You are sitting nervously on your little stool. A grand scene is spread
out before you, and you have reduced portions of that subject to pale
pencil lines on the watercolor block resting on your lap. The little paint
box is open, and your colors stare up at you awaiting the damp kiss of the
brush. Your hand grasps your half inch flat brush, and the little water
cup "runneth over" with clear water. Now what do you do?
Why---you paint, of course!
I suggest that you start with the sky area as I have in virtually every
painting in this book. Many artists believe that the sky color determines
the color key of the entire painting. That is undoubtedly true. But in
small paintings it is less important, and can be completed simply.
Most of my outdoor painting takes place in sunlight which helps dry the
paper quickly---a necessity when painting outdoors. Therefore my sky is
generally blue, although time of day and approaching storms can
significantly alter that scenario. Nevertheless, I mostly use a simple
blue sky for these outdoor vignette sketches, simply suggesting clouds
here and there by leaving areas of the paper white and untouched.
First I wet the sky area, together with any area adjacent to the sky that
includes distant foliage. Do not soak the paper with too much water so
that it runs off, but at the same time get the paper good and damp so that
it does not dry before you paint it. This takes a little practice. I wet
the sky with my broad brush dipped in clear water, or with a small sponge.
However, the brush gives you more control in the areas you don't want to
be wet. You may go over the area with the wet brush repeatedly if
necessary until the paper is wet to some depth.
After the sky is nicely wet, I lift some blue---usually cobalt blue---off
of the pan of color with my wet brush. I then swish this around on the
white palette surface to make sure I have adequate color and that it is
I then lay brush to wet paper---in a process that is called painting
"wet-in-wet," since both brush and paper are wet. The result, as you will
soon see, is a bleeding or flowing of color on the paper, and the
avoidance of hard edges. You will seldom see a hard edge in the real sky,
so this is the closest and easiest way to achieve realism in the sky area.
The underside of the clouds, as some of my paintings show, may also have a
touch of burnt umber or burnt sienna to suggest water vapor and shadow.
If there is foliage extending into the sky area, such as trees beyond a
house, I then quickly add another wash of green, varied with other colors,
to suggest these trees. These will also bleed into the sky area, giving
the illusion of depth. This requires some practice, so that you don't get
this green wash too wet, for it will bleed too extensively into the sky.
Many of the paintings in this book show trees painted in just this manner.
It is a good idea to practice this "wet-in-wet" painting before you ruin
too many pieces of paper. Use one good sheet to practice on--and you will
soon get the hang of wetting the paper the desired amount, and wetting
your brush just right so that your pigment is not too wet nor too dry.
This is one technique that is important to practice and master, for much
of the success of your painting will be the balancing of wet-in-wet areas
with dry areas.
After a bit of practice, you will find that you can complete the sky in
just a few minutes. Larger paintings require considerable experience and
work---but the small sketches can be completed with very simple and
effective sky washes.
Now that you have completed the sky---and let it dry completely---you may
proceed to your main subject, whatever it is. This area will require the
most of your time and attention. I strongly suggest that you leave all of
the finicky details until last! At this point you should paint the larger,
bolder areas of the subject, such as the basic colors and shadow areas.
Most beginners cannot stand to leave the details unpainted until the
last---but this is a mistake. Put in your main colors and shapes, and
leave the bricks, clapboard, windows, and all of the other persnickety
details until last.
You may mix your needed colors on the palette before you apply them. If
you are unsure of the color, make a test patch on another piece of paper.
Remember that colors dry somewhat lighter than they appear when wet. Be
sure to mix your colors in sufficient quantity to cover the area you are
painting. However, such pre-mixes can be deadly dull on the paper---so be
prepared to alter your color a bit on the wet paper. There are examples of
this in my paintings, and I mention it here and there. The shadow side of
a house, for instance, can be made much more interesting if the color
includes a "cool" and a "warm" element. Often this is done in a wet-inwet
wash that includes a blue and a raw sienna, ochre, or umber. The front of
the house in the first painting in the book of Williamsburg, gives an
example of this.
To repeat---perfectly uniform washes can be dull. Some variety within a
given wash gives "snap" and interest to the painting. Sutdy some of the
great watercolorists of the past and you will see this principle clearly
illustrated. Complete your wash, and while the paper is still wet, add a
drop or two of a harmonious color, and you will appreciate the difference.
This can be overdone, so go easy at first.
Most---if not all---of the painting so far can best be accomplished with
your broader flat brush. It enables you to cover large areas quickly with
uniform color. It keeps you from getting too finicky from the start. And
when used on edge, the flat brush can provide reasonably sharp lines. The
"round," or pointed brush, can be saved until last, or to put in areas the
flat brush is uncomfortable in painting. The flat brush may take some time
getting use to, but in the end you will find it to be your most useful
When your major areas have been painted in, looking much like your
thumbnail sketch in value, then it is time to go back and suggest the
important details in the painting. Do most of your detail work in your
center of interest, whatever that is. The details will help call attention
to the focal point of the picture. The mere suggestion of details in other
portions of the picture will usually be more than adequate in presenting
the illusion of reality---and that is what it is all about---the illusion
Perhaps the greatest masters of this "illusion" are the great suni-e
artists of Japan, who could reduce complex forms to the quick and utterly
controlled swish of a brush! It looks casual, but this technique requires
years of mental and physical practice.
However, this principle still holds in the little watercolor paintings we
are attempting, and can be expressed simply as painting as little as
necessary to achieve the effect. Leave something for the imagination to
create. Do not over paint. Having said this, I confess that I have a great
deal to learn in this regard. Nonetheless, I recognize the truth of it and
strive to make my paintings less representational and more suggestive.
Somewhere in the middle there is a nice balance, and each of us must try
to find it.
What more is to be said about "technique"? One must be ready to play with
watercolor---make mistakes---and gradually learn from experience. You must
also be ready to find your very own technique---the one that is pleasing
to you. As I have mentioned, there are certain techniques in the use of
the brush for the application of paint that must be learned and
practiced---but most of them are learned over a period of time by