Despite the differences in their styles, materials, and techniques, the teachers we surveyed offered similar recommendations—up to a point.
by M. Stephen Doherty
by Frank Webb,
watercolor, 22 x
Over the past 20 years, artists featured in Watercolor magazine have offered a wide range of tips and demonstrations aimed at helping others make the most of the medium. We contacted many of them with the expectation that they would each offer a distinctly different set of recommendations for today’s painters. Instead, the documents we received in response to our request contained similar lists about the fundamental aspects of using water-soluble materials to create images on paper.
But when these nationally known workshop instructors discussed issues of intuition, intention, preparation, and planning, their opinions varied quite dramatically. They either aligned themselves with artists who believed watercolor demanded careful forethought, planning, and skill; or they sided with those who promoted the medium as being ideal for pursuing free, expressive, and random actions. In short, they placed completely different sets of priorities on the means and the end results.
Before dividing the teachers into different groups, let’s first establish the basic principles upon which most of them agree.
Use the Best Materials You Can Afford
One of the great frustrations mentioned by the teachers we surveyed is trying to help students whose paints, brushes, and paper are so inferior they can’t possibly perform the tasks demanded by the instructor. “What’s the point of teaching someone how to lay a uniform wash of color if his or her brush can’t hold and gradually release the diluted pigment and if his or her paper won’t accept a controlled wash?” asks one experienced teacher. “How can I teach someone about the best color combinations if he or she doesn’t bring the quality paints I recommend for my workshop?” asks another instructor. “I can’t help the person who brings a set of dry, cracked, unidentifiable paints his or her mother used in the 1940s.”
Buying “the best materials” no longer means you have to take out a home-mortgage loan to be adequately equipped for a workshop. Most instructors list the essential supplies, some alternatives, and a few extras on their websites or on handouts for a class. They might also indicate that you can use some of the newer synthetic brushes instead of the expensive kolinsky sable brushes; or they may give you the contact information for an art-supply retailer who sells watercolor supplies at the lowest possible prices. A couple of workshop leaders buy supplies in bulk and resell them at a lower cost to their students to minimize the expense and to guarantee that everyone is adequately prepared for the class.
Learn About Your Materials as Well as the Principles of Design
“Learn the properties of the paints you use—whether they are staining or nonstaining, granulating or smooth, transparent or opaque—so you understand them instinctively,” says Stephen Quiller. “Learn to draw, to compose, and to handle your palette of colors,” adds Timothy J. Clark. “Learn to paint anywhere.” Almost all the other artists we surveyed made the same point about the need to understand the properties of the three basic ingredients of watercolor: paper, paint, and brushes. Each has its own character that must be studied and understood before an artist can use it effectively. “Zero in on what you need to know, then learn your craft,” says Barbara Nechis.
“Learn as much as you can about the craft and tools of painting so you can let go and not think about them while painting,” Quiller adds. “Colors have ‘personalities,’” asserts Jeanne Dobie.
“The white of the paper in watercolor is such a powerful element. Concentrate for two or three weeks on exploring different mixtures of one color, such as green, in your paintings. Then select another color for another few weeks to enlarge your color vocabulary.”
Several of the teachers we contacted have written books, produced videos and DVDs, and manufactured palettes to help artists learn about these fundamental aspects of watercolor and to guide them through a series of educational exercises. Those tools also provide guidance in understanding the principles of design. “Creativity requires a certain discipline based on design fundamentals,” says Mary Alice Braukman. Advises Tom Fong, “Plan your compositions with simple shapes. Leave the white of the paper.”
Fong goes on to suggest that the purpose for learning about materials, techniques, and principles is to achieve a greater freedom with watercolor. “Learn the basic rules of art and painting, but as you journey into your painting mode, just paint and don’t be afraid to unlearn what you’ve learned. In other words, be willing to break the rules,” Fong explains.
Practice, Practice, Practice
How do you get to the point where you can be comfortable breaking the rules? “The same way you get to Carnegie Hall,” says Roberta Carter Clark, “practice, practice, practice.” “Painting takes practice just like writing, playing golf, or playing a musical instrument,” adds Janet Walsh.
And when should you practice? “All the time,” says Jean Grastorf. She recommends keeping paints, brushes, and paper readily available so you are always prepared to respond to an interesting subject or compositional idea. Grastorf also suggests keeping a camera handy to capture appealing patterns of sunlight and shadow. “Sometimes the best subjects appear for a few seconds, and then they disappear.”
Don’t Expect Instant Success
All the experts who teach workshops agree that students will get the most benefit from the educational program if they concentrate on learning, not producing finished pictures. “The process of painting in a workshop is much more important than the product,” Gerald F. Brommer offers. “Don’t worry about the finished work, but spend your energy learning about the process of painting.” “Set realistic goals for yourself,” adds Janet Walsh. “If you are new to watercolor, your goals could be as simple as learning how to handle the brushes and paint, understanding how to make changes in a picture, or scaling up a sketch to a large sheet of watercolor paper.”
“A workshop is a time to trigger new paintings,” suggests Mary Alice Braukman. “The most important criteria is the ability to risk a painting for the sake of creating more life in it,” Jeanne Carbonetti asserts.
Select the Most Appropriate Teacher
This is another recommendation all 20 artists agree upon. Most of them have tried to teach “workshop groupies” who studied with so many watercolorists they know every trick and gimmick, but they have no idea how to use those techniques to express a personal response to a subject. “I’ve had students who can quote everyone from Edgar Whitney to Millard Sheets to Charles Reid, yet they couldn’t tell me what they wanted to accomplish with the medium,” says one of the artists we contacted. “I’ve also had students who think that if they spend all their time painting finished watercolors I will be so impressed I will want to help them advance their careers. In most cases, I’m completely unimpressed with their safe, repetitive, predictable paintings.”
“Focus on one mentor at a time,” Tom Lynch urges. “Find one or two teachers whose opinions you trust, and only listen to them,” Alex Powers recommends. “Match a workshop to your ability, and match the teacher to your goals,” Jeanne Dobie suggests. “Select a teacher who encourages individuality, not formulas.”
“Find a teacher who will not only lecture but who is also capable of demonstrating watercolor painting,” Tom Fong advises. “Ask yourself what you need to learn next and then find the teacher most likely to supply that information,” Barbara Nechis insists.
Focus on the “Why,” Not the “How”
“Problems are seldom about your technique but rather about your decision concerning when or where to use that technique,” Jeanne Carbonetti explains, regarding the need to get beyond questions of materials and procedures.
“Learn both how and why a technique, concept, or philosophy works,” Gerald F. Brommer recommends. “Don’t take everything for granted, but try to find out why those elements work and how they can be of benefit to you in painting. Think of painting as a verb (the activity) rather than as a noun (product).”
“Find the key inspiration in your painting; everything in the picture should lead or add to that inspiration,” says Stephen Quiller.
Always Challenge Yourself
“When you have achieved one goal, set another higher goal and work toward it,” Jeanne Dobie recommends. That piece of advice was repeated by most of the artists we surveyed because they have personally felt the need to keep themselves challenged. Timothy J. Clark makes a particular point of urging watercolorists to take on challenges by painting in a new medium, tackling a new range of subjects, or adjusting the standard ways to develop a picture. “The best painters are always stretching,” Clark emphasizes.
“Push yourself and do not become complacent with your work or rely only on what has been successful,” Stephen Quiller recommends. “Use your previous works to learn and grow.” “Keep an open mind to change. If you think you are good enough, you have probably stopped growing,” Tom Lynch adds.
“Keep your standards high,” is the simple but powerful message from Barbara Nechis.
Study and Copy the Masters
Students working in any medium can expect their instructors to recommend that they spend time copying drawings and paintings by the masters. It’s the best way to learn what makes the pictures great, and it offers a concrete measure of the student’s skill. “Study the masters who inspire you. Do contour drawings of their compositions to better see what they did,” Stephen Quiller urges. “Spend time with great art of all kinds—learn from history,” Barbara Nechis adds.
Katherine Chang Liu goes a little further in suggesting that students study work that is unfamiliar as well as the pictures they find most inspiring. “Read what is difficult to read, and look at work that requires some effort to see,” Liu recommends.
Creativity Depends on Discipline
It was somewhat surprising that the teachers who seem to create completely different types of paintings are united in their opinion that students act with discipline. One might have thought that artists such as Mary Alice Braukman and Robbie Laird would be more concerned with free expression than with discipline, but they were among the first teachers to list the need for students to be organized and prepared. Both artists pointed out that no matter what the style and content of an artist’s work, he or she needs to be focused, attentive, and responsive. Two realist painters who do a lot of advance preparation before applying paint to paper, Dean Mitchell and Sondra Freckelton, echoed those sentiments.
Strive for Personal Content
“Don’t let your painting technique get ahead of striving for a personal content or expression,” Alex Powers urges artists. “Go beyond your reference. Give the viewer something to think about, not just something to see,” adds Tom Lynch. The two men stressed that a painting should reflect the person who creates it by giving evidence of the decisions he or she made about subject matter, composition, and style.
“Find something to paint that you really care about,” was the straightforward advice given by Katherine Chang Liu. Others were just as specific in recommending that artists paint the places they know best, the objects they care about, or the people who are familiar. “Even if the paintings are abstract, they should be based on the personal choices an artist makes about shape, color, value, texture, and design,” Liu adds.
Don’t Work in Isolation
“Don’t isolate yourself. Practice in groups with similar goals,” says Barbara Nechis, recommending that artists join local groups, state watercolor societies, or national organizations that offer juried exhibitions, workshops, critiques, and conventions. Others repeated her advice, saying they consider those groups to have been essential to their development as painters and as nationally recognized teachers. “For many artists, the best opportunities for learning, meeting other like-minded individuals, and gaining exposure are through artist-run organizations,” says one instructor we contacted. “Many of my students have learned about me through their state watercolor societies when I’ve won awards, judged shows, or presented workshops.”
Making Art Is a Search, Not a Final Discovery
“The search is for our passion,” Alex Powers emphasizes. “The best artists are always looking ahead to new discoveries, fresh inspirations, and meaningful ways of responding to their changing world.”
Keep Painting and Enjoy Yourself
Almost without exception, the teachers we contacted emphasized that the best part of watercolor painting is the joy it brings artists and people they come in contact with. “Relax, enjoy, and absorb as many ideas as seem to fit your current painting experience,” Gerald F. Brommer says. “Enjoy the journey,” Tom Fong adds.
“Enjoy the process, and don’t treat each painting as a product. Remove all expectations from the work,” Katherine Chang Liu offers.
If 20 great watercolor teachers agree on so many pieces of advice, why are there so many different approaches to painting in watercolor? The answer is that although most professionals agree on fundamental aspects of painting, they have strongly divergent opinions about the emphasis that should be placed on one aspect of painting or another. For example, Andrew Wyeth points out that he can’t imagine using photographs or spending a great deal of time preparing to paint. He feels that the act of responding to a moment helps an artist express his or her soul. In contrast, Jeanne Dobie and Sondra Freckelton believe an artist is headed for almost certain disaster if he or she doesn’t carefully select the materials and procedures he or she will follow.
Charles Burchfield found watercolor most appropriate for responding to forces in nature rather than the literal appearance of woodlands, skies, or water. Similarly, Stephen Quiller paints the essence of nature rather than its details.
Mary Alice Braukman, Katherine Chang Liu, Tom Fong and others long ago abandoned representational painting in favor of abstractions created with poured paint, textured acrylic, and collage. Jean Grastorf, Dean Mitchell, and Tom Lynch still insist on interpreting subjects that viewers can readily identify.
Then is there a right and a wrong way to paint with watercolor? You might think so when listening to an instructor argue his or her particular point of view or when officers of a watercolor society explain why they have strict definitions of what will and will not be accepted in their juried exhibitions. But if you refer back to all the advice offered by the 20 teachers we surveyed, the underlying message is that you set your own goals, standards, and pace.
Read more features like this from the fall 2006 20th anniversary issue of Watercolor magazine.