Trying, Keeping, Discarding

I’ve returned to watercolor in the past year, trying a lot of things, and realizing that some things are just not “me” and others are “me.”  This means there are styles of painting I just don’t care for – and ones I do – and what to do?

First, I think it is important to try something.  This way you gain a working knowledge.  This means repeat the situation a few times to learn the subtleties.  The brain works on an unconscious level and incorporates that knowledge.  Whether or not you continue down that path, you learn something and it is stored away somewhere in the mystery of the brain.

The painting above is a study I did out of Ted Kautzky’s classical work, Ways with Watercolor, which I bought when I was 16 with babysitting money.  Three colors only, and the variety of colors is amazing.  Restraint, self-control, forethought, execution, results, experience and knowledge.

And then, think about the experience.  Worthwhile?  Did you like it?  Were you a klutz?  Did you hate it?  Did you like it?  Do you want to move on?  My philosophy about work comes into play here:  learn what you hate about your job and what you love – then decide if you want to continue.  That applies to painting and art in general.  I like certain things and find other things not to my liking.

What I don’t like is a sense of constraint.  I like painting to be an experience – but to get good at something, you have to work.  So, I like free-flowing painterly watercolors.  To get there requires practice and experience.

When I was doing a lot of sumi-e, I hated the brushes and the paper – they had their own qualities which, one mistake, could ruin an attempt.  Eventually, though, I found some mastery over paper and ink and brush.  Part of that came from knowing my materials – which paper I liked, which brushes I liked, which ink and ink stone I liked.  Then I could begin mastery.  Poor quality brushes shed hairs; too-porous paper spread the ink to quickly.

The same is to be said for watercolor, which I have been drawn to since whenever.  However, I have scurried away from it, always annoyed with my style, with my lack of ability, with my lack of control.  I still deal with it today, but now that I am on the slippery slope of old age, such things seem like foolish wastes of my time.  Just do it!  Do it as often as possible!  To hell with the results – the experience itself leads to wherever it will lead.

Yes, I do know what I want to be able to produce.  I don’t want to rely on lines to contain a bad composition or execution of color.  If I do ink and watercolor, there will be a purpose for it – a reach for a particular style.  With watercolor, I may need to do (and will do) value studies and use a limited palette of colors to train my eye.  This is a form of restraint, but not an onerous one.

With Lines, Without Lines

Yosemite: Reflections at Mirror Lake

If you have been following this blog of late, you will know that I have been putzing around with watercolor on a more serious level than in a long time. (Really, more serious than ever before.) In the process, I have struggled with control of the medium, like all who begin with watercolors. Lines help when a painting fails, and sometimes lines add to a painting if that is part of its intended style.

Having done sumi-e for many years, I love lines and their expressiveness. I also like colors, and that is where self-control needs to show up the most. Think of Hawaiian shirts or 40s palm frond prints and you get the idea about my ideas of color – louder and more is the best!

This painting of Mirror Lake was very satisfying as I felt the use of sumi ink and colors worked well.

Grapes of Wrath (3)

The painting is inspired by a number of paintings I found when I googled “pears grapes watercolor” and chose images. There were a lot out there, and so I painted a number of grapes-and-pear paintings yesterday.

This is the one that pleases me the most. I like its painterly elements and the colors of both the grapes and the pears. It is the most controlled and thought-through of the series. I did not draw any pencil lines prior to painting it, but painted it freehand, recalling brushwork in sumi-e.   It’s easy to fall prey to haste in watercolor, to achieve a “painterly” look, but it really requires forethought, just as sumi-e does.

I did four paintings altogether in this series, which you can find under “My Other Lives” above.

Remembrance of Things Past

If I want to be honest – which sometimes I don’t want to be! – I never realized that in watercolor, as in sumi-e painting (which I haven’t done for a few years), the brush is important.  In sumi-e, brushwork is important as it expresses what color cannot – color is not found in sumi-e, only shades of blacks and greys and white, with the subject hinted at, not indicated in boldface!  Playing with leaves made me remember this . . .

Because my chronic struggle in watercolor always seems to be overworking and mixing too many colors together, I decided to pick up a book called Everyday Watercolor:  Learn to Paint Watercolor in 30 Days, by Jenna Rainey.  I figured some kind of disciplined plan could work.  Her style of painting is not necessarily my style of painting, but that was not important as far as I am concerned.  My concern was to stop making mud and to relearn what I have forgotten over the years.  The examples in Rainey’s book are pretty basic, pretty straightforward, and actually, a lot of fun to do.  It has helped me drop that little, nagging, nasty perfectionist who always criticizes.  Rather, it is far better to just do, and quit the role of critic.   She does studies such as shapes, allowing colors to bleed into one another; she discusses design in the abstract exercises with squares and circles.  There are simple exercises in drawing and painting trees with foliage in shadow, and depth, with lighter pine trees in the distance, and darker ones in front.

What do I find the most valuable in this book?  Crazily simple lessons.  Step 1.  Step 2.  Step 3.  Limited palettes of color.  Most how-to-watercolor books are wonderfully full of tantalizing pictures, but few that I have seen really drill down to making it simple.  I enjoy the work of watercolorists such as Winslow Homer – people with a loose, free style which I would love to emulate.  I am not a contained person in the sense of wanting to fill in the lines, like in a coloring book, but I also appreciate the disciplined approach of people like Birgit O’Connor, who paints huge flowers, beach debris, and so on.  I am still struggling with watercolors enough to have no style of my own – I am still attempting to master the brushwork, water, and colors.

Currently, I have just finished Day 11, which is wet-into-wet and some dry brush.  Like in dry-into-wet.  Something like that.  It’s a papaya.

I’m looking forward to 19 more days … sort of a diet!  And to date, no mud!


Brushwork and Value in Watercolor

Watercolor Brush Strokes a la Sumi-e


Having been doing sumi-e with some regularity for several years, I am finding it helpful in watercolor. Because the brush is the vehicle for watercolor, as it is in sumi-e, it is important to understand how the brush works.

Pencil Outline

Kolinsky sable watercolor brushes can be considerably stiffer than the white-haired sheep brush used in sumi-e, but much more flexible than the wolf and horse brushes, which have darker, more stiff bristles. Basically, a western watercolor brush combines both qualities in one brush, but this does not mean that it is the same at all! A good point is important for a Kolinsky round (I am using DaVinci Maestro Series 10s and Escoda Series 1212) just as it is with sumi-e brushes, as is the ability to carry water and color.

Layer 1

Many of the same techniques used in sumi-e can be applied to watercolor. These include brush strokes, such as increasing and decreasing pressure to change line thickness. Two or more colors may be applied to a brush, as in sumi-e when different ink intensities are applied. In Western watercolor, a brush stroke may be modified, working wet-into-wet, wet-into-dry, dry-into-wet, and glazing or layering colors. This does not work well in sumi-e, unless one is doing fine line Chinese painting.

Layer 2

The major differences between sumi-e and western watercolor are responsiveness of paper. Japanese and Chinese painting papers are generally much more porous than traditional Western watercolor papers. Heavily sized Asian papers are used for fine line painting, where color layers are used, and bleeding of ink, so characteristic in sumi-e, does not occur. Western watercolor papers will vary in the amount of sizing used, and this, in turn, affects the absorbent qualities of the paper. Knowing how a paper responds takes time and practice, whether in Asian painting, or Western.

Layer 3

Value in sumi-e is achieved in how the brush is loaded. Ink can be very pale, and while it is still damp, darker ink may be applied to good effect. A sumi brush can also be loaded with pale ink, then a medium ink, and finally a tip or dark, or even one edge of the brush in dark ink. The stroke of the brush creates all the gradations. In watercolor, value is achieved by layering, as well as working wet-into-wet. Layering, also known as glazing, is the application of wet paint on a previously painted layer which has dried. Glazes are also built up light to dark. Wet-into-wet can be sopping wet, or in varying degrees of dampness.  In some ways, wet-into-wet requires more self-discipline than glazing, which requires patience and forethought.


Each painting technique, sumi-e and watercolor, have similar techniques, as well as some which are exclusive to that medium. The key is to learn from both, and to master each.

All these paintings were based on demonstrations from Linda Stevens Moyer’s book LIght Up Your Watercolors Layer by Layer.