7 Lessons From My Early Watercolors

When I first started watercoloring, it was my form of creative escape. I was in a rut and working at a job that was both uninspiring and mentally draining. I’d spend 12 hours a day working behind a computer and found that what I really missed was working with my hands. I would come home exhausted and just wanted to do something fun and challenging, but didn’t want to embark on a lengthy single project like a large scale acrylic piece that would require a dedicated physical area and take time to set up and take down every time. 

In the past, I painted acrylics, but would find that they took months to complete so I would find myself quitting before completing them, which added more guilt to my ever-growing to-do list instead of releasing me from it. Watercolor was cleaner, portable, and more immediately satisfying.

So, I “downsized” my art and decided to teach myself to watercolor instead. “How hard could it be?” I shrugged, naively. Pretty damn difficult, it turns out.

I cannot tell you how many times I had to summon my patience, resilience, and determination. Not only is watercolor the opposite of every art technique I’d ever learned for acrylics, it was also impossible to undo your mistakes. With acrylic, you could simply scrape off or paint overtop of something you didn’t like. Poof, gone! With watercolor, painting a second layer would at best, muddy it up, and at worst, buckle and break your overworked and fragile paper. UGH. But it was the kind of challenge that I knew I needed. 

Looking back at my first few pieces, I see some much eagerness and lessons learned. I wanted to paint everything, try everything, test my hand at everything indiscriminately. Here’s what I can see:

 
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Lesson #1. I wasn’t very good, but it just takes practice.

CASE STUDIES: EVOLUTION OF THE DOORS

We all know “you have to start somewhere” but I still love showing it through this example. Looking at the left piece which I painted in April 2016, I can find a lot of criticism in this tiny sketch, but I can also find lessons I took away from it. The left piece is very flat, with limited contrast and shading, muddy colors, and overly worked flowers that don’t look remotely. But down the road, it taught me was the value of contrast in a piece, taking my time to study the shapes of things, and investing in proper tools that don’t hinder my progress. The door on the right was painted only a couple months later, and you can already tell I’m starting to pick up on these lessons. (Ignore the flowers though, those were still bad all along!) For the record, the piece on the right took me more hours than I care to remember.

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Lesson #2. I sought comfort in overly planning each piece.

CASE STUDY: ALL THE PIECES WITH OBSESSIVE PENCIL SKETCHING

My inexperience meant I needed a crutch to help me break through the blank page that was staring back at me. In my case, it was pre-planning everything to the exact stroke, which is not surprising in hindsight knowing my personality. But this too is okay, because I was in study mode (actually artists are always in study mode), trying to understand the curves, contrasts, shadows, and proportions of the pieces I was working on. It forced to to slow down and focus on how details formed a bigger picture, and notice patterns that would soon become muscle memory.

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Lesson #3. I had no personal style, but style comes through play.

CASE STUDY: ICE CREAM CONE

I had no idea what my style was and that was actually quite liberating. I would follow other artists and try out their style, seeing how I could spin it to be my own. Some days, I tried freehand painting where I had no plan (like this one). Other days, as in the lesson before, I’d meticulously sketch and outline the subject before I started painting. It was, in itself, a lesson in self discovery. I had to confront how uncomfortable I felt with the medium and learn from it. That’s why this remains one of my favorite pieces to this day. I can see elements play in the ice cream color, braveness in not having outlined it, and training in how I approach the contrast of the waffle cone. As jovial as it is, this piece was a big turning point.


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Lesson #4. Materials aren’t everything, but they do matter.

When I first started out, I’d use some super cheap watercolors I happen to have lying around. In hindsight, I appreciate their cheapness because it meant I wasn’t precious with them when I needed to waste a bunch of color on tests and practice (cue crumpled up paper balls in a trashcan). Still, those old colors were muddy, mixed poorly, and were always kind of Crayola-looking. When I knew my little hobby was here to stay, I finally invested these (pictured) professional quality colors from Russia. (These are my exact set, purchased on Amazon.)

The same goes for paper. I bought cheap paper thinking it didn’t really matter because I was practicing anyways, but boy was I wrong. Especially when you’re learning, you’re bound to mess up a lot, so having paper that can actually hold up to the job of being constantly dabbed, poked, prodded and wiped was important. Strathmore has some good medium grade paper that’s reasonable, but for professional pieces and commissions, I use Arches Cold Pressed Watercolor Paper, You can get both on Amazon, at Michaels, or at Blick Art Materials.

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Lesson # 5. Play outside the Watercolors.

Once I started getting comfortable with the basics, I began expanding into more playful territories, like using a gold leafing pen to mimic brass accents on a bar cart or a dress, using white ink to create dots, or even painting with actual wine and espresso (bottom right), just to see what it would look like (surprisingly diluted, it turns out.) The point is, play play play!

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Lesson #6. Contrast builds depth, texture, and visual interest.

This is a huge lesson not only in watercolor but in Art Direction in general. Contrast plays a huge role in the perceived texture, depth, and interest in a piece. Even if you are using only a few colors, you can add detail through the contrast of light and shadows, like in the awning of this café and the receding dark blue of the shop interior.

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Lesson #7. Eventually, you will discover your style.

When I first started out, I was studying everything, being inspired by everything, and painting everything. From fashion to flowers, line art to amorphous blobs, I had no idea what I liked or where I could add my personal touch, so I just tried my hand at everything.

As I kept painting, themes emerged. I found myself drawn to imperfect sketches (rather than technical drawing), using ink to render a certain level of detail that I could then bring to life through moody colors and contrast. Be it in interiors or otherwise, I now gravitate towards sculptural subjects that allow me to flex in and out of my comfort level.

The biggest takeaway is this: you don’t have to have it all figured out. You just have to have the patience to play.