Building on Small Successes in Watercolor: Great Blue Heron

How could I build small successes in watercolor? The few times I’ve worked with it in the past I was left frustrated and with an overall bad impression of the medium. I had convinced myself it just wasn’t for me. But over the past few months, I’ve been progressing through Kimon Nicolaides’ “The Natural Way to Draw”. It’s a book I’ve worked directly from when I was a student but always skipped the painting parts.

About a month ago I arrived at one of the first schedules focusing on modelling the human figure through watercolor. I purchased the two tubes of paint as directed but hesitated on the “best brush I could afford” and went with a Cotman from Winsor & Newton (their student/beginner line).

I let go of all my past experiences and prejudices regarding watercolor. I worked exactly as directed in the schedule. Now, granted Nicolaides doesn’t direct students on all the finer techniques of watercolor. There is no mention of manipulating blooms or choosing the right watercolor paper. The exercises are done on sheets of manilla paper, a dry brush and the paint applied without a drop of water.

While the resulting sketches from the exercise will not be placed on anyone’s refrigerator, the exercise was a great success in several areas. I further expanded my sense of forms in a way that complemented previous attempts with crayon and ballpoint pen. However, I was surpised at how much I grew to appreciate the capabilities offered by watercolor. As the week went on I added a little more water but always following the instruction to keep a dry brush before picking up the paint.

In the weeks since I followed some other advice on learning to use watercolor which was to try gouache paints. Again working straight from the tube and gradually adding a bit of water. I had never considered working with gouache, particularly in my sketchbook. I’ve been missing out because it is a terrific paint to use in a mixed media sketchbook (my preference).

And so, last week I took a deep breath and decided to combine spots of gouache and watercolor to a pencil sketch of this Great Blue Heron. I taped down the page. First I applied a light ink wash for a simple background. No buckling or puddles, good start. Then I mixed some gouache for the beak. Finally, deep breath, I applied a slightly diluted blue for the head plumes (wishing I had purchased a better brush that can hold a sharp point) and then a heavily diluted blue for the mantle and wings. This quick little painting in my sketchbook was done.

Gouache, watercolor, ink wash and fountain pen

I removed the tape, the paper hadn’t buckled and I had my first watercolor piece done without incident. A small success and now I can add this medium to my sketchbook studies.

Have you had similar experiences with watercolor? What finally made you decide to press on or abandon the medium? Watercolor has a way of humbling many artists but maybe that’s not such a bad thing.