If I were to ever compile a list of my all-time favorite rock songs, you can be sure that If by Bread would be near the top of that list. The song, to me, is as hauntingly beautiful today as it was the first time I heard it.

Perhaps one reason this song is so memorable is because “if” is a powerful word in any language. Writers are always advised to ask “What if…” as they put together strong plots. As an artist, I often ask myself, “What if I tried this…” If leads us to question, and then, perhaps to follow just to see where that little word might take us.

Another way I often use “if” in my art is as a theoretical confidence booster. It’s easy to look at a disappointing project and think, “Well, if I had done this…” or “If I had used that…” It’s a form of excuse-making, really, a way of shrugging off mistakes by thinking, “It would have been better, if…”

Today I challenged myself to look at all the if’s on a recent project. I repeated my ‘Sailing Away” watercolor painting for the fifth — and final — time. I’ve done it in the following media:

  • Traditional transparent watercolor
  • Japanese gansai
  • Acrylic gouache
  • Acrylic ink

Having done this watercolor project — essentially an exercise on flat washes and paint consistency — with different media and varying results, I’ve been able to make notes on things that work, things that don’t work, and along the way, things that might have worked if I’d done them. 

Before I go on, let me show you the four different version of the painting. Going clockwise we have the original watercolor version (you’ve seen this one before), then the gansai, the acrylic gouache, and finally the acrylic ink done using a mixed violet instead of blue.

Even while using different media, I tried to keep other variables as consistent as possible. I used the same inexpensive wood pulp watercolor paper for each painting as well as the same small brush for the sailboat. I did change from a flat nylon brush (used in the first painting) to a flat brush suitable for watercolor which I used in the remaining paintings.

Here are things I learned during this process:

  1. Use brushes that suit the medium.
  2. Cheap watercolor paper will always buckle, so expect problems if you use it.
  3. Lift color off with tissue as quickly as possible to get the best results.
  4. Allow each layer to dry thoroughly.
  5. Use clean water and clean brushes.
  6. Use the right size brush.
  7. Making color swatches to test colors is helpful.

Another thing I learned comes under the heading of “Personal Preferences”. If I am using traditional watercolors, I prefer tube paints over pan paints.

I should mention here, too, that originally I planned to do a version of this using my “shadow colors“, but working with the acrylic ink was difficult. I decided not to attempt the shadow colors.

Now, throughout this project, I continually made “if” remarks. If I used a better brush, I’d get better results. If I worked on better-quality paper, I would get better results. If I allowed the paint to dry as I should… if I made those test swatches… if, if, if. 

So, this morning I decided to put all those if’s to the test. Since this was originally a watercolor exercise, I chose to again use traditional watercolors. Instead of my tube paints, however, I decided to try the powdered pigments I have. I wanted to mix my own violet, and I liked the idea of each layer being slightly different, not only in value but also in hue.

I got out a block of Arches watercolor paper. I took my time. I assembled all my art supplies, right down to the thin tissue I’d be using to create the moon. Step by step, I took out all those “could have been better if…” excuses and did all the things I should have done all along. And the results?

Definitely better, I think, although not without a few problems. First, even the higher-quality Arches paper buckled slightly with the application of so many different washes. It didn’t produce the ripples and puddles and pools of paint, though.

The powered pigments I used didn’t blend as well as they have in the past. They’re nearly a year old, so maybe that’s why. It surprised me that I had problems mixing the paint. I also went too dark too soon, so I chose to make only three layers of waves.

“Sailing Away” – Powered Watercolor Pigments on Arches Cold Pressed Paper


Yes, using a watercolor brush made a difference and helped me improve my flat washes. Yes, using better watercolor paper did make a difference, even though it didn’t completely eliminate the buckling. Yes, letting each layer dry, and testing my colors on a separate sheet of paper were both helpful.

So, finally, I’m wrapping this project up and calling it complete. It was fun and educational to re-do this painting with different materials.

Now, whenever I find myself saying “It could be better if…” I’m going to stop myself and turn that “if” into a “when”… and then turn “when” into “right now.” To put it another way, IF I know I could get better results by doing something differently, I’m going to stop myself and do it right.




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