"Watercolor is a dance - and it's always in the lead. Because it actually moves on the paper, it's like a performance art, an active medium that seems to have a mind of its own." - Melanie April
Starting a new medium like watercolors can be pretty intimidating:
Am I adding enough water? Leaving enough whites? How dark can I go before I ruin this painting? ...oh no, I didn't give this enough time to dry!
Today I interview watercolorists Melanie April, Anna (Ania) Mohrbacher, Sam Guay, and Jill Gustavis. All four of them have suffered through these frustrations, and come out the other side stronger - and they agreed to share their insights with us.
...And, because it's incredibly fitting, we're taking the opportunity to announce the release of Stephanie Law's Mini Palette!
The Mini Palette is a travel sized porcelain palette that fits in a super small metal tin. The wells are as deep as we could make them, to accommodate up to 37 different colors. (Catch all the details in this page!)
Let the interviews begin!
What do you wish you knew before starting watercolors?
Sam: I wish I knew that there’s no “right” or “proper” way to use the medium (despite what some may say). There was a lot of pressure in college to use watercolors a certain way, but if you take a look at the work of different water-colorists throughout history, they used all sorts of different and contrary techniques. You should do what works for you.
Melanie: I wish I'd used better paper right from the beginning. So many frustrations can be avoided just by using the right paper, it truly makes the biggest difference in your painting results! You can get away with lesser quality paints and brushes if you need to, but get the best paper you can afford - you won't regret it!
Ania: I had so many preconceptions when I started out. Some people would tell me how unforgiving the medium is, others that it is very slow and time consuming.
...I somehow heard those things louder than how fun and exciting watercolors are, so it felt a bit scary at first.
I think for a long time I was too concerned about what the proper way of using the medium is, and not “contaminating” it with other mediums. In the end I realized that I paint because it brings me happiness, and if mixing in other type of paint,or markers, or color pencils on top of my painting helps me make a better image, then so be it.
Tell us about your biggest struggle.
Jill: The hardest thing I've done, is let myself use "good" materials for experimenting in itself. Until recently, I didn't use my artist-quality paper for practice work, and I slowly started feeling a bit disappointed in my rate of improvement, and dipping low on inspiration. So I began allowing myself to start using cotton paper to practice. The techniques, color mixes, and experimenting I did were suddenly SO much more helpful, and from then on, it's been my go-to setup. It was truly eye-opening.
I now see how the personality of each paper brings out the character of my other supplies, and then I use what I find most exciting to start some more focused studies (or a new painting.)
Honestly, now I probably use more supplies on experimenting than "serious" paintings.
Ania: It seems that in the digital era, there’s this need to share your process with everybody. That puts this pressure on our work to be the best it can be. And so even when we pick up a new medium that we are unfamiliar with, there’s this expectation that paintings need to be good from the get go.
I think when experimenting, the hardest thing is to let go, give up the control, and just see where the medium takes us. I’m not entirely sure whether I got past it though, it still feels like a process. I need to remind myself once in a while, that it's totally fine to make mistakes, that not all of my paintings will be great, and that not all of them need to be seen by anyone other than me.
Sam: Having the confidence to lay down dark washes was a struggle for me. It’s scary because I can’t take that dark color back once I’ve put it down, so if it doesn’t look good I might have to start the entire painting over. It took time and practice, but it’s not as intimidating anymore.
I always try to have color and value studies done before I begin a final painting so that I have a visual map of what I’m planning to do and am less likely to make a serious mistake.
What's the most fun part of doing watercolors?
Ania: All of it! I’m often too impatient to start painting before I figure the whole drawing out. I have a pretty crazy process: when I paint, I often draw part of the image, finish that part with paints, and then do more drawing as I go along. (And usually start 3 more other paintings before finishing that first one.)
...I love to watch how pigments interact with each other as they dry on the paper.
...I like the feel of the brush on the paper, or panel, and how it differs depending on the texture.
...I love how vibrant the colors are when you first add water, and the subtleties that emerge as they dry.
...I also like watching paint dissolve in water when I rinse my brush, it looks like colorful wisps of smoke and often has very interesting shapes.
Painting really makes me happy! When I don’t do it for a while I feel like something big is missing and it effects me in a very negative way.
Jill: Definitely watching paint mix on the paper. There's something mesmerizing about a seamless blend of colors, or the separation of pigments, adding texture and excitement. It's exciting in its shear possibilities, so many styles, application methods, blending surprises, the possibilities are endless.
What’s your favorite watercolor tip?
Sam: I like to do my line-work separately, then scan and print it onto my watercolor paper. There are so many benefits to this: I have both an original drawing and painting, I can print it out at a small scale to do color studies, and if I mess up on the painting I can save time and energy by being able to print the line-work out again.
Ania: This will sound silly, but Mr. Clean Magic Eraser for watercolor related accidents! (For example, random splashes of paint on the white border where they don’t belong.) It's meant for household cleaning, but it's made out of something abrasive that takes the upper layer of the paper off.
Jill: I like to play online tutorials I've already seen just as background noise, and it makes it seem like I'm at a class or meetup, and almost replicates a social experience. Feeling connected and supported, I found you may be more likely to try something new.
At first, trying something new may be just switching up colors, but as you get more comfortable with wandering, you may see the appeal in taking more chances and see where each progressive step goes.
Melanie: Use more water. Use more water. Use more water! I feel like you need to fall in love with watercolor before you get too serious about it - and the magic of watercolor is in the water. Go big, then dial it back if you need to - but explore and experiment first - see what it can do...
Don't be afraid to mess up and try again, and again. The process of making art involves risks, but in the long run, it's just paper and paint! Explore, practice and make a lot of mistakes!
It doesn't matter if you ink or paint first, or if you jump between the two. Jill, Melanie, Ania and Sam have all very different approaches, but all of them agree on one thing: explore, make mistakes, and see where watercolor takes you!
Have any questions for the artists? (Or tips of your own?) Drop them in the comment section below!
Announcing: The Mini Palette Launch Date!
Yes - the time is here!!! After countless revisions and thoughtful planning, we finally have a date:
Join me (Ânia) and Stephanie at 9am PST on Saturday, April 27th for a live online party where we will press the product launch button together!