Watercolor: Teaching Watercolor Workshops to Beginners: Pitfalls to Avoid

Helen Klebesadel offers tips on how to introduce the sometimes daunting medium of watercolor to novice painters.

by Leanne MacLennan

Cedar Dance II
2004, watercolor,
30 x 22.
All artwork
this article
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Watercolor instructor Helen Klebesadel fondly refers to watercolors as rich hues that are created by light passing through transparent pigments. Although she currently teaches watercolor classes and workshops for adults of all skill levels, Klebesadel initially avoided watercolor painting because she was taught that watercolor resided at the bottom of the media hierarchy. It was this introduction to watercolor, however—despite its somewhat discouraging message—that eventually spurred her to produce a beautiful body of work and to pass her love of the medium onto others.

The first assignment that Klebesadel’s students tackle is painting a color wheel while following her advice about how watercolor paint is applied. According to Klebesadel, “There are three main approaches to painting in watercolor: layering wash over dry wash, allowing pigments to mix wet into wet, and mixing hues on the palette. Using the same two hues with all three of these methods will teach about the richness and the flexibility of the medium. The color wheel teaches color theory while giving everyone a nice way to start playing with the paint without causing them to worry about their drawing skills.”

For instructors of beginning watercolorists, Klebesadel emphasizes that they should remind students that not every painting will be a masterwork. “It is better to learn, relax, experiment, and become comfortable with the medium than to try to create a perfect work every time,” she advises. “We are used to seeing artwork in museums and don’t always remember that there are many works that came before and after those pieces that are also a part of the artist’s creative process.” It is also easier to teach watercolor to absolute beginners than to students with experience in oil or acrylic, she says. “They don’t always understand that watercolor is more of a drawing than a painting medium. With opaque pigments in oil and acrylic you lay down darker colors and then add the light back in by adding whites or lighter pigments. On the other hand, with watercolor you have to remember to save the white of the page to retain lighter values in your image in the same way you do when rendering a graphite drawing.” Novice watercolor students, she recommends, should also think of the watercolor paints as collaborators in their creative processes. “Working wet into wet becomes much less frustrating when you stop trying to control what the watercolor does and focus on controlling where it does it. You can gain an amazing amount of control over the medium by giving up absolute control.”

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Tree of Life
2000, watercolor, 38 x 30.
1995, watercolor, 40 x 30.
Last Magnolia 2000, watercolor, 15 x 22.
Gingham Star 2000,
watercolor, 30 x 22.

More important, Klebesadel encourages fellow art educators to acknowledge these minor pitfalls. “They need to be recognized and addressed in individualized ways that allow students to feel empowered and that they are making progress.” Instructors, she says, should also have a good sense of humor and a supportive attitude in order to help students gain confidence and expand their skills. In addition, offers Klebedasel, “With regard to the practicalities of teaching a workshop, be prepared to go as fast or as slow as is appropriate for the group you are teaching. Don’t try to cram too much in, and always have a little extra up your sleeve in case you get a precocious group that catches on very quickly. I guess my best advice would be to take the time at the beginning of the workshop to ask your students what they are hoping to get out of the workshop (in one or two sentences). It will help you understand the needs of those you are teaching and emphasize the things they have requested. It also does a great job of breaking the ice.” Klebesadel finds that her passion for her medium makes her a successful instructor; she bases her success as an art educator on her students’ ability to find their creative voices, and, as a result, produce their own unique work.

Medusa Remember
1995, watercolor, 48 x 40.

About the Educator
Helen Klebesadel was born and raised in rural Wisconsin and currently resides in Madison. She earned a B.A. and an M.F.A. in art and a certificate in women’s studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She has taught a variety of subjects for 15 years at the college level, including painting, watercolor, printmaking, book arts, and women’s studies. She offers private instruction and art workshops for adults of all skill levels. In addition to being highly involved in women’s studies, Klebesadel demonstrates and reflects her strong social and cultural interest, which is one of her continual sources of inspiration, in her art. Her work has been exhibited at numerous galleries, including Micaëla Gallery, in San Francisco; the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, in Sheboygan, Wisconsin; the William Bonifas Fine Arts Center, in Escanaba, Michigan; and the High Street Gallery, in Mineral Point, Wisconsin. She has also had solo exhibitions at the National Humanities Center, in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina; the Tate Center Gallery, at the University of Georgia-Athens; and the Grace Chosy Gallery, in Madison, Wisconsin.

Leanne MacLennan works in publishing and is also a freelance writer. She is currently pursuing her M.A. in English literature.

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