- Do your first couple of pictures monotone. Try to achieve a full range of tones in your painting. You will find the more water you mix with your paint the lighter the colour
- For the first four weeks of my beginner courses we use only 3 colours; Permanent Rose, Raw Sienna and Cobalt blue. From there students learn to mix a wide variety of colours, including greys and browns. The other benefit of a limited palette is beginners are not overwhelmed by choice of colour and can concentrate better on the artwork in front of them
- Choose simple compositions or subjects to start with; ie. one flower instead of a whole bunch. This way you can concentrate on your technique rather than what part of the picture to work on next which can lead to feeling overwhelmed
- Work top to bottom and light to dark. Build up layers to develop the painting as a whole rather than perfectly finishing one area at a time
- Use synthetic brushes. They are easier to control than animal hair because they are stiffer and hold less water
- Be aware of how dry or wet your paper is and only put more paint into a wet area that is thicker than what is already down. Do not try adding more paint to a section that is almost dry
- Invest in a heavy weight rough paper from a known brand. It is easier to paint on and the quality is apparent in the end product. Buying a lighter weight paper is false economy because on the 300gm+ paper you can work both sides. If you want to reduce costs, try working smaller
- Tube paints are easier to work with than pans when painting indoors. Student quality of a known brand is fine if you are starting out
- Join a community for support and inspiration. This could be in a class, at an art society self-help group or online artist community
- Celebrate your successes. Frame your best work and put them on your wall or online for friends and family to admire. This will motivate you to keep painting.
10 Tips for Beginner Watercolourists
Flicking through art magazines and books I have come to notice that watercolour looks particularly good when it depicts certain subject matter. Watercolour portrays these things in a way that opague media, such as acrylics or oils, just can’t achieve. This is because of the material, and in the case of shadows immaterial, nature of these subjects. Certain things seem to be particularly suited to the glowing, fluid, multilayered effects that only watercolour can achieve.
Below, various types of subject matter are grouped according to the underlying quality watercolour portrays so well. These are: transparency, glow, movement and atmospheric effects
The unique beauty and subtlety of watercolour is particularly evident in certain subject matter- so make the most of it. You may like to use one of the subjects suggested above for your next painting. Alternatively, you may be inspired by your own subject matter that exploits the qualities of transparency, glow, movement and atmosphere.
Watercolour is defined from its acrylic and oil cousins by it’s strategic exploitation of the properties of water for effects. Artists are attracted to colour, so often we tend to think of painting as about applying paint and give little thought to how our use of water enables us to do that. Not being aware of how water is used makes painting a 'hit and miss' experience. Water is more than a just a crucial auxiliary, it is what makes watercolour as a medium unique, and having your ratios right determines the success of every brushstroke.
Water is the essential element that is present on your palette, brush and paper in differing quantities. In each of these locations the amount of water used impacts your painting differently. Working 'wet on dry' or 'wet on wet', with expertise we learn how to balance the water and paint ratios involved in painting to achieve the desired effect.
While focused on composition and colour, artists sometimes pay little conscious attention to the critical role of getting the right amount of water in their technique. They are then surprised when the spontaneous and elusive water element does not behave according to plan, and takes over their image.
So many difficulties experienced by watercolourists come down to them being unaware of their use of water. Not being consciously aware of the role of water is evident in the following common errors:
Not understanding the influence of water is the reason beginning watercolorists, otherwise proficient with acrylics, find watercolour a challenging medium. With acrylic it is much easier to control where the paint goes. Since water is what defines watercolour; knowledge on how to control the water element, often formidable for the beginner, is essential to a successful painting. With experience, competent use of water becomes unconscious to the advanced painter. Despite this, the influence of water is so subtle even experienced painters can still get 'caught out' by unexpected effects.
When people say they 'struggle' with watercolour, it's probably the control of water that challenges them. On the other hand, it is often the elusive and flowing behaviour of the water, highlighted by added pigment, which creates the exciting 'spontaneity' which makes artists fall in love with this media.
Since I had such a positive response to my blog on choosing simple landscape photos to paint I would also like to share my ideas about starting out simply with still life compositions.
Why work from a real object
Still life is a great genre for beginning artists. Particularly when you are working from a real object. This is because having a real object is more inspiring and less prescriptive than copying a photo. You can move the object around and choose the best angle. You are also not limited by the colours that the camera imposes on your object in a photo. Another quality of having a real object in front of you is that you can integrate subtle information from senses other than your vision. For example, your mood may be influenced by how the flower smells and you will have a greater awareness of what the subjects texture is like.
Paint one object successfully then build up your complexity
When painting flowers, a flower with few defined petals is much easier than one with lots of ruffles. For example; a daisy has defined petals, which you can easily see the shapes of and paint one petal at a time, but a rose has lots of ruffled petals creating many shapes and shadows, which can get confusing for a beginner.
I also suggest you start with a single flower and perhaps a couple of leaves to soften it. It can be a challenge to get a soft flowing wet in wet effect when trying to do a whole bunch of flowers because you need to work all over the composition before it dries out too much. The bigger the bunch of flowers, the more complex the design and your ability to maintain a feeling of control is harder because you can get caught up in one area and forget to develop the painting as a whole.
On a similar principle to the flowers, when I teach still life I like to demonstrate one piece of fruit each week and then get students to put together an arrangement featuring those fruits they have already studied and feel confident doing.
General tips for painting still life
Further thoughts on the immersion experience while painting a still life
The experience of intense concentration on a single object could be compared to a meditative experience. Even in a single simple object you can find so much interest in the details you can feel engrossed while painting it. It is amazing how you can spend over an hour looking at something and still discover more detail. This could be compared to mindfulness. It certainly fosters an appreciation for the beauty in the everyday objects that surround us. Also, it is more special to work from a real object, such as a flower, because you know that it is continually changing giving you a reminder of the temporary nature of existence.
While a well-executed painting of a lovely but simple flower or fruit arrangement is interesting in itself because of it’s aesthetic qualities, you may want to try and say something more with your still life arrangement. Here are a few prompts for inspiration on what to paint:
if you have any ideas to add to this list please share them in the comments section below.
Using a photo as reference rather than copying it
It is easier to achieve a successful watercolour painting by starting with a suitable reference photo. Just because an image is not a ‘good’ photo in itself, it does not mean that it can’t be used to make a ‘good’ painting. This is because you can consciously choose to paint differently to the reference photo. You can crop, move objects, adjust or balance colour, sharpen or blur edges and perhaps even introduce a new colour scheme.
Don’t be a slave to reproducing the photo. Give yourself space to apply your own style in the way you choose to paint the photo. One suggestion to help you move away from directly copying a photo of your is to print the photo in black and white. This can help you better see the tonal values and provide you with an opportunity to introduce your own mood through colour scheme.
Choose a photo simple to work from
When you pick up a photo to paint the first thing you do is analyse the steps and techniques required to paint it. This varies considerably from photo to photo. Not only do some photos make better compositions than others in general, but some are easier for a beginner painter to work with. This is because images vary in the level skill and experience required to execute them. The more you are concentrating on ‘what’ you are painting (the subject) the less responsive you are to the technical process of putting paint on paper. That is: application of paint, getting your ratios of water and paint correct as well as having your palette organised and ready. Choose your photo carefully then think ahead about what you need to change, add or simplify to get the painting you want.
Questions to consider when determining if a photo is easy to paint from:
Complexity level analysis of photos to paint
A simple photo
This photo would be a good one to start with for the following reasons:
A complex photo
This photo is complex for the following reasons:
How to prepare for complex images to paint
If you do initiate a painting that has a complex resource photo, I suggest you go through a process of preparation. That includes planning the sequence of required techniques ahead, compositional thumbnails, tonal sketches and colour sampling. Furthermore I suggest practicing the brush strokes required to portray the elements, or things, within your image with finesse. Consider re-organising or simplifying the composition. You may also experiment with a different colour scheme or edit out some elements.
Complex does not mean better
A complex scene does not necessarily mean a better and more advanced painting. When you are in the depths of a difficult composition you may find yourself in ‘damage control’ mode. That is reacting to the unexpected ‘mess’ in front of you rather than thinking clearly and carrying out a planned series of steps while exploiting the exciting spontaneous effects of the paint that pop up. Taking on an image that inspires you deeply but is highly complex can be disheartening when things don’t go smoothly.
A complex composition in a photo that looks good does not mean it will make a great painting as the medium of photography captures things in a different way and has a different aesthetic to watercolour. Simple photos can make excellent paintings as the mood or message within that image is more concentrated.You are better off doing something simple well and feeling relaxed while you are doing it than struggling and being disappointed when you are finished. In brief, choose the right resource image to set yourself up for success.
Having a ‘ready to go’ photo bank
When your personal time to paint is limited you can’t waste your first half hour rummaging through photos. The loss of momentum means you may not even get around to painting that day. You can use photos in different forms; either hard or soft copies. The hardcopy system I choose to use takes time to set up but, provides me with a range resource images at my fingertips. From my digital photo bank I selected my best photos. I then arranged these images into folders on my computer according to subject matter. Next I made cheap 10c print outs at my local ‘Officeworks’ store of these files. Now I have a file of easily accessible reference photos on each of the themes I like to paint; landscapes, cityscapes, mountains, seascapes, dancers and skies.
Sometimes I use soft copies of photos on my tablet for a reference image. The positive of this is I do not need to go to the trouble of printing the image. The negatives are; sometimes it takes a while to find the photo and I need to monitor the how much battery is left in my tablet. The tablet off screen saver mode in settings so it the image doesn’t disappear while I’m painting it. Personally, it feels more natural to me to paint from a piece of paper than a backlit screen. This aside, when I have a fresh photo or idea, the tablet is easier to access. You can also easily switch your image to black and white or intensify the colours of your image with a photo editing application on a tablet.
It is generally preferable to use your own photo to avoid copyright issues. However, this does not mean you can’t reference elements of another’s image. So long as the picture is changed, and not easily recognisable from the original image, it should not be breaking copyright. If you paint a picture that closely resembles photographer’s work, which you do not have permission to use, you may want to consider keeping it to exercises and not exhibiting it as your own original design. Ways around the copyright conundrum include purchasing rights to use an image from a stock photo site or using a free image bank. I strongly recommend ‘Paint my Photo’ where the photographer freely uploads their image with the intention of providing artists with resource imagery.
This blog is to provide inspiration and share the insight I have gained over several years of painting and teaching watercolour.