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In Defense of Watercolor

When I tell people what my typical medium is, they often respond with awe. “Wow, watercolor’s so hard to use.” While I can see why people might think that...it’s not. Really any material is hard to work with when you don’t understand it and no one’s taught you. It’s harder still when you try to make it do things that it can’t do, or has absolutely no interest in doing. (Yes, I like to personify my materials. And anything else that I want to hug, or, conversely, gives me guff.) Oil paint is hard if you don’t learn how to clean your brushes, if you try to make it function like a tempera or acrylic paint. (It’s very hard if you don’t know to keep your workspace ventilated.)

No one taught me how to use watercolor. When I was in college, there was the old school mentality floating about that watercolor is a medium for sketching and not for finished work. So there was no course for it until I was already a senior. I had already taught myself. And again, I’m not trying to make myself sound brilliant - it’s really not hard. Especially since I struggled for a long time with painting. Many people would consider watercolor a painting medium, like oils, while I consider it a drawing medium, like inks. And when you get down to the technical aspects of it, it doesn’t behave like painting. Painting has an element of 3-dimensionality to it, unless you work in a glazing technique. The way you layer paint matters for shapes to be believable in space. The way you think about dimension and depth is completely different in drawing than in painting. But watercolor is "flat" no matter how you layer it. And in the way that I use it, I feel a much more direct cause/effect with watercolor than I do with oil painting. I’ve always felt that painting is somehow one space removed from the artist, whereas drawing is an extension of the self. But this may just be my prejudice of more of a drawer than a painter. None of this is not to say that painting is better worse than drawing. Simply different.

Again, it’s important to remember what watercolor and what it is not. 

Watercolor is:
  • Water-based
Yes, duh. But this is important. A water-based medium is going to essentially behave like water. The more water you add, the more difficult it become to predict and control. Maybe you want it to be more free & random. Or maybe you don’t. But whatever happens, don’t blame water for acting like water. Blame yourself for not thinking and having plenty of cotton rags around. Because of this fact it is also:

  • Prone to bleeding & irregular marks and -
  • Easy to lose control of.
  • Transluscent
Watercolor is not thick, dense or opaque. If you want something opaque, you’re thinking of gouache. (The answer to the age old riddle “What’s a watercolor, but not a watercolor?”)
  • Difficult (but not impossible) to “correct”
Since it’s translucent, you can often “correct” a misstep in watercolor, so long as you’re covering with a dark color, or doing many layers on top of your mistake. If you’re working with a really sturdy paper, you can sometimes add more water and pick some of the color off the page, or move it around with a brush.(Sometime you can kind of dig it out by adding more water & using a dry brush. But I wouldn't recommend it out of the gate.) But if you overdo it, sturdy or not, you’ll tear a hole in the sheet. Bear in mine, that once color touches the page, it won’t get white again. Unless you implement one of two methods of “cheating”. The first is mixing watercolor & gouache so as to make the pigment semi-opaque. This can also help make the tone more “even” and consistant. The second method involves using masking fluid (liquid latex), but this would need to be applied to clean paper and then painted over. The result is that the dried latex can be peeled away, revealing a clean section under a painted section.
  • Reworkable - So long as you account for the last bullet and the next two
  • Instant
This is sort of what I meant when I say that watercolor is more “direct” than some other mediums. You can touch a pencil to paper and it doesn’t always leave a mark, or one that’s noticeable. A dot of paint doesn’t mean no takesies-backsies. But a dot of watercolor can bleed and upset nearby patches of pigment.
  • Fast-drying(ish)
This truth about watercolor is somewhat complicated. Fast drying means you have to work fast if you want to take advantage of of the 3 aforementioned malleable aspects. You have to work smart, especially when covering large areas with a mixed color (if you run out halfway through and have to remix, you might not get the result you want). But sometimes fast drying isn’t fast enough. How fast does water dry, really? How quickly does large pools of water dry from a sheet of paper? I find that something like acrylic dries too quickly and loses it’s ability to be reworkable and fluid. Many people would complain that oil paint dries too slowly. But watercolor is somewhere inbetween. Since you’re working with wet stuff, you have to be strategic in the order you’re working the page. If you just colored a section red, you can’t color the section immediately beside it green. Well, you can, if you want them to create a brown mess where they meet. If you work in a spiraling pattern (or, in a calculated, seemingly sporadic pattern) you can keep wet sections separate and usually the first one you did will be dry by the time you’ve circled back to it.

But this is all my interpretation. Watercolor is an extremely versatile medium and can be used different ways to very different result. But it will always look like watercolor. It will always be somewhat tonally inconsistent, somewhat translucent, somewhat raggedy around the edges. Just accept it for what it is. If you don’t like it, switch to something else like a gouache or a diluted acrylic.

If anyone is curious, I only like to use hotpress papers. My favorite brand is Stonehedge, because it’s durable, affordable, has a nice texture and color and is sold as a pad in addition to sheets (which are much rarer than coldpress). I don’t have a strict watercolor or gouache brand preference, but I seem to have a lot of Grumbacher . I prefer tubes over cakes. I use a butchers tray as my palette. And in all my wet medium work, I predominantly use round brushes, which are always synthetic.

That’s all I gotta say about that.

Read more: http://www.blogdoctor.me/2007/02/expandable-post-summaries.html#ixzz1Ygp5vxLJ

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