Reasons that watercolor is the way to advance your painting skills, even if you use other media

  1. Watercolor is the best for portability and convenience.

    While watercolor can rise to the occasion of large scale work, it’s essentially the best paint for portable, spontaneous expression.
    It loves pairing up with drawing, ink, and chalk – the most direct route to color in drawing.

  2. Watercolor is the key to really understanding color.

    Transparency and optical color mixing is key to understanding color, and watercolor demands our participation in understanding both. Working from light to dark and reserving whites may not be identical to how you set up your opaque paintings, but everything you learn about color layering and interaction will feed your skill set in opaque paint. You’ll be able to anticipate the interactions of transparent colors with a great degree of accuracy and you’ll develop an appetite for the unexpected interactions of transparent layers – in watercolor and beyond.

  3. Watercolor is fun and fanciful and keeps you painting.

    Even a neutral-obsessed moodypants painter like me can’t resist the prism-like color that you can get out of watercolor. Its un-mitigated out of the tube nature is frolicsome at heart, more so than anything else I’ve used. When you have fun painting, and when you let yourself have some fun painting, it keeps you going.

  4. Watercolor teaches you what you need to know about control.

    First of all, control is OK. There is nothing wrong with wanting control, and watercolor can give you the tightest of control. You can use watercolor with a dry brush and re-create reality down to its finest eyelash. You can also approach each painting as an event and an experiment, generated entirely by chance. You can paint somewhere in between.

    But watercolor is the best bringer of constructive chaos. Should you choose to go out of the constraints of tight control, you are playing in the realm of fluid dynamics. You’ll cement your relationship to surprises, and how much you like them or don’t like them.

  5. Watercolor has a democratizing tendency, and communal possibilities.

    A lot of art critics have always treated it as “the lightweight.” We’ll keep things G-rated here and call those people “gatekeepers” but I’ve got some synonyms.

    Watercolor has historically been accessible to hobbyists, women, and cultural “outsiders” when other media were less so. It’s reasonably safe for teaching and using around small children. It can be (and has been) brought to every kind of place – from cafes and parties, to outpatient infusion rooms, to active battle fronts, to schools, to the Antarctic research station (switching vodka for water.) If you want it to connect you to the workingest world of working artists, it will – it is the immediate human imprint – pigment, life, and water.

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Let us now praise bad paper

I love “bad” paper.

I love buckling paper, cheap paper, non 100 percent cotton paper that is going to yellow when I’m old or gone on to the next plane of existence, newpaper, cardboard, computer paper – “bumwad” yellow paper on rolls, butcher paper, kraft paper (especially kraft paper) and scratch paper.

Am I well aware that bad paper is bad? Yes. Absolutely. My favorite papers are Stonehenge, Lenox 100, Coventry Rag, Rives BFK and BFK light, Arches 140 CP and Portofino, Blick Premier HP. No bumwad here – for my FINAL works. Most of my work is non-final. It’s ALL in the re-write.

I think knowledge is key – it’s much more valuable, in my opinion, to teach our noobs WHY Arches or Fabriano cotton are so freaking fantastic (they are), and WHAT Strathmore 400 does differently, and WHAT happens if you paint in gouache on a paper bag, rather than just making them think that if they don’t start out with an Arches block they may as well not start.

THAT, friends, is a terrible way to treat newness. Quite.

I want to ask these people who are always somehow there, right on the starting gate of noobs, to say “Arches is the ONLY way to GO!”

…have you ever painted on a paper bag? Have you ever done it out of broke desperation, and have you ever returned to it out of sheer creative constipation when you have access to every “good” material you could need and you’re stuck in boredom?

How much Canson XL mixed media paper have you actually gone through, pushed, bent, broken, buckled and thumbnailed through before you decided to declare it “unusuable.”

Do you know what it does to knuckle your way ahead with “bad” materials? It makes “good” materials feel like freedom, like flying. You’ve already had your drawing struggles, your color struggles, your style struggles. You will know yourself in a way that you won’t otherwise. “Bad” materials give you a little friction, a little built-in limitation, a little texture in the experience. If everything is set up for you to succeed, and you don’t – you’re more likely to blame yourself. If things are a little cheap, insufficient, janky, non-ideal – then you’re less worked up about making more work and going through more material. More work = get better.

Yes, I know that cheap watercolor paper is “bad” and it’s going to buckle and pill and not allow me to layer or lift. I know this because I’ve tried it. I know this because I know that there is, in the world, some circumstance where I might want to float-frame a drawing that buckles like a stiffly tanned hide in a vitrine. I know that I don’t care about archival for things that go into the scanner anyway.

Repeat with me: an illustration is as archival as the ink in the printer.

An illustration is as archival as the ink in the printer.

This is one of the things that helps sort “fine art” and “illustration” in my brain, I’m realizing.

So if there’s a point to this rant, and to the spontaneous drawings/paintings on Canson XL mixed media, in a spiral bound book under 10 bucks, it’s this –

make the drawing. Make the preliminary. Make the thumbnail. Give yourself the room to make the thumbnail big enough. And you don’t have to spend a ton of money to do it. There’ll be time for that later.

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