A while ago, I bought Arnold Lowery’s book Start to Paint with Watercolors. I read through the first forty-odd pages and tried to recreate some of what he talks about in those pages as simple drills a while ago, but didn’t take on the first painting exercise until tonight. My first reaction is that this book is incredibly good, and these exercises are very well photographed. However, I can’t recommend this book for a true beginner. This book is for someone who is serious about becoming a watercolorist, who is near the beginning of that journey. I view myself as a beginner, but what I view as a beginner is advanced far beyond what a person browsing the shelves at a craft store might think of as a beginner.
Many people want to take up watercolor, or have painted a few paintings. Many people are just starting to progress into using artist-grade pigments and 100% cotton paper. This person is not going to be well-served by this book because the introductory material, though very rudimentary, is too quickly described. In the exercises, there are many many steps laid out to explain how to paint the image, but I found some of the descriptions to be vague enough that I painted what I wanted instead of what he said because I couldn’t figure out what he asked me to do.
This is what I view as the strength of this book. Anyone in that Dunning Kruger Valley of Despair needs to progress from parroting to innovating in order to ascend the Hill of Enlightenment. Steps like the one photographed above are helpful because they lend themselves to interpretation. But, those same descriptions would have been frustrating to me as a true beginner because I would want to recreate exactly what Lowery painted, and that’s not what this book is for.
This is not a weakness. This is the brilliant strength of the pedagogy in this book. Instead of reducing the composition to a few repeatable steps, Lowery walks you through his painting process for a simple composition, and all but demands that you innovate while following along.
In the first forty pages Lowery discusses materials, composition, washes, lifting, knifing, color theory, water saturation, textures, perspective, atmospheric effects, detail, brush work, trees, skies, water, figures, and more. Covering this much ground in such a short time is great for someone who has already dedicated a considerable amount of time into understanding not just how to do these things, but also when to do them, when not to do them, and most importantly, why these fundamentals are absolutely paramount to becoming successful.
In short, this book is perfect for the person like me, who is just beginning to crawl out of the Dunning Kruger Valley of Despair.
In this exercise, I first sketched the composition, relying on the sketch provided by Lowery in the book. This was very helpful because I could easily identify the important shapes in the photo – and that hard to get right when painting. The image you look at, be it a photograph or a live scene in the fresh air, is always so riddled with detail that reducing it all to simple suggestions of shapes is surprisingly difficult. It can be very hard to look at so much detail, and focus only on the large shapes. Lowery has done that work already, so I can parrot his sketch instead of trying to simplify the photograph on my own.
This exercise is focused on using only two colors, and that is a new exercise for me, which I found to be very useful. Arnold Lowery recommends painting this with Burnt Sienna and Windsor Blue. I don’t have Windsor Blue, and my Burnt Sienna appears to be more neutral than the one he uses. I used UM Blue instead of Windsor, and it creates a grey when mixed win Burnt Sienna, where he was getting a green. I decided to honor the goal of painting with just two colors instead of trying to make the colors in my rendition match his.
I l’ll leave it to you to decide if you’ll want the book or not. In the meantime, here’s my rendition of his first example. I was very happy to break out of my tight mold and paint in a looser style.
I’m falling asleep as I type, so here’s the painting again: