I’ve often quoted those well-known lines from Robert Burns: “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men. Gang aft a-gley”. Maybe I’ve always quoted it because it’s so much fun to say, or maybe I’ve quoted it so many times because there’s some fundamental defect in my ability to successfully plan things. Most of the time when I make plans, I can count on them to fall through or go awry in one way or another.
Yesterday morning, I had plans, you see, to spend an interesting, productive, and hopefully educational morning at my easel doing a series of watercolor projects, and had you asked me on Sunday evening if I were prepared for the coming day, I would have assured you that I was, indeed, ready to get right to work.
Obviously things didn’t go quite the way I planned, but before I get to that, let’s back up to Sunday. Even then things just didn’t work out as planned. My grand-daughter Kayla was going to come over for a play-day in the studio. Basket-weaving, remember? We had a few other things on the agenda, as well, but, alas, it was not to be. She woke up with a horrible migraine — she suffers terribly from them — and, of course, we cancelled our plans and will reschedule our projects for another time. Things happen.
So then came Monday morning. I headed to the studio, ready to get to work on my project — which actually involved several media. The plan was to follow along with a basic “beginner’s tutorial” for a simple watercolor painting using (a) traditional watercolors, (b) Japanese gansai, (c) acrylic gouache, (d) acrylic ink, and maybe (e) my Japanese “shadow” color inks.
The painting project itself was a very simple one, essentially a study on paint-to-water ratios, and the flat wash technique. Here’s how the completed painting was supposed to look:
Definitely easy enough for a beginning watercolorist, right? This would be fun, and doing it with various media would give me a chance to really see and feel the differences between “western” watercolors and “eastern” watercolors, between watercolor and acrylic gouache, and between different pigmented inks. I was really looking forward to this project.
I resolved, too, that I would do everything possible to ensure my success. I started with a supply checklist, getting out all of the materials needed. I then prepared my paint using my large butcher tray porcelain palette. I love this palette. If you don’t have one, I highly recommend getting one if you do much watercolor or acrylic painting. They come in various sizes, are easy to use, and easy to clean!
First, I taped my watercolor paper to my painting board. So far, so good. At least, that’s what I told myself.
I want to point out here, that yes, I am using very inexpensive materials. This is for fun, not in hopes of creating a masterful work of art, but simply part of the process of learning basic watercolor techniques. I knew that using very low quality paper would affect the finished painting, and I was all right with that.
Another important step I took before I started was to read through the complete project instructions. In the past, this has often been a stumbling block for me. I’ve learned to read all the steps ahead of time, be sure I understand them fully, and feel confident that nothing will catch me by surprise.
I also made sure that little Flower Child, our playful cat, was comfortably cat-napping upstairs, away from the studio. So, no distractions, no worries about her getting into things she shouldn’t. I could focus on my art.
And so I began, and despite my best efforts, things just didn’t go as planned. The paint I chose for my first “western traditional watercolor” version was a tube of Daler-Rowney cerulean blue. These are inexpensive paints, and I have a good supply of them. They’re good enough for me to use and enjoy as I learn. The problem I faced on Monday, however, was that the Daler-Rowney watercolors I have in my studio are the same ones I bought back in 2016 when I first tried learning to use watercolors. I squeezed out a bit of paint into the water on my palette, but it didn’t want to flow evenly and smoothly. I had to continue mixing with my brush for a long time to get a smooth “tea-consistency” of water and pigment.
Next, I began my first flat wash for the project. That’s when I realized I’d made a mistake in choosing a nylon bristle brush. Synthetic bristles just aren’t suitable for watercolor projects. They don’t hold the paint and water well. So, chalk that mistake up to me. I should have known better. Well, I did know better, but I carelessly put the wrong brush with my supplies. Lesson learned. Next time I’ll work with a brush more suited to the medium.
I completed my first wash layer and quickly grabbed a tissue-wrapped coin to create a “sun” by lifting color from the page. My tissue lifted little, if any, color. I could barely see the sun. Oh, well. I tried.
Having finished the first wash, I set the project aside to dry. That’s when I realized how much time this project would actually require. Each layer — and there would be many of those — would need a considerable amount of time to dry.
I waited a few minutes, decided to use a blow-dryer to speed the process up, but where was it? I vaguely recalled my husband doing something with the dryer, but between the two of us, neither one knew where it was. So I grabbed another hair-dryer from the bathroom. That did help speed the process up a bit.
In between washes, I used a #8 round brush (with natural bristles) to practice painting sailboats. They weren’t nearly as simple as they seemed.
Give me credit for trying.
Somewhere between the fourth and fifth washes, I stopped for lunch. It was good to take a break, but how discouraging to realize that my day was half over already and I hadn’t finished even the first of my planned series of simple paintings.
After lunch I returned to the studio and finally completed my version of “Sailing Away”. You’ll see that I had the right idea although I wasn’t able to successfully copy the painting — which is all right.
In many ways, I got what I expected — a reasonably good attempt at copying a watercolor. Yes, the results might have been better had I used higher-quality paper and a brush designed for watercolor.
Even with better materials, though, I doubt that my flat washes would have been much smoother. It’s a technique I continue to work on. The next time I do this project (and I do plan to paint this scene several times with various media) I will use a better brush. Maybe I’ll use better paper, too, just to see for myself if it makes a difference for me. It might make a difference to an artist who works a lot with watercolor, but for me… well, that’s something I’m interested in checking out.
What I liked most about this project was seeing how the consistency of the paint changed as I added more pigment. I could feel the difference as it moved from “tea-like” to “creamy”. While I can see a good difference between each of my first three layers — the sky and the first two sets of waves — the third, fourth, and fifth layers of waves aren’t clearly distinguishable. My waves also mellowed out a bit, too.
As for the sailboat, at least it’s there. The sun behind it, however, is not visible at all. I guess it turned out to be a cloudy day at sea.
This exercise has been a good one, and if you’re wanting to practice flat washes, this is a great way to do it! I think it’s helped me with my watercolor art by showing me specific areas where I need to work:
- Flat washes
- Lifting techniques
It’s helped me too as I look at how carefully I planned — or, that is, how carefully I thought I’d planned. It turns out I could have done much better there, too.
- Remember to allow more than enough time for any painting projects you do. Take into account not just the steps required for making brushstrokes, but for drying time, as well.
- Double check your materials list. Be sure you have not only the right brush sizes, but that those brushes are suitable for watercolor — or whatever other medium you’re using.
- Replace old paints, or, be willing to accept results that might not be as good as they could have been. My 5-year-old tube watercolors were usable, but I’m sure newer paints would have been easier to work with and would probably have looked better.
Overall, I’m not disappointed with today’s results. I knew going in that my inexpensive supplies, and my limited skills would not add up to a masterful watercolor. The purpose of the project was to work on my flat washes, learn more about paint/water ratios, and practice layering. I achieved my objective in each of those areas.
So, even if things today didn’t go exactly as planned, it was still a good morning in the studio. I didn’t accomplish all I set out to do, but I made a good start. Now, in coming days, I’ll be doing this exercise again with different media, better brushes, and a better plan of action.