You’ve probably sat down to paint at some point, excited to relax and let your creative juices flow. You set up your brushes and paint, get fresh water, grab your paper towels… and an hour later you’re in hell.
Been there, done that.
Even after years of painting, I still have days where everything I make turns to mud and nothing goes my way. Which has only strengthened my bond with the coffee mug exercise.
Imagine sitting down to watercolor, and suddenly, there is no “right” or “wrong”. And, instead of slogging through one painting for a whole weekend, you get to finish a painting every few minutes. Hello, catharsis.
Welcome to the coffee mug exercise.
The goal? Paint a coffee mug in as many different ways as you can. You will need:
A coffee mug
your watercolors, colored pencils, gouache, Sharpies, crayons, etc.
15-20 small pieces of watercolor paper (I use scraps)
some good tunes to zone out to
And, go! At first it may feel clumsy and weird. How many different ways can there be to paint a coffee mug? By the end though, you’ll have a dozen paintings, none of them will be wrong, and you’ll have completed a pile of paintings.
And for the love of god, don’t let yourself fixated on a single painting for twenty minutes! If you’re going to struggle with fixating on one, set a timer for 5 minutes.
And if you’re having a hard time getting going, here are some things to try:
This exercise is my favorite way to try new things, loosen up, and sink back into the pure enjoyment of painting. It’s like taking a wander through art.
I’m not going to apologize for this gross exaggeration later, and I think when you use this tool, you’ll see why. Actually, you’ll probably thank me.
If you’re a watercolorist, you know that one of the most challenging things about this medium is that it’s unforgiving. It’s just the nature of a transparent medium. Everything you do will be visible forever, and it’s a hard medium to control in the first place.
There is little you can do to really mitigate that reality, but there is a tool that can help you out:
This is the closest thing I have found that can bring your paper almost back to white after you’ve painted on it. It’s incredible. To demo, here’s a little color swatch I did on cotton paper:
And here, with half of it magically erased:
As you can see, it’s not 100% back to white, but it’s pretty damn close. And with another layer of paint, you’d never know what was there before.
My method of using it is to cut off a small part of one of the larger erasers (about a 2″x2″ square) dip it in water and wring it out. If it’s sopping wet, you won’t have as much control over the erasing process. With your damped eraser, cover the area in clean, smooth strokes. If you scrub, you’ll blast right through the paper. Think of it as wiping off the paint, and you’ll have a better time. Once the paint is gone (or as gone as it’ll get), you’ll see a ton of little pills on it like an old sweater. No biggie, those are just the remnants of the layer of paper you just wiped off. Wait for your painting to dry, and then brush them off. Voila! A new painting surface.
Now before you go erasing everything you’ve ever painted, there are limitations to this incredible tool.
You have one, maybe two rounds with this before it destroys the paper. Watercolor paper is delicate. Some papers are more delicate than others (100% cotton handmade paper is pretty hardy), but they all break down after a certain amount of abuse. It isn’t canvas. One pass with this will remove most of the sizing on the paper, and the next layer of paint will not go on as evenly. But it’ll work. Two passes, and you’re done painting on that part of the paper. Three times with this tool, and the paper will likely start to rapidly disintegrate. So use it wisely. It won’t save your painting too many times.
Nothing can bring paper back to 100% white. Well, except carefully scraping the paper with a razor, which I do sometimes. But since that destroys the top layer of paper, scraping isn’t a viable option for removing large sections of a painting. The reality is that once you get paint on watercolor paper, it’s just not going back to white. This tool will get it pretty close sometimes, but never all the way. Keep that in mind. You still have to painstakingly plan your whites.
You’re still pretty screwed if it’s a dye color. Remember the pigments vs. dyes episode? A dye color actually changes the color of the fiber in the paper. You can’t really scrub that out. If you use this tool on a dye color, you’re going to be scrubbing actual bits of paper away to remove the color. Which will work, but it’ll be much harder on the paper and you risk ruining it. So you still have to be careful with dyes.
Other than those caveats though, meet your new best friend. Go buy some and keep them handy. They’re truly the best.
Because watercolor is water, and water always runs downhill, your paper tilt is another tool for you to get to know. Just like your brushes and paints, the angle at which you’re painting is important.
Some people like to paint flat, others vertical, and the rest of us paint at a tilt. Whatever you do is fine, it just depends on what you want.
For a reference, I made three little examples for you to look at:
And on closer inspection…
This one was painted and dried flat.
You can see how the pigment stayed relatively even, and coalesced around the edges a bit. There’s a very slight bloom in the middle, as the edges dried faster than the center, but in general the pigment is dispersed and moving evenly.
This one was painted and dried at a tilt.
The second was left to dry at a very slight incline (about 15 degrees). You can see how it pooled at the bottom, and some of the pigment was carried back up by the standing water. Some people consider this effect to be desirable, some people will give you a bad grade for it. Either way, just be aware that if you leave water to dry at a tilt, something like this will happen. You can use this to your advantage, and analyze a puddle on your page and decide where you want it to pool, and rotate your painting accordingly. Neat, huh?
This one was painted and dried (nearly) vertical.
The last one was painted and left to dry at a near vertical slant. Vertical is a hard angle for watercolor, and frankly I rarely paint this way. But, I’ve seen some incredible artists who do. You have to use much less water and build up layers of color patiently. Too much water will drip immediately. But done well, the effects are clean and even. I was a little impatient with this, and water still pooled a tad at the bottom. Oh well, you get the idea.
For me, I tend to paint on a very slight incline. Totally flat is fine too, but I usually end up propping up one end of my painting on a book at some point. I like using gravity to direct the paint, and I personally like the way watercolor looks with some controlled blooming.
But to each their own. So there you have it, one more tool for your box: painting incline.
A good watercolor brush, if used right, can be much more than just a dip and go type of tool. It can be loaded up in all different ways to create all manner of effects.
For simplicity, I’m going to break down this post into two sections: water and pigment.
As we’ve gone over, watercolor is all about controlling water. And how much water you saturate your brush with will have a huge impact on how easy this is for you. One of the biggest game changers you can learn is this: don’t just jam your brush into your water the same way every time. For some brushstrokes, you will want more or less water. Load your brush up appropriately. Here’s a basic breakdown of how far to dip your brush in:
If you load your brush with too much water for what you’re working on, you’ll lose control of the painting and make a mess. If you don’t load enough water into the brush, you might make streaks. The only way to get the hang of this is to just practice a lot. Just practice with the awareness that your brush doesn’t need to take a polar plunge every time you use it.
So that’s water. Now you know that there is a technique to develop when it comes to dipping your brush. Pigment is no different.
One of my favorite things about watercolor is how much is going on in every square inch of painting. It’s a very collaborative medium, and it has a mind of its’ own. A way for you to take advantage of this characteristic is to play with loading multiple unmixed pigments into your brush at a time. The results are complex brushstrokes that look like a rainbow.
You need a larger brush to play with this technique. The idea is to incorporate multiple pigments at once, without mixing them on the tray.
Here, using a 3/4″ flat brush, I filled in an area by putting multiple pigments in the brush at once. So for an example, I would fill the brush with naples yellow, and then dip just the end in mauve before making a wash. Or I’d fill the brush with purple, and dip the right half of the brush in blue. Taking that approach, I filled in this rectangle:
With the exception of the hard purple line where the previous layer had dried, you can see that the colors move into each other gradually while still being distinct.
This approach is different than adding colors one at a time onto a wet painting. To show the difference, I did a similar painting but instead of loading the brush with multiple pigments for each brushstroke, I added them one at a time.
You can see that even though the colors and layout are similar, the effect is different because the colors are essentially colliding and push each other out of the way as they meet. Whereas if you put them in the brush at once, they wash onto the paper smoothly and at the same time, creating a more uniform look.
In my opinion, flat brushes work best for washing on multiple colors, because you’re making a broader contact with the paper, but round brushes are fun to play with too.
I hope that all makes some sense! It’s subtle, but a helpful tool to have sometimes. The more effects you can intentionally create, the more interesting your paintings will become.
As you’ve probably noticed, I paint mostly animals. They’re just cuter, ya know? And they’re fuzzy.
Fur and fuzz are difficult to paint in watercolor; it’s not a very furry medium. When you’re approaching a difficult subject, it’s helpful to sit and analyze what the challenges will be. Here’s what you’re up against with fur:
An animal’s coat is made up of gazillions of individual strands of fur. But it moves in cohesive sections, like solid objects. So you have to communicate its uniformity, without losing the fact that it’s an army of individual hairs.
Often you’ll see a dark undercoat, with a frosted top coat. Which results in a layered effect, which is hard to communicate cleanly with watercolor. You have to plan out all the areas that will stay white, which is a strategic nightmare with some fuzzy animals.
Fur has a direction to it. This is one of the things that makes animals so fun to draw, but it requires a lot of thinking ahead to paint. If you don’t observe and plan for directionality in fur, you just end up with a mushy looking animal. Direction creates form, and form makes your work convincing.
Those are the main issues I’ve found when painting furry animals. To demonstrate my approach to this, I picked a photo that I think demos all these pretty well:
I found this through a Google search. I couldn’t find the name of the photographer. Hopefully they won’t mind me using this to demo. Looking at this picture, we can see all the challenges I mentioned:
This wolf has lots of fur that’s moving in sections. To identify the sections, think about the form underneath the fur first. The fur will form little sections that correspond with the underlying form. To identify form, focus on the larger shapes, and where the light and dark sides are. Here’s how I break things down in my mind’s eye:
This wolf has yellow/brown undercoat, with a white/grey topcoat and black accents. To communicate all this, I’ll need to leave some flickers of white poking through, which I’ll need to plan for. Here’s how I break that down in my mind before I reach for any paints:
This wolf’s fur is going in all different directions. We can tell a lot about his form, and how he’s moving based on the direction of his fur. Before I start drawing, I’ll be sure to sit and look at his fur for a few minutes and make a mental map of all the different directions his fur has. Looking something like this:
Once I’ve figured all this out, I have enough information to make a game plan and I’m ready to go:
Step one: draw out a basic structure to paint in. You can see some of the sections that I’d already mapped out in my mind, and a few lines that indicate form and fur direction.
Step two: block in areas where I see yellow. I have a few favorite yellows that I use: Winsor & Newton’s naples yellow, DaVinci’s yellow ochre, and Holbein’s imidazolone brown (similar to Indian red but a deeper red and more transparent).
Step three: brush in another few layers of fur, building up from the yellow. I like to use a combination of dry brush technique, and individual dabs made with a liner brush. I build up deeper and deeper layers by mixing blues, greens, and purples with the imidazolone brown to try and communicate all the different layers happening in his coat.
Step four: finally, I go in with black and tidy up. I use black very sparingly in my work, because it’s sort of the end of the road as far as color goes. It’s a ‘dead’ color, in that it lets nothing through. Black catches your attention, and it’s almost like a comma for your eyes. It holds your interest for a brief second and communicates importance or change. So it’s usually the last thing I reach for, to put the finishing touches on something.
That’s it! Now you know my fur-painting technique. I’m sure there are other ways to do it, this is just my style and what works for me.
Happy painting everyone!
UPDATE: Something I thought about after making this post is that (to me), there is a slightly different approach to take when painting all white or all black critters. Animals with white coats are a strategic nightmare to paint because they’re often puffy and don’t have many defining features besides eyes and toenails. And as beautiful as your dog’s glossy black coat may be, it’ll be hard to paint without turning him into a little lump of coal. So I’ll have to make separate posts for those at some point, but in the meantime, this is a good start for painting the fuzzies.
This is a subtle point that doesn’t often come up in the classes I’ve taken, but nevertheless understanding it can save you a lot of grief at your art table.
Which is that while watercolors might all look similar in their tubes or pans, they are not. Some of them are pigments, and some of them are dyes.
So what’s the difference? A big one.
A pigment is basically dirt. It is tiny particles of pigment, finely milled and suspended in a binder. When you get it wet, it becomes very fancy mud.
A dye is water soluble. Unlike a pigment, which is particles of color suspended in a binder, a dye actually dissolves in the water. It’s been fixed with a mordant to make it lightfast on the paper, but it still dissolves real good. If a pigment is mud, a dye color is a glass of red wine.
They behave relatively similarly to paint with, but one is permanent and one is not. Dye colors are permanent. While pigments sit on top of the paper, dyes go in and effect the actual fiber of the paper. It’s the difference between getting mud on your shirt or spilling wine on it.
This makes a difference when you’re painting, because you cannot rewet and manipulate a dye color later. Once they touch the paper, the paper is that color now. They are the most unforgiving of the watercolor family.
But they’re not all bad. Dye colors are also generally appreciated for their vividness and transparency. Because a dye color fully dissolves in water, they are fully transparent. They aren’t something to avoid, but it’s helpful to know the difference.
Here’s a list of dye colors that I’m aware of and use (I’m sure there are many more):
So if you’re painting along and you come across a color that won’t budge once it’s touched the paper, you’ve met a dye color.
Don’t panic. They’re here to help. A dye color is your best friend in creating that beautiful watercolor layered effect, because they are truly transparent. They are the perfect solution to wanting a tiny dab of color on top of 5 others, without making a mess. They’re the most watercolory of the watercolors. And, they’re permanent as heck.
I remember on the first day of my first ever watercolor class, the teacher asked this question, and I decided right there that I was dealing with an idiot. Obviously, watercolor was what old people did and if the oil class hadn’t been canceled that semester I wouldn’t have been sitting through that lecture in the first place.
Cue my surprise when I discovered over the next four months that watercolor is a fascinating rubric cube of a medium, and now ten years later, I still haven’t moved on.
For me, a helpful thing to learn at the outset was that watercolor, oil, and acrylic are all essentially made using the same pigments. It’s the binders that hold them together that makes them different mediums. That was helpful because when you first sit down to watercolor, if you’re coming from an oil or acrylic background, it feels like you just landed on art-Mars and nothing will ever be okay again. But it will be.
So really in watercolor, your foe is water, and how all the different pigments interact with water. For me, that realization was a big key that began to unlock watercolor. Because, we all know a lot more about water than we realize:
We know that it’s attracted to itself. If you have two droplets of water right next to each other, they will begin to inch together. This happens on your paper all the time. We know that gravity has a big effect on it. It always runs downhill, so the tilt of your paper is just as important as your brushes. We know that water ‘climbs.’ We’ve all gotten the hems of our jeans wet and suddenly before we knew it, we were soaked up to the knees because the water climbed upwards. Anytime there’s a pool of water on your paper, it will start to creep upwards and take pigment with it. We know that certain things float, and certain things don’t. The same is true in watercolor, some pigments have more buoyancy than others, which effects how they’ll layer and interact with other pigments when things get wet. We know that water erodes things.Your painting might not be the Grand Canyon, but every time you add more water to the paper, the water is going to erode the pigments that are there. It’ll move things around and create little causeways for itself, just like it does in nature.
There are loads more watercolor/water observations, but I think you get the idea. All the things you know about water, you know about watercolor. It’s not as foreign as you think, or as it feels the first time you sit down to paint.
Each of those things can be broken down into techniques and become a separate post, but I just wanted to share a subtle mental shift that really helped me when I first sat down to watercolor. It’s not as unfamiliar as you might think.
I think anyone who has ever tried watercolor has had this experience: you’re painting along, maybe your painting looks like a super sweet rose and you know your mom is going to love it, and suddenly it looks like a cat puked on your paper. And the weirdest part? It happened fast. Rose one minute, cat vomit the next.
Even though I wasn’t there when it happened, I can almost guarantee I know what went wrong. And that is this: you weren’t aware of how watercolor yellow works.
I’ve known people that were watercoloring for years, totally mystified that certain paintings just didn’t work out. Because no one had explained this simple rule to them. Which is that yellow doesn’t play by the normal watercolor rules. I lucked out with an incredible watercolor teacher when I began painting, and this was one of the first things she taught me, thus saving me lots of ruined paintings.
One of the main battles people have in learning watercolor is that it’s hard to wrap your mind around a transparent medium. We aren’t used to looking at the world in layers, and it’s hard to retrain your brain how to break down what you’re seeing into transparent layers of color that you can replicate in a painting. And yellow really messes this process up, because it isn’t transparent like other watercolors are.
Basically, what happens in watercolor is this:
And basically, what yellow does is this:
So when you’re going along, painting your rose, and you think, “some yellow would look sweet right now.” But then you go and slap it down on top of 3 other transparent layers, and you interrupt the entire process of watercolor. Because unlike other watercolor pigments that allow light to pass right on through, yellow reflects light. It stops the light from reaching the other colors and creating that beautiful layered effect that we all love. The resulting mess is what we watercolorists affectionately refer to as “mud.”
So what’s to be done?
Put yellow down first.
It’s really that simple. When you’re planning out a painting, look closely at your subject and identify all the areas that will be warm. And go in with your yellow, and block it out. Then, this can happen:
And, to continue this idea, different watercolor pigments do have differing degrees of transparency. In my experience, the majority of yellows, oranges, and warmer reds will present a similar issue. So as a general rule of thumb, put all warm colors down before cold colors.
If you absolutely must put yellow down on top of other colors, don’t use watercolor. Use a dye (I like Higgins yellow dye ink for this). Dye is transparent by nature (blog post on dyes vs. pigments coming up for sure), and won’t have the same effect on your work.
To demonstrate this a little, I took a video last night of a portrait I’m working on so you can see my approach:
Working with a couple different yellows and my flat brushes, I block in the major areas where I see it peeking through. Tomorrow I’ll go in with the rest of my pallet and finish the painting.
So, there you have it. A simple, but very effective shortcut to help you out in your watercolor journey. There are lots of other sudden and mysterious ways to trash a painting, but this is one of the main pitfalls I see people fall into with this medium. In watercolor, it’s not enough to know about colors, you have to know what order to put them in to get the best results. And when in doubt, yellow goes first.