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Sunday, 31 March 2013





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Banishing false fears of water colourists

Over the years a false mystique has been built around the subject of water-colour painting and the practice has seemed to be weighed down by rigid rules, dogma and ritual. This has had the effect of scaring would -be water colourists and filling them with inhibitions that some never get around. I hope to sweep aside the cobwebs and let some air into the subject and give a taste of excitement to the medium you have cast aside once.

The techniques in water-colour painting are based largely on common sense.


Let's start with the fears. They say it's so much more difficult than oil painting because you can not alter anything. Once you've put it down. This is a false idea. There are many ways of altering whole areas of the painting without harming the paper surface. There's the fear of spoiling that virgin sheet of paper you've paid for. The fear of actually starting, any excuse will do. It is really, a fear of failing.

There's the fear of wasting paint. A terrible meanness seems to come over some people when they get a small tube of expensive paint in their hands. A minute quantity goes on the palette and the top is then hastily screwed on again.

These fears all show in the tightness of a beginner's work as he edges forward inch by inch, reluctant to make a bold statement. He has the fear of making mistakes by putting too much paint on at once.

The end result is often giving excessive attention to details, weak, muddy, over-elaborate painting which is the last thing he really wants.


Now let's look at the main faults of water colourists. First is fiddling, that dreadful urge to over-elaborate long after you should have finished. The other main fault is using too much water and not enough paint. This is reluctance to commit oneself to put in the really strong darks where necessary which usually makes the finished picture look as if it has a sheet of tissue paper over it.

One of the other hazards of would be water colourists is the materials. I find so many painters unknowingly do not give themselves a chance from the beginning. They struggle with old paint boxes, rows of little hard paints which require scrubbing to get any paint off at all, and with no possibility of producing rich washes. They often start with too many colours, in the hope of having a ready-made colour for every occasion, and finish up being thoroughly confused as to which of their four blues they should use for the sky.

Also the brushes range in sizes from 00 to 4 which, in the main, are far too small to produce large, fresh washes, and present an absolute invitation to fiddle. Pallettes are also usually too small and pokey with no room to mix enough paint for large areas.


Finally, there's the paper. This is often too thin and cockles badly when wet, unless it's stretched on a board. A beginner might say, "I've been painting in water-colours for some years but my work is too tight. I'd love to paint in a loose, fresh way but something always prevents me."This is very often due to complication and over work. To me there are two words which are all important when producing a water-colour. They are simplicity and purity.

Simplicity is putting on paints directly and decisively, then leaving the stuff alone. Often it is the most difficult thing to do as there's temptation to go on poking at it.

Purity is the transparency you must try to keep, not just in a light sky, but in your strong darks. One can get this by using rich colour put in first time and not by painting it on in weak muddy layers. Watercolour is rather like golf, the fewer strokes you use the more professional it looks. Remember in water-colour confidence is essential and that is brought by being in complete control of your tools and techniques.

No one can write a beautiful poem without acquiring a proper vocabulary. Many painters try to paint their own way. If you are painting fresh watercolour to your entire satisfaction don't change. When you are painting in water colour one of the main qualities you need is courage.

Remember it is only a sheet of paper. If you're going to fail let it be a really glorious failure rather than a weak miserable one. Don't be scared, have a go. You could learn very fast once you have taken the plunge and you may never have to make excuses again about the quality of your painting.



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