“Lookit that watercolor sky,” I said as I watched towering clouds punctuate the evening sky as the sun went down. It was fluid, transparent, alive.
I’ve learned to see differently now that I try to paint in watercolor. I’ve learned about art, but also about life. Watercolor is therapy for this harried, type triple-A, first born who likes to be in control and expects perfection.
Unlike oils, watercolor is a medium where less is more, except it is more demanding and less forgiving.
The beauty depends on light going through transparent color and reflecting back from the white paper. Someone said it’s like playing a piano—once you hit a note you can’t take it back. That’s why you paint light to dark, because once something is dark, you can’t lighten it or erase it. For white, you simply don’t paint, and a little color goes a long way. To darken areas, add gradual washes of color. For hard edges like a mountain peak, apply wet paint on dry paper. For soft edges like wind-blown clouds, put wet paint on wet paper.
It’s a medium of letting go—letting the color and water react. You don’t have the control of oils; you have to accept results you may not have intended. You settle for illusions of reality, bolstered by various textures added and composition, especially the contrasts of warm and cool colors and lights and darks.
Above all, watercolor is an exercise in seeing—seeing light, form, colors, representations, as well as seeing into the future in composition.
Overwork a piece and it gets opaque and muddy, killing the transparent beauty of color—and it’s as apparent as the difference between the light in the eye of a living bird and the dullness of a stuffed one.
You don’t need many colors. Oklahoma City artist and my teacher Cletus Smith uses only a few on his palette to mix all he needs. I’ve studied with others, including Connie Seaborn of Oklahoma City. Everybody needs more than one teacher. For the record, I primarily use only a few colors: alizeran crimson, thalo red, thalo blue, thalo green, ultamarine blue, raw sienna, burnt sienna or umber, indigo, Hooker’s green, gamboge orange, cadmium yellow. Another teacher, who I paid to spend a week with in Taos, Ron Ranson, also uses few colors. He says “These are my friends. I know them.” To learn more, I’ve started scanning art magazines at every trip to the bookstore, and studing Cezanne, Winslow Homer and the Wythes . I never miss a chance to view art shows for ideas, inspiration and instruction.
Most of all, they painted free—having mastered their craft, they gave themselves freedom—not to control watercolor—but enjoy color and express their emotions.
Which is why I try to paint southwestern landscapes with lots of sky. As a child of the Great Plains, I’m comfortable with far vistas and lots of light. My best work is transparent—like the skies. The worst is overworked, over controlled.
It’s taken me a long time to develop my writing voice, and I’m a long way from gaining that confidence and ability in watercolor.
But as I keep trying, here’s what watercolor has taught me about life.
• Observe everything closely—there’s lots of beauty
• To be creative, don’t be a control freak
• Give yourself permission to experiment and take risks
• Mastering the techniques comes only with lots of practice
• You have to make mistakes to learn
• Look ahead—plan where you want to go
• Value light—it gives life
• There is very little pure black and white
• Texture adds interest to art and life
• Express your emotions
• Contrast is everything—life without change is boring
• There are no perfect paintings or lives
• Art and life teach humility
• Restraint is often the key to success
• There is very little pure black or white in nature, and life—shadows are filled with beautiful colors
• You forget all your problems when you’re involved in watercolor or any creative project
• Less is more
• Watercolor, and life, is a series of solving problems, correcting mistakes, and learning
• The satisfaction of success helps you deal with the rest of life.
I told you watercolor was therapy—it sets me free.