Water Glitter Exercise 2: #1

This is another exercise from Ron Hazell’s Painting Water with Watercolors. I must say, I find myself less interested in painting water now than when I started, but I am learning so much – about everything – by working through this book that I’m definitely going to keep plugging away at it.

This exercise is intended to focus on value contrast more than anything. It’s among the lessons on painting a glittered surface on water, and it’s exceptionally well explained, but I learned more about value contrast in this than I did about painting glitter. I think the glitter technique is simple enough that it really doesn’t require a lot of practice. And for that reason, I learned less about that here than I did about values.

That’s not to say the glittered water technique is unimportant. In the contrary – I find it incredibly helpful in forcing me to be restrained. One of the things I struggle with the most is overworking my paintings. I know this is common for beginners, so I’m not bothered by it – it is part of the process. But this technique relies entirely on painting one stroke with confidence, and then leaving it alone. You barely graze a somewhat thirsty brush against dry paper, holding the brush parallel with the paper. It’s a pretty standard technique, and it comes pretty quickly as you learn to paint without being taught to use it. But – focusing on the technique specifically did two things for me:

1) It forced me to study the technique and use it deliberately. Where before I might find myself doing this on accident, now I find myself being much more intentional about it. I know what it feels like – or what it should feel like – when this is done correctly, so I’m able to pull it out of my toolbox when I need it. Before, it was like finding a wrench when I was looking for a hammer. Sure – I can hit a nail into a board with a wrench. It’s heavy. It’s solid. But it’s easier to use a hammer. (And a hammer makes a terrible wrench.) Before, I might want to lightly glaze a shadow, and used this technique on accident, and liked it so I kept it. Now, I know how wet my brush should be (which is a difficult thing to describe) and I know how thick my paint should be (cream) and I know how wet my paper should be (bone dry). Knowing these three things means I can successfully replicate this technique now when I want it. Instead of finding the effect appear on accident, I now know how to perform it, and I know what it will look like, which means I now have a better grasp on not only how to do it, but more importantly, when and why I should do it.

I also learned that the sandy color I have had so much trouble creating in the past (bottom right) is easily done by using very watery Raw Umber. That surprised me. I think of Raw Umber as very bold, and almost always as a pigment to mix with blues to get greys and blacks. Now, I see the versatility of that pigment, and I can use it more and more.

So, the real lesson: value contrast. This is the heart and soul of watercolor painting. It’s what makes Water color achieve the luminous quality I like so much, and it’s really hard to get right. I think there are two reasons I struggle with value contrast:

  1. I barely understand what value means. Every time I hear an artist talk about value, they always say use a “lighter” or “darker” value. But values aren’t really light or dark. I think it’s more helpful to refer to them as strong or dull. See, a bright yellow sun, if painted with thick yellow pigment, can be a “dark” value. (I think.) Conversely, a shadow can be a “light” value if it’s painted with thinned pigment. Dark values aren’t the “darkest darks” in the painting. They are the parts of the painting that stand out the most – they are the strongest, richest, most saturated part of the painting. “Light” values aren’t the brightest parts – they are the least saturated, weakest, dullest parts of the painting. A good composition uses both to draw the eye, and to provide a medium across which the eye must travel. In this painting – the strongest values are the distant trees and the bare paper. Both of these elements stand out confidently against the values around them. I think you get the point.
  2. I overwork everything. Dull and medium values can only exist if they are left alone. If I apply more pigment, I deepen the value. This then starts to degrade my value contrast – making me want to fix it. The easiest way to fix it is to add more pigment – which deepens the values, and further exacerbated the problem. I need to learn to leave things alone.

Update: that’s not what value means in art. See? I’m learning. Value is the light/dark areas of a painting… according to that five minute Google search. So, what then is the term for the bossy bits of a painting? The lesson about values above still holds I think, if we replace the word value with whatever that word is. You need them both. You need lights – or you’ll have no darks. You also need “bossy bits” and “quiet bits” or you’ll just have a painting of a lonely cymbal crash.

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