Fish Market, Venice

Watercolour for the beginner: the right choice?

Watercolour for the beginner seems to have a powerful attraction. I used to be a member of a local art group. We held regular exhibitions and although a typical exhibition would include a few pastels and an occasional oil or acrylic, the overwhelming majority of paintings would be watercolours. Mine included.

What is it that draws the amateur painter to watercolour?

Is it because the works of some of the most popular watercolourists such as Edward Seago, Frank Brangwyn and Edward Wesson look so simple they give you a feeling of ‘I could do that’? There’s certainly something appealing about watercolour when it is used in a bold, direct way – or “splashy”, as John Pike described it – even if it does not take long to discover that it’s not as simple as it looks: ‘I could do that’ inevitably gives way to ‘How do they do that?’.

A more mundane reason for choosing watercolour is that it is a relatively clean medium to work with – important if, like most amateur artists, you don’t have the luxury of a studio and you normally work at home. Other media, such as oil or pastel, are messy and potentially hazardous. Watercolour equipment is minimal, easy to set up and clear away – ideal for the part-time painter.

Watercolour for the beginner: Fishing Port, Italy

But does the convenience of watercolour make it a wise choice for the beginner? It’s often said that watercolour is an unpredictable medium and that any attempt to control it completely will be at the expense of the medium’s freshness and transparency. Even an artist as accomplished as Richard Schmid only paints the occasional watercolour because he finds the experience so demanding.


the difficulties of watercolour 

From my own experience, I have to admit that watercolour is probably not the right choice for the beginner. I have a number of reasons for believing this but the two most important are:

  • the technical challenges of the medium
  • the difficulty of correcting mistakes

I know that both reasons are often quoted in comparing watercolour to other media, but I want to explore the implications specifically for the amateur painter setting out using watercolour as a first medium.

Watercolour for the beginner: At The Bar

technical challenges

At its simplest, painting is no more than mixing the required colour and applying it to a support. With oil, for example, it is possible to use pigments straight from the tubes and apply them to the canvas. Even if a little oil medium is added to the paint to improve flow, it has a negligible effect on the intensity of the final colour. What you see on the palette is what you get on the canvas – and provided the support is suitably prepared (primed) the colour will not change over time.

Contrast this with watercolour. First of all, watercolour pigments can’t be used straight from the tube: they must be mixed with water to make them workable and to give the required colour intensity (saturation). But the appearance of watercolour paint changes as it dries on the paper. At the very least it will become lighter (less saturated) and lose the sparkle of a wet wash. This is why the efforts of amateur watercolourists often look ‘wishy-washy’. But there could be a number of other unexpected changes. For example,

  • flocculation/granulation: a tendency of some pigments such as French Ultramarine and Coerulean Blue to settle as a granular deposit in the hollows of the paper – more noticeable if the paint is applied generously to the paper.
  • grittiness: the result of not thoroughly mixing the paint and water.
  • backruns: an unpleasant rosette or ‘flower’ effect caused by painting into or up to a wash that is not completely dry.

With oil painting, the support may be regarded as inert and the pigments as essentially uniformly opaque. By contrast, watercolour paper is designed to interact with the watercolour wash; and the pigments, as a consequence of their transparency, have individual characteristics which affect their behaviour on the palette and on the paper. Getting the hang of watercolour involves a good grasp of the properties of particular watercolour papers and pigments. Let’s consider the paper first.

The most important property of watercolour paper is its absorbency. This will affect how quickly the paint dries and how much it loses intensity. Manufacturers control absorbency by sizing the paper: some papers are surface-sized, others are internally-sized and some are both. The problem is that different papers have different absorbancies and behave differently. For a beginner, the wrong choice of paper can lead to discouragement more quickly than anything else. My early efforts were with cartridge paper – recommended as a practice paper in ‘how to’ books of the day – and it cost me many hours of wasted effort.

A lot of the unpredictability of watercolour is down to its most appealing quality – its transparency. The problem is that watercolour paints are not uniformly transparent; some of the most popular colours e.g. Light Red, Yellow Ochre and the cadmium pigments have a degree of opacity even in fairly thin washes. Experienced watercolourists often exploit this property: they use it to suggest texture, to contrast with areas of transparent colour, and to create dark accents. But, for the beginner, who usually expects his colours to behave consistently and produce clean, transparent washes every time, it can be disappointing and frustrating to find that what was intended as a delicate glaze has obscured and muddied a carefully-prepared underpainting.

Another property of some paints that the novice watercolourist needs to be aware of is staining. Staining colours include alizarin crimson and the synthetic (phthalocyanine) colours such as Winsor Red, Winsor Yellow etc. Most paints work by depositing a fine layer of pigment on the surface of the paper but the staining colours actually stain the paper fibres. They are usually very transparent and have a high tinting strength (useful for flower subjects). I tend to avoid the staining colours (alizarin crimson excepted) for two reasons:  firstly, corrections are difficult because the colour can’t be washed out and secondly, they can produce dull, dead results in mixtures and when applied as glazes. American watercolourist Christopher Schink tells us that this is because staining colours actually stain the pigments of other colours they come into contact with both on the palette and on the paper.

You can learn a lot about paper and pigments simply by reading about them. However, understanding how paper, paint and water interact can only be achieved through practice and experiment. Sir William Russell Flint insisted that the only technical ‘trick’ that he knew was control of the medium. Control is knowing how much colour to pick up with the brush to produce a particular effect, how wet the paper should be when working wet-in-wet, how to blend colours on the paper without creating backruns and so on. Much of this control is down to timing. Timing is important not only, for example, in  knowing precisely when to apply colour to damp paper but also because it creates feelings of urgency and uncertainty. I still find watercolour painting a slightly stressful activity, even when I am confident of what I am doing. For the beginner, it can be discouraging to discover that the painting process always seems to be tainted by mild anxiety.


the problem of correcting mistakes

With opaque media, you can simply paint over your mistakes and no-one is the wiser. With watercolour, corrections usually involve lifting out paint by gently scrubbing the paper with a brush or sponge. How successful this will be largely depends on the paper and the particular pigment you are trying to remove. Lifting out works better with some papers than others: Arches, for example, is unforgiving in this respect while Bockingford cleans up quite well. Papers also vary in surface toughness: some papers are easily damaged by scrubbing – especially if you use a bristle brush.

Even if you work with a paper that does allow lifting out, repeated brushing or sponging may remove the sizing from the paper surface. Paint applied subsequently to these areas will tend to sink into the paper and lack the freshness and sparkle of surrounding washes. (For me, this is one reason for never attempting to correct a watercolour by immersing the painting in water and sponging the whole surface.)

Like papers, some pigments lift out better than others. The staining pigments, for example, stain the paper fibres and will not wash out completely. I gave up using Burnt Umber many years ago mainly because it left an unpleasant speckled appearance after lifting out. So knowing your pigments is important if you want to make clean corrections.


the bottom line

I could go on but the point I am trying to make here is not just that watercolour is a technically demanding medium but that for the novice painter it is also a distraction – it directs his focus and energies away from more important matters in learning to paint – namely, drawing, composition and colour. All too often the beginner will fall into the trap of abandoning a painting prematurely either because he considers it overworked or conversely (and perversely) because he’s unsure how to proceed and is afraid of spoiling what he’s already done. The overworked painting and the ‘precious’ painting are familiar to anyone who has struggled with watercolour.

Looking back, I realise that my obsession with watercolour was a definite hindrance to my progress as a painter. I know now that there are other media options no less convenient, such as gouache and acrylic, both of which may be used transparently like watercolour or opaquely like oil.

So, are there ways to make watercolour a more manageable medium for the beginner?

I believe there are and my aim, in subsequent posts, will be to identify the major obstacles to making progress in watercolour and to suggest ways to overcome them.

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