When it comes to watercolor, I sometimes feel that I’m not really getting anywhere, and I’ve figured out why that is. Every time I start to study the medium and work on learning techniques and methods, I reach a point where I feel uncertain about what I’m doing. Maybe I don’t like the projects presented in the books I’m reading, or maybe I don’t seem to be getting the results I want with online tutorials or classes. I just feel “stuck” — and so, rather than keep pushing forward, I step back, decide that maybe another book or another course will be more helpful, and yep, I go back to “square one” and start all over again.
That’s exactly where I found myself yesterday as I went online and browsed “watercolor how-to” books at Amazon. My art library includes several watercolor books. In addition to Watercolour Painting with Aubrey Phillips, which I used as the basis of a 100-day creative project last year, my shelves hold the following:
A quick look through my “Kindle” library shows additional titles, including No Fail Watercolor, my most recent watercolor study textbook. Sad to say, I feel that I did fail at this no-fail course. I’ve failed mostly because I chose not to complete it. I worked my way through the first 40% of the book, then shrugged it off.
I’ve shared only one of the projects from the book. I completed the project not once but several times as you can see here:
If you go back to read those posts, you’ll see that I did learn a lot — from both the project instructions and from my own “hands-on” experience. I went on to complete a few other projects, all with some success, but none of the projects gave me a real feeling of satisfaction. Maybe it was because of the subject: more waves, more ocean scenes, a few fish swimming in the depths. As I turned the pages and came to the next project, found yet one more scene of the sea, I closed the book, shook my head, and decided this just wasn’t the right watercolor book for me.
Maybe that’s when the feelings of failing really hit me. Especially when I go to my art library shelves and see so many very good watercolor instruction books. How can I read so much about watercolor technique yet still know so little? How can I work on so many different projects, watch so many demonstrations, and follow so many tutorials only to still be struggling with watercolor?
I needed a fresh start, I decided. That was the purpose of my online search. If only I could find just the right book, just the right teacher, just the right lesson plan, maybe then I could make a little progress with watercolor.
After a bit of searching I found a book — part of the Kindle Unlimited program — and downloaded it. It is How to Paint in Watercolor From the Beginning by Alejandra Viscarra.
Now, most likely you can already see the foolishness here in what I’m doing. Why should I think that trying just one more book will make a difference? Isn’t this another classic example of doing the same thing over and over and expecting by some miracle to get different results?
Yes, it is, but no, not really, and well, maybe this time…
I downloaded the book, opened it, and found myself going through the same introductory chapters I’ve read in every other watercolor how-to book. Chapters on choosing the right paints, how to select the right brushes, the differences between various types of watercolor paper. This one adds information on stretching watercolor paper — helpful to know — and on the proper cleaning and storage of brushes. Definitely there is a lot of good information here.
Yet to be honest, I’ve read all of this good information before. I’ve taken some to heart, even while tending to ignore a lot of it. It was a bit discouraging, actually, and I muttered to myself, “Well, here I am again. Back at square one.”
It was then that I knew I needed to take a look at what was going wrong with my approach to learning watercolor. In looking back, I could show you many different watercolors I’ve made that are good. I’ve even sold a few watercolors, so my work can’t be all bad. After all of my studies, I do have a fairly solid understanding of different techniques. I’ve learned — finally — to create watercolor washes. I’ve learned to use different brush techniques. I’m getting much better at using the right water to paint ratios. Indeed, I have learned the basics here.
The real problem isn’t with any of the how-to books I’ve read or any of the videos I’ve watched. The problem is that I haven’t quite figured out which direction I want to go. There are, you see, many different watercolor styles. There’s direct watercolor as taught by Marc Taro Holmes. This involves painting directly on the page with very limited — if any — drawing. There’s realistic watercolor painting such as these lemons, demonstrated in an online tutorial here.
In contrast, there’s loose watercolor such as this gorgeous scene done by one of my favorite contemporary artists, Robin Miller Bookhout:
There’s pen and wash — a favorite of mine — and there’s watercolor abstract expression and watercolor doodling. I’ve tried them all at various times, yet I don’t really know what style best suits me. And so it is that I flounder around, trying a little bit of everything and never really working to become proficient with any method.
Liking what we do — even when we’re following along with a textbook or class — is a key to success, I think. So far, no book has really helped me pin down exactly how I want to approach watercolor. It’s really hard to choose a specific path to follow.
Mostly, I think the watercolor style I want to develop is a bit of a mix between realism and looseness. In browsing around, I came across this watercolor painting by Sophie Rodionov.
This probably best represents where I want to go with watercolor. The question is “How do I get there?” I don’t know. All I know is that I’m presently back at square one, but maybe now I can choose the proper pathway. That means working on projects that are similar in style to what I want to create and consequently skipping over projects — like more ocean waves — that don’t truly reflect my watercolor aspirations. It means finding artists whose work I admire and following along with tutorials they offer, perhaps even signing up for classes they teach.
Even though I’m back at square one now, I’m here with a better understanding of watercolors — as well as gansai and gouache — so I’m better prepared to move forward. I’ll be more discriminating now in the lesson choices I make, and I’ll focus on what I need to learn to help me create the watercolor art I love.
I’ll even go back through No-Fail Watercolor and the other how-to books I have, and follow along with projects there that are more suited to my style. Hopefully in this way I can not only make a good start — again — but maybe I can continue making progress with watercolor. Maybe I can finally move beyond square one.