how-to by subject

Painting Watercolor Florals That Glow by Jan Kunz – Floral painting is a popular and beautiful genre, and botanical painting is a very old watercolor tradition. Happily, Jan Kunz is able to teach the floral tradition in a way that passes on many basic painting skills.

Kunz takes up this genre with a fresh but technically solid approach, particularly on the topics of color mixing, tonal values, lighting, compositional rules, and using photographs as reference materials. (Kunz has also published a book on painting portraits from photographs.) She builds from the basics. She compares flower shapes to cubes and spheres so that we understand how to model flowers in three dimensions. She presents the basics of building a strong composition, and using preliminary sketches, as the problem of making an effective flower arrangement. Hey, everyone knows how to arrange flowers!

Kunz has a fine painting style that is crisp enough to seem real, yet soft enough to feel painterly rather than mechanical. She has one of the sharpest eyes for value and color that I have seen, and her section on "Painting the Illusion of Sunshine" is an excellent guide to learning to judge values accurately. There is a long middle section addressing many technical specifics, from grading a wash to mixing greens to painting a crystal glass vase. The book concludes with six demonstration paintings (complete with outline drawings ruled off for tracing at any size) and floral reference photos for painting from scratch.

Kunz's approach is delightfully low key. A single short paragraph at the end of the first chapter sums it all up. "Most important tip: Don't listen to any of this advice if it doesn't sound right for you... Watercolor painting is a very personal experience. You are in charge. Have faith in your own ability to know what works for you."

Botanical Illustration in Watercolor by Eleanor Wunderlich – This is a conservative and detailed tutorial in botanical illustration, which Wunderlich defines as "a specific branch of scientific illustration in a specific medium" — which is watercolors. The aims and methods of this tradition have remained much the same for over 300 years, and weave the individual efforts of thousands of artists in a common family of visual designs.


jan kunz

eleanor wunderlich

susanna spann

judy treman

cathy johnson

john carlson

trevor chamberlain

al stine

rachel rubin wolf

michael rocco

nita engle

Wunderlich explains the basic craft elements that create convincing plant portraits: the choice of subject, setting up a working space, how to draw plants, rendering plants in watercolors, and mounting and framing. As Wunderlich says, some of these basic techniques were discovered and standardized centuries ago.

The section on drawing plants, by itself about one quarter of the text, solves perspective problems with an analysis of the geometric forms of leaf and flower. Using the Euclidean tools of compass and straight edge, Wunderlich shows how to capture precisely the polygonal outline of a complex form, sketch in the regular geometric forms (ellipses or spirals) repeated within it, then finish with the details of individual petals or parts. The drawing difficulties created by plant textures and interlacing or overlapping stems are discussed in detail. She's a fine draftsman, and her methods are excellent to train an accurate drawing eye and hand.

The book includes a large number of demonstration paintings, showing how to render many kinds of fruits and vegetables, flowers, ferns and vines, mushrooms, bulbs and roots, bark and dead leaves. The gist is to use multiple glazes of color to gradually build up the correct value and hue for the plant. This may deter a beginning painter, who should start with the book by Jan Kunz (above) — but it is the time honored method for getting the plant image exactly right.

Major areas of the craft are not discussed in sufficient depth, starting with a disappointingly cursory overview of artistic materials. The section on color mixing is little more than a color wheel and a list of paints; the reader will need a good color wheel book to mesh the two. Capturing the developmental history of a plant is one of the major themes of botanical illustration, an aspect that often makes these pictures such poignant meditations on time, season and the transience of beauty, but all this is only mentioned in side comments.

Even so, most of the main points are covered very well: and by working through this book you will achieve a good basic command of botanical illustration, an appreciation of the craft and patience it requires, and a solid foundation for the lifetime of study it invites and amply rewards.

Painting Crystal and Flowers in Watercolors by Susanna Spann – Where Paul Jackson is vague about layering paints to achieve dark and perfectly controlled values, Spann strips all the mystery away. Control (what used to be called finish) is at issue, and Spann exerts all her control through painstaking camera set ups (she apparently doesn't paint flowers photographed in the field) and painstaking layering of values. The rest is patience, light brushwork — and a spectacular control of edges. The results are beautiful to look at, attractive to emulate, and fun to learn from.

Spann (like Jackson, Carolyn Brady or Joseph Raffael) is a master at photographically derived, colorful, contrasty and slightly stylized paintings, the kind that has been unusually popular in watercolor exhibitions and among collectors over the past several years. Her formula is fairly straightforward: choose a simple arrangement of flowers and crystal, set these against a plain dark background, stage the lighting to create translucent and sparkling value contrasts, photograph, then crop and skew the photo to get dramatic detail and dynamic composition. Make a painstaking watercolor copy (in the largest format possible), then enter in a juried show. Each of these steps gets careful treatment in a handsome and clean layout. The demonstration paintings are almost as detailed as those in Dawn Heim's book; there is little left to chance. Advanced beginners will make especially large strides by following Spann's easy to follow instructions.

This is the opposite of the loose approach of Charles Reid or Skip Lawrence. Every hint of backrun, drip, pigment texture and brushstroke is expunged. Unfortunately, Spann doesn't detail the tricks to give perfectly even wash textures (aside from using unusually small brushes), but she is the cure for what might be called the beginners' fear of flowing. What keeps Spann herself motivated to make hundreds of similar paintings is her love of the look of flowers and crystal. Those subjects certainly put her painting method on best display.

North Light's artist and her editor (née Jennifer Lepore) now recommend only lightfast pigments (no mention of alizarin crimson or aureolin). The next hurdle is to distinguish between pigments, paints and "colors". Some paint "color" names ("yellow ochre," "prussian blue") are the names of common pigments that are typically very similar across manufacturers and over time. Other "color" names ("sap green," "indian yellow") are historical names of pigments no longer in use, replaced by modern single pigments or convenience mixtures of different pigments, resulting in different colored paints across different manufacturers. Still other names ("winsor red," "thalo red") are proprietary or trademarked labels that manufacturers hang on to, although over time they may change the pigments in the paints, changing the appearance and handling attributes of the "color."

Spann and Lepore-Kardux try to handle this problem by stating that they refer to Winsor & Newton and Daniel Smith paints exclusively. But the right solution is to identify by color index name the pigments contained in every paint, so that artists can verify what the label means and find substitutes as desirable. Or as necessary: Spann includes "rose carthame" in her "basic palette of colors" — a color name (and a paint) that Winsor & Newton discontinued years ago. (Every editor falls asleep, it seems.) What did the old rose carthame paint look like? Probably some kind of pink stuff ... but without the color index name of the pigments it was made from, you will never know.

Building Brilliant Watercolors by Judy Treman – Whatever you may think of the Barbara Nechis style of art or her ideas about creativity, it's highly informative and stimulating to read her book and Judy Treman's at the same time.

Treman is stylistically at the other extreme from Nechis or Skip Lawrence: her paintings are precisely outlined, carefully filled in, and highly respectful of local color. She uses violet for all her shadows and imparts a porcelain stiffness to her flowers. When Nechis talks about the methodical "direct painters" who outline every area and then fill them in according to a master plan, Treman surely fits the description.

So it's good to see that Treman is just as much in love with painting, and with creativity and the freedom of art, as Nechis is. Treman adores brilliant colors and has mastered the glazing techniques necessary to create them. The technical advice she gives is very effective and well organized. She leads the reader through selecting paints, making test swatches for color, staining, opacity and mixing, and making a color wheel (she uses mostly Winsor & Newton colors). This leads to mixing colors, using glazes and washes (the one to build color, the other to paint foundation shadows or "disappearing purple" that model drapery and volume), and executing large designs.

Treman tackles her topics in chapters or chapter sections with bullseye titles such as "Values Provide Structure" or "Tone Down Tube Greens." Her discussions of value and composition are very thorough; black-and-white reproductions help us see the value structure of the paintings. The overall progression of topics is effective and natural.

Treman only has her painting approach to teach; if you like atmospheric colors, or loose brushwork, or painterly washes, then this book won't be much help. But every topic Treman addresses is handled clearly and authoritatively, with her deep love of painting apparent on every page. This one lesson — that you must keep your eye on your painting joy — is the one that the best artists seem to agree on.

The Sierra Club Guide to Painting in Nature by Cathy Johnson – Field painting is a wonderful recreation, and this book presents its pleasures better than any I know. Johnson describes every detail with enthusiasm and simplicity, with so many watercolor illustrations that we seem to be peeking into her sketchbook.

The book starts with some general discussions of the pleasures and problems of outdoors painting, then dives into paints and color mixing, and finally the use of watercolors in the field. Painting is discussed in the context of sketching and observing nature, which links specific painting problems to the visible aspects of landscape structure, capturing the changing effects of light, and the inspiring relationship between an individual artist and a specific outdoor scene. The book concludes with some guidelines for analyzing natural forms — the textures of clouds, the shapes of flowers or different species of trees, the anatomical details of animals.

The Guide to Painting is written (and edited) almost in the style of a personal letter or impromptu speech to the reader, wandering unpredictably from personal anecdote to technical advice to illustrative incident. I sometimes felt impatient at the lack of more useful and in depth information.

Johnson's The Sierra Club Guide to Sketching in Nature is an indispensible companion volume. In this earlier book, Johnson offers more practical information. She starts with tools and equipment, and clearly explains the basic differences among brushes, papers, pencils and erasers. Next comes sketching — how to hold a pencil and create a variety of lines and textures. In the chapter "Putting It All Together," Johnson offers exercises in gestural drawing, freeing creativity, seeing negative shapes, and other elements of artistic perception. From here she begins to weave in the principles of wildlife observation — plant anatomy and animal forms — making the book as much a guide to seeing nature as a lesson in drawing or painting it.

The accompanying illustrations in both books have a relaxed, not quite professional look to them, like those gradeschool hobbyist books that explain how to hunt tadpoles or build a kite. But her words are often alert and poetic, full of insight, carrying you forward with interest to see what else she has to teach.

There is nothing about the studio: the whole point is to be outdoors observing nature. What I admire about Johnson's lovely books is her great attention to the details of plants and animals and clouds, and her conviction that an enjoyment of art, and a love of observing nature, are complementary passions.

Carlson's Guide to Landscape Painting by John F. Carlson – Landscape is one of the main genres across media, but for some reason there are few comprehensive books on landscapes in watercolor (many are now out of print). Carlson's guide, first published in 1929, reprinted many times and widely used by art instructors in the USA, assumes the painter is working in oils ("watercolor is a master's medium," he cautions), but most of the text is general enough to make it useful to the watercolorist as well.

Carlson's goal is to nurture the painter's "landscape sense," the ability to capture the sensual beauty of nature — the "float" of a cloud, the heaviness of earth. To do this, he analyzes the landscape textures of light, clouds, trees and ground into basic principles. The look of clouds varies according to their type and position in the sky. The value (brightness) of the ground varies according to its angle in relation to the light and the viewer. The color of the sky changes toward the horizon in a sequence of colors like the rainbow. Understanding how to paint a tree means understanding how a tree grows.

Compared to recent art books, Carlson relies a lot on text: there are no photographic demonstrations or step-by-step instructions ("to make tree limbs, hold a palette knife like this!"). Most of the illustrations are pencil sketches. But I haven't seen perspective (linear and aerial), or the effects of light on value, explained so well anywhere else. The apparent drawback to the edition I have — all the illustrations are in black and white — actually helps to emphasize the value design in Carlson's paintings.

Carlson believes that landscape beauty comes from our appreciation of the physical and biological laws of nature — an approach first evangelized by Thomas Eakins. Skill at showing these laws through the light, color, forms and perspective of a painting is "the landscape sense." It's remarkable to find an artist presenting physical laws as the laws of art, but Carlson demonstrates the usefulness of this approach.

Trevor Chamberlain: Light and Atmosphere in Watercolour by Trevor Chamberlain & Angela Gair – It's not surprising to find "painting the light" as a theme in watercolor books, because watercolor relies on the light of white paper for its effects.

I've already mentioned Marilyn Simandle's lovely book on this theme, and Trevor Chamberlain is another artist in the same spirit. Like Simandle, Lucy Willis or Rita Derjue, Chamberlain has a tantalizingly easy style of wash and brushwork that belies his wonderfully precise sense of value and color. The genial, reflective tone — in the spirit of an art apprenticeship, as the master teaches us his secrets — is the consistent editorial style of other volumes in the publisher's Atelier Series.

There's some very interesting technical guidance in the text, woven throughout Chamberlain's personal narrative. Most of the discussion concerns landscape and marine painting, and we get Trevor's advice on deterring spectators, adapting to changes in tides or light, painting in plein air, and choice of paints and paper. For Chamberlain, the transparency of watercolors depends on getting the tonal values exactly right on the first pass, rather than muddying the colors through revisions. This makes his paintings all the more remarkable, since they are completed in the field, with very little reworking.

Most of the learning I derived from this and similar books comes through a careful study of the many finished paintings - landscapes, marine scenes, nudes, and florals. If you know the basics of watercolors, and keep Chamberlain's palette in mind, then it isn't hard to figure out how each painting was done, since everything shows in the brushstrokes. But try copying a few of these paintings for yourself, and you'll quickly begin to appreciate the secrets of color and value that Chamberlain has developed to understated perfection.

Painting Watercolor Portraits by Al Stine – Portraits simplify painting to a handful of important tasks. The artistic problem is to create a recognizable likeness that is also an interesting painting. The mixing problem is to create the color of flesh, in its many racial and temperamental variations, in light or shade. The design problem is to place the face in an interesting setting and lighting. And the main drawing problems are in the facial expression and features — nose, mouth, eyes, ears. (Hands are usually not covered.) Master these things, and you're on your way.

The great thing about Stine's presentation of these basics is that he doesn't work everything out in exhaustive detail. He explains just enough so that we get the gist of the solutions. He describes enough different recipes for skin tones to give us the basic idea that it's a matter of mixing a cool red, an earth yellow and a blue. He analyzes facial features into component shapes and points out a few subtleties in drawing the eye or mouth. The rest we can work out for ourselves.

There are many demonstration paintings to show us the best way to light the subject's face, locate the center of interest, design the shapes, and build the overall painting from the basic flesh tone harmony. The implied lesson is that a portrait is all of a piece. Stine uses a kind of splattery background treatment that I don't like, but this slapdash has the good effect of keeping the focus (and most of the painting effort) on the face.

Though Stine presents forty different portraits as demonstration paintings or finished works, each painting is in some respect different from all the others. This may be because there isn't a single "rule" or set of routinized technical instructions anywhere in the book. Stine wants us to be flexible in our painting methods so that we can take individual approaches to the individuals we paint.

Basic Techniques for Painting Textures in Watercolor edited by Rachel Rubin Wolf – I've never been attracted to books that teach you how to simulate a variety of everyday textures. It seems an odd ambition to paint cat fur or a dented rusty pail so that people say, "wow, that kitty in the pail looks so real!" But people crave to do it ... there are many 'how to paint texture' books out there.

Watercolors have always been closely associated with realism in the genre of botanical painting, so bark and grass are at the heart of imitating natural textures in watercolor. The challenge is always to give the artistic impulse dominance over the desire for literal imitation.

Wolf's book is worth taking a look at because her idea of texture is very eclectic. A compilation of texturing methods from three artists, it's not so much about imitating textures (though the rusty pail is in here) as about the role of texture in design and composition, and the different textures it's possible to make with brush, paper, palette knife, razor blade, saran wrap, salt, sandpaper ... you get the idea.

Most of the farmyard work in Wolf's book (brass bed, crock pot, old barn, rusty thresher, dry grass, and there's that damn pail!) is by the thoroughgoing realist Michael Rocco. Wolf mixes these literal textures with paintings by Eric Wiegert and Judi Wagner that go in the opposite direction of impressionistic and very free brushwork. This gives the book a kind of split personality — one side turned toward the rusty pail, the other toward florals and landscapes done in very exuberant splashes of color.

Wolf recognizes that art's appeal lies in the way it can accommodate completely different styles. By bringing together diverse technical methods, she hopes that the variety will be stimulating. As she writes in her introduction: "We all work with a fairly similar and basic set of art-making tools ... this book will give you dozens of ideas and techniques to jump-start your creativity."

Painting Realistic Watercolor Textures by Michael Rocco is much more singleminded about what texturing can do: it can create realism. In his introduction, Rocco makes clear that he likes the impressionists and all that, but realism is here to stay. (A look at contemporary watercolor painters suggests many agree with him.) So there's nothing to do but buckle down and start painting those leaf veins.

Rocco's lessons provide the student with attentive guidance. The first section ("Painting Twenty-six Popular Textures") is very nicely laid out: each texture is shown in a completed work, in a closeup that resolves some of the texturing detail, and finally in step by step images that unlock how the brushwork and glazes are done. The captions point to specifics in the brushwork, color choices, lighting, and value.

The second section of eleven demonstration paintings focuses on organizing the whole image — the sequence of painting large washes, balancing the values of the major shapes — and, without saying so, shows that realism depends on a solid value and hue foundation for the microscopic daubs of leaf and rust.

You have to be ambitious to take on Rocco's book. If you really intend to paint tall grass — in the turf and silhouetted against grayed bare boards — then you are in for a long paint. But Rocco makes you want to try the experience of realism, for its own sake and for the high level of skill and patience required to do it right.

For a beginner's take on texturing citrus skin, leaves, feathers and fur, look at the book by Dawn McLeod Heim.

How to Make a Watercolor Paint Itself by Nita Engle – The "how to" theme in this best selling watercolor book is really about "experimental techniques to achieve realistic effects." The main difference between Engle's approach and Rocco's is her passion for the random patterns it's possible to make with loosely controlled washes, sprayed water and paint, and paint applied with sticks, rope, stiff brushes, plastic wrap and other tools.

Engle's secret resource is maskoid (or painted resist), which she uses to preserve key whites on the paper until most of the color areas are laid in. Her "twelve-way" washes are very elaborate procedures that mix three or more different colors in a complex process of soaking, spraying and sloshing around. They make fine rainbow veils and swirls that imitate sunlight through hazy water or misty forests. Throw in some salt, scratch out some branches with a frayed stick, lift off all the maskoid ... and there's your painting.

About half way through the book you might conclude that Engle's method really only works for breaking surf, foggy landscapes, hazy sunsets and frosty snowscapes. But by the end of the book you may feel that no one paints these sentimental vistas better than she does.

Well, almost no one. I have to mention the mirror similarities between Engle's paintings, methods and themes, and those in Fill Your Watercolors with Light and Color by Roland Roycraft — published 9 years before Engle's book. These similarities are so many and so intimate (right down to the exact same placement of the exact same Winsor & Newton paints on the exact same white butcher's tray palette) that it's obvious one of these artists is blatantly imitating the other, without giving credit where credit is due. (Visitors to this site testify that the order in which the books were published may not indicate the actual priority.)