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Judy's Watercolor Tips and Techniques

I was introduced to the magic of watercolor painting many years ago in a college art course.  In those days, more attention was given to oil painting and I pursued that path for many years.  Then about 17 years ago, I had the opportunity to take a watercolor workshop.  That magical experience changed my art path forever! 

The brilliance, spontaneity, and freshness continue to motivate me.  Iíve developed a passion for the thrilling experience of putting pigment to paper and seeing the light reflected back and the glow that is imparted.  The properties of watercolor seem almost magical to me.  If allowed to do their thing, the results are thrilling.

My first love is painting flowers (and growing them).  Somehow, being able to  work in a flower garden, nurture the seedlings along, and watch them bloom into their unique fullness; then to be able to render a painting of them is among the most fulfilling experiences Iíve ever enjoyed.  I apply the same principles and techniques to landscape paintings.   Having the good fortune to live and paint in the Rocky Mountains, I am able to include the beautiful wildflowers that abound in the area into my paintings.  The wonder of snowy winters is still another opportunity to use the magic of watercolor painting.  In fact, snow scenes are a natural for the medium.

Starting with exercises to learn to glaze and get the feeling of ďchargingĒ colors is one goal of this class.  GLAZING is layering light applications of paint on top of one another, after each layer has completely dried.  CHARGING is allowing colors to run together or blend while wet.  The area can be controlled by wetting a specific area of paper.  Charging is letting the paint and paper do its thing.

My style has evolved as a result of many classes, workshops and experimenting with what feels right for me.   Once Iím into a painting the intuitive process takes over  (also called being in the right brain)!  Iím never quite sure what will happen at this stage.

I usually work on more than one painting at a time, so that I donít get impatient, waiting for washes to dry.  I often begin a painting with an under-wash in warm colors.  The paper must be completely dry before I continue.

Before I actually begin a painting I do a value sketch.  This in an invaluable tool and helps with composition as well as value.  I then sketch directly onto the watercolor paper.  When planning a painting, there are several things to consider.  First, it is absolutely necessary to love your subject matter and to be familiar with it.  Every painting needs a center of interest.  For a floral or still life, I start to develop the center of interest, and I decide later about the background treatment.  Eventually, after learning skills and techniques through practice, your painting will be full of feeling and life.  Itís okay to paint from pictures in magazines to practice and learn technique.  However, I believe you must experience your subject before it shows emotion.  That is why I like to have fresh flowers when I paint even if I rarely look at them.

Creating a painting varies somewhat according to the subject matter. "When I paint flowers I usually start by doing a study or a small version of what will be a larger painting. I work out the design and composition and any unusual effects. I do a light pencil sketch on the paper and begin the under-painting. 

I usually have fresh flowers on my painting table. I notice I donít really look at them too often Ė they just have to be there. If it is a shape of flower Iím not real familiar with, Iíll study it carefully, and then Iíll proceed to describe it on paper. Once, in a class I was taking, the instructor used artificial flowers in the still life set up. I just couldnít get excited about painting the flowers without the real thing being there. 

Sometimes I may refer to a photograph but I would always rather paint real life from real flowers. Which reminds me Ė being members of a hiking group we are cautioned not to pick the wild flowers. Itís illegal. When I bring in columbines itís from my own garden. One of my prints is a bouquet of wildflowers in a vase. Later I realized that might be sending a wrong message and was sorry Iíd depicted them in a vase even though they had come from a florist and my imagination.

Once I have my sketch done I do an under-painting. Thatís a light glaze of yellow, pink or orange in warm passages or blue and purple in the cool passages of the painting. I leave quite a lot of white paper so my painting will have a crisp sparkle necessary to a successful watercolor painting.

Once the under-painting is dry (often quite rapidly in Colorado!) I begin with light glazes over large sections of the painting. I may do more drawing at this stage. Occasionally I will use masking fluid to save some necessary white highlights. I donít mask large areas. I carefully paint around the large white sections.

I continue to evaluate the painting as I proceed. Often it will evolve into something quite different than Iíd planned for better or worse. Thatís when the intuitive part of the painting process takes over and I just feel what I need to be doing.

I try to have a "star" or center of interest in every painting. I will put some dark values in fairly early to define that focal point. I want there to be areas of rest in the painting. The beauty of the watercolor medium is that you can get fuzzy, suggestive areas, using the wet-into-wet technique. This suggests distance or mystery. In a painting you want to think of it as a poem, not a novel. Leave suggestive areas for the imagination.

Glazing must be done with transparent pigments (not opaque) so that the light can reflect through each layer. My palette is fairly limited. I can use come cadmium colors, but I am careful about mixing them. Theyíre quite opaque. I have used a primarily "Jeanne Dobie" palette for several years. Her book "Making Colors Sing" has been my greatest tool for color selections.

There are many artists I admire and have quite a library of watercolor books. Weíve attended many workshops and classes, too. Among them are Susan Blackwood, Nita Engle, Duane Light, Tom Lynch, Timothy Clark, Cathy Goodale, Gerald Fritzler and others.

Sometimes I just know a painting is working and that itís done. Often Phil and I are thankful for each other to say, "Sign it - before it gets overworked."

Watercolor painting is a journey, one that is very rewarding.  It is something you can continue to grow at.  Iím not sure you can learn all it has to offer in a lifetime!  Happy Painting!

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Copyright © 2009 Judy Bert Frisk - All rights reserved.
Last modified: June 13, 2009