Water and colour-it was always going to be a messy business……

One of my goals for this year is to develop and improve my watercolour approaches : not necessarily in the traditional ways but those of the looser; more atmospheric and dynamic artists like Jean Haines and Judith Farnworth who let the water and the colour sing! I love the life, movement and freedom of their works so I’m interested in how I could incorporate some of the approaches into my own artwork. I want to do this with three main areas of application: my existing urban sketching and reportage illustration; figure drawing and ‘other’ watercolour paintings (possibly rural landscapes, not sure yet!).

To set the ball rolling, or the paint running, whichever metaphor takes your fancy, I attended 4 short sessions with Judith Farnworth in March and April. This blog is to share some of the things I learnt (in theory, not necessarily shown here in practice!) and want to practice. I should say at this point, that the point of workshops in my view, isn’t to do your best work (that’s pretty difficult to achieve I think!) but to take some useful ideas and techniques away that you can then practice and perhaps integrate into your own work- so now I’m at the conscious incompetent stage!-some things never change!

My practice has been until now, fundamentally about drawing rather than painting (although I do add colour to my drawings). Therefore, although I didn’t think about it until recently, there are some fundamentals that I hadn’t really grasped until I started to paint as well as draw. I think that tonal value is one of those things and there are several others. Hopefully, the painting approaches will help me to develop my drawing works and visa versa.

Each of the sessions enabled us to tackle some key techniques and to think about key approaches but with a different subject. Apart from the daffodil, all paintings were done from photographs but the colours were all selected by me.

The Daffodil: a first attempt at washing away to create lost edges:


The nude: I’ve always wanted to be able to paint life models using a loose watercolour approach:


The peach: it started with a wash. Very overworked, the trick is knowing when to stop….


The chicken (second attempt, the first one got away-just kidding! The build up is shown)


All the images are using some common techniques and approaches. Here are some of the things I’m going to keep in mind as I practice (practice practice!!):

  • Select 3 colours or 4 colours at most, and try them in a swatch first to see if they work together.
  • Never mix paints in the palette but on the brush or on the paper (allow colours to mix themselves)
  • Brush away unwanted effects with water, never mix on paper with a scrubbing action
  • Think about edges a lot! : Lost, hard or soft. Too many hard edges don’t work well. Up to 50% should be lost with water. This is very scary at first!
  • Consider positive and negative edges/spaces as a way to frame the subject. I must admit to being a little addicted to these negative edges/spaces, use sparingly and they should only be short lengths, great for behind light areas (dark behind them).
  • Do a whole lot more research not only into techniques but artists whose work I love. I’m going to start some pinterest pages for that so watch this space as I will be posting the links.
  • Start with a wash (not necessarily always) and perhaps use this as a warm up exercise.   Don’t overuse the brush and don’t create colour in separate blocks. Add water to the leading edge and only use the brush to drop colour into wet paper. Spray with water to keep things moving.
  • A painting should have the whole range of tonal values so ensure that one of the colours will enable you to make your darkest dark (10 on a 1-10 value scale).

I’ll be posting more about my watercolour adventures as things progress!

13 thoughts on “Water and colour-it was always going to be a messy business……

  1. Very interesting..and useful tips. Thanks for sharing and look forward to learning more

  2. I love this process documentation, Liz! And beautiful paintings — you have some very dreamy effects.

    – Tina

  3. Well you most certainly grasped so much from our sessions Liz, I am really impressed, you’ll be teaching my classes soon!! As I drone on, anyone can do this you just need a bit of the right direction and then it is all down to practice and at least now you have the tools to work with. As you now know that is the aim of my classes, to give people the tools to enable them to work independently and you sure have the tools now. I wish others would take notes, I do suggest it sometimes, but generally people don’t seem to want to. I’m glad you mentioned Jean as her work has influenced mine from the demos and workshops I’ve been to and of course from her books….as I said on the course, she does the warm up wash exercises at the start of each painting session… so not a bad example to follow!!

  4. Hi Liz

    Good to read you are looking into more watercolour in your work. You mention Jean Haines who is very good. You should also look at Judi Witton who I admire in her loose approach.

    Best wishes

    Gren. ( Cranage)

  5. Really interesting – and well done! Daffodils very good. I have been to a number of workshops locally and always feel that I haven’t achieved a decent painting… I’m not sure that this style is completely for me – but I would like to get somewhere towards it! As you say ‘practise, practise, practise’!!

  6. great read Liz…thank you for sharing your thoughts on loose techniques and approaches. Judith is such a great instructor and encourager. Definitely shows in your “loose style work.” I’m in the practice, practice, practice mode as well, but have a loooong way to go. Enjoying the process! All the best!

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