Watercolor – A Direct Approach

Just when I think I’m getting the hang of watercolors… just when I’m starting to feel a bit more at ease, a bit more expressive, and — dare I say it? — a bit more confident with watercolors, along comes another challenge to show me again just how much I don’t know.

DWChallengeNow, challenges are optional. When they come along — as they do so often in the art community — we don’t have to accept them. This particular challenge is one I probably have no good reason for taking on, but somehow when the message about it came, I ended up clicking buttons without realizing it, and I found myself not only accepting the 30 x 30 Direct Watercolor Painting Challenge, but also becoming a member of the Urban Sketcher’s group on Facebook!

The link provided above will take you directly to Citizen Sketcher, the blog of Marc Taro Holmes. He’s an incredible watercolor artist, author of Direct Watercolor Painting, and the founder of the 30 x 30 Challenge.

As you can probably guess, the idea of the challenge is to create 30 paintings in 30 days using the direct watercolor method. OK, fine. What is direct watercolor painting? That was my first question once I realized I’d clicked to join and had been accepted into the challenge group.

Direct watercolor is still a mystery to me, despite having read and re-read the group’s info blurb:

We will be working in watercolor, as directly as possible. That implies minimal underdrawing, (or none at all!), and working wet-in-wet with as few after-action touches as possible. (‘Yes’ to restating darks and highlights, ‘No’ to multiple layers of glazing).

Carnival (2)For the most part, when working wet-in-wet, all I’m able to do is create lovely swirls of color and call them “watercolor abstract expressions“, like this recently finished work called “Carnival”.

I love the colors, I like the playfulness of the painting, and I had fun creating it. But, I stop short of calling it — or any of my wet-on-wet abstracts — watercolor art.

They’re merely watercolor play, random accidents of paint spilling across a page. Fine for having fun, but not the sort of direct watercolor art this 30 x 30 challenge involves.

The first thing I did was to read Direct Watercolor Painting, thinking that going straight to the source might help me better understand what this method is all about. He writes that it’s sometimes useful to define something not by what it is but by what it’s not.

  • Direct watercolor is NOT obsessing over details but focusing on silhouettes, shapes, and watercolor texture.
  • Direct watercolor is NOT about building up slowly, layer by layer, but trying to capture the subject all at once.
  • Direct watercolor is NOT about realism. If that’s what you want, he says, take a photo.
  • Direct watercolor is NOT about perfection. It’s about learning to love those bleeds, blossoms, and stray drops of color.

Well, that doesn’t help me a lot, especially when I scroll through the Facebook group and see hundreds of watercolor paintings in dozens of styles, all professing to be direct watercolor.

For my own purposes — and sanity, I suppose — I’ve had to come up with a working definition for direct watercolor. To me, it simply means painting without using any preliminary drawings, completing the painting all at once, and using watercolor itself to do any drawing directly on the page. I’ve mostly worked with wet or damp paper, but that doesn’t really seem to be a requisite for this thing called direct watercolor.

According to the group leaders — Marc Taro Holmes and Uma Kelkar — the important thing about the challenge is simply the benefit derived from painting every day. It’s a chance to try new things, to explore watercolors in new ways, and to learn from the community.

Still, every time I post, I can’t quite get away from the feeling that I’m doing something wrong, that I’m not really following the rules, and that… well, that old, nagging feeling that I don’t really belong here returns.

Even before this challenge began, I was working and playing every day with my watercolors, so the daily routine was already well-established. And yet I found myself at a loss when the challenge began on June 1. What was I supposed to paint?

The answer, of course, is anything and everything. I can paint whatever I want.

What I’m doing with the challenge is making it an extension of my watercolor warm-ups, daily practice, and the 100-day creative art adventure I’m on. I approach each day with the idea of trying something new, finding something I can learn about through that day’s painting experience.

It’s reassuring that now and then my paintings get a few “likes” and even a few comments from other group members, but that’s not what this challenge is all about. It’s about helping each of us who participate become more comfortable and more confident in our use of watercolor.

So I’m playing along, taking it day by day, and learning what I can from the experience. I’ve practiced painting loose, impressionistic scenes like the water below, more realistic but loose watercolor drawings such as the plants, or the painting of Woof-Woof, one of our stuffed dogs, and I’ve played with colors in paintings like the bouquet of flowers.


Each day I try something a little bit different, and each day I learn something from the process. And when June ends and July begins, I’ll be more than ready for World Watercolor Month!

Challenges can definitely be fun, but they can also be… challenging. Maybe that’s what we need now and then.



  1. I agree about not getting a very straightforward definition of direct watercolor from the group. I was very happy to find your writeup, which was crystal-clear. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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