Thursday, November 12, 2015

Painting with water

The Quest for New-ness continues and, for the past four weeks, it’s involved a class in watercolors. Friends were taking it, and it was going to be pure fun. Then I saw the supply list.

Here I was, all prepared with my flat little tin boxes with the little cakes of color in them. But the list named specific colors like quinacridone rose, cerulean blue, cobalt blue. Well, obviously, that went beyond little blue cakes. We were going to a whole new level: watercolor in tubes.

The first shock was how much tubes of watercolor cost. And in the stores, different brands had vastly different prices. I was looking at the cheap ones, and the sales guy came over and said, “That won’t mix well. It’s just a hue, not a pigment.” ??

So, of course, I should have known the brush purchase was going to be just as complicated. Is a synthetic brush worse than a natural one? What kind of bristles? I don’t need many excuses to spend time in art supply stores, but these decisions took hours.

Armed with all my new little toys, I went to class. This is the BIG THING I’ve learned: with watercolor, the water does the work. We actually painted our paper with plain water and then added the color to let it bleed into the wetness. We put wet paint on dry paper, wet paint on top of wet painted paper. We even flicked paint from a stiff toothbrush onto wet paper. Some of them came out like Rorschach test blobs, but we were encouraged to play, to let happy accidents happen.

You’re probably looking at my illustrations and thinking, “Doesn’t she already paint?” I paint with acrylics. When acrylics dry, they stay dry. I can paint next door to one color without worrying about the colors mixing and turning to mud. Between colors, I write. As soon as they’re dry, I paint some more. Then I write. But with watercolors, they can always get wet and wake up again. Get them too wet, and they flow into all their neighbors. I tend to err on the side of wet so I make a lot of rivers and they tend to overflow their banks.

Which doesn’t matter a bit if you’re playing and creating happy accidents!

When I was a little girl, I used to watch “Learn to Draw with Jon Gnagy” on Saturday morning television. Jon Gnagy would give us shapes to draw, lines to add, and shading to round it out. Then we would create the same picture Jon Gnagy did, give or take some talent. The best Hanukkah present I ever got was my own Jon Gnagy art set with all his special tools: the kneaded eraser, charcoal sticks, blending pencils. But Jon Gnagy never said, “Play around.”

Our instructor, Amanda Saxton, believes in enjoying art, in experimenting. So our first class, we made sky. With clouds. The next class we made mountains. My mountains seemed sort of extraterrestrial to me, like the mountains on another planet.

Then Amanda brought in irises for us to draw and paint. Amazingly, we started by drawing the shape of the petals with just water. Adding the purple let it bleed into the water, take its soft shape. I finally managed my overwatering problem so my colors could get more intense. And now, because I am such a big baby who laps up positive reinforcement, I feel compelled to tell you Amanda’s reaction: “Barbara, this iris could be in a show.” She is such a great teacher!

Tonight, we had lilies. Lilies are harder because they have white edges. How do you paint a snowman on white paper? Yes, I know here on the blog, I’d just outline it in black, but that’s because here they’re more like doodles. Fortunately, my lily was aging a bit, so its edges were kind of yellowing. Almost cheating, but not quite.

Just as I learned that my Third Third needed to have structure, I think I’m learning that in art, too. When I “just play,” I tend to get a lot of mud. Red, yellow, and blue make brown, after all. But when I have a thing to paint – and next week we move on to animals – I have to put my paint in specific places. I have to think about whether it’s darker underneath or on top, whether this color overlaps that one. I have to really look at what I’m painting.

Really looking at things – that’s only good, too.


  1. Wow! Your flowers are are gorgeous. I like the way you have shaded the colors in the petals, stems, and leaves.

  2. Watercolors are difficult. You've made it look easy...carry on.


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