DRAWING LIFE by fred hatt


A Toe in the Water

Sketch with watercolors and brush, 2011, by Fred Hatt

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.

Companheiros, 2011, by Fred Hatt

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.

Stepping Forward, 2011, by Fred Hatt

Here are two beautifully expressive quick poses from my great friend Claudia, the Museworthy blogger.

Onde, 2011, by Fred Hatt

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.

Réveil, 2011, by Fred Hatt

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.

Lying on Side, 2011, by Fred Hatt

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”.

Supplicant, 2011, by Fred Hatt

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.

Rayon Vert, 2011, by Fred Hatt

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.

Tea Drinker, 2011, by Fred Hatt

Little touches of color can suggest area color without filling it in.

Vanquished, 2011, by Fred Hatt

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.

Rêverie, 2011, by Fred Hatt

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.

Športnik, 2011, by Fred Hatt

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.


  1. It’s great that you are exploring new territory to keep life (drawing) interesting.

    Watercolor seems so unforgiving to me. As you say, it is “nearly impossible to correct things by going over them.” So, do you find that you are more cautious and deliberate with your strokes? Is it a slower process than your pencil drawings, which appear to be made with fast, loose lines?

    Ultimately there’s nothing wrong with mixed media, like your Športnik example.
    The top drawing of me on this page is an ink drawing with watercolor wash, from a 25 minute pose this Summer.

    Comment by Andrew — 2011/09/20 @ 23:38

  2. Andrew, watercolor sure is unforgiving! And it is definitely a slower process than the pencil or crayon drawings. Most of the crayon drawings I’ve featured in the most popular figure drawing posts on this blog (as in the recent “torso” post) are twenty minute sketches. Suddenly, working with watercolors, twenty minutes is enough time to screw it up but not enough time to fix it! But cautious and deliberate is really not my style at all, so, no, I’m still trying to play fast and loose.

    The crayons I’ve been using for years are aquarelle crayons – watercolor pigments, designed to combine with water media. Using a little bit of crayon with the watercolors seems like a very fruitful combination for me.

    Thanks for the link to the drawings of you – those are both very expressive!

    Comment by fred — 2011/09/20 @ 23:52

  3. Nice, Fred, I like the move (not that I don’t really enjoy your crayon style.)!

    Personally I prefer pan to tube colors, Yarka pans, in my opinion, the best/deepest/vibrant colors -but also enjoy working with Createacolor ‘bricks’ ’cause they’re about 4 times larger than a full size pan.

    Think you’ll enjoy playing with fan brushes & watercolors as well, the result can approach your crayon style, especially if you load the brush with more than one color.

    Comment by Jim in Alaska — 2011/09/22 @ 02:07

  4. Thanks for the recommendations, Jim. So far I’ve just been using some cheap colors and had been looking for suggestions, since trying out all the different brands would be an expensive undertaking! The fan brush is an excellent suggestion as well.

    Comment by fred — 2011/09/22 @ 13:04

  5. Watercolour – the medium we tend to come to first, when it’s actually one of the hardest to use! Once I discovered the way that acrylics can be constantly overpainted I’ve found it even harder to use watercolours, because they require such a different mental process. Really interesting to see these toe-dipping examples – good luck with watercolours tomorrow at Spring Studio :) Will certainly be interested to see your progression.

    Comment by Jennifer — 2011/09/25 @ 17:35

  6. Jennifer, I guess a lot of people do start with watercolor. As a self-taught artist I’d never bothered to go beyond dabbling with it. Just this weekend I tried some actual watercolor paper – what a difference that makes!

    Comment by fred — 2011/09/25 @ 22:42

  7. I love mixed media. More feast for the eyes, even though I adore your crayon figures!

    Get a small spray bottle (for water) and moisten your pan colors a bit before use. It should help release the colors from their pans… and get some professional pans. Your work is worthy of better pigments.

    Comment by Lisa B. — 2011/10/08 @ 12:37

  8. Thanks, Lisa. I got some Winsor & Newton pans, and some decent Fabriano watercolor paper. I’m experimenting with different brushes and techniques. More will be seen here soon!

    Comment by fred — 2011/10/08 @ 13:34

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