Seriously, Why Watercolor?

upright paint brushes in container on studio worktable. Artist working in background.

Watercolor is underrated. It’s a medium linked to hobbyists, children, Prince Charles, and retirees. And me. I used to paint in oils until I developed a bizarre allergy that delivered hives. At times my arms looked like they’d been attacked by a mammoth, angry insect. So I moved on to water-based mediums like acrylic, but I always preferred watercolor. Here are a few reasons why I’m a fan of this particular medium.

First Love

When I was six, I used chalky watercolor pan paints and executed my first “formal” painting. I painted my chubby hand (the only self-portrait that made it out of the art school archives), clutching a bouquet of flowers. My parents framed it and hung it in their downstairs bathroom, and there it remained until an estate sale took it away. I fell in love with the ease of the medium, even if it took me decades to realize that I was probably copying (or inspired by) a Pablo Picasso poster hanging in my childhood bathroom.

Pablo Picasso painting of hands holding bouquet of bright flowers
Pablo Picasso

Underdog

Everyone loves a good underdog. Watercolor is alluring because it is not often considered edgy or in vogue. That said many famous artists have embraced the medium.

John Singer Sargent Muddy Alligators watercolor painting
John Singer Sargent’s “Muddy Alligators” watercolor painting, circa 1917.

Here is a shortlist of art historical significance:

Helen Frankenthaler 

Ross Bleckner  

Arthur Dove

John Singer Sargent, of course

Georgia O’Keefe 

Paul Klee 

Andrew Wyeth

Maruyama Okyo

William Blake

And Winslow Homer made it his.

And here’s a list of some more contemporary artists:

Jan Heaton

Carolyn Brady

Mimi Robinson

Francisco Toledo

Gregory Thielker

I have left a great many amazing artists off of this list, but you can find a more extensive and international list here.

Rising to the Challenge

Watercolor looks easy. It’s portable, doesn’t take up too much space, and is house-trained — it doesn’t make too much of a mess. But then comes trouble. It is very unforgiving and easily becomes overworked. One clean stroke can quickly become a blot, a blur, and a runaway train. Even after twenty-five years, I stumble on a regular basis. I have hundreds of duds sitting in my flat files that I turn into postcards or fold into mixed media. I used to teach watercolor painting and always had one student who would be on the verge of a nervous breakdown before the inevitable technical breakthrough. Learning watercolor basics is not gentle on the ego.

In progress watercolor painting on studio worktable.
In progress watercolor painting.

True Color

Painting in watercolor forces you to amplify your color expertise — well beyond the basics of your introduction to color theory class in art school. The viscosity of the paint, the flexibility of the hue saturation, and the delicacy of the layers are unparalleled teachers. I travel everywhere with my watercolors and make notes — simple color diaries to remind myself what I saw that day.

Many small watercolor paintings of color swatches.
Collection of Color Studies from my travels.

Over the years, I’ve learned which hues correspond well together beyond the basics of complementary colors and which combinations vibrate simply by applying pigment to paper. There are always surprises. For example, a bruise-colored flower petal and sulfur green leaf look electric together. Taking note of what is literally at your feet or overhead is the best way to elevate a rudimentary grasp of color. If you want to further your understanding of color, pick up a brush and start mixing.

Jars filled with watercolor pigments on studio worktable.
Jars filled with watercolor pigments on my studio worktable.

All Ears

Finally, don’t miss Jennifer Jewell’s amazing interview on her Cultivating Place podcast with artist, writer, and gardener Lorene Edwards Forkner. Forkner explains how gardens and watercolor work in tandem to create a better understanding and awareness of the power of color. Jewell on Forkner’s book — Color In and Out of the Garden:

“This collection of careful color studies of botanical (flowers, leaves, seeds, stems) and botanically adjacent (think time worn stones, beach bleached shells) treasures is offered out to us by the knowing hands of a gardener, the refined eye of an artist, the time tested taste of a cook, and the heart of a compassionate mother. It is seasoned with science: biology and the science of light, the science of color and that of sight. On one level it is an encouragement to practice being present, to practice paying attention and taking good care in and of the natural world, to practice really seeing.”

JENNIFER JEWELL

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