What is still often considered a sketching medium by many traditional artists (acrylic and oil painting taking the top spots for fine art media), I am continually drawn to watercolours. I like how watercolour can be used for quick sketches while travelling, for landscapes and portraiture, and experimental abstracts. Their transparency and ability to layer allow for many different techniques to be used, and are easily combined with inks or gouache paint to create different effects and feelings. Experimenting is an enjoyable part of the process, and I've used everything from tape to plastic wrap to salt to create textures.
I often end up explaining why I have chosen to be a watercolourist. More than anything, I think that it reflects me as a person. I like how much of the painting process depends on going with the flow. Being able to control the medium is important, but even skilled watercolourists know that sometimes you just have to let the water do what it whats. I’ve learned this lesson many (many) times while painting the Northern Lights.
I first got into watercolours in high school, mostly because as a water-based art, they’re not too difficult to clean up and rarely leave any lasting damage on fabrics (i.e., my carpet). I’m quite messy when I paint, so this suits me well. Out of the different types of paints, watercolour also tends to be the most inexpensive and accessible. Paints last a very long time, and paper is easy to find. It’s also portable, so I tend to carry around a couple of brushes, a small notebook, and a tiny palette. Perfect for sketching on the go, or setting up at a class.
Years later, my medium of choice is still watercolour. Over time, I’ve learned so much about the medium and skills that come in handy when you are working with watercolour. I have also noticed that there are some important painting and life skills that most watercolorists possess.
- Patience. Waiting for paint to dry can test your patience; waiting for the water to dry to a slight gloss on the paper (not too dry, but also not sopping wet) is an even bigger test. Allowing yourself to give in to the medium and let it take the time it needs is essential.
- Understanding. Knowing how the pigments interact with water and their interactions with the paper takes lots of practice. Sounds simple, but getting things just right is a learning process. Even when I try out a new brand of paint or a different type of paper, it takes some testing until I feel comfortable with the materials.
- Fearlessness. Unlike some other mediums, you often only have one chance at a layer of paint. If you start too light or too saturated, there is no going back. Luckily paper is relatively inexpensive, so over time you start to learn to just go for it and accept that every painting can’t be perfect.
- Planning. Though as an artist I mostly make decisions based on whims and feelings, some initial planning is required. I've found it helpful to at least have a general sketch where highlights and white space will be left, making time spent painting less stressful.
- Structure. There are some basic principles or rules that help make the painting process more enjoyable. Watercolour purists will tell you never to use black or white paints, rather let the paper shine through for highlights or mix colours for depth. Sometimes I like to follow the rules of watercolour, and other times (much to the distress of many art instructors) I prefer to make up my own style and break all the rules. You have the freedom to do what works for you. You are the artist, after all. It’s your vision, creativity, and emotions that will shine through.
So is watercolour the medium for you? Use your skills and choose a painting style that works for you.