53. DEVELOPING MY TEACHING CHOPS (WATERCOLOR, PART 1)
FIRST: THE BASICS
Watercolor is often viewed as an intimidating medium, and it can be intimidating if you are not prepared. Much of that concern is caused because watercolor is transparent and very fluid, consequently it's easy to create ill-defined shapes and muddy colors...both of which can quickly lead to dull paintings and lack-luster compositions which lack 'punch.' Because of its fluidity and transparency, unlike opaque and viscous mediums like oils and acrylics, watercolor can be 'unforgiving'...hard to overpaint and correct.
For these reasons, I developed an approach and exercises that started from the ground up.
I saw learning and mastering painting, and watercolor in particular, as similar to learning to play a musical instrument. As learning scales and developing dexterity by practicing finger exercises are essential in playing music, so learning the principles of color and mastering a variety of techniques are, for most students, essential to learning to work with watercolor.
There are three things that are essential in learning watercolor as well as in being comfortable with using it:
- Learning the principle of color mixing in order to avoid creating 'mud'.
- Learning basic techniques to control the application of the fluid medium in order to keep shapes crisp and clear.
- Learning a strategy for developing a composition from light to dark, and planning the placement of light, because the watercolor media does not accommodate over-painting unwanted areas to bring lighter colors back...those light areas have to be planned from the beginning.
1. LEARNING COLOR
From this array of possibilities, I found which six colors would work to make the best primaries for a rainbow color wheel.
While I was putting my watercolor course together, I happened to walk across the street from Flax's to my favorite haunt at breaks, Bretano's bookstore, and came across The Winning Ways of Watercolor by Rex Brandt. I had been introduced to Rex Brandt's work by Yosh Nakamura while I was in his high school art class. Although I always have thought the title was misleading...it seemed to imply a strategy for winning a competition rather than learning the basics...nevertheless, this book was a gem: one of the clearest and most concise manuals on watercolor I have ever come across. I ended up using many ideas from that book in my teaching of watercolor and adopting many to the exercises he presented.
- a 'cool' yellow (cadmium yellow light or cadmium lemon) and a 'cool' blue (phthalocyanine blue) make a 'secondary' brilliant green;
- a 'warm' blue (French ultramarine) and a 'cool' red (alizarin crimson or quinacridone violet) make a 'secondary' vibrant violet; and
- a 'warm' red (cadmium red medium) and a 'warm' yellow (cadmium yellow medium) make a 'secondary' glowing orange.
Those six 'warm/cool' primaries thus simplified everything. Rather than having to choose from an infinite array of colors, the students could quickly master color mixing and understand how pigments work together.
Seeing the vibrant results that come from mixing just three primaries shows that you can create a rainbow of color from just those six (a warm and cool of each primary)...
After the graduated wash was mastered, the students would then put darker, silhouetted forms on top of the graduated washes to create contrast and depth...
I often took the ideas I had developed as teaching aids and created a series of finished paintings. There came to be a back and forth between what I was teaching in my watercolor classes and what I was painting in my studio...apart from class. What I was teaching affected what I was painting...and visa versa. There was a kind of cross-pollination between the two. It turned out to be a boon in both aspects of my life. Below are a few examples of what I came to call my ‘Imaginary Landscape Series’…all based on graduated washes...
With these exercises in color theory and basic wash application having been learned, we went on to explore a variety of other watercolor essentials.