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              Watercolor: Teaching the Unteachable

(Click on any image to enlarge)

Of all the mediums, watercolor is the most idiomatically unique. After all, the vehicle used to move the pigment is water. And, what is more “Zen”- like and quixotic than water? Its very nature conjures up images of rivulets, streams and rivers, meandering across uneven terrain, skirting obstacles, and seeking the path of least resistance.

Try grabbing a handful of water some time, and see what you come up with. It has a remarkable thirst for freedom, and resistance to containment. The beauty, and identity, of a stream lies in its continuous motion. A photograph of a stream is no more “stream” than a photo of a man running can be called “running”. We harness streams and rivers into utilitarian reservoirs, to be controlled and utilized for our needs. However, like penned “wild” horses, the containment strangles the water’s very nature, and its aesthetic beauty.

So what’s the point? Well, I feel that when an artist selects watercolor as his (or her) medium, they make it incumbent upon themselves to not only understand the very nature of their vehicle (water), but become “one” with it. Striving for less chokes the very spontaneity from a medium that craves to be a partner in the creative process.

Frankly, there’s nothing more boring than “stay within the lines” watercolors. They are the very antithesis of the nature of the medium. It’s like a wish to have all streams be straight as canals. The beauty of watercolor lies in its capriciousness. It has a voice that needs to be heard in each painting.

A good watercolorist learns to give up his ego to the medium. He draws and plans, but, in the execution of the painting, he is prepared to allow the water to take him in directions that he could never have dreamed of. Only then does the watercolorist know that he is not the “Doer”, but merely and conduit for “That” which sources creation itself.

If you are thinking that relinquishing a measure of control to the unexpected can lead to disaster – you are right. Conversely, nothing of value has ever been accomplished without risk. The great watercolorist, Robert E. Wood once said that, “a watercolorist should paint at the very edge of his control.”
My friend, Frank LaLumia (December, 2008 newsletter “Another Approach”, is a fine practitioner of this axiom. The following is an example of a full sheet he painted on-location in San Francisco’s China Town. Frank started with an inch and a half wash brush, a wet sheet and rich broad-based washes. As these were drying, he introduced various warm and cool tones into the washes, and allowed the watercolor to dictate where to place the awnings, window, signs and other architectural elements. In other words, he discovered all of the elements as the painting unfolded. This approach requires a “oneness” with the medium, a complete understanding of “tempo” (which we’ll discuss in a bit) and the courage to just “let it flow”.
But look at the results: a one-of-a-kind, spontaneous artwork, with heart and life in it. This is what watercolor is all about - true collaboration of artist and medium.

“China Town” 22x30 wc

The following example is a full sheet watercolor that I painted from some watercolor sketches I did in a flamenco club in Granada, Spain. Eighty percent of the painting was painted wet-into-wet with an inch and a half wash brush. I didn’t mask anything out. I painted around the main figure, and allowed the wet washes of the background to dictate the placement of the less-defined figures. I just kept charging in darker and darker paint into the wet washes, and let the watercolor suggest figures, shapes and other elements.

“Estampa” 22x30 wc

One could pick apart the above paintings for minor flaws. But the only way to achieve the spontaneous, fluid quality exhibited by these works is to let the watercolor paint take an active role in the process.

It would be impossible for a musician to perform anything if he had to think about each note played. Years of scales and studies allow the musician to be a “one” with the instrument and the music. As a result, he is only concerned with interpretation and emotion. To be an accomplished watercolorist, one must arrive at this space.

When one wets a sheet of watercolor paper (or an area of the paper), the drying process begins immediately. If left alone, the paper will go through an infinite number of drying stages, down to a sheen, then barely damp and then totally dry. At any drying stage, the watercolorist can jump in with an infinite number of water/pigment combinations on his brush. Each water/pigment combination will have a different result, depending on the drying stage of the paper. For example, if one takes a wet brush, loaded with pigment, and charges it into a wet paper, the pigment will disperse over a large area. Conversely, a damp brush, loaded with pigment, charged into a barely damp paper will leave a stroke that barely moves at all.

This is what I referred to earlier as “tempo”. The watercolorist must instinctively know how wet his paper is, at any stage, and just how much water and pigment is on his brush, and what the resulting stroke will look like. Because the paper continues to dry, the watercolorist who takes time to consider each result destroys the “tempo”.

When a painter becomes “one” with this process, the “cerebral” becomes subjugated to the “instinctive”. What results is a more pure and unadulterated expression of creativity. Painting “in tempo” and at the edge of control, gives us a chance to instinctively react to the direction that the watercolor takes us. It’s a roller coaster ride that can be heart pounding and thrilling. Sometimes they just flat out “get away”, but, when it all comes together, the results can be astounding.

I painted a little demonstration painting that employs a wet into wet technique. Exercises like these are invaluable for strengthening ones understanding of “tempo”. This is admittedly a small painting. I used a 9x12 sheet of Kilimanjaro 140 lb.,cold-pressed paper. Stopping to shoot quick photos interrupts the “tempo”, so painting a half, or full sheet, would have been pretty difficult. Nonetheless, I have to say that keeping a full sheet wet and alive is not much more difficult than a 9x12, when one gets the “process (and isn’t shooting photos).

Perhaps it’s because I live in the mountainous Southwest, where it’s high and dry, but I’ve always enjoyed painting the rain forests of the Pacific Northwest. So this is a generic old-growth rain forest scene, with its tangled masses of foliage.  I purposely pushed it to a low key to demonstrate that wet-into-wet paintings don’t have to be pasty and weak in color and value.

Because I am going to let this painting basically discover itself, I make a few key indications of tree placements. Then I wet the thoroughly wet the entire sheet. I’ll be painting the whole piece with a one-inch flat brush.

Next I rewet areas of the page with loaded washes of New Gamboge, some Hansa Yellow light and bits of Viridian.

I go back in for a second time with a loaded brush and more concentrated amounts of the above-mentioned pigments. I’m beginning to see some shapes start to form.

The paper is still sopping wet. I start using less water and more intense pigment, and introduce some warms (Venetian Red). I’m beginning to sculpt the tree forms.

Now, with a little less water, and more intense pigments, including a small amount of Ultramarine Blue, I further sculpt my shapes and begin to see some vague indications of branches emerge.


I’m getting darker, and the paint is spreading a lot less. I haven’t touched the paint on the original tree trunks. As a result, they are drying at a faster rate, and their forms are beginning to hold.

Now I’m working everywhere at once, using my darks to cut shapes out of the foliage, and establishing some horizontal branches. I see that the trunk on the left has emerged as my lightest spot. My center of interest has found itself.


With more intense darks, I put some shadows under the foliage masses, and continue to clarify the dense underbrush.


The paper has gone from sopping wet to damp. I take the chiseled end of the flat brush and scratch out some branch indications. This has to be done at the optimum time. If you scratch while the paper is too wet, you injure the paper, and the scratches fill back in and become dark lines. If you wait too long, the pigment won’t be displaced, and you will have missed your opportunity.

I disappear a bit of those hard branches, and drip a little wet, more opaque paint  (Hansa Yellow and Viridian) in the middle foreground, to simulate some of that wet moss that always hangs from the tree branches.


Except for the darkest areas, the painting is essentially dry. I toss in a bit of spatter in the foreground, and decide to leave it as is.

Although I made some initial indications of tree placement, I let the watercolor pretty much dictate the final outcome. I didn’t use any reference material, because I wanted the painting to be spontaneous, and discovered “in process”. 

Try a few of these wet into wet paintings. The process will help you understand the nature of watercolor, and will enrich your mass areas (skies, trees, foregrounds etc.)

Happy Painting!