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  • Writer's pictureDanny McShane

Why Watercolour?

I'm personally smitten by watercolour to a degree that surprises and delights me every time I paint, so I'm trying to put that into words here. :o-



Firstly, real watercolour is so different from any brush (ha!) that I'd had with it at secondary school. I don't think I'd even so much as looked at a watercolour painting through my adult life until I'd turned 60. Well, 61 really. Sure, some of the famous paintings we'd all recognise might be watercolours, but I hadn't paid any attention to them and couldn't have told you which were and which weren't. Then I started to see deeply coloured, strongly toned paintings that captured bright daylight and the textures and colours of things I loved. Paintings, but something about them was more immediate than photography. I liked them so much I started watching painters doing demonstrations, and that led to having a go.



Watercolour struck me as very much its own thing. It seems quite distinct from other mediums in its methods and processes. It also seems shrouded with myths and misconceptions (some understandably due to early exposure to poster paints on the back of wallpaper at school). Some say it's the most difficult medium to use, or impossible to fully control (I've been told there have been no successful forgeries of known watercolours, possibly for this reason), or that it's uncorrectable as you can't rework it. I suspect the truth is simply that it suits some painters' temperaments and not others.


Albrecht Dürer - Hare, Watercolour, 1502 (!!)

Before I got hooked by it I'd have thought watercolour a synonym for insipid, prone to fading, cheap, maybe something for preliminary sketches before 'real paintings' in oil or whatever. And to be honest It can be all of those things with a child's toy paint set, but with decent Student or Artist Grade materials it can rival any medium in intensity and longevity, being colourfast for 500+ years (See Dürer) and, perhaps sadly, not be so cheap! Cheap is a subjective term of course, but another reason sometimes given for painting in acrylics or oils is the price of Artist Grade watercolour paint. The cost of archival quality papers varies by size and weight from a few pounds to mid teens or more for a Full Imperial sheet (30x22)". Another practical crunch for watercolour is its need to be mounted and framed under glass (or plastic) for safety, whereas oils and acrylics -being essentially polymers -can fend for themselves on an exposed support (canvas, wood, hardboard, or paper).


So what does watercolour have going for it?

Appearance

Watercolour has a range of colour and tone and texture that is quite unique to it through being insoluble pigment particles released in a water soluble binder to settle out on the paper surface as the water dries . Oil and acrylic don't do so much texture within the paint itself, needing different approaches to represent surfaces and generally giving a coarser rendition.


Watercolour has a gift of mimicking or suggesting unpaintable levels of detail via the appearance of the paint itself when you apply it in certain ways. When it works it's magical. If you like the look of watercolour on paper, anything else is just judged by how close it comes to watercolour.


Versatility

While acrylics are also versatile and can be used as thick as buttery oil paint for3D effects or as thin as watercolour, watercolour comes into its own once you manipulate how it absorbs into the paper or floats over the top.



The chemical affinity of watercolour for paper is much more finely tuned than acrylic based paints and allows more wet effects. Indeed watercolour manuals often begin by setting out the different effects of painting wet (paint ) on dry (paper); wet on wet; dry on dry; and dry on wet. And then there are the the variations in behaviour of watercolour paint itself when applied to dry, damp, wet and saturated paper in consistencies frequently likened to water, milk, cream or butter. It can get as complicated as you want to make it!




Speed

You don't have to be patient with watercolour, indeed you often have to work at keeping up with it. Some effects demand paint is applied during a short 'window' of the paper's drying time and (particularly outdoors in summer) the pace can be demanding. Occasionally the window closes on you and the opportunity lost -making some painting experiences positively exciting (or frustrating). Watercolours can also be fully dry in an hour (or minutes, some days) compared to the weeks or months for a typical oil painting. Paint can be used straight from the tube, or from dried pans, and starting is as simple as applying a wet brush to pick up the pigment and off you go.


Speed has a side effect of risk, in having to make decisions swiftly and to opt one way or another as you paint. I find this exciting! I've found I like the idea of risk when all that is at stake is a few hours work and a piece of paper, so my remarks are in that context. One of my painting mottoes (the things I tell myself repeatedly when painting) is "Risk Everything" -by which I mean not to get precious and anxious because a painting has been going well and become afraid I'll spoil it. That way lies anxiety and timidity and it's the opposite of the very 'joie de vivre' I'm trying to convey in a painting. So if it occurs to me to make a bold stroke or if a painting needs a technically difficult brushstroke that has to be right first time I try not to hesitate, but take the risk and enjoy doing it. I've failed more than a few times, but it's worth it for the times it works. If I wonder "what would happen if...", and then I don't, I'll be forever looking at that painting and wondering if it could have been better. Occasionally I willl paint a scene a few times if I come to a decision fork and really do want to go both ways, and this is another place watercolour scores for being a relatively quick medium to work in. I've been encouraged to hear the very best painters describe watercolour as "a high risk activity" and acknowledge a significant rate of failures even in their prime, it's part of the process.


Simplicity

Watercolour doesn't need a lot beyond paint, paper and brush and something to hold the work. There are no solvents needed for thinning or cleaning paint. Most watercolour pigments are transparent and let the whiteness of the paper illuminate the painting -and managing this is perhaps the secret of using the medium effectively.

You can't make a dark area light again by painting over it in watercolour so it determines how you paint. If you don't like this, gouache is opaque watercolour (watercolour pigment with a chalk filler, sometimes called body colour). Many watercolorists will use some white gouache (think correction flluid! ) for effects and occasional corrections to restore lost white paper.


Simply painting on paper, rather than on stretched canvasses or wooden panels also means storage of finished works is simpler (at least until they're framed). A hundred paintings is just a hundred sheets of paper -a pile a few inches thick, even when in protective pockets.


Physics and chemistry (or Magic).

By this I mean the interactions of the paints and water (varying the spread, the tone, the granulation) and the interactions of different pigments in the paint. Watercolour paint doesn't just give you the 'blue+yellow=green' level of colour mixing you'd expect from light physics (either transmitted or reflected) - the individual pigments can have chemical properties that produce a variety of interactions when mixed that frankly you have to explore and learn. And this is the fun part!



Some pigments or mixtures can partially separate when laid down with water to give fascinating textured effects (akin to paper chromatography); as paint is made up of particles of pigment (often ground stone!) some will deliver a


granulation pattern as the heavier particles drop to the bottom of the texture of the paper leaving a pleasing graininess, sometimes multicoloured; some will produce unexpected resultant colours



(as Mars Black and Cadmium Yellow give a

Mars Black + Cadmium Yellow = Green

very useful warm green). Using these effects deliberately is great fun, and the results are often only controllable to a degree (so impossible to truly replicate).


Some pigments will energetically displace others if applied on top of them while damp. Quinacridone Gold displaces most, as with the Payne's Grey here, giving that delta pattern all on its own. Most of these relationships are discovered as you paint and contribute to the arsenal of effects you can deploy 'next time', though many times they will just be the 'happy accidents' that make watercolour so interesting.

Quinacridone Gold displacing Payne's Grey














Style.

Lastly, but maybe most importantly, there are so many different ways to use watercolour that it can feel like a host of different mediums. It can be applied in thin layers to introduce very subtle effects; it can be used with precision for sharp academic illustrations; or applied with different amounts of water and on different paper textures to manage the motion of the pigments and produce extraordinary textures and moody images, or drily applied by stick or pencil to augment any of these. My favourite is the look of simple unlayered but dense colour with mixed pigments representing natural textures with the brightness of the paper still illuminating the image from behind.


So that's scratching the surface of why I love watercolour. There's so much to discover in it and I'm very much actively learning as I paint. In fact, I'd hate to ever "master" this medium (if that were even possible) as the last thing I'd want from it would be complete predictability or to know in advance exactly what a brushstroke will produce. The best thing of all is when the paint does something far better than I'd intended and I'm happy to say there's a bit of that in every painting. Practice and experience help learning to avoid the pitfalls, and very gradually build more understanding of what's likely to happen next, but never so the excitement of it goes away. What's not to like?


Is there a downside?

There are technical limitations that affect how you paint in watercolour, mostly due to it being a transparent medium so you can't make a dark area light by painting over it with a paler pigment. But that's not a downside so much as the nature of the thing, like taking account of woodgrain is a feature in carving.


The only thing I'd really consider a downside is the need for watercolours to be framed under glazing rather than left open the atmosphere. That makes them trickier to ship and move due to the fragility of a glazed frame. Because they never become waterproof they have to be protected for their entire life, so a sealed frame is the sensible way to do this. Some artists will wax or varnish watercolours but I suspect this always alters them a little and adds another factor to consider in the longevity of the painting. I'm assured however that professional light fast paints on archival quality papers can be around for a few hundred years, like Dürer's Hare.












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Guest
Jan 08
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Very interesting read, Danny. I'd always thought watercolour meant 'simple' and pale but your article and your paintings have educated me and I really like them. Who are your own favourite watercolour painters?

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Danny McShane
Danny McShane
Jan 08
Replying to

I don't have a formal art education to reel of names of artists I'm afraid, and to a certain extent I like painting more than looking at paintings so haven't done a lot of looking around, but there are a few names whose work always lifts my spirits. I like impressionism and bold work but not when it looks self-indulgent or careless (as opposed to carefree), and I've little interest in abstracts or photorealism (though watercolour seems to be less represented except for portrait work). I do like the work of Winslow Homer, and Edward Wesson and artists in that style, like Andrew Pitt and Charles Reid. But I'm not really an art buff, I just like painting.

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Guest
Oct 30, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Well put, Danny. I like your bright style and how watercolours can look so different in the hands of different srtists

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Danny McShane
Danny McShane
Jan 08
Replying to

Thanks very much. There are so many variables and choices to make as we paint that affect the look (brush size, paint load, how we put the paint on the paper, water levels, colour mixes, eyesight even) in ways we don't plan, but consistently doing the same sort of thing produces a characteristic look. It's very hard to paint 'like someone else'... and why would we want to?. One thing I find odd is that there are some artists whose work I really like but I don't like painting in the way they do -I like their results but don't enjoy that painting process.

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