Beginners: Back to Watercolor Basics

Connecticut artist John Falato primarily paints in oil, but he also enjoys introducing students to the nuts and bolts of watercolor in his exciting, fast-paced beginner classes.

August Road
1983, watercolor, 21 1⁄8 x
16. All artwork this article
private collection unless
otherwise indicated.

by John A. Parks

John Falato is a painter of breathtaking range and control. His landscapes are wonders of beautifully modulated light, sumptuous color, and a vast wealth of visual information. His control extends to every challenge in representational painting: the turning of forms, the subtle nuances of color, the rendering of textures and translucencies, the play of air, shifting skies, running water, and open seas. For a painter of such command, the idea of teaching a beginner watercolor class might seem somewhat less than exciting, but this is not so for Falato. Working with his students at Paier College of Art, in Hamden, Connecticut, he brought to the basics of watercolor a passion and energy that soon had a room full of novices excited and interested—and not without reason. Falato quickly demonstrated that the ability to use the very basic vocabulary of watercolor is crucial to creating high-quality work.

The artist-instructor has been teaching watercolor for more than 20 years, and in the beginning of his career he preferred the medium for his own paintings. However, after several years of painting in watercolor, Falato discovered that his watercolor technique could be used in oil painting and yield dazzling results. His watercolors deftly combine a fresh, clear application of paint with very fine control. This command of technique allows him to secure a wealth of detail while keeping the painting from feeling overworked. The glittering transparency of watercolor is at work even in the most meticulously detailed passages. “I was amazed when I learned the same approach could be used in oil,” says the artist. “I don’t use any underpainting in my oil work; I simply begin with a careful drawing and then start to brush in areas of value, often working wet-in-wet. I work from light to dark just as I do in watercolor, starting with the very lightest values and gradually proceeding to the darkest.”

Falato experimented with a
student’s brush as he
attempted a graduated
wash. The instructor pointed
out that brushes should
have some spring to them
and should be capable of
holding a lot of water.

Falato teaches students these techniques mostly through demonstrations. “I always spend time showing various drawing and painting techniques and procedures,” he says. “Here, the emphasis is on the distinctive capabilities of different tools and media, and on the expressive possibilities of the materials themselves.” From the beginning, Falato emphasizes the importance of preparation, using his own work area as an example. During this class he laid out two palettes—one for gouaches and one for watercolors—two large plastic containers for water, and three small plastic cups for mixing washes. Another cup held an array of brushes ranging from sable rounds and large squirrel flats to stubby bristles and fluffy brushes for mopping up. Other supplies included a pump spray bottle, a small sponge, tissues, paper towels, and a drawing board with a sheet of Arches watercolor paper.

Falato began the day’s lesson by demonstrating how to make a flat, even wash, using a large squirrel flat brush. “It is important to have plenty of paint in the brush,” he explained, “and then to begin with a fairly light touch, setting up a bead of paint on the paper. If you press too hard at first, then there will be too much paint too soon. The idea is to keep the bead going as you move across and down the paper. Press the brush evenly to extend the wet area and maintain a consistent coverage.” Students experimented with this approach for a while on their own drawing boards before proceeding to the next step, a graduated wash. This involved the same process, but involved the addition of a second color halfway down the area of the wash. The instructor used this moment to discuss one of the basic challenges of watercolor: the problem of going too dark too soon. “If you overshoot a value and go too dark there isn’t a whole lot you can do,” he said. “Although you don’t want to be too tentative or timid, it’s still better to understate a dark because you can always go back and darken it with another wash.” Falato also pointed out some of the challenges of correction when putting down a wash. “If you accidentally leave a little gap, don’t go back and paint over it,” he told the class. “That creates all kinds of problems.  Leave it alone until it is thoroughly dry, and then if you really need to correct it, come back with a very tiny brush and perhaps even use a magnifying glass to fix it on a small scale.”

Caretaker’s Cottage
1984, watercolor, 10 x 16.

While students were trying out their washes, Falato moved around the room giving advice and trying out for himself some of the great variety of brushes that the students were using.  “You need a brush that has some spring and will hold a good amount of paint,” he said. The artist prefers Winsor & Newton Series 7 sables when working in both oil and watercolor. As he watched them work, he would occasionally declare a brush unfit for the task. “Don’t get rid of it though,” Palato advised. “If a brush isn’t good for one task you can often find another task that it is good for.” The instructor also observed that sometimes a brush seems to work for a particular individual even when most artists can’t make it behave in the same way. “Making art can get very personal,” he said. “Everybody’s touch is different.”

The next exercise taught students to paint a wash around a group of shapes. In his example, Falato made a simple drawing and began washing color in the background. He first turned the paper upside down to avoid having paint drip toward the shapes he had drawn. “Again, you have to create a bead of paint and then keep it going as best you can as you push it around the objects,” he reiterated. “You’ve got to keep working wet-in-wet when you reload the brush. Sometimes, in a job like this, you might use two brushes, one to get into the detail of the edge and the other to work on larger areas.”  The artist pointed out that a wash can be any size, from a tiny area to a very large area. “It’s very important to have the appropriately sized brush for the wash,” the artist said.

A group of washes shows
different ways of working with
water. On the right-hand side
washes are being flooded onto a
wet surface. On the upper left,
shapes have been made
on a wet surface and allowed to dry.
On the lower left, shapes have
been made on a wet surface and
then edges further softened by

Once students tried painting around shapes, Falato demonstrated how to create soft edges in watercolor when the paint has dried. “It’s important to work on a wet surface to achieve a soft edge,” he explained. A dry painted surface can be wetted with a brush, a sponge, or a spray. Often the spray bottle is the most effective, as it doesn’t lift up color from underneath. Falato demonstrated making shapes on an area of moistened paper, creating soft edges all around. “You can go back and soften an edge further by running a brush through it,” he told the artists, “but it’s important just to do it once. You don’t want to keep going back and working across an edge because it’s soon going to start looking overworked. The temptation is to keep going—but don’t.” Falato observed that the edges continue to blend and settle as the paint dries and that the final results are often better than they first appear.

The artist pointed out that the technique of wetting the paper first and then washing into it to create soft edges can be combined with the other wash techniques that the students had learned earlier in the day. “You can come back to a dry wash, wet it, and then add more color,” he said. “This is a good technique in a situation where you want to build a shadow and need soft edges.” Throughout the day Falato encouraged his students to take note of chance effects in the watercolor that reminded them of real-life situations.  He noted that it’s important to begin making connections between what the paint can do and how the world actually appears. “This is the side that’s actually in you creatively,” the instructor stated. “And it’s important to work on that too. You have to utilize the spontaneity of watercolor.” As he moved around the class Falato was quick to provide the students with little corrections on the way they were holding a brush, their posture, or the way they had their materials laid out. “It’s like being a batting coach in baseball,” he said. “You’re just checking to make sure that people have the best form and stance to make things work well.”

Mudflats View
1997, watercolor, 8 x 12.

The next part of the class concentrated on using gouache with watercolor, and Falato explained that some watercolorists use a little white gouache in many of their washes to create a kind of ‘milky’ atmospheric effect. The artist himself demonstrated an approach where he ran a thin wash of white gouache over a watercolor wash to create a misty or hazy effect.  The gouache dried to a surprisingly even veil on the watercolor paper, an effect that can be particularly useful in the painting of skies.

The last part of the session addressed the various techniques for lifting watercolor from the paper. Falato was quick to point out that such techniques are not only corrective but can also be used to obtain a wide array of effects. The first technique involved using a piece of paper towel rolled up to a point. The instructor put down a wash of gray-blue and then used his paper towel to lift up the paint while it was still wet, creating a set of scalloped shapes that quickly began to resemble waves at sea. He pointed out that the longer the wash had been left to settle, the less paint was picked up. By waiting a few seconds between strokes, he was able to obtain a graduated series of values in the marks he made. “This can all get very tricky, and you have to remember that a technique is only a technique—it will only get you so far.”

The artist looked over a sheet of
student washes, some
graduated and some even. In
his beginner classes Falato
stresses the importance of
applying the brush with a light,
even pressure. The idea is to
create a bead of paint and keep
it moving across the surface.

Lifting up dry watercolor involves different techniques. “You can use a razor blade to scrape, or even the sharpened back end of a brush,” said Falato. The artist went on to demonstrate another technique using a very stubby bristle brush. He made an area of dark wash, allowed it to dry, and then scrubbed at it with the bristle brush. The paint lifted with the action of the brush to create a roughly blurred white shape. Falato demonstrated how such an approach can be combined with other scratch marks in the paint to create a variety of textures. When discussing his approach, he explained that he also employs these techniques when working in oil. Comparing his watercolor August Road to his oil painting Park Whispers [not shown], the artist recalls that the foliage was created in an almost identical fashion in both paintings. “I used a round with a splayed end to create texture in the foliage,” he says. “In some areas I put down a transparent wash and then built into it with an array of textured marks, gradually working darker.” The artist sometimes augments this technique by scratching back into the painting with the back of the brush to create lighter touches of texture.

“I hope that students begin to make connections between their media, the materials used, and their subject matter and images,” Falato said when discussing the goal of his class.   Throughout the day he referred to a number of books on his desk that contained reproductions of work by many great watercolorists. “It’s vitally important for students to be aware of the art around them, and of the many artists, living and dead, from whom they can draw energy and inspiration,” he stated.  “As they work and develop their craft and ideas, this awareness aids in the building of their own style and way of doing things.”

The artist turned the board
upside down while working this
pink wash against the shape of a
skyline. This prevented paint
from dripping into the shape and
allowed Falato to work more
easily into the corners.

In this way Falato leads by example in his application of watercolor-painting techniques when working in oil. “The main difference between my oil and watercolor techniques occurs when painting open and flatter areas, such as the sky,” the artist explains. “In the oils I use thick paint for these areas, shoveling it on quickly with a bristle brush and then using a fan brush to paint it out smoothly. In the watercolors I naturally use a wash.” Falato likes to introduce his students to his watercolor-based oil technique by having them do a side-by-side painting in both media at the end of his course. Although teaching beginners can be challenging, the upside, he says, is that in constantly returning to basic principles and techniques, he is reminded that they form the bedrock of all good painting, regardless of the medium.

The intensity of both Falato’s watercolors and oils are further aided by his choice of subject matter. “My work is based on a desire to describe a subject realistically in all its details of form, space, color, and surface texture,” he concludes. “I paint familiar places and things that I have experienced intimately. The attending memories, childhood impressions, and associations are what I respond to. This is what has meaning for me, and this is what I value as a painter.”      

About the Artist
John Falato grew up in Connecticut and initially planned to study engineering, but quickly changed his mind after his first visit to an art school. “Just the smell of charcoal and oil paint was wonderful,” he says. He studied at Paier College of Art, in Hamden, Connecticut, and planned to become an illustrator. “I wanted to be Norman Rockwell,” says the artist, who admits that he took up smoking a pipe to be more like his hero. Falato moved to New York to work as a sketch artist in an advertising agency. Although his drawing skills earned him a good living he felt that he wanted to be more involved in making his own art. He went back to school and earned a B.F.A from the University of Hartford, in Connecticut. Since the late 1960s he has combined various teaching posts with his work as a professional artist. In 1985 Falato returned to teach at his alma mater, Paier College of Art, now housed in a larger modern building on the outskirts of New Haven. He is represented by the Fischbach Gallery, in New York City, and the Greene Art Gallery, in Guilford, Connecticut.

John A. Parks is an artist who is represented by Allan Stone Gallery, in New York City. He is also a teacher at the School of Visual Arts, in New York City, and is a frequent contributor to American Artist, Drawing, Watercolor, and Workshop magazines.

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