introduction and farewell
Welcome to the best and most comprehensive resource for watercolor painters on the Internet.
You'll find here information on all aspects of watercolor painting: papers, brushes, paints, "color theory," painting techniques, art instructional books, and more.
I've created these materials for painters who are weary of art marketing hype, inaccurate art theory, and the numbing workshop mentality that invites you to learn somebody else's "winning" painting style in ten easy minutes.
The depth of information will not be to everyone's taste. To those who do spend time here, I hope you find something to stimulate and guide your personal watercolor journey.
Explore, read what interests you ... and go paint!
Nearly all the information on this site is based on my independent research and personal painting experience. I make a special effort to describe my procedures completely, so that you can apply them for yourself.
Several art materials companies and individuals provided me with invaluable guidance and encouragement. My sincere thanks to David Albrecht (GretagMacbeth), David Aldera (NY Central Art Supply), Claire Conway (New York Metropolitan Museum of Art), Dr. Stuart Croll (Department of Polymers and Coatings, North Dakota State University), Dr. W. Daniel Edwards (Department of Chemistry, University of Idaho), Dr. Mark Fairchild (Munsell Color Institute), Alun Foster (Winsor & Newton), Art & Diana Graham (M. Graham & Co.), Ron Harmon (Daniel Smith), Jon Lloyd (Daler-Rowney), Mark Gottsegen (University of North Carolina), Sue Petherbridge (Society of Dyers and Colorists, UK), David Pyle (ColArt Americas), Dr. Andrew Young (San Diego State University), and to the many teachers, curators, scholars, retailers and practicing artists who have written to express their appreciation, offer suggestions, point out corrections, ask questions, clarify misconceptions, or share their experience. You are helping to make this a community resource for watercolor artists around the world.
This is a nonprofit, educational web site. I accept no donations or free product samples; all costs of materials used in testing have been paid by me personally. Art reproductions appear here under the fair use provisions of copyright law. Whenever possible, artists have been notified of and asked to approve the use of their works.
The intellectual or "rational" approach to life is useful when it is applied in well defined ways. It does not necessarily determine what is right or best for individuals to do; and intellectual expertise in itself is not genuine artistic progress nor rewarding recreation. The intellectual approach in art only matters if it can help you make better paintings.
Yet evidence, experimentation and explanation can assist when your painting progress has gotten stuck in some kind of problem, and it can help dispel the false ideas that arose in earlier times among misinformed people. In the end, common sense should indicate when and how a factual approach can be useful.
There are too many words on this site. I am sorry about that. The verbal overgrowth is part of my struggle with myself, and with painting technique. In that sense the site is only one enormous diary, or web log. Read critically.
Explanations are not as interesting as art, and there are far too many readers of this site who enjoy reading more than painting. So I ask you to redeem the time you spend here by reaffirming your commitment to painting, and painting often. Good luck!
Why have I taken on such a huge effort, without pay, without institutional support? Because my character insists on an accurate understanding of my artistic materials. Having done the research necessary to answer my many questions, I chose to publish it where others might use it in their own artistic exploration.
And this too: I believe watercolor is still the painting medium with the greatest potential for new discoveries. For this to happen, things must change. Watercolor artists must set their aspirations higher than the county fair and bistro art display, and aim for the international art market. Until art schools wake up and serve these aspirations, watercolor artists must learn about their materials and techniques through intensive independent study and collaborative discussion. They must emphasize permanent paints in order to bury the fugitive reputation that sticks to the medium from past negligence. They must replace misinformation and myth with fact. They make a profit on artists: they owe artists that minimum of respect.
My guiding idea has been that you, the painter, can teach yourself to see and by seeing more clearly, improve your painting skills through consistent, attentive, observant practice.
Seeing means a more alert, questioning approach to the natural world and to the works of other artists; it means challenging your own painting stereotypes and aspirations; and it means opening yourself to your inexplicable, imaginative gift images. It also means a greater awareness of your art materials, your working habits, and the consequences of your design decisions and physical painting movements. All these apparently different types of seeing are really aspects of the same fundamental ability, and it is this ability that determines the quality of your work.
In that spirit, the site is really a record of my steps toward teaching myself to see through watercolors a comprehensive art notebook, told from many points of view, in many different voices.
We live in an age of precanned media sensations, voyeuristic spectator recreations, nonsense political obsessions, cunning corporate deceptions and tacky psychobabble self explanations. By our outer directed passive involvement, we become spiritual slaves in a world of unimaginable freedom.
Watercolors are so simple, inconsequential, low tech, that they slide like children's games through our oversophisicated world. Their poetry and sensual complexity make us realize that we have somehow lost our childlike ability to see with the creative eye that reveals a world of strange and unexpected beauty.
There is much technical information on this site, but technical knowledge is not the point. As the English mathematician Christopher Zeeman said, "Technical skill is mastery of complexity while creativity is mastery of simplicity." Always seek your own simplicity and beauty.
The best artists are willing to learn by personal discipline and personal exploration. They do not accept what they are told; they see for themselves. But in watercolor there is an especially long, rich and varied tradition, from the early topographers to J.M.W. Turner, Winslow Homer, John Marin, Georgia O'Keeffe, Edward Hopper, Eliot O'Hara, Fairfield Porter, Gerhard Richter and Eric Fischl, of artists who by trial and error taught themselves how to paint in watercolor ... because they were intrigued, fascinated, inspired by the medium.
Georgia O'Keeffe began to paint in transparent watercolors in 1916, and though she had used gouache in her work as a commercial illustrator, she described her first experiences this way:
After about ten attempts I certainly had to laugh at myself It's like feeling around in the dark thought I knew what I was going to try to do but find I don't guess I'll only find out by slaving away at it.
"Slaving away" is a grim way to put it, but a surprising number of watercolorists teach themselves in much the same spirit.
Amateurs can go astray without guidance from others. Books provided me some guidance, but I discovered they were often mixed with misinformation or simplistic half truths. From the quixotic J.W. von Goethe down to today's clumsily edited, knock off instructional books Winning Watercolors In Ten Easy Minutes! artists are too often provided with misleading or inaccurate information.
I found the surest method was to watch myself paint, experiment with different methods, and bring my conclusions back into my painting practice.
However, the key is this: we learn how to paint only by doing many paintings. We watch what happens as we paint them, and look at what happened after they are done. No one else is going to hold your brush and do your paintings for you, or convince you your skill is complete when you know in your gut you can do more. There is simply no other way to grow.
John Marin wrote to an admirer requesting advice:
You are to heed what I say and go on a watercolor debauch it's quantity not quality you are after not to take this too literally but what I mean is to get in front of any old landscape and spend reams of paper and paint on it painting 3 or 4 a day and then at the end of the season you'll if you are naturally gifted have learned something about watercolor then naturally you'll come to quality.
The journal describes my watercolor progress, and includes links to the paintings I made as I learned. You may see parts of your own journey in it. I've also added a page of recent works to report my current activities.
The other parts of the site ... the guide to watercolor pigments, the color vision studies, the many pages on techniques ... these summarize my practical experience and independent research. Based on that knowledge, my book reviews praise some of the best and critique (sometimes in depth) a few of the worst among the many painting tutorials available.
Recording my progress on this web site has sometimes been the only reason I made progress at all. Maybe reading it or simply knowing that someone was crazy enough to put it here can help you, too. Keep on painting!
The contemporary German painter Gerhard Richter was asked why he painted so few watercolors early in his career. His reply:
At the academy, drawing and oil painting were taught, not watercoloring. It didn't belong to the classic course of study. One drew with charcoal and pencil, afterwards one painted in oil: smaller oil sketches, larger oil studies, finally the oil paintings themselves. In the museums, too, there were only oil paintings or at best drawings to be seen, but no watercolors.
What was true in the 1960's is still true today: the exhibition catalog to the New York MOMA's 2002 retrospective of Richter's career reproduces (postage stamp size) a single watercolor painting a monochrome self portrait from 1949.
Artists often teach themselves how to watercolor because academies spurn the medium: not serious, not high art enough, certainly not "investment quality" enough!
The workshop mafia owns it by default. These artists publish dozens of art instructional books each year, all designed with a superficial approach and a cheery style. They appeal to your delusion that you can learn by purchasing things, or copying what someone else tells you is right; they're designed to become obsolete in 18 months, so that you'll crave newer books when they appear.
Watercolor was once considered an important medium. And it is gradually reclaiming its place as a vehicle for the most beautiful and unexpected artistic expression. Not because artists read books (or web sites), but because they will not relent in their personal commitment to master the medium and make it speak their vision.
J.M.W. Turner, J.S. Sargent, John Marin, Edward Hopper, Charles Burchfield, and many others have done amazing things with watercolor, each in their way, often working entirely on their own.
I introduce some of these artists and their works in the section on watercolor artists. Despite the academies and the museums, watercolors are a rich and vibrant tradition. And there are many beautiful things still to be done.
I built this site because watercolor lifted me out of my life in a way that placed me back in my self. It made the world I saw incredibly more vivid and unexpected: it taught me to see, it taught me to teach myself to see.
But my interest in other things has competed with this site for time: and my advancing age has made it plain that all things must come to a close.
Errors and omissions are my responsibility, and I am grateful to the many readers who have contributed corrections and suggestions by email. Errors are also an aspect of character and temperament, and I realize now that there are some errors here, errors of judgment and form, that I cannot correct without being a different person.
Over the remaining months of 2014 I will be porting the content into style sheet formatting, cleaning up loose ends, deleting unfinished pages or sections of pages, slimming down the content, and editing the judgments and expression of a decade ago. Then, no more.
I've enjoyed this work almost as much as the painting itself, and appreciate the many readers who have been rewarded by the work and were kind enough to email me to say so. The email link will also disappear.
I close as I did many years ago:
Watercolors are no longer pale and understated and miniaturist, as they are often stereotyped to be. With modern materials and a postmodernist vision, they can be anything you imagine them to be precise or unbridled, tiny or expansive, vibrant and daring or subtle and understated. Every life spirit can find expression through this medium.
Watercolor is a swim in the metaphysics of life, a mirror of one's personal relationship with the world.
The vitality in watercolor is the life of art itself alert, spontaneous, surprising, improvisatory, relentless, risky, and leaning a little on luck.
Let it be unpredictable ... colorful ... wet.
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