“We see it as a photograph where the colour is photo-like, sometimes given vibrancy by the sun…we then paint it and it looks like an instant photo…this is why colour is not exaggerated enough.” ~Paraphrase answer to How can I use colour to give vitality to a subject and make it appear almost more real than it is? by Paul Riley in The Watercolour Problem Solver, pg. 24
I had a similar question this summer. My question was about vibrancy. I believe that Mr. Riley gets pretty close in his essay to answering my student’s question. It is true that what we comprehensively see through our eyes is better than any camera. Even inhibited vision like my own is better than the most intensely accurate lens.
How do we filter that detail and maintain the look and feel of the scene with our watercolour?
The first thing that I realized after many years of painting is that a strong underdrawing is always a great thing to have. I wrote an article about this: Structural Support For Watercolor Painting. The key is in the distinction between light and dark. The next in important is distinguishing between gray values.
Keeping colors separate is then a problem for the beginners. You can cheat if you are not precisely sure how much and when to add certain colors.
Always think of a good painting in terms of thirds. There is no exception when it comes to color. If too much of one color is close to another in value, they will look the same. This is an advantage and setback. There is not room in this post for an explanation of that, but I do want to talk about how to keep these elements separate.
Water is a funny substance. It has many forms and many forms that are not entirely one or the other. Water is easily absorbed in some instances and yet is easily repelled in others. The key to keeping one color separate on watercolor paper partially has to do with the paper. All of my students this summer used the same brand and weight of paper- Strathmore cold press 140 lb. This paper will absorb water easily, but it will take water in moderation, too. On a hot August day in the sun it will dry in 2-5 minutes. Even partial dryness can permit more colors without drastic blending.
Consider the amount of water in your paint. Consider the white spaces. Where is your darkest color? Where is your lightest color?
These are the steps I take my students through when painting with with watercolor:
- With a sponge fill up your red, blue, yellow, and brown to about 2/3rds with water. Don’t let them mix, if at all possible.
- Apply the blue. Do this wherever there is purple or blue in your image. Use your underdrawing as a guide for darks and lights.
- Let it dry for 2-5 minutes.
- Apply yellow where there is orange, green, and yellow. This means that you can go over the blue where there is green. Leave the white spaces alone.
- Let it dry for 2-5 minutes. Check for the glossy glare of the wet spots before moving on.
- Continue this process with each color. When you come to your mid-tones use the dark mid-tones sparsely over yellows, greens, and blues. Use your light mid-tones over yellows and whites.
- Don’t rush! If you paint wet paint over a wet surface it will blend to a muddy mid-tone. Use mid-tones sparingly.
As you can see watercolor does take patience, but it is worth it. A lot of common sense can be applied to painting with it. Keep at it and it will be a natural thing for you to do before you know it.