Watercolors and I have had this strange relationship over the years, where I wasn’t exactly sure what to do with them for a while. I had always associated them with pale landscape paintings that never really interested me. I didn’t know how to work with them at first, and all my pieces were either weak or muddy looking. I wasn’t an expert at oil or acrylic at that time, but I still tried to make watercolors fit into the container of what I thought “real paintings” looked like and how “real paint” worked. I tried to go opaque with them, looking in puzzlement at my set, wondering where my white paint was, not quite realizing their power as a transparent medium. I got frustrated and gave up on them.
Then back in 2003, I got my first digital imaging software, Paint Shop Pro. Through playing with this program, I learned about opacity, hue and saturation and how these things affected the way colors worked together on the screen. I became particularly interested in the opacity setting, experimenting with building up these washes of color, only to realize that this was how I should have been using my watercolor paints all along. I pulled out my tubes of paints again and began picking out the lightest tones in my reference, then choosing progressively darker and darker tones until I had the final effect I wanted.
After that, the real turning point was when I discovered the book “How to Make a Watercolor Paint Itself” by Nita Engle. Although she specializes in landscapes, which aren’t really my thing, I really appreciated her approach in using spray bottles of water to move pigment around her heavy papers to create these beautiful effects.
I loved the juxtaposition of bold colors and soft blending in her works and aspired to achieve something similar. I left that behind shortly thereafter, however, as I realized that I have relatively no interest in painting landscapes and that the human face and form are my muses. I stumbled upon the “New Artist’s Handbook” by Ray Smith, which explains the ins and outs of different drawing and painting media, from oils to watercolors to charcoal. It talks about how each medium is made and how it can be applied in final piece. I learned about wet-on-wet techniques, lifting color out of areas, building up tones and all of the techniques I use to make the paintings I do today.
I have worked in acrylics and dabbled in oils (though I couldn’t stand the smells of the solvents or the paints themselves) but something keeps bringing me back to my watercolors. I love their simplicity, the way they can be reactivated when dry, the minimal cleanup and the way that layering makes them all the more vibrant. Something tells me I’ll be sticking with them for a while.