thanks for all the advice, MeFites!

I think your feedback will make a rather talented 19-year-old feel much better about the most recent assignment, and help her refocus on what's ahead of her.
posted by markkraft at 8:30 AM on November 22, 2011

I'd say that's a pretty damn decent early attempt at watercolor. There's brush control there, and that's usually a big hurdle.

A couple people have said never to use tube black. This is true, except, of course, when it's not, but my advice for all painters is this: Don't use tube-color anything. At all. Ever. For anything. If you're doing cartoons, you might use tube black, but still never pure tube colors. Not only will your colors be one-dimensional, but other artists can tell, and a few years ago I would have been totally confident in my identification of cerulean blue in the water. As it is I'm only 80% sure.

Skin tones. Skin is not peach colored or beige. It's blue and red and green.

Shadows aren't black or gray, they're the contrasting color. A shadow on a red surface is dark greenish. It seems like she has some grasp of light and using the paper, but that will come with painting more.

Seriously, that's very impressive for a 19-year-old's first watercolor. As she seems aware, it's color she needs work on.

I was a successful art student at big name schools. I am an artist who used to use watercolor, but still uses things like washes. Feel free to memail me about anything in that continuum.
posted by cmoj at 10:15 AM on November 22, 2011 [3 favorites]

The best way to improve in a new medium is to use it as much as possible. Here's a video of experienced artist/illustrator Quentin Blake using watercolor. Look at how fluid his strokes are, how he pulls the pool of color around boldly.

My advice is not to be timid about applying strong colors and nice watery area-covering washes. It's wonderful she cares so much about making a good painting and is willing to put time and effort into the details. But the next hurdle is not being afraid of failure. Working on the same piece to perfection will make any artist a nervous wreck. This is why we do studies and small color mockups and maybe repaint the same painting in a couple different ways just to see how it looks. Anytime something doesn't go quite right, say, 'well that's for the next painting'. The key to improvement is letting go of this idea of perfection. Your first painting is too early for everything you do to be a success (or for that matter, a failure).

(Also for the money conscientious, yes, art materials are expensive. But using them up for practice is not 'wasting them'. That's what giant pads of cheap student paper is for)
posted by everyday_naturalist at 12:42 PM on November 22, 2011 [3 favorites]

Good quality materials are crucial. Crappy student-grade materials have crappy pigments, etc. The amount that you can learn with such materials is seriously limited, because they do not behave in the subtle, complex, intriguing ways that good materials will. I am forever thankful to my parents who, on a very limited budget, made it clear that learning was a process worthy of the BEST materials (not, note just a step up from crap, but the best they could afford after researching the options,) from my youngest years.
posted by thegreatfleecircus at 2:45 PM on November 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

She's done a good job of capturing the space and the figure in the foreground is working well. The area where the hair meets the water is lovely.

As others have noted, you can't go lighter with watercolour. As she's now trying to build up contrast she will have to go darker in some areas. This will have the effect of making the lights appear lighter. She will need to do some work on the hanging/floating figure and the shell like space behind her. Tell her to figure out where the light source is. This is not clear now. It seems to be above but changes from left to right on the pillars for example. Once she decides where the light source (or sources) are she can go with it. People often think of the "typical" watercolour as washy, but they don't need to be. She can build the intensity of the colour up in washes or with a thicker application of the paint.

Another excellent website to check out is handprint.com. This takes you to the watercolour technique start page.

Finally, watercolour is tricky. Just like learning any other new skill it will take some practice to get the feel of the medium. She's made a great start.
posted by Cuke at 6:14 PM on November 22, 2011

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