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.

Two Sketchbooks One Commitment

It had been years since I did any kind of regular drawing. It had been much longer since I had considered myself a full-time creative. But at the end of this past Spring, a series of mishaps that resulted in the loss of old work I had forgotten woke me up. I was upset and angry. I decided to take a hiatus from keyboards and screens.

Fortunately, we had some traveling planned. I left all my technology home. I decided to just bring a small sketchbook to carry around the entire trip. That was the only commitment I made. No concept, theme or grand visions of a perfectly executed small masterpiece of travel drawings. I actually decided to make a point of not marking a single page.

It would be an extensive exercise on observation. I had spent a few years as a street photographer looking for unique moments lasting a fraction of a second. This was similar but I paid as much attention to lines, shapes, and tone. Holding the sketchbook was like a taut string around my finger reminding me to marry observation and interpretation at every step.

The city I walked for the next ten days happened to be Barcelona. I walked through every single neighborhood of that incredibly inspiring and welcoming city. Street after street, in shops, markets, food stands, and cafes. I listened to music, learned enough Catalan to make out sandwich boards and signage. I spoke Spanish the rest of the time. We met wonderful people. Ate well and were constantly taking in all different views of this city. I observed and interpreted.

I came home and went right into experimenting with materials. Going out to coffee shops and public spaces. I took every opportunity to draw without hangups, expectations or judgment (and no erasers!)

I filled a sketchbook with all kinds of color and medium tests. I set it aside. I then picked up another sketchbook just in time for our second trip to Bogota.

Same self-directive in Bogota: Unplug, carry a sketchbook everywhere and walk every day with it in hand. This time, however, I would stop and sketch, draw. I brought a few inspiring drawing books from our local library that were incredibly helpful to keep me from suffering creative block which admittedly is hard in a brand new city.

I came home and after this second trip decided I would get back to creating. I would return to the reason I started studying art, to begin with: I love to draw.

Best Foot Forward

Some find hands and faces challenging. For me, it’s feet and knees (I know I think it’s weird). Earlier last summer when I decided to begin practicing art full-time again I began a brand new sketchbook with feet. Especially when it’s a study or subject I’m not in love with I like to try new or less often used tools. Somehow the discomfort of using new, less practiced tools offsets obstacles in our approach to a problematic subject There’s a reset of perceptual wiring. We can just let go and draw.

Recent studies George Bridgeman’s breakdowns of the forms in the foot

Recently I went back to that same sketchbook months after the first set of studies. I decided on simpler sketches based off of George Bridgeman’s breakdown of the forms of the foot. After years and years, I still find feet to be funny looking hooves that wiggle.

Making a Big Splash on a Rainy Day

Last week on a dark and rainy morning I took a small dish of leftover water I had soaked the tip of a lovely Prussian blue crayon. I opened my sketchbook to a blank spread, held the dish of bright blue water above it and let it spill out across the two pages. I set it aside to dry while I moved on to other tasks.

In the afternoon I went back and stared at the arrangement of stains. The day needed some fun color. After doodling away a Koi out of the bottom larger stain I brought out a handful of companions to swim along.

I like creating sketchbook prompts like this to store away for a later time. I ended up giving in to impatience and playing with this spread on the same day but I try to set random backgrounds for myself in my sketchbook then forget about them. It’s a good way to break up a rut, create a creative challenge and have some impulsive fun.

Wet Gestures with Watercolor Crayons

1-minute gesture Yellow ochre and sepia watercolor crayon on manilla paper

I think I was introduced to watercolor crayons through Daniela Brambilla’s fantastic book Human Figure Drawing: Drawing Gestures, Postures and Movements. Influenced in large part by Kimon Nicolaides she encourages jumping into a wide range of materials when drawing. The watercolor crayon is a favorite of her’s as she recommends wetting a blunt tip and keeping a well sharpened one nearby, switching between the two.

I got carried away during this warmup of short poses removing the wrappers off of my crayons and letting one sit in water as I drew with the other. The result was messy, slippery and pretty liberating.

Especially for warming up I like going to less used, unexpected and chaotic media when drawing quick gestures. My attitude and approach to these studies are in line with Nicolaides, Brambilla and Patricia Hannaway. Draw big, loose and through the figure focusing on what is happening in front of my eyes ignoring any and all specific contours.