Watercolor Painting as Live Performance

4 Dec 2009
The beach scene in
Manuel Antonio.

I normally paint with oils mixed with Galkyd fast-drying medium, so I assume I can make radical changes in the composition of shapes, values, and colors as I formulate the intended outcome of my pictures. But I had to exercise more thought, control, and restraint when I painted scenes of Costa Rica in watercolor during a recent vacation with my family.

It occurred to me that one might compare the difference between painting with watercolor and oil to the difference between a live stage performance and a filmed presentation. With watercolor, every gesture is observed and judged by the audience of viewers as if they were watching the painting take shape, whereas with oil, the performance is carefully edited so that only the best strokes are seen.

Each stroke of watercolor paint brushed across a sheet of paper permanently affects the surface, so an artist has to plan the mixtures of pigments and the sequence of application in order to achieve a carefully considered result. Adjustments can be made, and lots of teachers explain how to "salvage" a painting that is either timidly executed or overworked, but the best results are almost always the result of deliberate, planned, and economical actions.

After working on three paintings of the Costa Rican landscape that lacked this kind of spontaneity, freshness, and clarity, I achieved some level of success while sitting on the white-sand beach in Manuel Antonio, a growing tourist city along the Pacific Ocean. I drew the key elements of the scene on a 9"-x-12" block of Arches watercolor paper using a mixture of three transparent, non-staining colors to establish a drawing that would disappear under the subsequent applications of paint. I started by painting the sky area, applied a dark base color to the rock formations, and gradually refined each area of the picture over a period of 90 minutes.

The finished painting isn't anything I want to brag about, but it does capture my experience of relaxing in the warm, humid atmosphere of the tropical environment. It didn't impress the white-faced monkeys and raccoons that were trying to steal food from people on the beach, but it satisfied me. I took some reference photographs so that eventually I can develop a larger and more considered studio painting.

The finished painting.

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Judy P. wrote
on 4 Dec 2009 8:30 AM

I think you should give yourself bragging rights- your painting has a nice sense of atmosphere, strong feeling of light, and makes me want to be there. I appreciate your demo too; it seems like you must approach watercolor in a neat, orderly way, that's why I can't get into it. With oils I am a bit too messy and need to backtrack and 'fix' things. Maybe spending time with watercolor would improve my handling with oils.

Jeanette32 wrote
on 5 Dec 2009 7:51 AM

I think your watercolor is very "considered"!  It captures the color of the water, rocks and foliage perfectly.  As someone who has to work from photos a lot, I have to work hard to recreate that kind of spontineity in the studio.