I was feeling a slight bit of frustration this morning when I sat down for another “watercolor lesson”. My lessons all come from various books, and recently — after feeling frustrated with No-Fail Watercolor — I’d downloaded a new one. Remember how I felt I was going back to square one? Those feelings were definitely with me again as I scrolled through page after page after page of “introductory information” about watercolor painting. It’s all important information, of course. We need to know about the paints, about watercolor paper, about using the right brushes, and yes, we even need to know about color theory. Of course, I’ve read all of this before. I know the basics about watercolors, watercolor paper, watercolor brushes, and yep, color theory, too. This isn’t what I need right now.
What I need is practical, hands-on experience in using those paints, paper, and brushes. I need opportunities to put the knowledge I do have to use, and here is where I’ve come to a stumbling block with watercolor how-to books. There are so many different ways to use watercolor! The lessons I’m finding aren’t really helping me develop the style in which I want to paint. Of course, it’s good to learn a variety of methods, right? That’s the approach I’ve been taking, and time after time, I’ve come away disappointed, feeling that I’m not really making any progress, simply because the paintings I’ve done aren’t the sort of paintings I want to do.
By the time I reached any actual painting project in the book, I was almost out of the mood for doing art this morning. The instructions given in the book I’m reading now — How to Paint in Watercolor from the Beginning — are fairly general, and for me, that’s probably a good thing really, because what I most need now – I think — is simply more practice at trying things on my own, figuring out what works and what doesn’t. Instead of spending time trying to re-create watercolor paintings from books and tutorials, I think it might be better for me to just put the books aside and play with different methods.
This morning I chose to work with the “wet on wet” watercolor technique. Wet paper. Wet paints. As a learning experience, I went to extremes here. For me, that’s always a useful learning tool.
I didn’t just wet my paper. I soaked it until it was dripping with water. I didn’t just have wet, juicy paints, I had them very wet. The result was a very loose — and very pale — landscape scene. It’s not a great watercolor painting, but it was a very helpful exercise.
I’ve done “wet on wet” watercolor before, but this time it seemed a bit different. This time, I wasn’t just “following the rules” about what I was “supposed” to do. This time I was deciding for myself what I wanted to try, which colors I wanted to play with, which of my brushes I wanted to use.
By going to extremes with this method, I think I now have a better awareness of how to use “wet on wet”. I like some of the effects I was able to create in the sky by using a LOT of water. I wasn’t so happy with the tree line, mostly because having so much water made it difficult to create the effects I wanted or get darker values.
I happily let my paint “bloom” wherever it wanted, and later — as the paper dried a bit — I used an angled brush to give a few trees more definition. It was enjoyable to watch the paint move on the page and to work with the colors to create a scene instead of working against the paints.
The reason I’m learning watercolor is because I do find it fun, and by throwing away the books and just playing with the different techniques I’ve learned in the past, I think maybe I’ll enjoy watercolor even more. On my own, it might take me longer to develop the style I really want, or maybe not. Maybe following my own artistic instincts will actually help me find my way.
Of course, I won’t really be tossing all those watercolor books out. They’ll stay in my art library, and from time to time I’ll probably turn to them as references. And later I might change my mind here. I might decide that I need more direct one-on-one instruction. I could find myself going back to those books or looking online for watercolor tutorials.
For now, though, going off on my own seems like a very good idea. Much like a child who’s been riding a bike with training wheels, I’ve come to that point where the wheels need to come off, if only so I can see whether or not I’ve actually learned anything at all. I think I have learned… maybe even more than I realize. But as long as I’m following along on step-by-step projects — that I might not even like — I’ll never truly see what I can do on my own.