Experimenting With Watercolour: A New-To-Me Medium

I can remember playing with oil paints as a teenager and my impatience while waiting for the layers to dry. I’ve dabbled in pastel and various other drawing tools, like pencil and charcoal. But, for as long as I have been painting, acrylic paints have been my medium of choice. Acrylics were the medium used in the painting courses I followed at university, and they afforded me the possibility to work with vibrant colours and layer quickly and thickly. While I’ve always appreciated the delicacy of watercolour, I had never gotten into it—until this Fall. In this blogpost, I write about my recent experimentation with the new-to-me medium of watercolour paint: the difficult parts, the fun parts, and the surprising parts of working with watercolour.

Moving to a new city (even temporarily) means a fresh start. Over the past month, I’ve enjoyed slowly discovering the city of Ann Arbor—from the many farmer’s markets to the famous “M Den” (the University of Michigan’s merchandise store) and the multiple welcoming art galleries (WSG Gallery, Gutman Gallery). While here, I decided to take a couple of art classes to learn about and experiment with new mediums and to meet others in the art community. I signed up for Intro to Watercolour and Portrait Painting at the Ann Arbor Art Center.

While I have had some experience with portrait painting, I was nervous and excited to try a new-to-me medium. As I wrote about here, my first order of business was to purchase all of the necessary materials for the class. Once I was stocked up, I was ready to go! It’s been just two weeks since the courses have begun but I’ve learned a lot already.

This Intro to Watercolour class is taught by painter and ceramicist Susan Mankowski. So far, we’ve learned some colour theory, watched instructive teacher demos, and have done some exercises that explore various techniques and brush strokes. Between classes, I’ve been practicing at home.

Here are my thoughts on watercolour so far:

The Difficult Part

As an acrylic painter, I’ve found the most difficult part of painting with watercolour is learning to change my relationship to water. Acrylic paint needs much less water. Often, I paint (acrylics) with a nearly dry brush. Water dilutes the pigment of the acrylic paint and weakens the acrylic polymer, which binds the paint to the surface. We want to be careful therefore with water when it comes to acrylic paint. Alternatively, water is (obviously) essential to watercolour paint. It took a few exercises for me to begin to feel comfortable using a water-wet brush.

Apart from the amount of water, I am learning to work with a brush differently. Whereas with acrylics, I am sometimes thickly layering the paint, with watercolour, I am gliding my brush across the surface. We have been using the edges of our brushes and using longer rounded brushes. A new brush, a new stroke, and a different substance loaded on that brush is a completely new experience for me. Challenging but fun!    

The Fun Part

Once, I accepted that experimenting with watercolour would require a different relationship to water, I began to have fun with the fluidity of the medium. I have been loving putting down a thin, almost transparent wash of colour. I like the delicate light look of the pigment on paper. Over the wash, new colours can be introduced, or simply darker colours can enhance or define shapes. I love seeing how a leaf, face or a landscape emerges with this new-to-me medium. Holding rounded brushes loaded with pigment, I feel like I’m working with ink. This experience has already made me curious about other mediums that I have yet to try.

The Surprising Part

What has surprised me thus far about working with watercolour is my experience of a different kind of enjoyment with practicing painting. When I’m working with acrylics, my favourite part is putting in those highlights near the end of the process – very white whites or yellow-white. I love seeing vivid colours pop against one another. What I’m discovering about watercolour is a satisfaction in working the other way: from light to dark. I have to be thoughtful and deliberate in a new way. All painting requires patience. But watercolour needs time to dry in a different way than acrylic. I’ve been slowing down and getting curious about seeing how the paint changes from wet to dry.

What I’m hoping to get out of the class

My main reason for taking these classes was to get out of my solo-studio space and be around other artists. Working from home can be lonely for anyone and it feels nice to create alongside others. Art is the way I am getting acquainted with the city, whether it be attending art fairs (of which there are many) or attending classes.

Additionally and also importantly for me, I wanted to take this year-abroad-opportunity to learn something new. I want to try new mediums, focus on what can be done with different subjects (at the moment, portraits), and to practice, practice, practice! I also want to be able to diversify the kinds of projects I make and sell. I am planning to make smaller watercolour works to this end. This experimentation has also allowed me to feel more comfortable showing my works in progress, sketches, and small experiments on my social media.  

Stay tuned for more watercolour experiments!

Thanks for reading!

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1 thought on “Experimenting With Watercolour: A New-To-Me Medium

  1. Laura, I just love that maple leaf! Wow!

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