I’ve been doing art sessions with a good friend’s seven year old daughter. She wanted to learn about painting and I thought pan watercolors would be a good medium to start with – vivid colors, cheap, and not too messy. Sharing her beginner’s joy with watercolors inspired me to try working with pan watercolors in the life drawing sessions I attend regularly, and in this post I’ll share some of the results from my first two weeks of struggling with this medium, which I have never before attempted to master.
Many of my readers are art students, so this blog is my platform to be a teacher. I supervise an uninstructed weekly life drawing session at Spring Studio in New York. A lot of older, experienced artists attend the session regularly. Many of them have done life drawing or painting practice for decades. I’ve noticed that while nearly all of them have a pretty good style and technique, most long ago settled into a comfortable rut. They stopped when they got good, kept doing what worked for them, and haven’t learned anything new in a long time. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but the magic of art as a practice is that it is possible to keep it growing and expanding for a lifetime, and they’re missing out on that.
In this blog I always urge pushing the envelope, going out of your comfort zone, being willing to fail. I often try different drawing materials and techniques for quick drawings, work on varying scale, and experiment in various ways. But in my developed drawings I too could be accused of working the comfortable rut. I developed my technique of drawing with aquarelle crayons on gray or black paper a long time ago. It’s a great way of working, perfectly suited to my strengths and tendencies, and difficult for other people to copy. I can easily vary the technique to make it more impressionistic or expressionistic or stylized or classical. I’ve made the medium my own.
But once you’ve mastered something it may be time to move on to something that remains a challenge, to get back to the Zen ideal of “beginner’s mind”. Watercolor struck me as an ideal challenge, because it goes against almost everything I love about the crayon technique.
With the crayons, I start with a dark ground and build from the highlights first. With watercolors, the paper is white and paint can only make it darker. With crayons, my focus is bold, linear, gestural. Watercolors are soft by nature, and intensity is only achieved by incremental washing. With crayons, I use additive, optical mixing of colors. With watercolors, colors blend subtractively. My style of drawing is to dive in spontaneously and then to work towards correcting mistakes in subsequent layers. Watercolors are transparent, making it nearly impossible to correct things by going over them.
In quick drawings, one minute to five minutes, I’m still drawing with my flowy linear style. The watercolor brush is far more responsive to touch than a pencil or pen. Speed and pressure affect line thickness, but density also varies according to the ratio of water and pigment in the brush, and whether the brush dashes quickly or lingers as it moves.
Here are two beautifully expressive quick poses from my great friend Claudia, the Museworthy blogger.
Compared to a pen, pencil, or crayon, the brush is hard to control. There’s almost no friction – it’s like walking on wet ice.
Here are some ten and twenty minute watercolor sketches from the sessions at Brooklyn’s Figureworks Gallery, with the wonderfully idiosyncratic models Taylor and Jillian.
I’m still more or less drawing with the brush. Some watercolor painters use watercolor-specific techniques like letting the paint infuse into pre-wetted paper. So far, I’m using regular inexpensive sketch paper and painting “wet on dry”.
Maybe with tube watercolors you can get deep colors right out of the tube. With these pan watercolors every color goes on pretty thin, and then gets even lighter as it dries. You have to paint multiple layers to get any density. This may be a good thing, since there’s no erasing.
The dryer I can keep the brush, the more controllable the line is. By combining wet and dry application I can use some of my pencil drawing techniques but also blended shading.
Little touches of color can suggest area color without filling it in.
On the one below, I lightly sketched in the figure with crayons, then used watercolor for the shading and colors. The foreshortening of the right leg at the bottom of the page is a bit awkward here, but the torso is wonderfully present.
Just this week I tried for the first time using watercolors for a long pose at the three-hour session I supervise at Spring Studio on Monday mornings. I allowed myself to use crayons for the initial rough sketch, and to sharpen highlights and shadows at the end of the session, but besides those small touches, this is all watercolor.
I was getting a little too adept at crayon drawing. Working with watercolors, I’m struggling again, and it feels good. I think I’ll keep working with this medium for a while, so expect to see more here, perhaps mixed in with crayon drawings.
All the pieces in this post are 18″ x 24″, pan watercolors (sometimes with aquarelle crayon) on paper.