Painting in Transparent Watercolor

Painting in Transparent Watercolor

Welcome back, faithful ones.

Today we dive into the most frustrating medium of all.  You all know it--most of us started with it in grade school, just after we graduated from "finger-painting".  I speak, of course, of watercolor.

I can personally tell you that I've produced more failed watercolors than with any other medium.  Starting about 10 years ago, I told myself that it was finally time to overcome my difficulties with w.c., and began trying to conquer this elusive medium with serious intent.  I practiced for months in my sketchbook, as well as on good w.c. paper.  Yet, mostly what I produced were what I would consider "failures".  "Startling but True", might read the headline.

A perfect transparent watercolor, I am told, is a piece with no blemishes, no blooms or backwashes, and doesn't need to resort to opaque paint to fix your mistakes.   That means 0% room for mistakes.  Sure, Charlie, just what an artist needs to hear.  Maybe that's why it's virtually impossible to perfect it.  Watercolor is also the fastest of all mediums, provided you can do it right, and master artists make it look as though their 30 x 40 full sheet watercolor pieces were painted in about an hour. 

I've seen a few of these Chinese guys on You-Tube that are absolute masters at transp. w.c..  They start with a light underdrawing in pencil (some wise-guys don't even begin with pencil) and proceed to perform a perfect watercolor as if--I dunno.  Honestly, folks, I don't even know how to finish the sentence.  Are these people genius's?  Extraordinarily gifted?  Something in the drinking water? It's currently beyond my abilities as the humble Dude to rightfully explain it. 

Abandon not ye hope and read on!

Yet, when I took up the mantle to produce a suitable w.c. to exhibit in this newsletter, I actually succeeded fairly well.  Even to my standards of "non-failure" I considered it a reasonable success.  While I wasn't expecting an outright disaster, I still retain some shock at this positive outcome.

So here it is.  Done on 400 lb. cold press Fabriano w.c. paper in about 30 minutes.  The image was about 15 x 20.  The photo-ref is shown below.  But a purist technique this is not.  A few opaque touches and even some colored pencil were also added to the mix.  For me, these additions are unavoidable and give the transparent washes some nice contrast.  To see this mixed media technique in its full glory, check out illustrator John Gannam, (1907-1965) to see this mastery in full display.

Photo Reference

How did I do it?

As with most mediums the process itself can be simply explained.  I loosely pencilled in the girl's head, then brushed water over the whole thing so I could get that soft focus look when you're painting into a wet surface.  I used a broad 3/4" flat Silver brush for this stage.  From there, I just kept going until it was done.

The Hardest Part

For me, the hardest part in watercolor is going around the light areas, since my training as an opaque painter has taught me to do the opposite.  This "going around things" is the part that always feels unnatural to me.

Soldiering on for this demo, I kept the washes really light for the sun-bleached areas on the top of her head, and then moved onto the dark brown areas of her hair.  I did all this while the surface was still wet.  Since watercolor eventually dries, that's when I moved into more "detail-centric" areas.  On certain places that might dry with a hard edge, I'd lift that color up with a semi-wet brush, like around her eye-brows.  If you want a hard edge, paint it in and let that area dry.  Otherwise, once dried, float some water over that area to keep your next layers softly blended.  Stir to taste.

This process is the same way I've been doing it for 40 years.  Today, I just happened to do OK.  Tomorrow will bring new challenges, triumphs, and frustrations.

So you watercolorists out there, feel free to expound on what I've briefly chronicled here, and sound off on your own experiences.  Other artists out there would love to hear about your own trials and challenges.

Next time: Watercolor II, as we continue our exploration into the watery depths of paint and paper!



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1 comment

Yes a very challenging medium, l work in opaque medium as well (0il, Acrylic) and l find watercolor a refreshing change from other mediums and techniques. While tricky at times , l do like the spontaneity of watercolor and the happy accidents that usually occur. I have learned to put away my perfectionist tendencies with water colours , I find it the best approach for me. I paint figures as well as landscapes. Painting plein air with watercolors is the most enjoyable process for me .I try to bring to each mediums what l have learned from the other. Thanks for sharing your process.

Paul Schuurmans

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