I painted a lake cottage from Arnold Lowrys book today. I think painting from a book is a good idea for beginners like me because you get to compare what you did to what a professional artist has done. You can do the same thing by trying to create a “forgery” of another artists work, by just trying to replicate something you find. Doing that is an equally valuable exercise, but it is a good bit harder than following an example from a book because you have to guess at what the artist did to get their results. Either way, I find that trying to replicate the work I like to look at helps me to break out of ruts, and shine a light on bad habits.

The goal for something like this isn’t to create something for my portfolio, my goal is just to practice new techniques, and learn more about my craft. When I paint from my own source material, I know I’m doing something wrong, but it’s often hard to understand what exactly I’m doing wrong. When I paint from a book, I can more easily see where I have gone astray.

Here is the image I painted from Arnold Lowrey’s book, “Start to paint with Watercolours.”

I learned a few things here:

Slow Down

I should know how dry my brush should be, and how thick my paint should be

I don’t know why, but I am always so damn rushed when I go to paint. I feel like I have to put it all down right now, or else. If I don’t apply paint right here, right now, I’ll never get it to blend. I’ll never get the soft gradations that I love so much about watercolor. So, I quickly mix a new color, and slap my brush in the water and splash color on the paper in a frenzied attempt to beat the clock.

This is always a bad idea.

I need to be careful as I go. When I put my brush on the paper, I should know before I put it down what I want to achieve. I should know how dry my brush should be, and how thick my paint should be. Then, I should paint. Later, I’ll get a feel for this and it will come more instinctually. Until then, I should be much more deliberate.

Glaze Shadows

The punch that you get from that initial wash goes toward grey—always, only, towards grey.

I have a bad habit of painting one wash of a single color, with the intention of going back later to add different colors. The problem with this is once I have the initial (boring) wash applied, going back to add color just makes grey dead mud. You can and should glaze shadows and darken values, but you cannot glaze new vibrant colors. Every time you glaze on previously painted area, you lose chroma.

Perhaps, every application of paint should be applied with the goal of being able to stand all on its own. The first washes would need to stand alone as abstract pieces, but the colors and edges should all be applied in an attempt to create a piece that can stand on its own. Later glazes can help to further define mass, and describe the contours of surfaces via shadows, but every one of these glazes will desaturate the initial colors. The vibrancy and life, the punch that you get from that initial wash goes toward grey—always, only, towards grey.

Listen

I need to listen to the medium. As I paint, I can feel four distinct moments. If I listen carefully, I can avoid the pitfalls that are inevitable when I ignore these moments.

At this time, the colors are vibrant, the edges are soft, and the light is bright.

First, is the moment when my paint first touches the paper. At this time, the colors are vibrant, the edges are soft, and the light is bright. This moment lasts a while, and I can prolong this moment by keeping the paper wet. I can not stay in this moment forever by tweeting the paper, but I can get another breath or two from the paper at this moment.

Knifing, lifting, spritzing, salting, dripping, and tilting can all achieve their most beautiful results only at this moment.

The next moment is the Golden Hour. Here, the paper has dried a bit, the sheen is just gone, the pigment is settled, but not stuck. At this moment I can achieve all sorts of interesting effects. Knifing, lifting, spritzing, salting, dripping, and tilting can all achieve their most beautiful results only at this moment. This is when back runs make cauliflowers, and when granulating pigments flocculate to create those gorgeous textures. Unfortunately, this is the briefest moment in painting, and I have no idea how to prolong it. If you attempt any of the above techniques before this moment has begun, you’ll just interrupt your washes, and push pigment into unexpected places as osmosis distributes your pigments. If you attempt any of these effects after the moment is gone, you’ll see no change, or disaster—nothing else.

Anything I do in this moment will be as beautiful as a back hoe dredging a canal.

The next moment is the witching hour. At this moment anything you do will be a disaster. Putting the brush to the paper will only push pigment around. A new color will not blend effortlessly with an existing color. Instead, my brush will just smear pigment in dirty streaks, and cause dark-edged enormous back runs. Anything I do in this moment will be as beautiful as a back hoe dredging a canal.

Unfortunately, this moment is a long one. Once the painting gets to this point, there is nothing you can do but wait. Let it dry. Let it dry some more. Then go away, visit your parents, walk the dog, go to bed, eat dinner, do anything other than paint.

A flat plane of Yellow becomes a sloping hill with a simple arc of a shadow.

Once it’s bone dry, you are back in a different version of that first moment. The paper is more crisp now, and won’t accept pigment with the same soft pillowy wonder that is possible before paint has been applied at all. At this stage, you can glaze in some depth, add some mass, define shadows. You’ll never be able to get that vibrant color that your brain is saying absolutely must go there. That moment is gone. Now, you are doomed to shadows. This is a blessing and a curse. You can’t create shadows well until you get here, and shadows are the single best way to define contours on simple washes. A flat plane of Yellow becomes a sloping hill with a simple arc of a shadow. Overdo things at this point, and you’ll end up with nothing but a grey mess, but with some discipline and a confident stroke, the painting will come to life during this moment in a way that it couldn’t before.