Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Watercolor techniques

The other day at the library I got out a few books on 'how-to-paint-with-watercolors'. Now, I've been using watercolors on and off for several years, but never taken a class, and figured I'd see if there were any techniques or ideas that I hadn't yet come across, or discovered on my own. It's always good to keep experimenting, and it's amazing the inspiration you can get from just looking at other works - you can see that one thing that completely clicks and makes it so that the idea bouncing around in your head can become a reality.

However, I was massively disappointed by these books. The good points were the bits about how to create different textures - I already knew about salt and alcohol, but crinkled papers, plastic wrap, and cheesecloth were new to me - and of course just looking at a bunch of finished pieces for general inspiration. Aside from that, the books almost universally made me angry. Perhaps it's because although I'm not an expert in watercolors, I have been doing the whole 'art' thing for a really long time - kids' art programs at the National Gallery in elementary school, painting lessons in middle school, assorted art classes in high school, and of course my college career culminating in a BFA, not to mention all the self-propelled art that happened around all of that. As such, I've accumulated a lot of different ideas about art, how to approach it, and most importantly that there is no one right way to do things

I get that most of these books are geared towards the casual watercolorist, who is possibly more interested in faithfully capturing their vacation surroundings, or producing landscapes in a particular style (which is all well and good, don't get me wrong, it's just that I'm looking for something a bit more involved). It was when I started reading sentences telling me to make sure to use bright colors, and not mix them too much or else the colors will become muddy and my painting will be dull and boring.  Well, excuse me! I happen to quite like muted colors sometimes, and they certainly don't make a painting boring.

Rant over.

I thought I'd share a few of my techniques and a little bit of my process. 

First is the 'let's throw a bunch of paint and things at the paper and see what happens'. This is where I decide on some colors/combinations, whether I want it to be light or dark, and maybe add some salt or rubbing alcohol (I still want to try cheesecloth - it looks cool). Once the initial layer (or two, if the first is uninspiring) has dried, I look at it and decide what else needs to be painted.

Usually this consists of a more meticulously painted subject - a bird, or other animal. In this one, I painted the background (with lots of salt for texture), then the blue jay, then decided that it was a little bland/disjointed/off-balance, and added the sprays of orangey-yellow that go across the upper half of the page.

This one had a more subdued background - a blend of assorted neutral colors without much contrast, and only subtle texturing. I decided it needed an equally low-key bird, and I used the same sets of colors for the songbird.

Here the decision was easy - a light blue wash loosely brushed on, with a spray of salt when the paint was still really wet. When it dried, it looked like sunlight coming through the water at the top right, with a trail of bubbles leading down to some sea creature. And I like the idea of a kraken :)

For this painting I took a different approach. I started off with the same concept of mixed washes, knowing that I wanted to leave a lighter area in the bottom third, and ever-increasingly dark colors around it. Also I played around a little with alcohol drops - you can still see one in the upper left corner. For the secondary stage of painting, I kept things looser and much more wash-y rather than opaque, creating a dark rainy city scene with people walking about in the open area. I actually am really happy with how this turned out, and enjoyed playing with colors and layering washes. I do think that the initial layer may have been a little busy, so I plan on trying this sort of thing again with a more even background.

And then there's a combination of the looser and more controlled styles - I started with an initial image, so the outlines are strong and contained, but played with salt, colors mixing, and assorted layering techniques within each stone.

These do something similar, but are even more planned-out, with initial sketches on other paper, inking in the lines with water-proof ink, and then going in with the watercolors.

And, of course, most of these paintings are currently for sale on my Etsy shop