March 07, 2016  •  1 Comment

Why Watercolor?

by Barbara Torke

CHIMAYO MARKETCHIMAYO MARKETwatercolor of an outdoor market in New Mexico

What is it that drives the amateur, the beginner, or even the professional, to paint with watercolor? Why do we want that free wash of color to rule our thoughts and expectations? There is no easy way. Watercolor is as allusive as butterflies and fireflies. The minute you put the brush to paper it changes, transforms, drops into oblivion, pales to ghostly shadow, weeps out of the lines, adores the other side of the page. Reflects a heavy blast of color.

It is not for weaklings. It is not for the faint of heart who would control and understand watercolor’s physics, or habits, and life rules. Green does this, blue does that. Yes, viridian gobbles up the space and hugs too tightly to the paper, undoing any plan of tree or bush you had. Some blues fade and pale, others are outside of life bright and unconscionable. Alizarin fades to pale pink. The right green is a traumatic wish, nothing more. Black becomes a hole instead of a bird. 

SAMSAMwatercolor of Sam cuddled into the Jacob's colors Afghan my mother made But still we are enamored with watercolor. Our little paint boxes lure us out into plein air. Our tubes make our fingers ache to make that perfect yellow sun, blue sky, green tree. 

The Chinese, Japanese and others of the silk and paper roads have used ink and watercolor for centuries. Paper is a lot of the reason. Calligraphy and sumi are two ways watercolor appears. It wasn’t until paper became more accessible in France in the 1700s that watercolor became popular in Europe. When England colonized India the officers ladies took their watercolors and sketchbooks with them. In the US explorers in the 17 and 1800s captured their explorations with watercolor. Audubon painted birds. Why not any novice?

watercolor of chickens kpecking at the ground
Well, then, why not? Let’s say watercolor is important to you, and you want to paint with it. Then do it. Learn from watercolor teachers. They’ll teach you techniques and tricks, and it all becomes easy. Not really, but it’s a start. What makes watercolor the love of your life is continual  study, and just plain perseverance. Set paintings you do around and watch them. Sneak up on them. Find the parts of a painting you love and cut it out, admire it, love it. The thing about watercolor is that it will tell you if it doesn’t like you taking charge. You get an overworked painting that is flat. It pouts and scowls in muddy grey and those awful greens. The paper reaches through and mumbles. 

Start over. Mix colors carefully, cleanly. Tear us bad paintings and use the back to try strokes and colors. Plan ahead. Limit your palette. Draw directly on the paper and leave it alone. Save whites. Do not try to layer until you love the original base. Layering is not a correction. But mostly, just paint. You can paint in watercolor and be successful, but don’t expect it to happen in a week- or a month, or by painting once a week. Dive in and stay immersed.

CANYON SPIRITSCANYON SPIRITSa fantasy piece on the canyon walls of the desert Why watercolor? We want to paint with watercolors because it is direct. It is fresh and airy. Watercolor catches the moment. It is spontaneous and whimsical. It takes a half hour (not to count the years of practice). It is bright and fun. It also can be very controlled and layered - if you have a life time to practice. Buy good materials. Respect the paintbrushes. Use good paper. Develop your own conventions, styles and shortcuts. Read books. Go to art shows and museums. 

The reason for watercolor started with the early people when they painted their caves. The reason we love it today is much the same. We want to make a mark, leave a story, show who we are. Watercolor is joyous. It uses us to be intense and available.

THE RED COATTHE RED COATwatercolor of classmates from the 1920.


Makes me appreciate Wayne's dedication to water color! Thanks
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