Remember My Hyacinths?

Recently I shared a book review — Girl in Hyacinth Blue — and along with the post, I shared a little thumbnail photo of hyacinth in bloom. It’s a lovely flower, and I commented that perhaps I’d try painting hyacinth. Later that same morning as I gathered up my watercolors for another lesson on learning to paint looser, my mind went quickly back to those beautiful blooms.

The subject was, I think, ideal for the technique I was learning. It’s a technique that involves making lots of little brush strokes, using different colors. This sounds very simple, but for me it was profound. One problem I’ve had with watercolor is that I tend to paint with it. But, wait, isn’t that what one is supposed to do with watercolor?

Yes, but when I say paint I’m referring to a process akin to painting a wall! That is, just laying down wide swaths of color, and then, in the case of watercolor, wondering why my paintings always look so… well, blah. My paintings are dull, boring, flat-looking, uninteresting. Need I go on?

True enough, though, flat wash is an important technique in watercolor, and it’s always been challenging for me to get smooth, even washes. I think I more or less got stuck there. Even when I was painting different subjects — such as the bluebird I shared — I was still trying to use watercolor to “fill in” different areas, albeit in a somewhat loose manner, but still taking a fill-in-the spaces-with-a-flat-wash-of-color approach.

Looking at my bluebird again, I can see steps in the right direction — a looser style — but, again, I was still painting with my brush.

That’s all starting to change now.

With my hyacinth piece, I began practicing a new — for me —  watercolor technique. Maybe it has a name, maybe not. I think of it as playing with little strokes of color, and it’s opened my eyes to a whole new way of looking at the art I’m creating.  As you know, I recently invested in a set of good quality “detail” brushes, and as I work with this new watercolor technique, I’m putting them to good use.

Here is my hyacinth painting — the first time I used this method of making lots of little brushstrokes.

With this painting, the technique was very new to me. I used a limited color palette, keeping the blooms of the flowers all in a small range of hues. Even here, however, I saw — and felt — how much more interesting a watercolor painting can become.

Shorter brushstrokes. Lots of brushstrokes. Tiny strokes. Lots of different colors. Those are the concepts I’m starting to work with now each time I pick up my watercolors. I’m especially intrigued by learning how to use lots of different colors to create “optical color blends”.

Color theory, according to Georges Seurat, involves the following principles:

  • LOCAL COLOR As the dominant element of the painting, local color refers to the true color of subjects, such as green grass or a blue sky.
  • DIRECT SUNLIGHT As appropriate, yellow-orange colors representing the sun’s action would be interspersed with the natural colors to emulate the effect of direct sunlight.
  • SHADOW If lighting is only indirect, various other colors, such as blues, reds, and purples, can be used to simulate the darkness and shadows.
  • REFLECTED LIGHT An object which is adjacent to another in a painting could cast reflected colors onto it.
  • CONTRAST To create contrast in a painting, complementary colors might be placed in close proximity.

For me, this is all still in the realm of the theoretical but in future watercolor — and oil paintings, too — I want to begin incorporating these “optical color blends”. I did play with these ideas just a bit when I did my recent “bare tree” practice painting.

Here is a very “close crop” of the lower front edge of the tree. You’ll see how I used tiny little “dabs” of yellow to suggest direct sunlight falling there.

For now, I’m mostly “dabbing” with local color, as I did with my watercolor hyacinths, using several different tints and shades of local color to create interesting effects. This is a major step forward in my painting, and I’m excited to play more with little bits and pieces of color, even in places where they might seem unusual.

I was very happy with my hyacinths, not because it’s an especially good watercolor, but because it’s a starting point toward new techniques and a new appreciation of color theory. And, of course, hyacinth blooms are also a sign of spring. It’s not here yet, but it’s coming, and I’m ready to celebrate the arrival of the season.

I’ll be celebrating with lots of walks in the woods — although many hiking trails remain closed at our nearby park, one is open again. As the weather turns warmer, I’ll be out on the trail with sketchbook and gansai in hand. I’m looking forward to it, and I’m especially looking forward to now seeing the world in colorful new ways.




  1. Yes i was always taught that with watercolour you build colour to get your secondary colours. I do gouache these days. More of a psinterly process.
    In saying that. Are there any rules these days? Didnt Jackson Pollack use housepaint?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. No, there really aren’t any rules, and that’s what I’m discovering now. It’s always been fun to play with colors, and now I can play with colors in so many different ways… it’s more fun than ever. I’m actually excited about watercolor painting now. I’m excited to try new “color techniques” in oil painting, too. I’m really looking forward to spring, to hiking on the trails, and having lots of fun.

      Liked by 1 person

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