I get a lot of people asking for my advice on watercolor painting. The majority of this text was written in March 2011, and I’ve been sitting on it, because, well, I don’t feel like an authority on the matter. But I’ve been getting inquiries, so here’s what I have. I hope it helps.
Here is my most basic of basic advice for people painting with watercolors:
If the painting is bad, do something to it. If the painting is not bad, leave it.
Let me elaborate. You can’t force watercolors to be “good.” You’re dealing with bad and not bad. “Good” is achieved through practice. Yes, I know it’s cliché to say. It’s still true. Through creating a multitude of watercolors, eventually your ability will show. It’s practice.
Watercolors are intuitive. They’re a dance with physics: you’re playing with the surface tension of the water and how much pigment that’s in each drop. It’s difficult to reverse any marks; in fact, it’s better to not even try. The balance of water to pigment is purely experimental and experiential; eventually you’ll be able to tell when your brush has too much water or too much pigment. And the ratio is strictly to your choosing. There isn’t a right or wrong, just what you desire each mark to be. And if the mark doesn’t do it, then that’s that.
It’s an irreversible process. Once you’ve done something, it’s done. You must accept it. You must move on. So there’s the bad and the not bad. “Good” will come. If it’s bad, then it doesn’t matter if you keep working on it. If it’s not bad, it’s probably better to leave it and go on to a new painting. I think the number one thing that’s important in watercolor paintings is for them to not look overworked. You need to trust yourself. The water will do it’s own thing, and you’ve got to let it do it. It’s not a fight; it’s a dance. You must learn acceptance.
At this point in time, I have done so many paintings, I know what each brush I own will do, how each color will look when mixed with what, how much water to use, when it’s the right time to blot, and on and on. They aren’t real things I’ve achieved, exactly; they’re what feels right to me. And I’m not sure if I really know these things at all, or if I’ve gotten really good at being okay with whatever happens on the page.
You also have to be fearless. Who knows if that purple will look weird until you try it? It could be great!
Watercolors are a precious medium because you can’t retract. I think it’s a healthy mental exercise for anyone. There isn’t an undo. Every mark will leave residue, no matter how much you try to blot at it. Painting with watercolors is an exercise in trust. No hang-ups. Be fearless. Pick up the brush and go at it. And even if it’s bad, you can paint another one… and another one… and another one…