learning the basics
The Watercolor Book by David Dewey This is one of my all time favorite art books, a model of concise instruction, wise advice, deceptively simple exercises, and compact design. Like they say on TV: if you buy just one watercolor book, make it this one.
Dewey gives equal emphasis to materials, theory, technique, the principles of design, and simple practice. He sees the whole art. He begins with an overview of paint manufacturers, brushes, papers and other supplies, and closes with an invitation to try mixed media and a step by step explanation of how to do a large studio painting. There are penetrating discussions on colors and paints, on selecting the palette for each painting, and on building a painting from value sketches.
The technical advice in this book is exceptionally accurate and easy to understand. For example, the four pages explaining how to paint different types of washes avoid the errors or omissions common in introductory books. Dewey also goes into a wealth of specific techniques that other texts rarely mention: pen and ink wash drawings, the use of a sketchbook, monochrome painting, color bars or color chords used in color design, the "color" of gray, and many more. All topics are illustrated with many pictures, and these always provide information rather than just decorate the page. The book is so compactly designed that many gems of advice are tucked in the picture captions; the book can be studied repeatedly and still teach something new.
Dewey himself has painted the student lessons and technical examples displayed throughout the book. It is exciting to see how the simplest exercises painting a wash or geometrical objects are connected to a greater painting skill. He includes a large number of examples of his open air sketchbook drawings, and makes very clear the importance of the sketchbook to artistic growth and creativity.
The more advanced lessons build on simple demonstration paintings (my favorites are the still life on a patterned rug, and Niagra Falls). These exercises apply the lessons from earlier sections on color harmony, value range and brush techniques: the principles are put into practice. And they lead naturally to Dewey's gently rendered plein air landscapes and a demonstration of his pristine New England architectural paintings. Along the way, for the very top view of the watercolor art, Dewey throws in some lovely reproductions of works by John Marin, John Sell Cotman, Charles Demuth, Joseph Raffael and others, to make us want more watercolor beauty.
Everything comes together in a harmonious vision of the watercolor art, a reference and inspiration for many hours of happy experimentation and learning. Tribute must be paid to Marian Appellof, Candace Raney and Areta Buk, editors and designer of the series which includes this book, for their superb standards and artistic judgment.
Watercolor School: A Practical Guide to Painting in Watercolor by Hazel Harrison The prolific Hazel Harrison has published several books on acrylic and watercolor painting, and this bestselling volume from Reader's Digest is one of the most useful watercolor tutorials available.
Opening with a chapter "Why Watercolor?" that describes the fluidity, spontaneity and individual freedom of the medium, Harrison devotes a mere eight pages to materials the studio setup, then 34 pages to the basic skills laying a wash, palette design and color mixing, building glazes and washes, creating highlights, controlling edges, and planning a painting. Next is a section on "Developing Your Skills" that includes the more complex techniques of wet in wet, texturing, lifting and resists. The last section, "Making Pictures," looks at specific problems associated with painting landscapes, cityscapes, still lifes, animals, and human figures and portraits; each section includes a gallery of contrasting paintings that displays the applications of different techniques.
Harrison's basic format is the "two page chapter," each topic described and illustrated across the two facing pages of an open book laid flat on the worktable. This makes the book effective as a visual or memory aid while you work, but sometimes forces topics into an arbitrary two or four page treatment. There are ample illustration photos, and the text and captions are concise without omitting essential information.
An especially nice touch is the double demonstration of basic painting techniques through the step by step work of two painters labeled "artist one" and "artist two." This lets us see slightly different approaches to planning washes, modeling shadows, or building a complete painting not unlike the workshop experience of seeing many students complete the same exercise. The reader gets a sense for the amount of freedom or individual variation permitted in the painting techniques, which is something especially difficult to communicate through a book by a single author. (In the later sections, the galleries of paintings by contrasting artists suggest the variety in both techniques and painting styles.)
Reader's Digest Press has done more than its share for beginning watercolor painters. Under the same colophon is Anne Elsworth's Watercolor Workbook: A Complete Course in Ten Lessons, which builds a very solid and traditional painting foundation across ten superbly paced chapters informed by Elsworth's many years of workshop teaching experience; and Stan Smith's ambitious if somewhat unfocused Watercolor: The Complete Course. I think Harrison's book is the best of the three.
Watercolor For the Serious Beginner by Mary Whyte This is the briefest and in some ways least informative of the basic tutorials I recommend. However the value of Whyte's book is not in the scope of information provided, but in the clear communication of expectations. Watercolor tutorials sometimes have an encyclopedic appetite for heaps of distracting details: Whyte adopts a conversational approach, and limits her scope of information, as a way to keep you focused on the big picture.
This big picture is "patience, practice and serious effort," the key theme of the book from the introduction (which describes the "dismal, poorly executed" student painting of a watercolorist who became famous through years of steady work) to her page of concluding thoughts ("the degree of your success will depend on the amount of sincere effort you give"). In Whyte's view, "talent" is not what turns beginners into professional painters, and "lack of talent" is usually an excuse to stop growing.
A second dimension of the big picture is design: after a brief nine pages on materials (brushes, paints, papers and studio setup), Whyte devotes over 40 pages to drawing skills, composition, value and color. I express elsewhere my reservations about composition and design principles, but Whyte's tutorial is concise, clear and pragmatic. Putting the conceptual skills before the painting techniques embodies Whyte's claim that "This book is not just about technique. It is also about seeing and thinking."
The remaining 80 pages are devoted to the basic technical skills and a variety of specific problems that are addressed as appropriate under the genre headings of still life, landscape and portrait/figure. Thus, lighting effects are demonstrated as part of setting up a still life, mixing greens is tackled in the landscape section, and mixing flesh tones under portraits. This way of discussing technique only when it is essential to painting gives the book a refreshing momentum and keeps instruction to a minimum. Repeatedly, in many different contexts, Whyte appeals to practice, experimentation and trial and error as the surest route to artistic understanding. That doesn't mean Whyte just harangues you to practice. Many pages seem, on first reading, to be somewhat casual and elementary, but with experience turn out to be focused on the essential information and the ultimate goal of teaching yourself to see.
Although there were several points where I felt that Whyte's specific information was either incorrect or misleading, this detracted nothing from the book, as those "inaccuracies" are part of watercolorists' common lore. In place of shallow workshop tricks that are only mechanical crutches, Whyte has the healthy and wise awareness that cookbook painting is not the route to personal artistic growth. If you can hold the brush you can paint, and if you can paint then you can learn to paint better. How fast you learn and how far you go depends only on whether you choose to paint as often and as intently as necessary.
Complete Guide to Watercolor Painting by Edgar Whitney For several decades, Edgar Whitney (1891-1987) was the most prolific, influential and popular watercolor teacher in America, both as a Pratt Institute instructor and as a vagabonding (and to his female students, sexually harassing) workshop guru. Whitney's painting style an amalgam of stylized design, hasty rendering, and jazzy tool marks typical of commercial and advertising artists of the 1950's has long since gone out of vogue. But his instructional book is a classic introduction to the design challenge of a painting, and with it the idea that good design is really what painting is all about.
Wait, isn't painting about tracing an outline from a photo and building up colors and darks with careful glazes and small brushes? Whitney has little patience for that plodding approach. He uses a 2" flat brush, lots of wet, and finishes his paintings in twenty minutes, wham bam! He insists that a good painter can make a good painting with almost any kind of paint, paper or tool. (Whitney sometimes spit into his demonstration washes, to show that anything can be used to artistic effect.) The artist is only interested in design concepts, and does whatever necessary to realize those concepts on the page.
Whitney lustily embraced the intellectual limitations of most workshop students by creating for himself a outsized, crusty, bombastic persona who could reduce any painting difficulty to simple ideas emphatically put: You are not stupid you're either scared, lazy, or ignorant. ... Art is emphasis on essence. Invent symbols to express that essence. ... Design shapes first, fitting nature or objects into them. ... Design values must be thought into your paintings or you will be rolling dice in the rectangle. ... and so it goes with this book. Whitney begins with "six pattern schemes" (the basic strategies for arranging lights and darks on the page) and the "rule of good shapes" (that is, "a shape having variety in its length and breadth dimensions, its directional thrust being a dynamic oblique, and with incident at its edges interlocking with negative areas"). And he ends with the seven elements of design and the 19th century eight principles of design unity, contrast, dominance, repetition, alternation, balance, harmony, and gradation much as expounded by John Ruskin, but without Ruskin's keen eye for natural forms and rhythms. Learn how these elements most effectively combine, and you have the framework for an infinite number of paintings.
Technical advice is here, but limited to random tricks of the trade, many landscape and portrait shortcuts, and the general recommendations to work wet in wet and use lots of "tool marks" sponging, scraping, splattering, blotting. There's a very fine chapter on drawing as the foundation of visual art, and the final pages, on "A Craft Philosophy and Art Today," exhort the artist to individuality and a rejection of technological values. He refers to the philosophical purposes of art; he identifies empathy as the essence of artistic emotional involvement; and he continually emphasizes hard work, perseverence and scholarship as essential to artistic growth.
I find Whitney's paintings histrionic and crass, even as demonstration pieces. They show what happens when you rely on cookbook principles and technical stunts instead of a searching spirit and senses. But it is Whitney the guru, not Whitney the artist, that you enjoy and come to admire through this book, and in the related design books of his pupils in particular Strengthen Your Painting With Dynamic Composition by Frank Webb and The Artist's Guide to Composition by Frank Webb (both now out of print but readily available through online used booksellers, and much better resources for today's painter). Ultimately you must discover your own painting style and artistic vision. Whitney's popular classic is a tribute to the importance of good design principles in that quest.
Basic Watercolor Answer Book by Catherine Anderson A wonderful beginner's book that uses the "FAQ" format to cover a remarkably large amount of basic information on watercolors.
Because the whole discussion is structured as a series of questions and answers, with many picture captions and sidebar comments, Anderson can freely jump from one aspect of painting to another, insert asides, or point with pictures. This gives the book a relaxed, exploratory feel very close to the physical act of painting. But Anderson does not wander or lose her way. All the essentials are here, carefully and clearly presented, with an excellent index to guide you to specific information.
She starts out with watercolor papers a nice touch, since papers are usually the neglected aspect of painting. Next come brushes, and this chapter ends with a small watercolor project that brings all the different brushstrokes together. These basics in place, the book takes more time on the topics of paints, colors and tonal values. The last chapter is titled "Is this a mistake or a creative opportunity?" This is a brilliant stroke: rather than teach compositional rules, Anderson teaches you just to look at your painting, find out what doesn't work, and fix it. Lifting and glazes are the main tools, since most of the "mistakes" she discusses can be fixed by improving the value structure of the painting.
The endearing aspect of Anderson's approach is the gentle support she gives the student's morale. Mistakes are a learning experience; it's important to keep a beginner's mind and just enjoy the painting; and repeated often in the early pages is the mantra "there are no rules." I left the book invigorated and eager to paint, trusting my painting experiences as a guide.
Watercolor: A New Beginning by Ann Lindsay Yet another book that trusts so much in the painting experience that technical guidance is almost entirely lacking. And this is in the spirit of Lindsay's belief that art is a pastime of almost pure intuition.
The issue Lindsay is grappling with, which affects many artists at all levels of skill, is that compositional rules, technical principles, esthetic theories and the expectations of teachers, students or colleagues can become painfully critical inner voices you made an ugly painting, you worm, don't you see you'll never be an artist! with an insane power to nurture anxiety and stifle artistic freedom. It's baffling that art and fear should go together, but it's something every artist deals with. Lindsay wants to be the therapist to set things right by getting us in touch with the naive and playful aspects of painting (yes, she talks about her inner child).
Lindsay only touches on the technical essentials: using your brush, paints and a palette; primary and secondary colors; washes and glazes; neutrals and darks; drawing; value composition; painting in series; lost and found edges; negative space. There are no rules or technical tricks Lindsay just describes the general goal, jumps in with a simple demonstration to get you started, admires her results and yours ... and that's it.
"And that's it" is her point. She describes the technical skills that can improve with practice, but avoids talking about what makes a painting "good" or "bad." Lindsay clears away the conceptual clutter of teaching so you're free to do just what you want with your painting, have fun, and not be critical about the results. The results are fine and take care of themselves it's the having fun part that really matters! She is careful at each step to direct your attention back to what happened and how you felt about it, without letting your inner judgmental voices jump in to derail the creative experience.
The subtitle "a new beginning" suggests her approach can work for experienced artists and novices alike. But it's the problem most artists wake up to every day: to make paintings whatever way gives them the most joy and pleasure, rather than the way that they've been told, or taught, or nag themselves into believing is the only right way that their art is supposed to be.
Step-by-Step Guide to Painting Realistic Watercolors by Dawn McLeod Heim This is a beginning instructional book unusual for the precision of its technical instructions. And, although the book is nominally about "realistic" painting, Heim's goal is actually very similar to Lindsay's: to get the student painting comfortably and confidently, and so reduce the anxieties that can turn into painful inhibitions.
The training in realistic painting comes through demonstration paintings that the student copies according to Heim's detailed explanations. All the paints and paint mixtures are identified by letter labels, with instructions such as "mix B and E and paint here." Heim illustrates every term she uses with captioned photos, so you know that "blot lightly" means tickling the brush on a paper towel while "blot well" means the brush and the towel really get it on. Many paintings are designed actually to be traced onto the watercolor paper, which makes you thoroughly feel as if you are painting by the numbers or letters.
The subjects are all vignette still lifes a wine glass, a bunch of grapes, a truffle and greeting card, two ducklings, a mat of dead leaves. These seem limiting at first, until you realize that the miniature realism lets Heim's careful instructions slip over your every decision, no matter how small. It's almost as if she is holding you by the wrist, guiding your every movement.
The development of the student's hand eye coordination, practical sense of color mixing, and confidence in building a painting are what this book is really about. There is nothing conceptual here no color theory, compositional rules, value scales, perspective lessons. You take the demonstration image and copy it. Heim treats painting as a straightforward manual skill rather than an airy intellectual task, and explains color mixing or brush technique as precisely as she would tell you how to assemble a clock.
It's true that beginners have a harder time with the physical skills than with the ideas. Heim has wisely realized that this explicit instruction lets the student build the physical skill of painting without fear or distractions. And though she doesn't announce this as her goal, the lasting effect of her teaching style is to impart the habit of carefully watching one's own painting behavior as a way to refine it further.
The Palette Magazine edited by William Lawrence and Christopher Schink Although books are indispensible learning tools, magazines provide an invaluable complement by delivering a broad range of teaching personalities, techniques, and contemporary painting styles. I've expressed elsewhere my disappointment with most art periodicals, which are really little more than marketing touts for artists and advertisers. But I enthusiastically recommend The Palette Magazine (formerly Watermedia Focus Workbook), edited and substantially authored by Skip Lawrence and Christopher Schink, and published quarterly as a business collaboration with Cheap Joe's Art Stuff.
The emphasis of The Palette Magazine is squarely around the issues of design, style, creative process, and art history. (I was moved to include the title here after reading a fine and insightful tribute to some of the California Scene painters.) I wish there were more discussion of specific art materials or techniques, because I believe that artists paint with pigments, not with colors. (Abstractions, like fishbones, usually get in the way of the meat of the matter.) However, half the articles are of the elementary or "back to basics" type, which I like: most ignorance is really ignoring what is obvious or forgetting what is important.
The "design first" school leads inevitably to paintings that declare their allegiance with splashy colors, broad value contrasts and stylized, iconic images. Palette doesn't deliver any photorealism, naturalism or Richterlike technical complexity for its own sake. I don't see this as a limitation, because what's left is a huge range of artistic styles and the best way to illustrate basic problems is with paintings that use emphatic solutions. Nuance and subtlety are terrible teaching aids.
The staple bound issues are three hole punched for binder storage and easy reference, and this reflects the editorial emphasis on continuous learning, basic visual problems, and design solutions. Commercial advertisements are completely absent, except for notices of Lawrence and Schink workshops. Other artists contribute specific articles, but typically without the "look at me" slant tolerated in the advertising supported periodicals. Again, the editorial focus helps: artists tend to be individualized by their use of hair dryers, glazes, resists, backruns, paints, drips and all the other tools and tricks of the trade, but they are unified by their struggle with the problems of design and process.
The writing usually manages to be informative, accurate and fun without being skimpy, glib or distracting; the layout and graphics are colorful but visually logical. (There is a more than passing resemblance to the Cheap Joe's marketing style.) As someone karmically doomed to suffer from the tension between analytical and sensual approaches to life, I read their straightforward and easy style with admiration and envy. There's much to learn from this "basic" publication.
Drawing is one of the foundation skills for effective painting, but it is rarely given much treatment in watercolor books (David Dewey and Marilyn Simandle are exceptions). In fact, tracing from photographs gets more mention, as if that were an acceptable substitute. The solution is to get a really good book on drawing, and work through it along with your painting.
The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards The Edwards book is a classic in the foundation skills of drawing. This new edition is expanded with color plates and updated art examples, and fine tunes the text to bring some points into better focus.
Drawing is both a way to fix and discover the painting, to outline its place on the paper and to uncover the specifics of value, composition and characterization. Drawing is a way to stimulate the process of seeing by the act of using the hands. This dynamic is also apparent in Cathy Johnson's drawing book, but Edwards develops it systematically. Once I grasped how much drawing can nurture and develop all aspects of art, I plunged into it with pleasure.
The right brain/left brain theory that Edwards builds on is a caricature of current psychological research, but she uses it only as a metaphor for getting out of self critical, logical, and dutiful artistic habits (left brain) and entering "naive" perception (right brain). Edwards explains a stimulating variety of seeing and sketching methods (such as contour drawings or value sketches), supported by examples from student and professional artist drawings, to loosen up and then refine the student's hand eye skills. She models a healthy "openness to experience" attitude that lets the artist move from spontaneous sketching to painstaking drawing without stimulating the critical inner voices.
Edwards has honed her teaching methods through years of experience. One of my favorites is her directive to copy a line drawing that is turned upside down; the finished drawing is better than a copy made the normal way! Demonstrations such as these show the student how concepts get in the way of really seeing, and help her feel the link between accurate seeing and good drawing. The rest is refinement on this breakthrough.
A more in depth introductory reference is Keys to Drawing by Bert Dodson. This is an excellent overview of drawing that largely ignores materials and rendering methods to focus on drawing as a manual skill and as a process of seeing.
Dodson's major section titles the drawing process, the artist's handwriting, proportions, the illusion of light, the illusion of depth, the illusion of texture, pattern and design, drawing and imagination suggest his practical, tactical and incremental approach to drawing skills. Drawing is "an act of uncanny coordination between the hand, eye and mind," and each of the three must be trained in its specific drawing tasks. The tone is didactic and some chapters end with a checklist to review your comprehension of the material.
The book demonstrates a few important drawing styles (outline, contour, tonal value) and explains effective strategies for looking to judge proportions and shapes and fundamental techniques with pencil or pen for building value and form. It introduces the basic knowledge necessary for effective portrait, perspective or figure drawing, and covers some elementary design principles. I thought these conceptual topics were the weakest parts of the book, but they serve as placeholders or tokens for the types of intensive training that the mind must have in order to perform its drawing tasks.
An interesting component of Dodson's approach is his description of the psychological aspects of drawing: the use of "triggering words" to focus attention, control of the hand, awareness of time or distractions as early warnings of fatigue, the design tactics of making the familiar strange or "joining two bags," and the important tension between seeing and knowing. (His frequent use of the word "illusion" suggests the influence of art historian Ernst Gombrich.)
The pace and brevity of Dodson's book, organized as a sequence of drawing tasks and techniques, makes it an ideal self teaching guide. What makes it special is Dodson's explanation of drawing as the look, hold, draw process of eye, mind and hand working in complete harmony.
An advanced and narrowly focused reference is The Artist's Complete Guide to Figure Drawing by Anthony Ryder. A pupil of Ted Seth Jacobs at the Art Students League and a graduate of the New York Academy of Arts, Ryder teaches the classic European art school approach to figure drawing, which he offers as "the living tradition of the great masters" and in his personal belief that the artist should always "stick to what you were taught."
The key steps are first to block in the figure using a "closing envelope" method to adjust proportions and capture the gesture of a figure; then carefully draw the individual curves and convexities of the contour or outline and add the major internal landmarks on the figure; and finally build up textures and values around these landmarks to capture the play of light and the three dimensional illusion of a human form. There are no anatomy lessons or guides to drawing specific parts such as the mouth or hands in fact, Ryder's method seems designed to build strong figure drawings without any anatomical training. Tonal drawing in graphite is the only rendering technique demonstrated. You're learning an approach to drawing, not details of the human figure or a variety of drawing tools.
Ryder's method is meticulous he puts in "twelve three-hour sessions for each finished figure drawing" and his incrementally enclosing strategy is not unlike capturing the figure in shrink wrap. It produces polished, classically poised, perfectly proportioned and slightly stiff drawings reminiscent of Ingres and other academic draftsmen. However, Ryder's approach seems to present drawing in slow motion, and once you have mastered the flow and tactics of drawing, it is easy to modify the method toward your personal style and to suit botanical, animal, or portrait drawings.
Edwards, Dodson and Ryder are alike in their skimpy discussion of drawing tools and the variety of visual textures they can produce. This "craftsman" side of drawing is wonderfully documented in The Drawing Book by Richard McDaniel. This is in the same series as David Dewey's marvelous watercolor book, and follows the same recipe: a comprehensive (50 page!) discussion of materials, the basics of drawing techniques, demonstration and instructional drawings, a glimpse at mixed media, and samples of fine drawings by other artists.
The section on materials is a wonderful browse. McDaniel covers everything with detail and enthusiasm, from huge Sennelier charcoal blocks and vintage drawing papers to mechanical pens and lumber crayons. There is even a section on computer generated art. All the basic (and many exotic) drawing techniques are presented in very clear text with very clear photographs; I loved how examples of the different types of sketching textures were keyed by laying the drawing implement which produced the texture at the lower right corner of the image. A book designed with that much care is itself a work of art.
McDaniel's coverage of drawing techniques is equally comprehensive. He demonstrates the major drawing styles outline, stipple, hatched, blended usually in two different media, such as pen and pencil. He connects drawing to painting through certain drawing techniques (such as dry washes with powdered graphite or wet blending of aquarelle pencils), drawing materials with painterly qualities (such as oil paint sticks), and the use of preparatory drawings to resolve the design of a painting, so there is much information here of specific interest to the painter. There is also a positive discussion of erasers as drawing tools (to modify lights or the texture of lines) instead of deleting tools (used only to eliminate "mistakes").
These four books have very different aims and cover very different topics. I strongly suggest you work through them all (or start with either Edwards or Dodson). Drawing is the foundation skill for both seeing and painting what you see, and the diversity in these books is an indication of the richness in the art of drawing. You will receive tremendous artistic benefit from even a modest investment of time and effort in exploring the problems and rewards of drawing. (For drawing in the field, see also The Sierra Club Guide to Sketching in Nature.)
Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Watercolor edited by Marian Appellof Almost everything I want to say about this 400 page art compendium is summarized by that "ever" in the title. This is everything you'll ever want to know about watercolors, and then some. It might even be too much.
The editorial concept was to draw on the large stable of Watson-Guptill authors for a chapter or two on topics suited to their expertise, organized as a sequence of chapters that works as a tutorial or complete course in watercolor. Stephen Quiller explains basic color terms and "color theory"; Jeanne Dobie describes a "pure pigment" palette and how to mix greens and luminous grays; Don Rankin explains glazes and simple texturing methods; Maxine Masterfield explains unusual media and complex texturing techniques; and Charles Reid, Don Andrews and Alex Powers explain the composition and rendering of figures and portraits.
My biggest beginner's mistake was choosing this book to start with ("hey, if it has everything, then one book is all I'll need"). With a list of contributing artists that runs all the way down the front cover, and chapters on everything from paint selection to thirty different ways to mix flesh tones, Appellof's anthology is overwhelming in the sheer density and diversity of information offered. I got lost, lost interest, and didn't come back to watercolors for over a year.
Once I reached a capable intermediate level, I found this was a great reference book for tools, for art styles, for solutions to specific problems. The format is clean with ample illustrations, and the text is carefully edited to present the advice from many different artists (and their books) in a consistent tone. A few chapters, for example Irving Shapiro's pages on papers and brushes, are not up to the standard of the rest; and some basic techniques, such as watercolor washes, suffered from skimpy or fragmented exposition.
Appellof's anthology opens up to the reader the sheer variety of effects that it's possible to do with watercolor. However, all the artists in Appellof are accomplished at what they do, not amateurs like the rest of us. Unless you feel secure in the direction your art is heading, and like different points of view for the novelty they bring, the mass of advice Appellof pulls together may overwhelm your artistic self confidence.