Andrew Pitt

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If you have tried watercolour and been disappointed with your picture then you are not alone. Many student watercolour painters, some with years of experience, seem to have the same problem: they want to loosen up. The pictures they end up with have not communicated their original intentions - and, if painting is about anything, it is about learning how to achieve your intentions.

In this article, I will not be providing any formulae to overcome this problem - there are none that work all the time, any way. The suggestions I will make, however, are simple, practical, and achievable and may help you accomplish your painterly intentions. Some of what I will say will be very basic. This is because I want beginners to start on the right track. More experienced painters, who have lost their way and got discouraged, will also find it useful to take stock if they are to achieve their aims. Studying in depth means going back to examine the fundamentals; getting the basics right is crucial for success.

Think before you paint

Painting is a thinking activity as well as a skill, and this aspect is often over looked. Many students, concentrate too much on the how instead of the why. In fact, the basic skills required to paint in watercolour are easily mastered with a bit of practice. Injecting that special something into your work, however, requires a bit of thought. It is not rocket science but can make all the difference as well as increasing your enjoyment and fulfilment.

In general, artists are not good with words. This is hardly surprising. By definition, an artist communicates with colour, tone and shape. For this reason painting is poorly understood because it is poorly explained. Students who take up the challenge are not ready for the difficulties, setbacks and general feelings of despair that are frequently the lot of aspiring artists; indeed, these feelings are common to us all. This brief article will not necessarily make you happy, but one of the things it might do is console you that this is how many of us feel much of the time. In short, painting is a continual learning process and a struggle that does not get easier with time. Feelings of dissatisfaction can regularly be expected. Still, it is reassuring to know that such depressing feelings maybe a sign that progress is being made.

Nevertheless, painting successfully is not as hard as many people think - as long as you go about it in the right way - and it is an endlessly fascinating and enjoyable activity.

My type of watercolour.

Watercolour today

Watercolour is probably the oldest and trickiest type of painting yet it continues to be hugely popular. The full potential of the medium is only now being exploited and today's watercolourists employ an incredible variety of techniques to tackle a vast range of subjects. Indeed some of the work produced in watercolour today would dwarf the small sketchbook sized landscapes painted just a decade or so ago. However much of this work is not what I call true watercolour. In fact, in catalogues I have seen it described as 'water-media' or 'water-soluble'.

A definition

So first, let me make clear what I mean when I use the word "watercolour". For me it means a special type of watercolour painting. It is probably more modest but certainly not less attractive or less powerful than the more inventive methods of using water-paint. It is definitely not easy to achieve. The style has been variously described as: loose, fresh, simple, confident, bold, fast, free, impressionistic, clean, transparent… The final picture has all of these characteristics although the overall effect is much more than the sum of these individual features. For me watercolours painted in this loose, confident manner have always stood out from the rest. As a teenager, I admired the boldness and audacity of such works. All superfluous detail was swept away in the determination to go straight to the point regardless of accidental drips and smudges. These paintings had a command and vigour lacking in more highly finished, detailed works as well as being a persuasive reminder of the power of simplicity.

Why loose watercolours are so popular

Despite the continuing development of watercolour, why do so many people continue to find this particular style of painting so attractive? Why do so many amateur painters aspire to paint in this way? And, finally, how can this apparently carefree style be achieved? Judging from the number of requests I get to demonstrate watercolour to Art Clubs, the medium and this loose style, in particular, are extraordinary popular. I think the answers to these questions are unexpected and contradictory. To address these issues it will first be necessary to analyse the appeal of this elusive style. After all, how else can we hope to learn to paint in our own freeway and achieve a pleasing, fresh, clean, simple result?

I should, of course, say right at the outset that I do not wish you to think that the loose style I have been referring to is in any way superior to any other way of painting. There are countless methods of making strong pictorial statements in watercolour. However, that it not what I am aiming for here; I am aiming for something much more unpretentious but no less difficult. Make no mistake, just because the finished picture may have a light, pleasant airy feel and does not pretend to represent any earth shattering concepts, that does not mean it is easy to accomplish. Simple is not the same as easy.

An analysis

To begin with, the sort of watercolours I am discussing here are invariably attractive, even beautiful. They can be enjoyed as a simple visual feast of clean transparent colour, regardless of subject matter. In fact, the best figurative watercolours frequently have a considerable abstract quality to them where the paint has been allowed to do its own thing and then been left. Leaving things untouched and recognising a good thing when you see it is something many beginners find particularly difficult.

Clean, fresh washes engender a pleasant feeling. To see the world portrayed in such a simple way evokes a quick and positive sense of life in us all.

Loose watercolours have a holiday feel about them. This is why we find the free, relaxed style so appealing. Simple, clean, idealised images can be enjoyed on many levels. The vigour of the final image is often a result of a telling blend of bold and delicate brush strokes - always a potent combination.

In the past, the resultant pictures have been described as impressionistic. Indeed, many do convey an impression of a place, atmosphere or time of day. However, the key to their attractiveness is the way the artist expresses himself. The sense of life comes through in the way the picture has been painted and the sure way the paint has been applied. Consequently, the style is both impressionistic and expressionistic. Although the personality of the artist is vital, getting the balance right is crucial. If the result is too expressionistic, the picture can look self-indulgent. If, on the other hand the painting is too exact the painting can look lifeless and impersonal.

A great deal of the appeal of this style however lies in the audacity of discarding superfluous detail and going direct for the main point. Loosely painted watercolours have been described as looking as if they have been done with a 'healthy could not careless attitude'. This devil-may-care feeling is another feature of their appeal and the most successful watercolours usually give the impression that the artists enjoyed themselves.

Finally, watercolours painted in this way have another tantalising feature. It is that they seem achievable. The method is not hidden; in fact, the style makes a virtue of honesty and openness. The viewer can see how the picture has been realized. Pencil construction lines are left, along with washes that perhaps needed correcting. Indeed, very polished watercolours can appear dead - a few "mistakes" seem to redeem perfect passages and stop them from appearing slick.

Anyway, loose or fresh, it really does not matter how we describe this style, we all recognise it when we see it.

Lastly, be assured that attempting to paint in this way does not result in us all producing similar looking pictures; there are countless ways of achieving this most attractive yet mysterious look. Indeed, the style is probably impossible to copy or forge, as it is so dependent on little random accidents.

A word of warning

The most important thing to learn from the above analysis is to distinguish between the viewer's emotional response, which is obviously very subjective, and the actual painted image.

Because the most common reaction to this style of watercolour is usually summed up by the word 'loose', it is often thought that this describes the painter's carefree technique. It is therefore vital when painting watercolours not to confuse a loose appearance with a loose approach. The pleasant, untroubled feelings stimulated in viewers are not necessarily the same feelings the artist had when he was painting. The paradox is that loose, free watercolours do not come about by adopting a laid back careless painting method. The very opposite is, in reality, the case. To achieve that fresh look in your washes it is necessary to analyse your subject and apply the paint with forethought and restraint. This means simplifying your subject matter to masses of colour and tone, deciding what you are going to do, doing it and then leaving it. For example, while you are watching your washes dry the worst thing you can do is to start tinkering with them with a wet brush. This is the quickest way to get unsightly cauliflower bleed backs.

An important point

Remember, looseness is how you want your watercolour to look, NOT a description of how you did it.

An essential ingredient

The real key to achieving a successful watercolour in this style is simplicity. Simplicity should be your primary consideration and govern all your thoughts and actions, starting with your materials and ending with how you apply the paint. For the less experienced you are more likely to be successful if you start by selecting a simple subject, simplify it and then paint it simply. Subjects that are more complicated can be tackled later after you have learned, if I can put it like this, what you can get away with. In other words, it takes time to realise that when it comes to watercolour less is more. There are bound to be many occasions when you have finished a picture only to regret that you did not put your brushes down a lot earlier. It is part of the learning process. You have to go too far occasionally to understand the best time to stop.

Think before you paint

Another aspect that must be appreciated is that it is much easier to add to watercolours than to subtract. In other words, instead of looking round to see if there is any more you can include in your picture, spend more time in the early stages deciding what to leave out. My kind of watercolour looks better 10% unfinished than 1% over finished. Moreover, do not be greedy. So often, I see pictures where the artist has tried to include everything and then wondered why the result looks busy and over worked. Be prepared to make sacrifices. You must be prepared to go without some parts for the sake of others. Selection and simplification are crucial. The 'loose' appearance comes about by making some big decisions at the beginning of the painting process and keeping to them. Think carefully about what to include and then apply the paint decisively, always bearing in mind your first ideas.

Despite the fact that, what I will call loose watercolours, are actually achieved under considerable pressure there continues to be widespread loyalty to this type of painting but when the battle is over and you put down your tools the finished result can give enormous satisfaction and pleasure.

Obvious but overlooked

Finally, it makes sense to paint only when you feel at your best. This may reduce your work time but the quality of your output will improve and this will encourage you to paint again. It may also prompt you to rearrange your weekly timetable so that painting becomes a priority. Because painting requires so much thought it is tiring in a way that mindless physical activity is not. If you do not recognise this you are bound to have many disappointing painting sessions simply because the conditions are not right.

Painting might be relaxing, but not in the way people think. It is certainly not like dozing in a deckchair, perhaps preoccupied with worries. If anything, painting is more like some forms of Eastern meditation and can give rise to similar feelings of contentment; either way, few activities match it for satisfaction or pleasure. I like of think of painting as re-creation not recreation.

Finally, one practical point to be on the look out for when you are painting and wondering when to stop: watch out for that time when you start painting various sections of your watercolour again. This is a sure sign that you should have stopped painting half-an-hour ago. Good luck and remember 'less is more' when it comes to watercolour.